QUICK FIX FICTION
machinations of the East India company), and on the social history (the legal position for indentured workers in Mauritius; and the position of women in 19th Century Canada). As a result, the novel read much more convincingly like the cross-continental tour de force it set out to be.
more space to reflect on what is happening, particularly at turning-points in the story, the novel’s page-turning power (often mistakenly associated only with aspects of plotting or narrative structure) is greatly increased.
One author of an ambitious novel set in
You’ve finished your novel. You’ve read it so often you’ve lost all sense of objectivity. Top manuscript editor Rose Gaete suggests six last-minute fixes to try before sending it out into the world
1970s Chile wrote powerfully about a young woman who was tortured during Pinochet’s dictatorship. However, in early drafts, she moved too quickly from the perspective of
Iworked as an agent for the Wylie Agency for several years, where I represented new writers and sold their novels to mainstream publishers. One of my biggest excitements was debut novelist Jon McGregor who made the Booker longlist with If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.
It was crucial then (as now) that books were submitted in their best possible form: it would be very unusual for an editor to ask to take a second look at a novel they hadn’t loved immediately. Even with established writers, we would work together on several drafts before submission. These days I work freelance, giving editorial advice to aspiring writers and editing novels for publication. As it’s harder than ever to find an agent nowadays, let alone secure a successful publishing deal, many writers are turning to creative writing courses and manuscript assessment agencies for editorial development (see The Professionals box).
Nurturing a novelist is a long and complex process, but over the years I have noticed a few issues that come up over and over in the manuscripts I work with, and which can be easily addressed by the author without resorting to a professional manuscript service or a total rewrite.
It is also curious how reluctant writers are to flesh out the geographical setting, even when it is a central theme in the book. A young South African mentee I worked with set one strand of her semi-autobiographical novel around Cape Town. The effect of this magnificent landscape was crucial to the main character’s subsequent life decisions. It was only when the author included some more detailed descriptions and explored the fact that large parts of the countryside were forbidden to Black South Africans, that the reader could understand the protagonist’s complex and ambivalent relationship to the land.
2 Stick to one perspective Another common mistake, easily remedied, is moving from one character’s perspective to another and back within the same chapter, sometimes even within the same page. If the central characters are given the prison guard, to the tortured woman, to a childhood flashback, and then on to a long section of dialogue, which diluted the effect. Once she focused on the protagonist’s experiences in prison, the final draft achieved a compelling and dramatic intensity. The author now has an excellent agent.
Similarly, if your structure feels weak or narrative momentum is slow, it might indicate that the number of perspectives or time periods needs to be reduced. One novel about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft had a brilliant voice for Mary, but two additional less well-conceived narrators. Once these were removed, it felt like the writer was free to tell the story without being hampered by the form.
3 Show and tell At dramatic turning points, a conversation can be a lot less revealing than a reflective
1 Flesh out the context I am often impressed by the quality of a writer’s prose style: the fluency, the moments of lyricism, the sharp detailing. However, many writers could be more ambitious and include longer sections of sustained narrative. A novel can be greatly enriched by deepening the historical context, for example. Recently I read a wonderful novel set across five continents as a wide range of characters made their way to Mauritius. I suggested the author include more on the historical background (the roots of the rubber industry in Penang; the
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passage. Even if the dialogue is working effectively, it is worth following it with an extended piece of narration to show the contrast between what is ‘said’ publicly and what is ‘felt’ privately. I often sense that new writers, in an effort to adhere to the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’, can shy away from exploring their characters’ motivations. Paradoxically, this can result in less richness and complexity not more.
Similarly, the balance between action and introspection can too often be weighted in favour of frantic activity. Yet there are times when third person reported speech or an objective narrative stance in an extended passage, would offer the reader more insight into a character’s development. It might be ‘realistic’ that a woman who discovers an unwanted pregnancy would first cry, then rush about tidying her house, then visit the doctor and speak to her friends – as in one manuscript I read recently – but what the reader wants to know is why she doesn’t want the baby. What are the emotional and psychological complexities of her situation?
