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5 easy ways to make your first novel better

As an editor and proofreader, I work hard with fiction authors to make sure their debut (and subsequent) novels are the best they can be. However, a few issues arise time and time again, even for me with my own books. The good news is they are easily solved, so here are 5 easy ways to make your first novel better!

5 easy ways to make your first novel better

1) Show, don’t tell (or know when to reveal or conceal)

This is obvious advice that is offered in most writing craft books, yet new authors still fall into this trap. Showing, not telling, is about always thinking as a reader rather than an author. Although the classic (generic!) example ‘tall dark and handsome’ has no doubt been used millions of times to describe a male character in a novel, it doesn’t really ignite a reader’s imagination. Any ‘handsome’ or ‘beautiful’ descriptions accompanied by the author’s opinion of what constitutes ‘handsome’ or ‘beautiful’ (e.g. ‘blonde’ or ‘olive-skinned’) can restrain the reader as their definition of attractiveness is completely unique to them. Instead, it is much more effective to show characterisation using how someone feels or behaves, so that your reader’s imagination can conjure up their own version, enhancing the reading experience.

Example of telling: ‘She was pretty and petite with a dancer’s lithe body.’

Although this is much better than a basic description, there is still room for improvement. Again, ‘pretty’ is quite arbitrary and non-descriptive and open to too many assumptive interpretations.

Example of showing: ‘She seemed to incline towards him ever so slightly, like a graceful cat awoken from its sunlit slumber, and he was captivated.’

This example shows how the character moves and the simile instantly brings to mind a visual of the sleepy feline shape, showing the character is also relaxed and attracted to who she is inclining towards. The fact that the male character is captivated shows that he finds her attractive too, and the reader immediately gets a sense of the chemistry between them.

2) Reduce dialogue tags

It is unnecessary to include a dialogue tag every single time a character speaks. Of course, you never want to confuse your reader, but if it is obvious who is speaking in a turn-taking conversation, there is no need to see-saw the ‘he said/stated/replied’ etc. dialogue tags.

Example of using dialogue tags every time a character speaks:

‘There was a quiet knock at the door. Peter answered it. It was Helen.

“Beg your pardon, sir, but Miss Ava needs attending to before retiring,” said Helen.

“She is in no fit state for anything,” Peter commented.

“Shall I call the doctor, sir?” asked Helen.

“I think so Helen, we cannot leave her like this,” replied Peter.’

Example of using dialogue tags sparingly:

‘There was a quiet knock at the door. Peter answered it. It was Helen.

“Beg your pardon, sir, but Miss Ava needs attending to before retiring.”

Peter sighed. “She is in no fit state for anything.”

“Shall I call the doctor, sir?”

“I think so, Helen. We cannot leave her like this.”’

In the first example of using dialogue tags every time a character speaks, three of the dialogue tags are actually redundant. Removing them not only makes the conversation easier for the reader to absorb, but it quickens the pace, reflecting the urgency of needing to call the doctor, as shown in the example of using dialogue tags sparingly.

3) Avoid indirect repetition

Readers are clever; they do not need to be told something twice, so avoid indirectly repeating the same information where it is not needed.

Example of indirect repetition: ‘No one was in the room. It was completely empty.’

This example says the same thing twice – ‘no one was in the room’ and ‘it was completely empty’. If nobody was in the room, it would be empty and your readers will understand that without the need for indirect repetition.

Example of not using indirect repetition: ‘The room was completely empty.’

It might be tempting to repeat information (especially during NaNoWriMo when word count goals are everything!) but if the repetition is not being used to reinforce or to add effect, stating something once is enough. (I have repeated this here to reinforce my point!)

4) Use listed descriptions sparingly

Readers do not need a list of adjectives for every object and/or character in order to be able to visualise a scene in your book. If anything, overusing adjectives sometimes frustrates readers. You need to allow them the freedom to use their own imagination whilst guiding them through the story. Every reader will experience your book differently and if you try to be too prescriptive with listed descriptions in an effort to immerse them in the story, it might end up having an adverse effect.

Example of listed description:

‘The stripy cotton curtains hung limply from the rotten, skewed, mouldy curtain pole, barely covering the dirty, broken window.’

Example of sparing description:

‘Even the curtains hung limply, barely clinging to their rotten pole.’

The example of using description sparingly actually adds more detail to the scene, along with the use of personification, because it gives the reader a sense of the atmosphere rather than merely an adjective stuffed tick list.

5) Ensure your sequences of events are logical

Never underestimate your readers. They WILL notice when sequences of events do not marry up, even the small details, and anything that plucks the reader from complete absorption in the story should be rectified.

Example of illogical sequence of events:

‘The headline shocked him. Making his way to the hall chair he sat down. With shaking hands he opened the pages. It read ANOTHER VICTIM FOUND DEAD IN ALLEYWAY.’

This is an illogical sequence of events because the character:

Saw the headline – sat down – opened the newspaper – read the headline.

Although a very minor inconsistency, this example reads as though the character opens the newspaper to read the headline inside, whereas the headline would be on the front page.

Example of logical sequence of events:

‘The headline shocked him. Slumping into the hall chair, he stared at the front page with disbelief. With trembling hands he read it again: ANOTHER VICTIM FOUND DEAD IN ALLEYWAY.’

This example follows a logical sequence of events. The character:

Saw the headline – sat down – read the headline.

‘Shaking hands’ has also been changed to ‘trembling hands’ to avoid the repetition of ‘shook’ and ‘shaking’, as per point three – avoid indirect repetition.

Improving the readability of your manuscript

As an editor and proofreader, as well as a voracious reader, I notice these 5 common issues often, and correcting them really does make such a difference to the readability of a manuscript. I am hyper aware of them now as a fiction writer with two WIPs on the go too!

Whether you are at the agonising over the storyline stage, the self editing stage, or the proofreading stage, this blog outlining 5 easy ways to make your first novel better should provide a bit of useful guidance. I hope it does!

If you found this blog helpful, please check out these other writing related posts:

7 common mistakes to avoid in your manuscript

5 Tips That Will Make You Better at Creative Writing

How to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction

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