There are a lot of rules in writing. Some are solid ones, like rules of spelling or grammar, but others are more nebulous, like how to start a scene or whether or not to use adverbs. I like to look at these ambiguous rules as opportunities to improve a sentence or scene. Some "rules" have become common because they're hard to explain to new writers and it's easier to just say no.
But these are all moments that can help you revise your novel and show off your skills. They're opportunities to strengthen your novel.
Since I just wrote about "waking up" opening scenes, let's use that as the first example.
1. The Opening Scene
There's nothing inherently wrong with a waking up scene, and as long as that scene does everything a good opening scene ought to do it'll work just fine. But when you start with something that's been done thousands of times, you give the impression that there's nothing original in your work. The first impression your novel makes is "Oh great, another waking up scene. How original."
Right away, you're created a negative impression on an agent or editor, or even someone who reads a lot and has seen this same opening a hundred times before.
You've missed an opportunity to wow a reader with something fresh that shows your novel and your ability in the best light possible.
Think about anything you know really well and have seen/read/heard a lot of. Now think about the times you experienced one of those that used something a lot of other people used. Didn't it feel old? Predictable? Unoriginal?
That's how a clichéd opening feels to those who read a lot of openings. Even when these openings are done well, they still give off the impression that there's not going to be anything new or exciting in the work. And that's not what you want someone reading your work to feel.
(More on crafting strong opening scenes here)
Openings are not the only opportunities you have to wow a reader. Here are some places and situations that you could be missing, or could be doing more to make the most of your writing:
This is the first thing readers see when they pick up your book. Is your title original? Does it give a sense of what the novel is about? The type of novel it is? Is it compelling? It might not seem that important, but let's look at one of the more common titles: Second Chances. A quick look at Amazon shows how many books have this title--either those exact words or those words in some form (like Love's Second Chance) Pages and pages of books with the same title.
When an agent or editor gets a manuscript with this title, how excited do you think they are to read it? What do you think is their first reaction?
My agent said the title of my book (The Pain Merchants) so intrigued her during my pitch she knew she was going to ask for pages before I ever said a word about the novel. Ironic since my publisher changed it, but what if it had been called The Shifter all along? Would she still have asked for pages? Would she still have been as excited to read them? No way to know, but I do know the title made her physically sit up and pay more attention to my pitch. Even she says her head snapped up when she heard it.
Adverbs get a bad rap. They're fantastic first-draft words that show exactly where you have an opportunity to flesh out and punch up an emotion or action. After a first draft is done, do a search for -ly words and find the best way to revise without the adverb. You've already decided an emotion or action was needed in that spot, so make the most of it.
The zombie moaned menacingly and dragged itself down the dark hall.Not very scary. Not very menacing. But this is clearly a writer's brain saying "this needs to be scary and menacing" to the writer.
A dry moan echoed in the dark hall. Bob jerked straight, eyes straining for some indication of where the damn thing was coming from. He backed away, shotgun out, hands trembling. Another moan, closer, but still out of sight. No, not quite...it had sounded..lower.Feeling nervous now? One adverb can inspire a longer scene that creates just the right emotion and tension to keep readers reading.
Where are you, you freaking dragger?
He pictured it--legless and dead, crawling along the shadows right for his ankles.
(More on taking advantage of adverbs here)
4. Scene Enders
The whole point of a scene ender is to get the reader to read on to the next scene, but many writers use them to break up when events happen in a novel. Nothing wrong with that, but if your scenes aren't ending on something that makes readers want to keep reading, you're missing an opportunity to keep them reading. A book they can't put down and stay up all night reading is one they'll tell everyone about the next day and recommend to all their friends.
Take advantage of this opportunity to grab readers by the shirt and drag them on by making sure every scene ends with a reason to keep reading. It doesn't have to be a major cliffhanger, just something to tease readers to turn one more page, read one more scene or one more chapter.
(More on where to end scenes here)
5. Clichés, Metaphors, and Similes
I'll admit it, I love a good cliché. I use them all the time in everyday life and even on this site, but I leave them at the door in my fiction. Like the waking up opening, they're things readers have seen before so they make a novel feel familiar and predictable.
Same with common metaphors and similes. How many times have you seen a blanket of snow, a head spinning with ideas, or see a smile as bright as the sun? Some are so common they've become clichés, but others are just missed chances to show an aspect of your character or world.
I once wrote a pirate character who'd spent his life at sea. When he referenced things, he often uses sea metaphors or similes, because that's what I felt he'd be used to. People went white as a sail, or something was hard as a north wind. My character Nya doesn't get goosebumps or have a chill run down her back, she gets shiverfeet.
How a character speaks and how she refers to her world is another way to show that character and that world, and show off your writing skills to boot. While you don't want to dip into purple prose trying to "write fancy," think about how your character would use a cliché, metaphor, or simile and how that fits into your story and world.
(More on avoiding purple prose here)
Traditionally "bad" writing could be good writing waiting to happen if you take advantage of it. There are so many opportunities in a novel to wow and thrill a reader, and the more we use them, the better our books will be.
Are you missing opportunities in your novel? Have you seen missed opportunities in other's?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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