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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