Ahh, the dreaded criticism of fictive works- your fictive works- that will inevitably come when your manuscript finally leaves the word processor and enters the world. ‘Is my writing immune to the knife of opinion?’ you ask. No. Listen, you will never escape subjective reactions, it’s up to the mind of the reader to decide on them, and sometimes what you’re selling just isn’t what they’re buying. It depends what one is attracted to. It’s like personality. Not everyone is going to like you, but there are definitely some rule you should follow if you want to be a good person. Who likes Hitler am I right? Turns out, millions of Germans at one stage- and as with art, even the worst humanity has to offer can be popular. This is why I don’t concern myself with what’s popular, but what is actually good, and so should you if you want to bring something to the world through art that is more than just tasty junk food, but actual nourishment. When was the last time you read something that affected you in a real way? I don’t just mean it was thrilling or tugged at your heartstrings, but really altered your mind? Would you like to write something like that? In other words, would you like to write something that gets at least a 7, or an 8 out of 10 on my rating system? With my criticism, and any criticism worth listening to, I’m sure, it is beneficial to pay attention to why one novel fails and another succeeds. If you think my criticism is worth listening to, then here is my essential guide. And I guarantee you if you follow these rules your fiction will improve, and not only that, you’ll know it. You’ll be able to more clearly judge whether you’re potentially creating a masterpiece or a bored commuter’s read on the train- a forgettable burner of hours. I will talk first about prose- the lines– and then about what lies between the lines. Much of this concerns voice. Understand this, if you can learn to hone your voice as a writer and a speaker, you will elevate your art to potentially stellar levels.
- EXCESS VERBIAGE: Reduce your excess word count. If you can eliminate a word and retain the meaning, do so- ‘that’ is one word which is almost always present superfluously. Also, do not write unnecessary details: if someone is holding something, don’t add ‘in his hand.’ If someone is wearing shoes, don’t say ‘the shoes she is wearing on her feet,’ but ‘her shoes.’ Excess verbiage is itself an example, we don’t need the ‘excess’.
- AUTHENTIC VOICE: Writers with a distinctive voice can e recognized just from reading their writing. You may call it style, but this gives the wrong idea, voice isn’t just on the surface, it is not about creating an experimental prose style- often the clearest voices can be drawn from the most seemingly unremarkable prose. It’s a way of imbuing the text with the mind, either your own or that of the fictive narrator.
- OVERWRITING: While voice should be audible, prose should not be visible. Do not perform grammatical gymnastics just to stand out, and don’t oversaturate descriptions. Stay grounded, you don’t have to reinvent the English language.
- CLICHÉS: A the war on clichés (what a clichés phrase)- I wish more people would take up arms. The opposite of going out of your way to make your writing [appear] unique, is writing in a lazy, generic fashion. Overly idiomatic prose is dead prose. You are inheriting the voice of a collective, rather than finding your own. Also, clichésmean there is no insight into life which is anything more than general knowledge, and so there is really no point in reading anything. If you read enough, you’ll begin to pick up on where your writing lacks originality or depth. By the way, you can steal elements- all great artists steal from those who influenced them, but you should always do something new with those elements of another’s work you steal. Or you could steal clichés from the collective of writing, and twist that, and restate it in a nonpareil manner- that’s what satire is.
Between the Lines
- CHARACTER: Your characters should have their own voices, just like the narrator. I’ve read so much dull writing where the characters are empty husks manipulated by the author like puppets to drive along some contrived plot. Give your characters an outlook on life, an internal life at least as big as the external. Let the reader get behind their eyes. Ths will show up strongly in dialogue, where you’re not just writing shit that hasn’t got any real person behind the words. This is why bad writers use accents to create the impression of a unique way of speaking. I’m not saying don’t give your character an outlandish accent, do what you want, but there should be more to it than that.
- STIMULATE THE READER: Stop writing, start thinking. What are you bringing to someone’s life from reading your work? Hacks, mediocre writers, often claim that the purpose of a novel should be to entertain. That is certainly part of it, but here’s what I claim: the point of a novel is to be stimulating. Stimulating in as many ways as possible- entertainment is the lowest form of stimulation. I should at least be that, but a novel can be so much more. How about stimulating the emotions? How about the mind? Interest is the highest level of stimulation. What makes your work truly interesting? What I mean is, what about your work can give someone a new perspective on life?
- A LIGHT TOUCH: What was the last thing you read or wrote? Think about the plot. Is it contrived? Is it so rigidly plotted that the story can’t breathe? I have heard writers say there are two schools of thought on this- that of gardeners and architects, as Brandon Sanderson likes to call them- do you write from the seat of your pants or is your outline almost as long as the finished manuscript in other words? Sorry, but this is plain bullshit when it comes to anything beyond genre fiction. Excuse my french, but really. It irks me that so many writers don’t seem to be aware of what a plot even is. A plot is neither a) a tool to manipulate the characters within the story, or b) a tool to manipulate the reader. A good plot is first and foremost invisible. I’m going to repeat that: a good plot is invisible. It should serve as a medium, that’s all, through which to speak to the reader, and it should exist for your characters like air- allowing them to breathe. If you have created a world with sufficient lucidity and allow your characters to exist and interact organically- given the characters are well constructed, 3-dimensional and have an internal as well as external life- your novel will develop in the most harmonious way. You can even guide the story along, but don’t be ham-fisted about it; be gentle, there should know right angles in a plot, but smooth and steady curvature. And be ready to allow the story to go where it needs to. Sometimes it won’t even end up where you initially had planned, but you should do right by the work. The plot will not craft itself, but where your energy needs to be invested is in the more subtle details. Treat the plot as an emergent thing, much like the ‘plot’ of your own life- and if there is a guiding hand to it all, they certainly possess a very light touch.