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How to Write a Novel

Step Fifteen: Final Draft

Your draft should be in pretty good shape now, and you really are nearing the finish line.

However, eager though you may be to show your masterpiece to agents in order for them to snap it up, you don’t want to rush things and shoot yourself in the foot.

Take another break – at least a week if possible, and then come back for a final fine-tuning.

You need to be really ruthless now, seek out clichés, typos, repetition, telling instead of showing, lazy description, meandering prose. Cut it out. Cut it down. Look for inconsistencies and iron them out.

Below is a list of common issues that new writers encounter as they’re learning their skills. Don’t try to read and assimilate them all at once. Read a new one every few days and think about that one in particular as you’re going through, completing your final draft.

Overly formal dialogue

The main problem with natural dialogue in fiction is that it's nothing like natural dialogue in real life. If an author did put genuinely genuine sounding dialogue into their work, readers would be bored silly, because normal speech is full of half-finished sentences, interruption, meandering and assumed knowledge.

So fictional dialogue needs to be much more succinct, with clear direction and eloquence, but to still give the impression of being natural.

To make your speech sounds less formal, use:

  • Fillers (well, umm, I guess)
  • Pauses
  • Interruptions
  • Contractions (do not = don't, I will = I'll)

As you know, Bob

This is the common phenomena of writers using a character to explain a plot point to another character who already knows it.

To take an unlikely example, let's say knowing the ingredients of a Screwdriver is critical to the story. The amateur writer might decide to have two barmen, one of whom says something along the lines of:

'Well, as you know Nick, a screwdriver is a mix of vodka and orange juice.'

If Nick already knows it, why is his colleague telling him something so obvious?

That's what the readers will be saying anyway. It comes across as wooden, and it's lazy. And it's just a sneaky way of telling.

Characters should never say anything that the person they're talking to knows already. This isn't to say a character can never explain a plot point, just make sure they are telling it to someone who genuinely wants and needs to know.

Have you over explained your characters?

The core of this is the good old ‘show, don’t tell’. Make sure you’re not explaining the character’s personality to your readers, as they’re likely to find it dull and distancing.

Compare:

‘Jane was a slob. She hadn’t tidied up in months.’

‘Jane kicked the mouldy plate off the bed and rummaged around for the least stiff pair of jeans from the piles strewn on the floor.’

In the first example, the author makes a statement about a character, and then backs it up with a little evidence, but they’re still just giving their word. In the second example, the author is keeping out of it, just describing the action and letting the reader draw their own conclusions about the cleanliness habits of Jane.

Also, new writers often feel they need to give the entire life story of a character early on, but this isn’t a good idea. It stalls the action, and anyway, it’s more natural to get to know people in a slower, more gradual way. When you meet someone new, you don’t immediately learn everything about them; that happens over time.

By just giving consistent broad brushstrokes, you allow your reader to use their imagination and fill in the gaps, in many cases creating a character with even more layers than even you thought of.

Dialogue Mechanics

Dialogue is important. It brings the reader into the moment, it feels alive and happening. When is the first dialogue on your story? If it’s not in the first few pages, you could consider moving it forward.

Many new writers overuse replacements to the word said, resulting in something like this:

“You look depressed.” observed Jennifer.

“I am,” answered Barry.

 “You should just cheer up,” concluded Jennifer.

“Whatever,” grumbled Barry.

These colourful replacements border on the cardinal sin of telling not showing, and are obtrusive, dulling the pace.

Instead of relying on words like this, use description of the action to keep things moving and keep the reader right in the action. Also, don’t forget that ‘said’ tends to be invisible to readers when they’re in the flow (unless there are really a lot in a row), and often you don’t need anything to describe who’s speaking, as it ought to be obvious from context.

“You look depressed,” said Jennifer.

Barry picked at his nails and sighed.  “I am.”

“You should just cheer up,” Jennifer put a bright look on her face.

“Whatever.”

Lazy Paragraphing

You may think that paragraphing isn’t something you have to pay too much attention to. Words and sentences, that’s real writing – paragraphing is what happens in-between.

Well, how dense or spacious your prose is will make a big difference to the pace and whether your reader feels like their wading through or skipping along.

When you scan over your work, is most of the page filled with words? If so, it may benefit from more whitespace, giving your story space to breathe. Shortening paragraphs is an extremely effective way to tweak the pace and atmosphere of your novel.

Don’t labour the point

This means don’t repeat yourself, and don’t keep trying to get the same point across in too many different ways. One well thought out way will be stronger on its own than several obvious or weak ways.

For example.

Celine eyed the bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on the shelf and her mouth watered. She loved red wine. It was the colour, like liquid rubies, and the sharp delicious taste. Her desire for it ached. The way it warmed the back of her throat. She loved it so much. Her fingers twitched towards it.

In this example we are told three times that she loves wine, and by the last time you just want to scream ‘Yes, I know!’

It’s much stronger with the second two removed:

Celine eyed the bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on the shelf and her mouth watered. She loved red wine. It was the colour, like liquid rubies, and the sharp delicious taste. The way it warmed the back of her throat. Her fingers twitched towards it.

However, if you want the prose to be really tight, we shouldn’t be telling at all and in fact we can do without any of them, and get the same impression from the description alone:

Celine eyed the bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on the shelf and her mouth watered. It was the colour, like liquid rubies, and the sharp delicious taste. The way it warmed the back of her throat. Her fingers twitched towards it.

The 'was' test

There is a school of thought that maintains that the word 'was' has no place in fiction. While this may be rather heavy handed, the word 'was' appears in many good works of fiction, it is a remarkably useful indicator to help you find badly weak and written sentences.

Was as a weak verb

The word 'was' is often weak. It's easy to write sentences like this:

  • John was in the alleyway behind the shops.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with this sentence, however it's lazy. By that I mean that it's not doing all the work it could be doing. The word 'was' here isn't telling us anything, it's just stringing the words together. Picking a more descriptive verb can add make the sentence work much harder:

  • John loitered in the alleyway behind the shops.
  • John crouched in the alleyway behind the shops.
  • John huddled in the alleyway behind the shops.

Each of these tells us so much more about John and sets a more vivid mood. Remember, every word counts and 'was' is often wasting space.

Was can indicate the passive voice

The word 'was' is also an indicator that you're using the passive voice. As a general rule of thumb, you should avoid the passive voice in fiction as the active voice is more direct, more immediate and less likely to be ambiguous.

For example, review the following sentence.

  • The painting was sold to someone who later donated it to the college

It's not technically incorrect as a sentence, but it is in the passive voice. Someone must have sold the painting, as well as buying it, therefore implicitly we have:

  • The painting was sold by someone to someone else who later donated it to the college.

Obviously this second version looks a lot worse, however it highlights part of the problem with the original. The passive voice has enabled information to be omitted. It feels weak and ambiguous, in short, it's uncertain. Filling in this detail and making the sentence active can make a big difference to the impact.

  • John Maple sold the painting and it was later donated to the college

Note that here we still have an implicit 'to someone' but since we've made John the active person in this sentence this works, and in fact is far cleaner than leaving it in. Note that this isn't just a case of adding a name into the sentence. 'John sold the painting' is much more immediate than 'The painting was sold by John'.

Now, perhaps you're writing a mystery and want to keep the actors anonymous. That's fine, but don't hide the identity of the seller behind weak prose and ambiguous wording. Tell it straight, but tell it in a way that doesn't require you to identify the seller.

  • Someone bought the painting and later donated it to the college.

Task Fifteen: Write the final draft of your novel.

Click here to go to the next step or go back to the Novel Writing Roadmap overview.

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