In this interview, editor Gabe Robinson offers advice on novel structure, character development, and how to avoid common problems in your fiction writing.
Gabe Robinson was previously an editor at HarperCollins, where he worked with a number of best-selling novelists. He currently runs an editorial service for authors.
CWN: What are some of the most common problems you see in fiction manuscripts?
Gabe Robinson: Regurgitation is a big one. So many aspiring authors try to ride the coattails of successful writers, using the successful writers’ ideas and premises to try to create something of their own. There are several problems with this. One, it’s all too obvious in the read that the author is simply trying to do what someone else has already done. Two, the story isn’t compelling. It might have been so in its original form, but now it sounds like everything else, because everyone else is trying to do the same thing. And three, because of points one and two, these types of books rarely replicate the success of the original. Good fiction is original, or even if it’s not the most original idea, it has an original, fresh feel to it. This will probably be a big theme in many of my answers.
Another common problem is the tendency to tell and not show. This is a big one for me. Pretty much anyone can tell me what’s happening in a scene, and I’ll get the details just fine. But it’s more effective to show me what’s happening. What is a character feeling? Don’t just say he’s feeling sad, show me. What is a character’s motive? Don’t tell me he did it for love, show me. I actually think a big part of this problem is the tendency to overuse adverbs. It’s easier to say something like “”I love you’, he said tearily.”, but this falls flat. Show me his emotion; don’t rely on one word, “tearily,” to get that emotion across. Use the context and the actions and the reactions and the dialogue—in short, everything—to portray whatever it is you’re trying to portray. This is harder to do, but in the end, it’s much more effective.
CWN: Could you talk about some of the problems you've seen in fiction manuscripts in terms of plot structure?
Gabe Robinson: I feel like there’s this popular belief in formulas when it comes to plotting. This is especially true in mysteries/thrillers. A conflict starts out at point A and the plot unfolds throughout the course of the narrative until it arrives at the conflict resolution at point B. And there are always a few familiar pieces plot pieces thrown in along the way. There’s not a lot of innovation or risk with this approach. I feel like a good number of plots these days are basically the same, just with interchangeable parts. Many authors simply copy other authors, but I also feel like many authors copy themselves. That is, all of Author X’s stories start to feel the same after a bit because he/she is just recycling ideas from previous books. There are different characters and different settings and different circumstances, but the basic plots are still the same. I think it’s important to be original in plotting and to take risks. For example, if you’ve written a mystery, instead of letting the revelation of the killer’s identity be the driving force behind the plot, why not reveal his/her identity at the beginning and let something else provide the tension in the plot? This might be harder to accomplish, but it will set your story apart.
I think a good test for checking for this problem is asking yourself how familiar your plot feels. It’s okay to take inspiration from other authors and their work, but it’s not good if readers are going to feel like they’ve read your story 100 times before. And you have to be honest with yourself about this. As the story’s creator you’re going to be inclined to think your plot is original, but that could just be your bias speaking. Don’t let your closeness to your book blind you to the things you need to work on.
CWN: Could you talk about some of the types of problems you've seen in fiction manuscripts in terms of character development?
Gabe Robinson: A lot of authors rely on descriptions to introduce a character. When we first encounter a character in a manuscript, we’re often treated to a couple of paragraphs describing how that character looks and what his general demeanor is like. Not necessary. Let the narrative develop your characters. Physical descriptions can be kept to a minimum, unless of course these physical traits somehow play into the plot. But as for the development of a character’s persona, let the course of events tell us who he is. How does he react to a situation? How does he speak? What makes him tick? Telling me that Character X is of medium build with light brown hair and brown eyes, speaks with a Midwestern twang, has been known to have a hot temper from time to time, and has a soft spot for Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals is not nearly as effective as letting that information reveal itself throughout the course of the narrative. Don’t lay it all out at once with your characters; let the reader get to know them by how they act and react. If you want to see excellent characters with minimal descriptions, read some Elmore Leonard.
On the flipside of this is the tendency to include too little about a character. Often the main character is given all of the attention, with a descriptor on his character attached to every action. But secondary characters can often be the heart and soul of a book. Don’t relegate important secondary characters to mere speaking parts. Allow them to be as much a part of the action as possible without taking over the narrative. So often I’ve read something with a compelling main character only to be disappointed in the end because there was nobody else I could connect with. There’s usually potential for good character development in secondary characters in these types of books, but the authors have chosen to focus solely on the main character to the detriment of everyone else. Secondary characters are often the reason the main character is the way he is, so it’s important not to neglect their development.
CWN: Could you offer some advice for fiction writers on revising to improve manuscript beginnings and/or endings?
Gabe Robinson: Don’t lead with a dream. Flashbacks are better, but I feel like this approach is used almost too much as well. And don’t lead with a general description of the weather or location. I don’t know how many times I’ve read about the sun rising over some mountain or other at the start of a book. Editors often judge a book in the first five pages; it’s a fair bet that many readers do the same. Lead with something engaging, whether it’s an interesting glimpse of a character or a tense scene. The story doesn’t have to be set up perfectly in the opening scene; the important thing is hooking the reader. The story will follow.
As far as endings go, it’s so easy to be formulaic about these. Guy gets the girl. Good guy beats the bad guy. Parents get divorced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but be surprising about it. Even if your story hangs on a twist and readers are expecting this, don’t put the book’s weight 100% on that twist. Twists can be disappointing, but presented in the right light, that won’t necessarily matter. Keep the readers on their toes. Not everything has to be wrapped up in a pretty little package with a pretty little bow on top. Ambiguity at the end of a story isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So the guy gets the girl—but are they going to be together forever? The good guy beat the bad guy—but does that mean he also negated the ripple effect from all of the bad guy’s actions? An ending can be about resolution and not necessarily revelation and still be a very strong ending. The ending is probably going to be the part readers talk about the most because that will be the part freshest in their minds, so leave them with something to talk about.
CWN: I've seen that thrillers and mysteries are two genres of interest to you. Are there specific types of problems that writers have to watch out for in these two genres?
Gabe Robinson: We see the same characters over and over and over in mysteries and thrillers. So often the hero is a cop or a PI or a PI who used to be a cop, but regardless of what they actually are, they’re so often so alike in personalities and dispositions. Why not make your hero someone who breaks the mold? I think that’s one reason Stiegg Larsson’s Millennium series has been so popular. Lisbeth Salander is a heroine unlike any readers have ever encountered before. She’s exciting, compelling, edgy, and unlikely. Having her as the protagonist was a risk, but one that obviously paid off. Don’t just write your main characters according to convention. Think outside the box.
CWN: Do you have any words of advice for fiction authors who are in the process of revising a manuscript?
Gabe Robinson: Get another person or multiple other people to read your book, and listen to what they tell you. And don’t just use friends. Even if your book needs a lot of work, friends will generally tell you how good your book is because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. If you’re willing to spend some money, get an editor (this is not a commercial), but if you don’t want to go that route, see if you can get somebody whose opinion you respect and who you know will be honest. And maybe see if you can get someone you think has some knowledge of the book market. Somebody who never reads is liable to tell you your book is the best thing he’s ever read simply because he doesn’t know any better. But after you choose someone to look at your work, you need to listen to what he/she says. As the writer, you can only take your book so far. You need the unbiased opinion of someone else to take it to its highest potential. I think even the best of writers need an outside eye on their work. Someone bringing a fresh perspective to your book will be able to pick out things that you wouldn’t notice in a hundred readings. And when that happens, pay attention. That doesn’t mean you have to make changes that fall in line with every single thing someone else says, but it does mean you’ll bear in mind the things that person said as you approach your revisions.
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