The Doctor Will See Your Novel Now

by James Scott Bell

My doctor is a sharp young guy. He seems impressed that I’m a writer of fiction doctor-1299996_1280who manages to make a living that way. He once wistfully mentioned he would like one day to write a book.

I told him he should do it. Then I asked him if one day I could take out a gallbladder. He said, “Probably not.”

I guess the barriers to entry into the medical profession are a bit higher than it is for would-be scribes. Too bad. Just once I’d like to say to a surgical assistant, “Scalpel … Sponge … Junior Mint.”

In any event, I go in yearly to get checked, even if I feel in the pink. I talk to the doc, get my blood drawn, then wait for the reports. Every now and then he makes a suggestion and I try to follow it, unless it involves red meat.

Your novel needs a checkup, too. I like to schedule mine at around the 20k word mark. I’m not so far in that I can’t do some remedial work if necessary. There are some tests I like to run. Let me commend them to you.

Blood Test

Is your story’s lifeblood healthy? Here’s how you can tell: Your Lead is facing an issue of life and death –– physical, professional, or psychological. That raises the stakes to the highest level. That keeps the blood flowing and the reader reading. Even if you’re writing a comic novel, the characters have to believe the central question is of the utmost importance.

Heart Rate

Are you connected emotionally to the story? I don’t mean you have to end up like Joan Wilder finishing her book at the start of Romancing the Stone (for more on that, see Rob’s post from last Wednesday and especially P. J.’s comment.)

What it does mean is that you must have some connection to the characters that makes you, the author, care about what happens to them. If you haven’t got that, find it before you move on. Feel something before you write anything.

Character Endoscopy

Those little endoscopes (“viewing tubes”) enter your body via … through a … just take my word for it, in they go, to get a picture of what’s inside you.

You need something going on inside each main character, too, under the surface. We usually refer to this as motivation. Often that’s enough, but I like to know what’s behind it, what created it.

I don’t do extensive character biographies. Those never quite worked for me. But I do want to know a few key things, including a “wound” from a past trauma that haunts the character in the present (sometimes we call this “the ghost.”)

Joint Pain

Are your scenes working? They are the connections, the things that hold your story together. Having a dull scene is like having a knee go out on you. Everything stops. You can’t move forward.

Pain, the doc will tell you, is a good thing when it tells you Hey! You gotta take care of this, buddy!

And that’s what dull scenes are telling you.

Now, it’s true that you sometimes are too close to your story to know what’s dull. Often, it’s not until someone else looks at your manuscript that the pain is revealed to you.

I think it’s best if you know what to look for and fix it yourself, and soon.

First, do you have a feeling that a scene you wrote isn’t quite right? Go there and ask:

Do the characters in this scene have conflict, even if it’s subtle, with one another?

  • Is there anything surprising in the scene? Unexpected?
  • If the character is alone, is there some form of fear inside him? (From simple worry to outright terror?)
  • Does the scene drag on too long?

Second, if the scene still doesn’t work treat it like a tumor and cut it out.

Hearing Check

How does your dialogue sound?

If the characters sound too much alike, no good. Each character deserves a distinct voice.

If your dialogue is always in complete sentences, you’re missing the power of compression.

If your dialogue attributions (said, asked) are being propped up by adverbs (he said haltingly; she asked imploringly) you’re diluting, not adding to the emotion of the scene.

(I will modestly hype my book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, because I believe dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript.)

Eye Exam

Do your descriptions paint a vivid picture that pulls a reader into the story world? We are a visual culture, so you need to think and write cinematically. Like this:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up. (Robert B. Parker, Pale Kings and Princes)

Sol Stein counsels, “Have something visual on every page.” We’re weaving a dream, after all, and dreams are movies in the mind.

So what about you? Is your manuscript in pain? Where does it hurt? The medical staff of TKZ is here to help!

22 thoughts on “The Doctor Will See Your Novel Now

  1. This seems especially a good idea for my current WIP because it’s an experiment in not outlining ahead. And since the circumstances of life have me writing when I am completely sucked dry, I know chunks of scenes I write will have to be surgically removed and grafted with new parts. And that one fifth mark would definitely be a good time to do an evaluation before moving on, because by then I’ll probably know better where the big holes are.

