The Eightfold Way: The 8 Basic Don’ts for Novel Writers
The media has become fixated on spontaneous symmetry breaking and the Higgs boson (the so-called “God particle,” a name that would surely make Mr. Higgs cringe). The Higgs mechanism (i.e. the spontaneous symmetry breaking) is necessary to give mass to some of the vector bosons in the electroweak or weak and electromagnetic interaction theory. Forgotten in all this media hoopla is the theory that led to the idea of quarks and gluons, the Eightfold Way of symmetries popularized by Mr. Gell-Mann. (Note that I refrain from using the term “discovered.” In theoretical physics, the math is “out there.” You just have to figure out what math matches up to the experimental data. Experimental physics is where “discoveries” are made.)Now that I’ve had some fun imagining your eyes glazing over as if you’d just had tequila mixed with sleeping pills, let me say that this post is not about physics. (My eyes are glazed too, because the above is hardcore physics and I’ve been sipping my Jameson’s while writing like a madman.) The Eightfold Way I consider here is the shining path that leads you to a finished novel that someone might want to read. It’s my distillation of rules for writing a novel-a distillation that is not the quality of a fine Irish whiskey, but I’ve put some thought to it and would like to share (I’d like to share the Jameson’s too, but the Internet hasn’t discovered e-drinking yet).
What are the rules for successful novel writing? There are many and everybody has his or her own list. All writers are not equal-what works for one might not for the other. Moreover, since I’m not David Baldacci or Stephen King, you might think that I’m being a bit presumptuous-I am not a successful novelist. I might be considered prolific, but, by my own standards, I’m not successful-I would certainly like to have more readers. Nevertheless, I’m an avid reader. Since I’m also a novelist, when I read a novel, I read with a critical eye, especially in my capacity as a reviewer. Readers rule, especially nowadays when there’s a plethora of novels available just waiting to be read. My Eightfold Way is reader-oriented. It’s a list of DON’Ts if the writer wants to keep his readers happy. Are you ready?
(1) Don’t just write about what you know. In fact, the adage “Write about what you know” is completely off base. I don’t know who said it initially, but he or she clearly wanted to eliminate the competition. Here’s the scoop: If you have no imagination, you shouldn’t be a novelist. I’m not just talking about sci-fi, either, where this rule is obvious. If you’re writing a romantic novel about vampire love or a thriller about finding a serial killer, I bet you have no direct experience in either (not $10k-how about one of my eBooks?). Your imagination has to rule your writing. Moreover, what you imagine has to be put into words that move and still make sense to the reader.
(2) Don’t confuse your readers on time, place, or point-of-view (POV). The action in my novel The Midas Bomb, for example, covers only a week. I had the timeline laid out, of course, but I soon realized that the reader could be confused by the rapid succession of events, especially since flashbacks are mixed in. Consequently, the day and time are a subheading to each chapter. (One reviewer expressed appreciation for this, so I know I made the right choice.) For POV, I’m not a purist. Switches within a chapter are OK as long as they’re clear-for example, at the beginning of a new chapter section. However, it’s a little weird when Susie knows what Bob is thinking, unless Susie is a mind reader. Bottom line here: don’t make your reader say, “Huh?”
(3) Don’t write overly explicit and excessive character description. I hate it as a reviewer; I avoid it like the plague as a novelist. Leave something for the reader’s imagination. If you’re too excessive, you might contradict the image he already has in his mind. Your character might have a dragon tattoo, but it’s unimportant to the reader if it’s unimportant to the plot. Minimalist writing should be your goal. Of course, you have to be clever enough to provide some logical but misleading clues in a mystery, for example, or the reader will have no fun. The key to description is that old slutty Goldilocks-you want just enough, no more, no less.
(4) Don’t be verbose or erudite, especially in dialog. Many experts call Herman Melville’s Moby Dick the greatest American novel. I don’t think so. It’s number two on my list of “worst books in the English language” primarily because it’s an overly detailed manual on how to turn whale’s blubber into lamp oil. If anything, Greenpeace should ban it. In fact, most of the books in my list suffer from verbosity and eruditeness. One reader talked about the pages and pages in Giants of the Earth describing the motion of grass (maybe that’s where the phrase “boring as watching grass grow” came from?). The 70+ page speech in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is another turn-off. The pages and pages of description of sea flora and fauna in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is a huge turn-off. You get the idea.
I reviewed a book recently where the author obeyed his grammar checker to the nth degree and omitted all contractions in his dialog. Oops! Contractions are an important part of natural dialog; the latter should always reflect everyday speech. Anything else sounds pompous. Of course, you might want your character to sound pompous, but handle with care. Street jive is the other extreme, of course. The trick is to entertain your readers, not bore them or annoy them.
