alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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8 Reasons Why Your First Novel Isn’t Working

In my previous posts, I talked about Why Novels Are More Fun Than Short Stories and lifted your spirits with How To Not Hate Your First Draft. Now that you’ve dried your tears and have begun to envision a glorious future for your deformed brainchild, it’s time to talk about exactly how you’re going to climb that gilded staircase to the stars.

In June, I spent two weeks at the Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop in Lawrence, Kansas, learning from two sharp and insightful instructors: Kij Johnson and Barbara J. Webb. On the first day of the workshop, we eight first-time novelists sat around the table in the fishbowl and listened as Kij told us everything we had done wrong.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Prior to the workshop, we had all submitted the first three chapters of our novel-in-progress plus a complete synopsis. Kij read our sacrificial offerings and summed up her reaction with an inventory of our collective crimes. Use the handy-dandy checklist below and see how your first novel holds up.

Common Problems of First Novels

  1. Not Enough Plot. It can be hard to wrap your head around just how big a novel is. First-timers often try to stretch a thin little string of circumstance over 200+ pages. Other possible offenses: Too Much Plot and Poorly-Paced Plot.
  2. Rushed Scenes. When discussing my chapters, Kij pointed out places where she wanted more description and more setting, and my instinct was to resist. “But that’s boring,” I’d think, “I have to get to the action.” While struggling with short fiction, I had trained myself to mercilessly stamp out every curlicue of narrative elaboration. Now that hard-won skill was working against me. Novel readers look for different pleasures than short story readers: they need immersion, and they need time to settle in.
  3. Churning. Looking at that vast expanse of blank pages you have to fill, it’s easy to get panicky and start throwing incidents at the page. You slap on an explosion here, a gunfight there, sprinkle a one-eyed ogre army over Chapter Five, top it off with a messy break-up and call it a plot. But activity doesn’t = plot. A plot is a sequence of events in which each event causes the next, leading to the central conflict. A lot of flashy unrelated action will never get you there.
  4. Stakes Aren’t High Enough. You’re not going to convince a reader to go along for a novel-length ride if all that’s at stake is whether your protagonist is going to have a bagel or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Your stakes don’t have to be mortal danger or the fate of the universe, but whatever you choose must feel like annihilation for your character. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes.
  5. Lack of Agency. Related to #3. Activity also doesn’t = agency. First novels often feature characters pushed around by circumstance, or ones that don’t initiate activity. Your protagonist must go out into the world and cause things to happen. Preferably bad things that will hurt him/her and rain misery on their hapless head.
  6. Backstory & Exposition Poorly Managed. This one happens in short-story land, too. The reader gets a couple of pages of a scene with a good hook and then everything screeches to a halt while the author explains the full timeline of events since the protagonist’s birth*.
  7. Poor POV Choices. Novels typically have more characters than short fiction, and can handle multiple points-of-view. But are you choosing them wisely? Are you switching POVs at the right places? Kij suggests that more than one POV can improve your story, but if you introduce too many, you’re more likely to trip yourself up. Analyze your POV changes and ask yourself if they are the best interest of your story. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints.
  8. Anemic Description. Characters need to be grounded in their environment. I did this one wrong and so did pretty much everyone else. If your story is set in the Wild West, the reader needs to know not just how it looks, but how it smells, how to saddle a horse, and how long it takes to travel by train. Useful description is what makes a world feel real to a reader. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing.
Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.  Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.
Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Keep in mind that though everyone in the class was a first-time novelist, we were reasonably experienced writers with publications in professional markets like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Writers of the Futureand we still did it wrong.

That’s because writing a novel is hard. It’s probably not much like anything you’ve written before. So don’t freak out: now that you know what’s wrong, a second draft is the perfect place to fix it.

*If you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’re going to get the founding of the nation in which she lives and the genealogy of her ancestors.
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