4 Clarify the structure Another common problem in the majority of manuscripts I read – which can make the most powerfully-imagined novel appear amateurish – is a third person objective narration that needs to be strengthened in order to connect the various subplots in a novel. More use of the omniscient narrator, for example, to set the scene at the start of a chapter, can cement otherwise fragmentary episodes together. In one complicated mystery novel, set in rural India, the multifold dramatic twists in the plot were written in a series of short chapters, rather like chronological scenes in a play. Once the writer added an interlinking third person narrative, which emphasised the timeline, it became a much more cohesive and satisfying read.
Complex novel structures can also be clarified by using some very simple presentation devices. One novel I was editing by an established Bloomsbury author, had a large cast of characters, was set in both 1970s Greece and 1990s England, and was written from several different characters’ perspectives. As a result, the first draft was quite a confusing read. But by including sub-headings to indicate the changes (‘Sophia: Athens, 1972’, for example), as well as a map and family tree, the narrative focus was strengthened. In this case, a prologue hinting at what would happen at the end of the novel, also increased the tension and helped make sense of the structure. You can
'I often sense that new writers, in an effort to adhere to the maxim “show, don’t tell”, can shy away from exploring their characters’ motivations'
go further and start the novel at the end, with the story gradually explained to the reader.
5 Use contemporary language It is widely acknowledged that the best stylists are those who break the rules. However, there are a few stylistic tics I frequently come across which almost always weaken the overall effect, and can easily be put right. In an attempt to sound more ‘literary’, some inexperienced writers repeatedly use archaic words from another era where a modern use of language would work much better. ‘I gathered my resolve’ or ‘This is damnably perplexing’ are phrases not used in contemporary English, and as such phrases accumulate, we begin to lose the sense of the character’s authenticity. We need to believe in a character, but if they use ‘false-sounding’ phrases there is a risk we may become emotionally detached.
This use of ‘artificial’ language can also down the narrative pace, as we make our way past self-consciously writerly phrases: ‘slumbered’ rather than ‘slept’, ‘toiling’ rather than ‘working’. This problem is often associated with a more general over-writing, in which two adjectives are used where one would suffice, or sentences are double their natural length.
6 Avoid visceral description Another example of over-writing – again easily remedied – is the use of melodramatic physical description to describe moments of highly-charged emotion. At the end of a poignant and dramatic novel recounting a girl’s early life in a Barnado’s home in the 1950s, the narrator meets the mother she believes abandoned her. But what should have been the high point of the novel felt unconvincing, because of the language used: ‘she felt as though someone had plunged a knife into her heart’ and ‘her eyes were red raw from the stinging avalanche of tears’. Instead of using physical sensation to describe such dramatic moments, I suggest that writers should try to find a reaction more closely allied to a character’s individual personality. Easier said than done – but avoiding references to the body is one place to start. Phrases such as ‘the tsunami of nerves in the pit of her stomach’ don’t add to the reader’s sense of what your character is experiencing.
Finally, two ‘don'ts’ and one important ‘do’: don't lose sight of your original outline; don't forget you're writing for a reader, not for yourself – and do believe in your novel, even when you can see it needs further work. You must always maintain your artistic integrity, and ignore any advice that doesn’t ring true. ■
ROSE GAETE is a freelance editor and writing mentor. She was an agent at the Wylie Agency, where she worked with Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Paul Theroux and others. Now she works for publishers and literary scouts, including HarperCollins and Virginia Marx. She is also a mentor and reader at The Literary Consultancy.
THE PROFESSIONALS Rose Gaete suggests things you can do yourself to improve your novel’s chances of publication. But there are also scores of agencies offering a professional service – for a fee. Here are some things to bear in mind when choosing a professional manuscript service: ■ Decide exactly what you want. Manuscript services comment mainly on plot and character. For help with grammar and punctuation, you need an editing service ■ Choose someone who specialises in your genre; a chick lit expert may not suit a literary novelist ■ Don’t trust every website. Some agencies trumpet an impressive list of big-name experts, but channel most clients to a subset of less well-known advisers ■ When allotted an adviser, ask for references from a recent client – and canvas their opinion personally ■ Ask for written feedback, so you have something to ponder when your advice session ends. If the feedback seems too sketchy for the fee paid, request a more detailed report ■ It helps if your adviser is well-connected, so ask about contacts with literary agents and scouts ■ Establish exactly what you will get for your money. If you can’t afford the fee, it’s worth asking what kind of help they could offer within your budget ■ Finally, don’t quibble with your adviser about their assessment. If you don’t like what they tell you, get a second opinion
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