To me, verbosity also includes an overuse of adjectives and adverbs. That’s the minimalist thing again. Consider: “You’re a cad!” she said angrily. The “angrily” is unnecessary as are most variants of “said.” These latter are wraith-like words that a speed-reader passes over. Of course, artistic license allows you to spring a surprise. Consider: “You’re a cad!” she said with a wink. Now the adverbial phrase “with a wink” expresses possible flirting instead of the obvious anger. It’s no longer superfluous.
(5) Don’t dwell on minutia. That’s the minimalist idea yet again. Moby and 20,000 Leagues again come to mind. Assume the reader already has a good idea about how to brush his teeth, for example-I’m reminded of those websites where one watches someone go through their day. Boring! I have better ways to spend my time. If a character goes from point X to point Y, the reader doesn’t need to know what happened between X and Y, unless it’s essential to the plot (he sits on a butterfly and changes the space-time continuum?).
(6) Don’t be cute. The TV series Lost had many followers, but most people were turned off by the convoluted pseudo-spiritual ending and the many flash-forwards were confusing, to say the least. The writers were too cute. I’ve seen this happen in novels I review. I might be old-fashioned, but I avoid flash-forwards entirely. Garcia-Marquez in one of his novellas, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, gets cute and announces the ending right up front, then spends the rest of the novella telling the reader how that came to pass. He gets away with it-he’s a Nobel prize winner, after all. Generally speaking, though, you won’t.
(7) Don’t use cliched plots. Yeah, I know, there are only so many different story types, but I’ve read about too many twins separated at birth, too many aliens that seem like mafiosos, a plethora of amnesia victims running from bad guys, hordes of star-crossed lovers with families that don’t understand, and so forth. In particular, if I can map your story into one of Shakespeare’s plays by any stretch of my own fertile imagination, I’m suspicious. Cliches also reduced my enjoyment of the Star Wars trilogy-too many plot elements were lifted straight from Asimov and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work.
If I were an agent (thank goodness I’m not), the last thing I would want to read in a query is “My book is like.” (I did tell agents that my young adult novel The Secret Lab is NOT Harry Potter in space, but that’s different-I like Harry and friends, but every YA agent in the world was looking for the next Harry.) Use that imagination. If your novel’s plot seems cliched, at least throw some plot twists in that wake up your reader. As a reviewer, I love a reversed cliche. (Unlikely heroes fall into this category-remember the tailor who “killed six with one blow”?)
(8) Don’t name your characters without some serious consideration. In January’s Writer’s Digest, Elizabeth Sims in the article “Namedropping” lists many good ideas about how you should choose a character’s name. Like Ms. Sims, I take character naming very seriously as a writer. As a reader and reviewer, I cringe at some authors’ choices. Jeff Smith isn’t a Latino, Jane Brown isn’t Chinese, and so forth. Again, think of your reader. He or she will be upset if all your names sound like they’re taken from a first-grade reader. Moreover, the appropriate name for a character must somehow fit that character’s personality. Some best-selling writers violate this rule-a pox on their house, I say, or on their editor’s, at least.
What’s not in this list? Many details. That’s the easy answer. All the grammatical details, for example (rules upon rules about split infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition, etc.). Rules about not switching from third to first person (tell that to Patterson) or excessive use of the passive voice. Rules about appropriate punctuation (tell that to Garcia-Marquez in Autumn of the Patriarch, at least in the Spanish version, or Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake). I care less about these rules. Rules are meant to be broken and writers often do so, even famous ones (should I say, especially famous ones?).
Nonetheless, my Eightfold Way contains what I consider essential that you NOT do as a novelist. I might still find your novel entertaining if you break one of my rules, but I might not. I probably should change my phrasing to “worst books in the English language that so-called experts say are great”-there are many indie books out there that are not worth your time because they break many of these rules. Same goes for some best-sellers that have passed through the legacy publishing gauntlet. The “so-called experts” will be reluctant to give the “great” grade in this case, especially counting their bias against indie books. You, the reader, on the other hand, are very lucky. There are many “great books” out there, both legacy and indie, in many different genres-you just need to find them and enjoy them.
However, just as Einstein might have a problem receiving tenure in today’s tough academic environment, writing a novel well does not guarantee that you will have readers. Name recognition is the key. That can be achieved through publicity and marketing. If you have the budget, contract with an agency that will help you in these areas. Moreover, it helps to have not just one book but several. Einstein’s theory of special relativity alone would have eventually made him famous, but when you consider everything else he published in 1905, not to mention his magnum opus, the general theory of relativity, you just knew the guy wasn’t a Johnny-come-lately. He was a prolific scientist-as a reader, look for prolific writers, and, as a writer, be prolific.
In libris libertas!
Steve Moore writes sci-fi thrillers, short stories, and book reviews. He also has an active blog where he comments on current events and posts opinions about writing and the publishing business from the perspective of an indie author. Visit him at his website http://stevenmmoore.com