5 Tips for Instantly Improving Your Novel


The following article was written by Bill Henderson. Bill studied with Nelson Algren and Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His novel “I Killed Hemingway” (Picador) was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 1993. He is a veteran of the classroom, having taught fiction writing in two university creative writing programs. He lives in Chapel Hill, with his wife Carol Henderson. 

BEFORE WE GET TO THE 5 TIPS…a testament of sorts:

Somewhere along the road of life, I joined The Church of 80/20. Not that I’ve always been devout, I haven’t. But like most converts, I’m even more passionate about my chosen belief than if I had been born to it. In the Church of 80/20 we believe routine matters should require only 20% of your time so you can devote a full 80% to the big ones. If you’re going to take on a difficult task, and goodness knows, writing fiction-especially the novel-is right up there with the toughest, don’t obsess over the 20-percenters. They can be accomplished quickly and with relative ease. Get them out of the way, as you go, in routine fashion. Save your 80% for character and plot development, the make-or-break core tasks that should rightfully get the lion’s share of your time and effort.

THESE 5 TIPS are solid 20-percenters. They may require you to bring some new thinking to your process, but nothing here transcends mainstream Novel Writing 101; so if you have to stop and ponder about any one of them, trust me, it’s something you should have dealt with by now, anyway.

1. Replace words that tell with words that show.
We all use “tell” words when we’re churning out rough drafts. We write, “Bill saw that the premises were uninhabited,” and keep on churning. Job 1, on looking back, is to identify those places where, as her, you TOLD-i.e. “informed,” as in a police report-the reader. Now make the reader see, feel, and grasp the importance of the moment. “Bill looked inside, through the shattered bay window. The living room was empty of furniture. Stains and gashes of the kind normally hidden under rug screamed out of the tired linoleum. A child’s tricycle lay on its side. Bill sat heavily on a square of bricks, once part of someone’s hopeful garden. No one lived here. No one. She was gone.” Yes, it added word length. Seven words became 35. But if it’s an important moment, the extra baggage is worth it. Many times, you’ll judge you don’t have the luxury-to linger would slow the pace-so you’ll want to use summary. Even so, go for some show: “Bill saw the refrigerator door hanging open off one hinge. If she had been there, she was gone now.” Remember: as a fiction writer, your purpose is not to inform but to dramatize.

2. Remove interpretation. Let action speak for itself.
We all do this, too. “Mother came into the room looking as close to angry as I’d ever seen her. Poor woman, what she must have been going through: her tidy little home invaded by two sets of supposedly grown children with their uncouth spouses and impossible kids-her own grandchildren. She must have wanted to disown them right then and there.” What’s wrong with it? The narrator has interceded to speculate about what Mother must be feeling at this moment. As a reader, I come to fiction not for interpretation, but for drama. I want to see it, hear it, and, on the basis of what the author has chosen to SHOW me, understand it in my gut.

3. Replace passive verb constructions with active.
What is passive voice: it’s a way of conveying information that an action was performedwithout saying who performed it. “The table was set. The temporary measure was made permanent. The boy was given a lecture.” Who actually did these things? We don’t know because passive voice has put a cloud of vagueness around the action, effectively screening us off from its full impact. Does this sound like a promising way to write vivid action? Go back, spot the passive, make it active: If you see: “We were at the dinner table by noon, and a great meal was served. Jane never forgot how liberally the wine was poured,” recast it with active verbs (which, by nature, will create missing images). “We were at the dinner table by noon, feasting on the endless piles of turkey, stuffing, yams Mother produced almost casually.”

4. Identify, then remove or “translate” clichés.
Again, we all use them when we’re on a roll. Why? Because they’re so handy. Every clichés was once brilliantly original; the problem is, because it was SO good, it was used again and again and again until it came to stand not for brilliant originality, but for author laziness: “Why should I bother to imagine THIS sunset, in THIS story, carrying THIS special meaning when there are so many off-the-shelf sunset clichés that will do?” Why should you bother? Because they don’t work anymore. They are like cold eggs on a plate. No matter how nicely they were once served, no one wants to eat them now. This is an eternal challenge for all writers. It’s made more complicated by the fact that certain genres-most notably romance, action, and “blockbuster”-seem oblivious, even encouraging, toward the use of clichés. (If you want proof, check out The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book.)

5. Get specific. Replace general, “informational” language with rich narrative summary full of specific (and meaningful) images.
If I want to know what happened, I go to the newspaper or a news site on the internet. If I want to experience what happened-to FEEL what it MEANT-I go to fiction. “Scientists at the Mayo Clinic announced at an unruly press conference that they have cloned a full family of human beings.” That’s informational language, and it’s quite sufficient to satisfy my need to know. “Dr. Borsov, the gray eminence of the Mayo, stood, dazed and trembling before the crowd of young, angry protesters. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, and faltered. A tomato flew past his head. Another one splattered on his cheek. My god, what have we done, he thought in a panic.” That’s fiction.

Again, nothing here is rocket science. But it’s amazing how many novelists, even experienced novelists, have either forgotten, or never really internalized, these 5 simple steps that, taken together, will blow away 80% of the “problems” your work may be encountering.


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