Novel-Writing Tips from Editors

In this interview, editors Julia Denton and Tim O'Hagan share tips on writing an effective novel based on their extensive experience working with fiction manuscripts.

Both Julia and Tim currently offer editing services through ServiceScape, an online marketplace for editorial freelancers (Julia appears on ServiceScape as EditrixJD, and Tim as WordMechanic).

eyeglasses on open book

Q: What are the most common problems you see with fiction manuscripts?

JULIA DENTON: When writing fiction, writers can sometimes get bogged down with details that don’t advance the plot. This can happen when you don’t understand your target audience or mistakenly believe that your readers need everything spelled out for them. Show, don’t tell, and trust your readers to understand your meaning. A good way to make sure you aren’t getting lost in the details is to seek out objective feedback from readers and other writers. Join writing groups or elicit feedback from friends or professional editors. You don’t have to change everything others point out, but gathering others’ opinions helps you recognize possible weaknesses in your manuscript and get an idea of how your readers will see your work.

TIM O'HAGAN:  The heart and soul of great fiction writing is producing strong characters. A common problem with poor fiction manuscripts is weak characterization, in which the characters are ill-defined. Many fiction writers base their characters on people they know, and bring their fiction books to life by assimilating the quirks and nuances of human behavior into their characters to make them real. Another problem is a lack of conflict or pathos. Most successful works of fiction introduce a strong character/s who faces and overcomes challenges or conflicts, be they in the realms of romance, crime, adventure or politics. Good writers use short, punchy dialogue that defines their characters. Perhaps a major problem with failed manuscripts is that they lack pace and steer into oblivion by providing too much detail, too many diversions, or descriptions that are not relevant to the theme.  Ernest Hemingway’s book, The Old Man and the Sea, with its economic dialogue and short sentences, epitomizes the successful use of the acronym KISS (keep it straight and simple).

open books and coffee

Q: Many fiction writers begin stories, then run out of steam partway through.  Do you have any advice on how to keep the momentum going, or how to fix a sagging story middle?

JULIA DENTON: Oh, yes. A really good way to prevent a number of story problems before you even start writing is to create a plot outline. But even with an outline, sometimes your story will fall flat anyway.

To breathe new life into a sagging middle, try adding subplots! Give your reader something new to care about and turn the focus to a supporting character or side story that will intersect with the main plot. Subplots add depth and complexity to the story and keep the reader curious about how everything will come together. You can also keep your readers hooked by escalating the tension of the story. Make the consequences of failure more severe or introduce time constraints. This will drive the characters to act decisively and maintain a sense of urgency.

A sagging story line can be discouraging, but it presents a great opportunity to bring new life to your story. Keep experimenting and stay passionate about your characters and their journey.

TIM O'HAGAN: The reason many fiction works fizzle out is because the writers don’t know where the plot is going. Before you write a fiction novel spend time on identifying the theme and brainstorming the characters. Are you writing about love, adventure, horror? A person’s battle with sanity? A haunted house? Conceptualise the beginning and end of your story and establish a firm trajectory. Chronology is also important. Remember the movie Titanic? It started with an old woman who survived remembering the dramatic chain of events that led to ship’s sinking. The fact that the woman fell in love aboard the ship (against extremely challenging odds), lost her lover and survived made the movie/story unforgettable. The fact that the story covered a historically distant tragedy did not detract from the power of the narrative. Most important, draw sharp lines of distinction between your characters by identifying specific traits, attitudes, or idiosyncrasies (either through descriptions or dialogue). Characters who display passion, pathos, and purpose through the highs and lows of the novel (Rose and Jack in Titanic) will keep them strong to the end. If the story is sagging, introduce a dynamic new twist, add new perspectives to the main character or a specific unexpected challenge he/she faces, or throw in an extra villain to rock the boat.

notebook and cup of coffee

Q: Could you offer advice on pacing in fiction?

JULIA DENTON:  Certainly! Good pacing keeps the story moving smoothly, maintains reader interest, and provides effective buildup and resolution of tension.

First, you definitely need a hook. Begin by capturing the reader's attention and compel them to keep reading. Second, balance action and reflection. If you alternate between action scenes and moments of reflection or character development, your reader will be less likely to get overwhelmed and will more likely form deeper emotional connections with the characters. Third, be smart about scene and chapter breaks. These breaks provide natural pauses for readers, and it’s often where people will set the book down for later. Use them effectively to transition between events or character perspectives.

