Five Easy Fixes For Your Novel

By PJ Parrish

Back in my newspaper days, I applied for a job at the Miami Herald. I was working at the rival Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, but was flattered to be courted, so down I-95 I went. My portfolio was filled with sample clips. Great honking investigative stories. Profiles of the rich and famous. Thoughtful think pieces. Sitting in a big office overlooking Biscayne Bay, I watched the two big cheese editors as they flipped through the pages. Then they stopped and read. One guy looked up:

“I love this story. Was it your idea?”

I craned my neck to read the headline: TEN PLANTS EVEN YOU CAN’T KILL.

I nodded. “I’ve got a brown thumb.”

“We need more of this kind of stuff in our features section,” big editor said. “We’ll definitely be in touch.”

I didn’t get the job. But the experience did teach me that when it comes to getting someone’s attention, keep it short and sweet. Or as Jeff Goldblum says in The Big Chill about his job as a writer for People Magazine: “We only have one editorial rule. You can’t write anything longer than it takes your average person to take an average crap.”

So today, for a change, I’m going to write a short post. But I hope you find something useful in it. You don’t have to read it in your bathroom.

FIVE EASY THINGS THAT WILL IMPROVE YOUR MANUSCRIPT

1. Use More Paragraphs. Many of us, when we write, let the words just flow and flow onto the page. It’s emotional, that first draft. But slow down and take a hard look at what your sentences look like on the physical page. A page that is full of big similar-looking blocks of type looks old-fashioned and well, intimidating. That’s okay if you’re Dickens or Donna Tartt. The rest of us should keep things more eye-appealing. On the other hand, a page of one-sentence paragraphs can look contrived, like you’re trying too hard to be neo-noir or the next James Patterson. (But please don’t ask me to explain what compelled William Faulkner to include a chapter in As I Lay Dying that consisted entirely of one line: My Mother is a Fish.) Be in charge of your readers’ emotional reactions to your prose. Use the occasional longer contemplative graph but break it up with short ones. Writing is like music — one note, either long or short, is boring. I wrote about this subject in length a while back. Click here. 

2. Don’t Use Stock Character Descriptions. Getting readers to picture characters the way you do in your head is important. And it’s hard. Heck, all good description is doubly hard because it comes from your own consciousness AND it has to be filtered through the prism of your characters’ consciousness. Whenever I read something like this: “She looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor” my teeth ache. That’s lazy and obvious. Plus, you can get in trouble if you use culture or age-specific references. ie: He was as hunky looking as Ansel Elgort (That’s Ansel above. Who knew?). You must find a fresh and point-of-view-specific way to describe your people. And if you ever EVER use “handsome,” “sexy” “gorgeous” or, God forbid, “green-eyed vixen” I will hunt you down and confiscate your Acer.

 

3. Get Rid of Useless Dialogue. The exact words you put in your characters’ mouths is precious. But it’s hard to write because great dialogue is essentially a sleight of hand. (or ear?) You have to convey the FEELING of real conversation but without all the dumb and dull stuff we say in normal life. So to that end, never waste space on mundane stuff that is best conveyed in simple narrative. Don’t write:

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Joe.”

“Yeah, I know,” Joe answered. “It’s been a while since I felt like coming back to the station.”

I nodded. “Things been tough?”

“Yeah,” Joe answered. “Had some family issues and been a little under the weather.”

{{{Yawn}}} Sometimes, narrative works better, especially if you can convey some backstory via a character’s thoughts (and illuminate your narrator!).

Word around the station was that Joe had some problems at home. I knew his wife Clara. We had dated years ago and I knew that when it came to men, she had the attention span of a five-year-old in a McDonald’s ball pit.  I knew Joe, too, and in the red of his eyes I could see the bottom of too many glasses of Jim Beam.

4. Ferret Out the Weasel Words. We all have them — awful crutch filler words that seem to come unbidden from our fingers as we type that first draft. They take up space, make our narrative wishy-washy. Here’s a quick list: Just. Some. Most. But. Very. And my personal favorite — Suddenly! Take the word out, and if the sentence still makes sense, well, you’ve killed a weasel. (Caveat: Sometimes a weasel word is needed in dialogue). Watch, too, for wasted action phrases or words i.e. She raised a hand and slapped him across the face. No, she slapped him. Also, look out for weasel words in description or feelings.

Don’t write this:

He saw the car coming toward him down the dark alleyway. He realized there was no room to move, maybe only ten feet wide, and there was no time for thought. He could only react.

