Thursday, October 18, 2012

Advice for be and would-be novelists

Even long-time novelists can learn, or they need to be reminded. Here’s a quick primer on novel writing.

Don’t tell us that your lady fair is pretty or beautiful. Let us see her through your eyes. Show us the russet tresses flowing over bare shoulders, her green eyes, her wicked (or demure) smile. Or her pink, fuzzy sweaters. You're already getting visions, aren't you? And I'm just throwing out ideas.

As Antov Chekhov said so well, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Always give the reader something to see, hear, taste, smell or feel, something to remember. An old car is better if it's green and white, if its fenders are a darker shade of green and its tires are shiny whitewalls. Or it has noxious fumes belching from the tailpipe. Do you see?

Give your writing room to breathe. Don't have pages and pages of blah, blah, blah without switching paragraphs. It's hard to read, and you're not Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare wouldn't have been so unkind to his readers.

You don't need attribution for every bit of dialogue, but occasionally help the reader and say who's speaking. Remind your reader who Bessie Mae and Big John Jones are. Be courteous.

Give us drama. Don't give your hero a happy childhood, a happy tour of military duty, a happy marriage and an even happier work life. Make him suffer or worry a bit. Let your reader empathize with him. Give us a reason to read your writing.

Use active verbs. Don't have your hero make his way here and there. Let him amble, stroll, bumble or slither. And occasionally use an interesting word like sumptuous or persnickety (which means placing too much emphasis on trivial or minor details).

If you’re writing action, write short, snappy sentences. If you want to put your reader to sleep (or you’re writing about a sleepy winter scene), long, flowing sentences are fine.

Let your reader laugh occasionally. Stephen King saw humor in horror and J.K. Rowling saw something funny or frightening in magic, and it worked for them. And I suspect that Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett found humor in murder, too.

Remember that it’s almost impossible to come up with something new. Writers wrote about feuding families long before Shakespeare penned the story about the Montagues and the Capulets.

Don’t fall in love with long-winded monologues or soliloquies. Elmore Leonard always said that he cut out the stuff that readers skip (And, yes, readers do skip the chapter in “Moby Dick” that explains harpooning. I did.). Learn something from it.

Don’t be like Michael Douglas’s character in “Wonder Boys.” When you're done, quit writing. Then edit, edit, edit. Remember this: Your finished product is not pristine. Agents and publishers will suggest changes. So will good editors.

Listen to your editor. I became a better writer when I worked with better editors; in fact, I probably became a better editor as well.

Finally, find an agent or a publisher. The world is awaiting your book with bated breath.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

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