Fourth, know what your plot is building to, and gradually increase the tension as the story progresses. This buildup helps maintain interest. But remember to keep the events in your story intentional, and avoid unnecessary filler. Fifth, know when to slow down and when to speed up. Emotionally charged scenes, important revelations, or key character development moments often benefit from a slower pace, allowing readers to fully absorb the impact.

Lastly, different stories have different paces depending on their genre and tone, so you definitely want to get the pacing right for your story. Keep fine-tuning your work to find the right balance that suits your story and keeps your readers engaged.

TIM O'HAGAN: Pace in fiction is how fast or slow your story is progressing. When the pace or action is fast, focus on economy – avoid excessive or redundant words and make sure the terms are incisive and original.  The effective use of dialogue -- short, sharp strings of words, can also pick up the tempo, which can alternate with longer, slower, more descriptive sentences (he cracked a smile which sent a shiver of snow from his beard to his feet). Prolonging an outcome is also a good way of balancing pace. Although it may seem to slow down the pace, it actually speeds it up.  Creating “cliff-hangers” – unexpected twists with uncertain outcomes at the end of chapters – can successfully maintain pace, enticing readers to carry on reading (Hemingway portrayed the perfect cliff-hanger in the Old Man and the Sea when his central character, Santiago, took three days to catch an 18 ft marlin. The outcome was prolonged, but it added to the suspense and won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953). Another way of keeping the momentum going is to introduce new characters or produce startling outcomes.

woman and beagle looking at open book

Q: Could you talk about story structure? What gives a story a satisfying shape?

JULIA DENTON: Since the first works of literature were written, authors have used many different approaches to story structure, and one of the most commonly used is the three-act structure.

Act 1 is the setup, where the story begins. Here you introduce the main characters, the setting, and the central conflict of the story. Your primary goal for Act 1 is to pique your readers’ curiosity and make them invested in your characters and what happens next for them.

Act 2 involves the confrontation and is usually the longest part of the story. After deciding to take action, your protagonist faces new challenges, makes allies, and encounters setbacks. The intensity of the conflict increases, and the stakes get higher. Here’s where you bring in the twists, major obstacles, and the peak of the conflict.

Act 3 presents the climax and resolution of the story. It's got the most intense and dramatic moments, and your protagonist directly confronts the central conflict. All the story threads come together, and the reader sees the consequences of the main character’s journey.

Of course, not all stories have to adhere strictly to the three-act model; you can use your own. A really good story structure gives your writing a sense of balance and satisfaction. If you do it right, your storyline will empower your audience to experience the events alongside the characters and will leave a lasting, emotional impact when the story is finished.

TIM O'HAGAN: Many fiction writers do not spend enough time establishing a solid structure or framework for a work of fiction. The shape or structure should be organised in advance in three stages. Stage one describes the setting, introduces the characters, and defines the theme (use the five Ws if you like… who, what, when, where, why?). Stage two presents the challenges or conflicts that confront the protagonist/s. Stage three offers a resolution to the challenge/conflict. To establish the structure of your book, create an outline of the following elements: Who is the central character? What is the setting? What is the character’s inciting motive and what does the character aim to achieve? What developments will steer your plot along? Work out the obstacles that will confront the protagonist and the characters or events that may thwart him/her. A clear, well-defined beginning, middle and end contribute to a satisfying shape, but tension must be maintained throughout, and the storyline must be punctuated with unpredictable key events, penetrating dialogue, bold characters, and action that can unravel at speed.

plants and books

Q: Could you offer some advice on writing effective dialogue?

JULIA DENTON:  This is a big one for me. If the dialogue is forced and unnatural, I lose interest so quickly. A story’s dialogue is crucial for engaging readers and bringing characters to life. Conversations between your characters show your readers their personalities, beliefs, and emotions. Each character should have a unique voice that reflects their background, personality, and motivations.

Dialogue should mimic the way people talk in real life. Make sure you’ve created a natural rhythm and flow of conversation and determine if your characters would speak that way in real life. A good way to keep yourself on track is to read your dialogue out loud or run it by a friend to see if it sounds authentic.

A lot of writers share too much in their dialogue, and this is an important time to remember the advice, “show, don't tell.” You can reveal information about characters and the plot without directly stating it. Let your characters interact and speak in a way that demonstrates their relationships, conflicts, and emotions. Subtext is also very effective when you want to reveal underlying tensions, hidden emotions, and conflicting motivations. Ideas left unsaid can be just as powerful as what is said.

