What’s wrong with your book??

So you’ve finished your book. Congratulations! This is a major achievement, and you should be really proud. Finishing a book is more than half the battle. But what if you feel something isn’t quite working? Maybe you’re getting interest from agents, but for some reason they aren’t totally sold on it, and they can’t quite tell you what you need to fix to make them say yes. This is really frustrating, I know – I’ve been there. It may be you need to have a think about the fundamentals of your work, and see if there’s something you could change that would turn your ‘maybes’ into instant ‘yes, please sign with me immediately!’ Having taught creative writing at City University London for two years now, I’ve made a list of key areas you may need to look at to transform your book.

-Is your premise as strong as it could be? A good trick I sometimes try is to write the blurb that might go on the back of the book. This is different from a synopsis, and should tell you where the key areas of tension and interest lie in your book. This will then let you know what needs to be cut and what you should focus on and develop. Also think about whether a more interesting setting or time period could help. If you find you have lots of similar scenes that blur into one, why not transpose the same action to a more interesting background, eg, on a cliff edge, on a train, in Bulgaria….

-if the book isn’t working, chances are you need to change something fundamental like viewpoint. Maybe you have too many viewpoints. Maybe you need another so you don’t get stuck in limited first or third. Also, make sure you stick quite closely to your character’s thoughts. Unless you specifically want to intrude into the narrative, and make it clear you the author is telling the story, don’t use language that your character wouldn’t, or have them ruminate over issues they are already well aware, eg ‘I saw John, my brother, in the kitchen’. This feels contrived and can lift the reader right out of the story

-Are your characters unsympathetic? You can get away with having your characters doing some pretty awful things as long as you’ve created sympathy for them beforehand. This can be done by showing us a thing or person they love, or having them do some small act of kindness, or even showing us their enemies are even worse than they are, or making them appealing in some way. It’s really important, because a common reader complaint is ‘I just hated all the characters, so I didn’t care what happened to them.’

-Is there any plot? Sure, you get plotless novels, but to work as a book something has to change for the characters throughout the narrative. This doesn’t have to involve explosions, murders, or taking the President hostage. It can be quiet and internal. But something has to change for the characters, otherwise we’re just reading page after page of formless musings.

-Is the pacing right? Does the story start at the right place? Usually in first novels it starts too early – it takes us too long to get to the inciting incident of the plot. However sometimes the writer will try to avoid this by starting quite far into the plot then dealing with the backstory by flashbacks. I think this can work well but check it’s not too confusing, and remember that any scenes in flashback are automatically less tense, because we know what’s going to happen after.

Pacing also applies to individual scenes – can you start and end on the most interesting line possible? Keeping them short will also keep the reader motoring through.

-have you checked through it for errors? It sounds small, but mistakes in grammar and spelling can put someone off reading any further. Look out especially for homonyms, which won’t get picked up by spellcheck, eg berth/birth, woe/wow, wry/rye and so on. Get someone else to read it if you’re not sure.

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