How to Fix Your Novel (If It’s Too Short, Slow-Paced, or Tells Not Shows)

Teaching Creative OutliningSo you’ve completed your novel. It’s a story with a beginning, middle and satisfying end. You’ve polished the prose until it shines.

However, it’s too short, or too slow-paced, or it tells rather than shows.

Argh.

Actually, don’t worry. This is quite normal.

The only mistake you’ve made is to waste time editing the text before fixing the story. Even so, you probably need to change less than you think.

Here’s how I go about it (these days I actually do this anyway when I get about 66% through a draft, but it works on a completed manuscript as well).

  1. Take a break. Get some distance. Get drunk. Stop twitching. Do some home improvements. (Clean your goddamn writing area, you slob. Seriously, how can you even live like this?)
  2. If it’s not still clear in your head, reread what you’ve written.
  3. Identify all the conflicts, merging them if possible.
  4. Externalise and personify all the conflicts.
  5. Rewrite your outline until it sounds cool, revisiting steps #3 and #4 as required.
  6. Update your text to make it match the new outline.

All this is really dead easy.

Identify all the conflicts means just that. Sure, you know the big conflicts or you wouldn’t have reached the end of the novel. However, there are three types of conflicts you’ve probably left underdeveloped:

  • Practical conflicts — when the protagonist struggles to get stuff done. You may have glossed over these, or skipped them entirely, or failed to give them a sense of unity.
  • Internal conflicts — when the protagonist struggles with themselves, perhaps handled through internal dialogue or angsting while staring at the weather.
  • Thematic conflicts — when the world struggles around or with the protagonist. These may be struggles you’ve discovered as you’ve written, or ones that are glaringly obviously missing in hindsight. For example, a novel set in the 60s should probably touch on social change or the sexual revolution, or Vietnam or whatever.

Try to merge or expand conflicts until each has a Practical, Internal and Thematic facet.

For example, if renting a nice home is a problem (practical conflict), is that because social class is a problem (thematic conflict)? If so, how does that make the protagonist feel about their self worth (internal conflict)?

Externalise and personify all the conflicts simply entails tying one end of each conflict to a person or clearly-identifiable group of people, even if the conflict is an internal one.

So, for example, it’s the 1960s. The scientist protagonist is torn between pursuing her dream of cracking the secrets of the universe, and partying. Rather than have Dr Protag brooding while people whoop it up in the next apartment, externalise the conflict by having her more adventurous roommate try to persuade her to gatecrash the party: “Come on! I want to get stoned and laid.” For added fun — good angel/bad angel — give her a prim older sister who tags along “to keep her out of trouble”. (This incidentally also tends to set up mirroring literary devices.)

Staying with the female scientist, 1960s sexism should also be an issue for her. Hopefully that’s already in, but the story will be stronger by personifying the conflict: add an actual antagonist — a professor or administrator who really thinks women don’t have a head for quantum physics and anyway, they’re just marking time before making babies, so it’s a waste of time giving them grants that men need in order to support their families (ugh).

Rewriting the outline and updating the text? That’s all surprisingly fast. It turns out what makes writing slow is the thinking. If you know what you have to write, if you already know your characters and their world, then you can make your changes as fast as you can type… which Google tells me should be 38 words per minute… which is why I outline in the first place (click to get my book about it all).

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