Finally, the mechanics of dialogue are super important. Use proper punctuation to convey the flow and tone of dialogue. Also, keep an eye on your dialogue tags. While it's essential to include tags like "he said" or "she asked," don't overuse them. Try using actions and reactions to indicate the speaker to break up the repetition.

TIM O'HAGAN: Dialogue can be a great way of moulding your character because it reflects directly on the character’s personality, culture, and background. Pay particular attention to the character’s unique manner of speaking. Is the speech clipped, uncouth or brash? Is it strong, courageous, inquisitive? Is it aggressive or peaceful? Is it blunt or descriptive? You can create effective dialogue by basing it on people you know and saying your words out aloud before attributing them to your hero, lover, ghost or villain. Dialogue also contributes to the setting and exposition of the story by introducing conflict or conciliation. Harold Robbins, who wrote 20 books that sold over 750 million copies, was a master of dialogue, framing his repartee between his principal characters as short, sharp sentences that dynamically defined and shaped them.

book, candle, coffee

Q: How do you suggest that authors approach revising their fiction?

JULIA DENTON: Revision is unavoidable and very valuable in the writing process. Even if your first draft is awesome, you can always make it stronger. When you’re revising your work, look at the overall structure, plot, character development, and pacing. Strengthen your characters so they are well-developed, relatable, and consistent throughout the story. Check your dialogue to make sure it is authentic, purposeful, and in alignment with the characters' personalities. Be concise and eliminate unnecessary words and sentences. Check the tone and voice throughout the story to make sure it’s consistent.

If you feel like you’re too deep in your story to see its flaws, take a break and come back with fresh eyes later. Go one step further and get feedback and insights from someone else. And be open to change, even if it means cutting huge chunks of your text.

That’s the magic key to being a productive writer. You alternate between phases of pure creativity where you don’t care about structure, and phases of pure analytic work where you do care about structure.

TIM O'HAGAN:  Nobel prize laureate William Faulkner climbed down a ladder into his basement to revise his works. Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh writer and poet, isolated himself in a shed in Laugharne and worked tirelessly revising his fiction and poetry. However, I don’t think isolation is the key. Join a book club and ask its members to read your manuscript and offer suggestions. Alternatively, consult an experienced editor to go through your work to give you a thorough and honest evaluation of your work. Some authors start revising what they have written after the first paragraph. I would suggest revising the manuscript only when it has been completed.

open book with tulips lying on it

Q: How can an author know when it's time to stop revising?

JULIA DENTON: It's possible to get stuck in an endless loop of revisions, so keep your eyes open to the signs that it's time to stop revising. When you’ve been revising your story for a while, your revisions stop improving the story dramatically, and your feedback from others is mostly positive, you may be getting close! Deadlines could also dictate when you should be done! Most importantly, trust your gut. When you start to see your vision for the story come to fruition, consider wrapping up your editing process. Does it feel finished to you, and do you feel ready to share it with the world?

We all fall victim to perfectionism in the literary world, but chasing the perfect story can be counterproductive. Remember that no piece of writing is ever truly perfect, and your audience is waiting to read it!

TIM O'HAGAN: After a literary friend or publishing forum has checked your revised manuscript, you will know whether it requires further revision. Unfortunately, revisions can be endless and waste a lot of valuable time. They can also cause distractions that affect the pace and structure of a book. Heavy revisions can also lead to further revisions during which the original theme or content can be harmed or fragmented.

crumpled manuscript pages and cup with the words Believe in Yourself

Q: Do you have any other advice for fiction writers?

JULIA DENTON: Absolutely! First and foremost, if you want to enhance your craft, read. Read a lot. Sample different genres and writing styles. Your exposure to other artists’ work will help you to see both what is effective and what you don’t love. Second, keep writing. Practice consistently, and consistent improvement will follow. Third, desensitize yourself to criticism. I know all too well how easy it is to feel defensive when someone tells me that my work is not great. But if you hear enough feedback and learn to take the emotion out of unfavorable opinions, you can pick out the valuable bits from the comments you receive. Also on that note, embrace the knowledge that not everyone will love your work! Your writing has a specific target audience, and if some people don’t get it, then it’s not for them. Lastly, get curious. Observe the world around you and draw inspiration from your surroundings to enrich your writing and bring a new perspective to your readers.

TIM O'HAGAN:  The most important lesson I have learned as a fiction writer is to establish a firm plot up front, and once you have started, don’t look back. When the manuscript is finished, you can rework it and make major revisions, if necessary.

Julia DentonJulia Denton

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