Six Steps To Improve Your Novel

Everyone wants to write a novel that grabs an agent or editor, but most of all, we want our work to grab readers. Here are six ways you can improve your novel.

1. Positive is nice but often boring.
Authors create good-looking heros and heroines. They create sunshine for picnics, avoid character’s bad habits and make most everything pleasant. The problem is positive and nice lacks realism, and it doesn’t encourage conflict.

Sadness, shame, irritating habits, and ordinary looks are real. Novels will offer more to readers if they can learn how “not so perfect” people still discover life can be beautiful. Add rain storms to a picnic, make the heroine’s hips broader than she wants, create a hero who drums his fingernails on tabletops and have the first date be a bust. Then allow characters to work toward change, to make a bad situation even better, and to find fun in unwanted situations.

2. Readers laugh and cry.
Reading a novel that pulls at the heartstrings and pokes our funny bones help readers remember a novel. Laughter is the best medicine an old saying says and it holds truth. Chuckles and laughs in a novel promotes physical health by using body muscles often neglected in regular exercise. But creating humor is not easy. Think of situations and events in your life that made you laugh. Sometimes the laughter comes after the fact when it’s over and you relive it. When these events come to mind, recreate a similar situation in your novel to bring these moments to life even in stories that have a more serious side. Shakespeare always added humorous scenes to his tragedies. It’s called comic relief. Humor can happen with word play, prat falls and exaggeration which you’ll find at the end of my novel Dreaming of Castles when the hero tries to create a romantic fairy tale moment for the heroine. I’ve read the novel many times while writing it and editing it, and I still laugh when I read that scene.

But as much as laughter is good for physical health so is the release of stress, grief, shame and loneliness. Difficult situations that pull at the heartstrings help readers release their own pent up emotions and often helps them realize they aren’t the only ones who feel alone, ashamed or duped. It also shows readers how they can resolve these issues and come out a winner. So create situations that make readers laugh and cry to enhance the impact of your fiction.

3. A story is more than description. It’s feeling.
Bringing a story to life is more than a sense of place. It’s how the place makes the character feel and how it makes the reader feel. Using the senses is important and not only the see and hear, but also the taste, touch, and smells. Yet a novel needs even more than that. It’s bringing senses to life through the “gut” feeling of the character. His actions show what he is thinking and feeling. It’s how he relates to the people and places around him. Look at the difference.

“Bill sat in the chair across from his boss’s desk. Something was about to happen, but Mr. Undermeyer’s face didn’t give him a clue.”

Now let’s bring this to life:
“Bill sank into the chair, his shoulders resisting the cushion. He wanted his boss to think he was alert and interested, but he couldn’t fool Mr. Undermeyer. As always, the man’s hooded eyes masked the purpose of the meeting. Good or bad, Bill’s gut lurched with each tick of the clock.”

Which of these descriptions offer more feeling, more emotion? Have you felt this way? Most of us have, and it helps readers know they aren’t alone when feeling uncertain, even facing trouble.

4. Readers want authors to assume they have brains in their heads.
I received a letter not long ago from a reader thanking me for not explaining everything more than once which helped the reader to feel the author knew she had brains in her head. This is a major error in writing fiction. Authors tend to fear that the reader didn’t catch the hint, the important piece of information or the character’s emotional feelings, so it is repeated over and over. Have you ever read a novel that said something like this. “Julie had been waiting too long for John’s call. Worrying, she decided to call him. She crossed the room, grasped the receiver and dialed the phone to call John.” You’ve heard it twice, and it’s telling. Instead try this. Have Julie pace the floor, eyeing the telephone, checking the time on her watch, picking up a magazine and flipping pages without really reading it, and then march to the phone and punch in the number. This scene shows more than just hearing she’d waited. In this scene we watch her trying to be patient until we see her lose her cool.

Another common error is an author’s belief they must share paragraphs of backstory least the reader doesn’t understand the novel. This is as bad as repetition. Bring the characters to life with action, let the reader see the character’s goal or the need, provide conflict, and show some of the character’s mannerisms. Make readers want to reader more. Then in little spurts and only when necessary add pieces of backstory that will enhance the impact of the story.

5. All people have distinct peculiarities, often called idiosyncracies.
To make your character real, use them. People are not always rational nor perfect. They can step outside their values, morals and beliefs and do things they never dreamed they would. They don’t always see themselves or their surroundings with clear eyes. Handsome men don’t always know they’re handsome. Women with lovely bodies sometimes are bulimic, because they think they are fat. Rational thinking and behavior is not always present. As you create your characters consider the irrational qualities of people, and sometimes give them peculiarities. These qualities can create unique, interesting characters and/or create powerful conflicts in your novel.

6. Keep your scenes and research relevant.
Sometimes authors read something interesting about a type of person, a location or a situation and want to use it in their novel because they think readers will be as intrigued as they are. Mark a skull and crossbones over any research or general information that does not directly relate to the focus of your story. Every scene and sentence has a purpose in moving the story forward.

Giving the history of an old building, over-describing the attire of a secondary character, providing details of a historic battle scene can be detrimental to keeping the story’s pace. If the reader stops to ponder an irrelevant piece of information—often wondering why the author described the old building or secondary character in detail or why the waiter wore an apron—the author has jerked the reader from the story. This is a huge no-no. Do everything to keep your research and information crucial. When you have something you want to share with the reader, add a For Your Information at the end of your novel and provide the details there for the history buffs.

Editors and agents are looking for novelists who know how to move a story along, know how to pull the reader’s heartstrings or jab his funny bone, and used techniques that makes the story stand out. Readers are looking for the same. You want to be that kind of writer.

Copyright Gail Gaymer Martin – Share link but use a copy only with author’s permission


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  1. Tammy Lagoski April 6, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    “It’s more than description, it’s a feeling,” happens to be one of my weaknesses when I try to create a situation or scene. Each one of your tips are tips writer’s need to claim and put in to practice.

    • Gail Gaymer Martin April 10, 2014 at 11:24 am #

      Thanks,Tammy. I’m always pleased to know the post helps writers learn something new about their work. We all need to grow as writers, and even after so many novels, I continue to study writing and ways to improve what I write.

  2. Angie Young April 6, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    Thank you so much for the wonderful writer’s tips. I’m no where near ready to write a novel. But I really think these tips will help me with my blogging just the same.
    Angie Young

    • Gail Gaymer Martin April 10, 2014 at 11:25 am #

      Angie, I think even readers can benefit from understanding how difficult good novel writing really is. Thanks for your support and interest in my work and my writing.

  3. Edie Dykeman April 6, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    I appreciate your showing the difference between showing and telling. You examples help a lot. I’m very new at writing fiction and need all the help I can get! Thanks.

    • Gail Gaymer Martin April 10, 2014 at 11:32 am #

      Edie, Showing vs telling is a major element of writing fiction that edtiors look for so when you make progress in this area, you’re truly making progress to improve your writing. Writing Fiction blog has a number of posts on showing vs. telling. If you return to this post and look beneath the title, you’ll see a category called “showing vs. telling.” Click on it and it will bring up all the other posts on this topic. I hope that helps even more.

  4. Jill April 7, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    Another fabulous post for my “Gail” Notebook! You have a true talent for teaching, Gail. Thank you for all that you do on your blog. I know these posts are time consuming and we appreciate them!

  5. Gail Gaymer Martin April 10, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    Jill, you are always welcome, and if you’re every going to see me in person, you hagve to bring your “Gail” Notebook and I’ll autograph it. 🙂 Thanks so much.

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