As we all know, there are more ways to make a mess of your manuscript than angels on the head of a pin. So I’m not going to try to hit them all here, just some of the main ones I see crop up repeatedly in the work of fresh, innocent, hopeful aspiring writers.
Too many protagonists
Book report instead of fictional dream
Endless, boring climax
Omniscient narrator: everyone wants to do it. Nobody knows how. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald made a hash if it.
So the innocent aspiring writer tells themself, ‘I just go into the point-of-view of whomever I’m interested in at that part of the story.’
And the next thing you know, the reader is asking themself, ‘What ever happened to the guy with the headache on page one? Why have we never heard again from the woman with the mowhawk? Since when does the PARROT get a say in all of this?’
Boing-boing-boing. It’s everybody’s story, which means it’s nobody’s story, which means the reader has no one to identify with, and the call of stale cookie dough in the freezer echoes louder in their head than the call of your increasing series of conflicts.
Pick a protagonist.
If you’re designing two entirely distinct and separate subplots to weave in and out of each other, pick two. If you’re designing three or four distinct subplots, you can pick three or four protagonists (as Carson McCullers did in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and William Gibson did in Mona Lisa Overdrive), but you’d better be darn sure you need all those subplots, and with that many protagonists you’ll have to pick a primary one.
Then stick to them like glue. You don’t have to live inside their head with them. But make sure they’re the only one who gets a narrative perspective if you do zoom in for a close-up. Everyone else must SHUT THEIR YAP.
This is a by-product of too many protagonists: the villain becomes the reader’s favorite.
How does this happen? And why?
Easy! Readers are fascinated by characters with powerful internal conflict. That’s why they read.
‘What if someone just like me—amped to the nu-nu’s on conflicting needs and desires without adequate resources to achieve any of them—were to land in the hottest of hot water?’
They don’t want to live through it. They want some imaginary character to live through it on their behalf. Vicarious triumph! It’s all the rage in fiction and has been for four hundred years.
So you give them a protagonist with only goodness inside, struggling courageously in defense of the brave and the free.
And you give them an antagonist, a seething bundle of angst and outrage and despair, determined to bring down the brave and the free because, goddammit, they deserve it!
And the next thing you know you’ve written Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and your reader identifies with the guy underground.
Pick your protagonist, and then pile them sky-high with all the good and bad traits, the empathy and the greed, the sorrow and the malice, the heroism and the self-sabotage you have at your disposal. Make them fight themself. Make them lose. Make them rise from the ashes like a phoenix, and always give your reader the fleeting, contradictory, anguished hope that this time it’s going to be for real.
This is a simple one to fix, but it’s a ton of work, which is why it turns up in so many early-draft manuscripts.
Exposition: it’s not a novel, it’s a synopsis.
A novel is set almost entirely in scenes: action, dialog, description—characters moving and speaking and suffering and transcending in realtime. A synopsis tells the reader in exposition what’s supposed to go into those scenes.
Your work as a writer is to give your reader an experience of life. They don’t get an experience of life from reading a book report. If it’s a really, really great book report, it just makes them want to read that book.
Write that book.
You have so much to say.
There’s so much that needs to go into this climax in order for the reader to get the full, shattering impact of your vision. There’s so much more that didn’t fit into the rest of the novel. You’re scrambling to pack it all in. It goes on and on and on. . .but you don’t notice because, you know, you love this stuff!
A climax by definition is the most powerful point in your novel, and power by definition hits hardest when it hits the smallest surface—which in fiction means the smallest number of words.
The craft of fiction is the craft of deftly dropping addictive hits of power into your manuscript at regular intervals to keep your reader hooked and salivating, building their addiction, until they’re so needy for your climax it takes barely a handful of words to blow them sky-high out of the water.
Henry James could do it with ONE word. Strive toward Jamesism.
And hot on the heels of the climax that never ends comes this one: the resolution that makes no sense.
The reader has stuck with you through 70,000+ words, hundreds of pages, soaking up those addictive hits of power until their pump is primed like nobody’s business.
And you give them. . .what? a limp noodle?
This happens most often because the writer has tried to plan out the resolution from the beginning. You’re not writing about your characters’ worst nightmares, you’re writing about your fantasies.
But readers have their own fantasies. Truly, they’re not all that interested in ours.
Write toward your climax. Keep your sights on the greatest possible challenge to your protagonist’s needs. Force them to face their biggest demons, squeeze blood from their stone.
How that all shakes down in the end is so important and profound you can’t possible predict what it will be until you’ve seen how your characters cope with this nightmare. You’re writing your novel to learn for yourself what happens to someone who’s had blood squeezed from their internal stone.
And you can’t teach your reader something you haven’t learned yet.
Remember: you also can’t write if you haven’t yet discovered those 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.