Write this:

Headlights coming fast toward him, blinding him. A screech of tires, the crash of the fender as it hit the trash cans. Two second at most, that was all he had.  He jumped for the fire escape above.

 

5. Don’t Overstate The Obvious. This is a common problem I see in many of our First Page Critique submissions. The scene is full of tension; something dire is going on. Good! But you have to then trust the reader to GET IT the first time. The more emotional or action-packed the scene is, the more you need to keep things under control. Sure, you can write this:

The sailboat was being tossed by the churning green waves like a bottle lost at sea. Maggie gripped the tiller harder, her heart racing. She squinted into the driving hard rain, trying to make out what Chuck was doing up at the bow, but she could barely make out his form in the darkness. She thought he might be trying to pull the jib down, but she couldn’t be sure. She shivered and was afraid for a second she was going to be sick. She was so afraid, and she thought again that they never should have ventured out two hours ago when the sky had been so dark and threatening.

First, note how this looks on the page: one long paragraph composed of equal-length sentences. But this is an action scene! Time for short and choppier rhythm, right? (See No. 1) And don’t gild the emotional lily. Maybe something like this:

Maggie couldn’t see a thing through the knife-slashing pelt of the rain. Two hands on the tiler now, too afraid to risk even a quick wipe across the face. She squinted toward the bow but Chuck was just a blur of gray against the mad-flap white of the jib. The sailboat groaned and pitched to starboard and she choked down another rise of nausea. Why the hell had they been so stupid? She had seen the low black clouds as they set out two hours ago. She had been stupid. Stupid to trust Chuck.   

Remember: The more emotional or tense the scene, the more controlled the writing should be. Don’t let your writerly emotions swamp your story boat.

And after that awful last sentence, I should probably add a Number 6 tip here about straining for metaphors, but I promised I’d be short and sweet today.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

31 thoughts on “Five Easy Fixes For Your Novel

  1. Another keeper, Kris. I had an editor (back when I was submitting) tell me she could judge pacing by looking at the page. Lots of dense narrative paragraphs–too slow. Lots and lots of dialogue–too fast. Sometimes a visual of the page is enough to show you what needs help. If an agent or editor’s only going look at the page, not even read the words, you’re doomed before you start.

    And YES! to not using “famous” people as description shortcuts. Trust me, this aging, non-movie goer doesn’t recognize two-thirds of them. Same goes for popular singers, etc. I’m not likely to connect with much after the 70s. I might recognize songs, but I have a very short memory for who sang what, or what they look like, because I don’t watch music videos.

    • Well, re: famous people descriptions, I had to Google “young hot actors” and that’s how I found Ansel Elgort. I wouldn’t know him from Ansel Adams…that was my point.

  2. Great post! Filed away…and I know exactly which WIP needs this lens right now.

    I like the part about shorter paragraphs. We, the readers, are the ones who have the attention span of a five-year-old in a McDonald’s ball pit. Ha! Shorter paragraphs don’t look so intimidating.

    Another thing I’ve noticed in 21st century writing: shorter chapters. My second current WIP, when The End was first planted, had eighteen chapters. After my second run-through, chopping knife in hand, it has fifty-two.

    I hope I did it right…crossed fingers… 🙂

    • One of my crit partners doesn’t break her book into chapters until she’s done. My only peeve with lots of short chapters is because it means flipping/scrolling through so many pages to get to the text on my e-readers.

      • Another good pt, re E-books. They look completely different on a screen vs page. Something to keep in mind.

    • Good point about chapter lengths. If I was just thumbing thru a potential read, I might be intimidated by 18 loooong ones. But 52 short ones? I tend to read before I go to sleep so short chapters make my day. (Or night).

  3. Good post! And I so agree with #1 (Use More Paragraphs). My first readers (including an editor) of my first novel said the same thing: “too many short paragraphs.” To which I replied: “That’s what I want. Ray Bradbury. Cinematic writing.”

    But also a good point to vary the paragraph lengths.

    • I quoted Bradbury in my original longer post about good paragraphing. He was hyper-aware of the impact of a well-placed pilcrow. Also, he was great at varying the length of his graphs. Go read the first page of Fahrenheit 451 for a great example. The first graph is 1 line. The second graph is big and fatty. The third graph is 1 line. Bam! Great dramatic impact.

  4. Hi, Kris

    This is a very handy checklist. “Seemed.” along with “suddenly,” is one of my weasel words which I have watch out for.

    #5 is pure gold. So easy to get wordy in an emotional, action scene when tighter, more controlled writing will do.

