How to Bring Your Novel Alive through Story and Self-Editing

As a story editor, when I work with new writers, I often find they tend to gloss over the painful parts of their novels. When a character gets cancer, two pages later, the character is dead. A woman has a child where the father has abandoned her. Three paragraphs later, the child is in law school. What's wrong with this picture?

No drama. In life we don't want conflict or drama, but in stories we need it. It's the oxygen of fiction. We need to be able to take a look at the darker side of ourselves, our characters.

A few years ago I went on the "Oh Drama Show" (I was in the audience) at BET where they interviewed a young author with a book on "Macking." Why such a subject? Drama.

Fiction is about both drama and conflict, but it is also about healing. Readers want to know how the character made it through losing a loved one or rearing a child without the help of an absent father. People often use books as bibliotherapy—a way to heal themselves through reading.

Yet there's a healthy balance between writing unflinching fiction that tells the truth and writing fiction that helps heal. As a former social worker, I've worked in the trenches and witnessed some of the darker side of humanity, from domestic violence which ended in death of the mother to burying babies, to servicing AID's babies, so I have to fight a tendency to not just depict evil without redemption in my own fiction. As writers, it is not only our job to throw mud at "sacred cows," but also to be a light for those lost in darkness.

A writer can influence the world by reminding us, in a cynical time, of all that's good too. When we write good fiction that reflects both the good and the bad in life by looking at life on all different levels, inner, personal and outer (societal), we come up with a way of recording our human passage in this world. Hopefully, people will read our words after we're dead and close our book and say, "Yes, that's how life is."

These are just some pointers that a writer can use when self-editing their fiction.

Can I see the characters and the settings? Have I taken time to outline my book and do character charts on my major characters and even some of my minor ones? In your opening, do you have an inciting incident, disturbance or departure from the norm which triggers the engine? For instance, in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Marley's death is what triggered the ghosts and nightmares that Scrooge had. Have I made my protagonist too good and my antagonists too evil? Look at the success of The Godfather for how to create a lovable antihero. More recently, read Walter Mosley's Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. Socrates, the former convict/murderer is one of my favorite protagonists.

Have I used action/reactions in the scenes? Even if a character does not answer an exchange of dialogue that's a reaction. Good writing results from showing character reactions. (Scene/sequel patterning.) Do I show adequate motivation for my characters and what drives them? Do I use imagery which brings the story alive and underscores the themes? Have I used imaginative language? Is my story burdened by clich's? Do I make my characters' world real to the reader? If the character is from a different culture, or in a little understood job culture such as police officer, social worker, newscaster, pathologist, or as in the HBO show "Six Feet Under," even a mortician, do I create a believable milieu? Am I showing as well as telling through scenes? Do I make adequate use of reversals in scenes? For instance, a scene might start with what appears to be a happy marriage to one on the rocks by the end of the scene? In real life, one phone call or nighttime visit can change our whole word such as in Oprah's book club pick, Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife. Do I make use of subtext? Remember in real life, people say one thing and mean another. What appears to be is not. This really makes fiction resonate. A novel must have causal relationships between events. It should be interesting to the writer, but more importantly to the reader. If you use a prologue, it should foreshadow the theme of the story. If a prologue does not add to a story, it shouldn't be used. Are you introducing too many characters at once, so the reader can’t bond to any of the characters? Have I foreshadowed major events? Do I use the POV (point of view) which works best for the story and the chapters? Does your character grow and change? If your theme is a message of how the character changed for the negative by becoming demoralized that is fine, too. Just as long as there is change. Fiction is about change, be it positive or negative.

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