Here are ten tips to help you hone your focus and provide some actionable steps to knock your story/novel/ mystery into shape.
1. Identify theme or message
What drove you to commit to writing this book? What is the purpose of your story? What is the truth) you are trying to share with the world? Even a mystery can hold truths.
Understanding the story’s core will provide a lens in which to view your characters and scenes during the developmental editing stage.
Maybe you want to explore an emotion such as rage, or the consequences of acting on unconscious beliefs. Whatever the theme, ensure your book as a whole answers the question you implicitly proposed in the beginning.
2. Focus on the beginning
The first line sets the tone for the rest of your book. Rework it. Test out alternatives. Make sure it hooks the reader into your unique world and shows them what to expect.
As an example, compare the draft version of 1984’s opening line:
‘It was a cold day in early April, and a million radios were striking thirteen.’
With the version that went to print:
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
Can you see how a small tweak makes such a dramatic impact?
In one short line, Orwell has managed to convey something fundamentally wrong with the world he is about to plunge the reader into, and by the end of 1984, we understand what that is.
One of my favorite sayings is: ‘the end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end.’ Review your beginnings and ends to see how well they tie together.
3. Identify core conflict and reveal it through action
You had big plans for your book and there’s so much in your head to somehow make real on paper. Trying to cram everything you want to say into the story will slow it down and choke the plot.
Keep in mind your theme or core message as you examine each scene, highlighting the crucial plot elements and gearing your efforts to revealing it through the actions, reactions and thoughts of your characters. Cut away anything that is weighing the plot down or isn’t pushing your protagonist to grow and adapt.
4. Avoid head hopping
Pick a point of view and stick with it. New writers tend to forget who is narrating each scene, chopping and changing between characters. This is known as ‘head hopping’ and can be very distracting, and usually means that the writer hasn’t decided who the reader should care about most.
The key is consistency – if you want to be an ‘omniscient narrator’ abide by your own rules. It’s usually a better idea to stick to either first person or third person limited, which means writing from one character’s viewpoint per scene or chapter.
That’s not to say you can’t have multiple points-of-view throughout the book, however, just be clear and consistent.
Another common mistake is to describe something happening when the character in question couldn’t see it from their point of view. For example, John is gazing out of the window when Jane walks into the office, yet he knows she is blonde before he even looks at her. Glitches like this destroy credibility.
5. Seed the background to your characters’ fatal flaws
No one is perfect, not even fictional characters. Having said that, the flaws they have should make sense and should be seeded throughout the book.
That goes for the antagonists too. There’s nothing more disappointing than when a bad guy fails against the hero because of some sudden, previously unknown flaw. Every thought, action, and reaction must be informed by your characters’ personal history and beliefs.
6. Give your characters quirks
Humans are complicated creatures and although your characters aren’t actually real, the reader needs to empathize with them as if they were flesh and blood. To do this, make your characters distinct from each other, with their own quirks and foibles.
• Style of dress
• Physical imperfections
• Props (e.g., Indiana Jones’s whip)
• Nervous tics
• Unconscious habits such as whistling or pen clicking
7. Vary descriptions using other senses
People tend to favor one sense over the other, and for most of us, that’s the visual processing system. Writers are no different! But neglecting smell, touch, taste, and sound can flatten scenes.
Consider how these different types of smell can have such a dramatic impact on your environment, comfort levels, and memories:
• Body odor
• Freshly cut grass
• Decay and death
• Floral smells
• Cleaning fluid
• Animal smells
Think about the emotions these scents and odors would trigger in your characters. Can you see how broadening your range of descriptive devices can increase the reality of your settings?
8. Cut clichés
Clichés are so last century. Every word, phrase, and sentence should have an impact, but clichés dull the effect because readers have become numb to these hackneyed expressions.
The only exception to this is within dialogue; clichés can reveal the mindset and cultural background of your characters. Don’t overdo it though.
9. Maddening multiple metaphors
Metaphors are wonderful and add richness to your writing, but it’s easy to mix them together and lose the precise meaning – or use more than one in the same paragraph.
If this happens often, you’re probably trying to describe too much. Pick the essential point of the scene or paragraph and focus on that and cut the rest.
10. Keep raising the stakes
Conflict is at the heart of storytelling. No one wants to read a story where literally everything is perfect and nothing ever happens. What would be the point?
Make sure you vary the stakes at key plot points to maintain the reader’s interest and keep your characters challenged enough to grow and develop.
However, starting out with extremely high stakes in order to hook a reader in can backfire because everything that happens afterward can feel like an anti-climax. Pace yourself and turn up the dial of conflict as your plot develops to reach a satisfying conclusion.
After implementing the steps outlined above, your book should have an intriguing opening, a fast-moving, compelling plot, believable characterization, and enriching descriptions.
That’s not to say that you will have picked up on every issue within your manuscript. Objectively is very difficult when you are emotionally invested in your own work. Which leads me to your bonus tip:
Stop editing. Let someone else do it!
There’s only so much you can do alone. For those on a tight budget, this might mean handing your book to a trusted beta reader. For others, sending it to a professional editor is your best bet.
At the very least, by taking the time to really analyze your work, you’ll learn more about your unique writing style and develop a greater awareness of your own quirks and foibles. That can only be a good thing.
Sue Powers is an accomplished short story writer. Her most recent publication was in Saturday Evening News.
She has written a mystery, and is writing another.