    FWIW, a longer list might include “Don’t let your first person narrator run on and on.” That’s a danger myself and other writers who use 1st have to watch out for IMHO 🙂

    • “Suddenly” is my Achilles writing heel. It shows up in every action scene I write. Ugh.

      This post was originally going to be 10 Easy Fixes…It started to run long. I was moaning about it out loud while writing and my husband (an ex editor) yelled from the bedroom “Change it to FIVE!”

  5. Excellent tips yet again, Kris. I always enjoy your witty, spot-on writing advice. Your own talent as a writer and background as a journalist are always evident in your to-the-point, well-illustrated posts here. It’s also obvious that you continually keep the reader in mind, which is really what it’s all about, isn’t it? Thanks for another clear, concise, informative, and entertaining piece I can forward on to my writer clients.

    • Good…glad you are recommended us to your group. I think they might especially be helped and inspired from the First Page Critiques.

  6. Great tips. Funny about As I Lay Dying. That was my first intro to Faulkner, and I found it so difficult that I was turned off from his stuff for several DECADES.

  7. Great advice is not always synonymous with the number of words. Personally, I like short blog posts, and this one is a keeper. Thank you!

    I also like short paragraphs — lots of white space on the page is comfortable — and short chapters. It’s nice to begin a chapter late at night and know you haven’t committed to staying up half the night to finish it.

    I’m constantly beating down those weasel words. “Suddenly” pops up a lot. “Just” and “then” sneak in more than they should. I just wish there was a setting in Scrivener that would make those words flash when you type them. Then you could squash them right away. (See what I mean.)

    • The more you squash those words, the more you don’t write them. In the early days of my career, I wrote as fast as the words and images spewed out of my brain because I was so afraid they wouldn’t come or I’d lose the words and scenes, but, as I became comfortable that the words were there, I slowed down and wrote cleaner text.

      Also, words like “suddenly,” “just,” and “then” are warning words that you aren’t in tight character viewpoint.

      • I’m with you, Marilynn. I used to belabor every word I tried to put on the page. Took me years to get over that and just let the words flow the first time out. Then it’s actually fun to go back in and kill the weasels.

  8. Great advice. I can never be reminded too many times about weasel words. And character descriptions–you make it clear–don’t be lazy. Yeah, it’s work. Do it.

    • Just read a pretty good book that had a line: “He reminded me of the Marlboro Man.” Geez…how old do you have to be to dredge that one up? These days, you’d be better off with, “He looked like the kid in the Juul ad.” Or maybe: “He looked like he belonged in a Juul ad, or like Billy Idol might have looked before he went to seed.”

  9. Excellent advice as always, Kris. I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell because her sentences exhausted me. About the time I was at my wit’s end, I counted 100 words in one sentence. Ridiculous.

  10. I’m late to the party, as per usual, but I have a burning question! I hope you’re still keeping sn eye on this one, Kris.
    No. 3 Get Rid of Useless Dialogue.
    I follow the reasoning behind this and I do agree! But I’ve also been beaten so many times for what my beta readers and editors like to call “excessive wasing.” (i.e., Passive Voice.)
    As a writer, I naturally have a very literary voice. And while I am technically writing Epic Fantasy, it’s also alternate history and rather adult. (Think gritty-realism Mary Gentle versus florid Tolkien.) So I’m constantly struggling between two masters, if you will. I’m describing an epic worldscape with a realistic tone. And it’s First Person POV. *sigh*
    To avoid the pitfalls of FP Passive Voice, I usually switch to dialogue. But No. 3 seems to indicate the very opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish!
    Am I doomed to always wage this struggle or am I misunderstanding the nature of No 3?

    • I debated about including this in a short post for exactly the reason you give — it probably creates confusion. The point I was trying to make is to save dialogue for prime time. IF you can make the dialogue work, then yes, I say it’s preferable to use it. Because dialogue is essentially action versus narrative. But if the dialogue is conveying only mundane info, then it’s better to make your point in a quick narrative. In my made-up example of the two cops talking, I tried to make the dialogue as dull as possible. It actually sounds close to what real conversation does. Which isn’t good in a novel. In this example, I think you get more juice into your story by conveying the info in the narrator’s THOUGHTS.

      I chuckled when I read your line: “I’ve been beaten so many times by my beta readers.” I get that! Because we are all told SHOW DON’T TELL and dialogue, when it’s good, is showing, right? But like all rules, they shouldn’t be hard and fast. It is okay to use narrative instead of dialogue if it works more effectively. I don’t think this is the same as the “passive voice” you speak of.

      But you’re right. I created confusion with this. I think I should do a full post on it later. Thanks!

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