    • I tried pantsing with my current WIP, and it didn’t work for me, so I’m working on an outline now, and of the five scenes I wrote, only one will survive. I may end up using pieces of the others… or maybe no

  2. The one-fifth mark is about right for a preliminary checkup because it should show the hook and the first plot point.

    Right now I’m plotting and having a bitch of a time getting my hook to be sufficiently integrated with my first plot point. Grrr. However I want to resolve the issue before I write anything.

  3. Are you offering feedback on the first fifth??

    If you are, I’d make sure people know you’ll only read the first page before you commit. So many first pages, even first paragraphs, demonstrate that the writer isn’t nearly ready for feedback and that they have a whole lot of studying and learning to do.

    • Not critiquing, but guidance when you explain an issue.

      For example, in your plot point issue, above, I would say to think first of it being a doorway of no return. What forces your MC through that door, to confront the life and death fight? This will make you solidify the opposition.

  4. Excellent points. I print out and reach each completed scene (in bed, where it’s more like “reading” than “working.”) I’m a description skimmer when I read, so I have to remind myself to let readers “see” what’s happening.
    But it’s more than visuals — I try to engage all 5 senses whenever possible (not all at once, and NO DUMPING). It’s important we experience the book through the eyes of our characters.

  5. Jim, great post.

    As one of those guys on the other side of the glove that says, “Bend over.” or “Get up in the stirrups.” – I loved your “review of systems.”

    I thought of additional analogies to make, but would only add the “preventive health” component. Your doctor apparently mentioned less red meat in his advice. We could add getting enough TKZ vitamins. Frequent trips to the TKZ blog gym and consuming adequate TKZ advice, can help keep our writing healthy. An apple a day…or a blog post a day keeps the rewrite away.

    Thanks for all your teaching. And have a great Father’s Day.

  6. I was notified by Amazon e-mail about your new book, Jim. Can’t wait to read it.

  7. Your How to Write Dazzling Dialogue is a must-have for every writer’s toolbox. I’ve never considered stopping at the 20% mark for a check-up, but it sounds like a great idea. Thanks, Jim. Happy Father’s Day!!!

    • Thanks for that, Sue. Yes, I call this the 20k “step back.” Not to be confused with the 30k “wall.” I found early in my writing that the book put up resistance at that point. Many other authors reported the same. I just fought through it. But later I realized it was because I was now inside Act 2 with many directions to go. That’s when i started forming signpost scenes, etc.

      I love this craft.

  8. I like to read TKZ while I’m eating breakfast and ponder it trough out the day.
    I do believe I’ll take notes at church this morning using the ‘Doctor Checkup’ along with a little Hiveword. I have a feeling the “Doorway of No Return #2” will literally be heaven or hell. Just to make things really exciting, I’m going to put his 3 point sermon on the clock. Will the preacher push the congregation through the first doorway 1/5 of the way into the sermon (that will be when the teenagers all of a sudden have to take a bathroom break)? Will his ‘mirror moment’ be a testimonial about his epiphany? (That’s when the wives are nudging their unconscious husbands awake)
    But the best part will be at Sunday dinner because the preacher’s my cousin and we all still go to Granny’s. Fun is coming when he asks, “What’d you think about my sermon? I noticed you were taking notes.”
    That’s one way to get a critique.

    • I would love to be at that meal, Glenda. Be kind!

      I’m reminded of what Samuel Johnson once told a writer. “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

  9. I pants’d and semi plotted my first book. It took a long time to finish. This time, I have plotted out the whole and I’m really excited about writing it. I’m almost half through now!

  10. Jim, I think I set a personal record with the novel I’m currently writing–started over for the third time, each instance after writing about 30K words. This time I think it’s going to be all right. Good advice re the check-ups for your novel…and for the novelist.

  11. Love this. One of my favorite analogies (from one who is perhaps known for overkilling analogies in my writing books).

    Allow me to contribute another one, within the “check up” theme:

    Does your story need a shrink, and maybe a little counseling?

    This goes to character backstory, inner demons that many pop up, and the motivations behind what the characters seek, want, are willing to fight and die for, and/or (for antagonists), lie and cheat for, even kill for?

    When we understand what makes our characters tick, and can frame it with actual psychology that, at a glance, makes some sense (without resorting to cliche), readers can respond with empathy, because just maybe they can imagine how that (the plight of your hero) might feel.

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