Many writers, like many good cooks, don't need to think consciously about what they're throwing in the pot. But as an apprentice you should probably think about how your story matches up with the following suggestions. They all have to do, essentially, with bringing your characters and readers from a state of ignorance to a state of awareness: Can our heroine find happiness as a journalist? We don't know, but we'll find out. Can our hero found a family dynasty in the Nevada wilderness? We don't know, but we'll find out.
In the opening...Show us your main characters, or at least foreshadow them: We might see your heroine's mother getting married, for example. Or we might see a crime committed which will bring in your hero to investigate.
Show one or more characters under some kind of appropriate stress. For example, if the hero must perform well under enemy fire in the climax, show him being shot at in Chapter One--and performing badly. If the heroine must resist temptation at the end, show her (or someone else) succumbing to temptation in the beginning.
Show us who's the ``good guy,'' who's the ``bad guy.'' That is, in whom should we make an emotional investment? Whose side are we on? Even if the hero is morally repugnant (a hired killer, for example), he should display some trait or attitude we can admire and identify with. The villain can be likable but set on a course we must disapprove.
Show what's at stake. Editors and readers want to know this right away. (That's why the blurb on the jacket usually tells us: ``Only one person can save the West/defend the Galactic Empire/defeat the vampires...'')What does the hero stand to gain or lose? What will follow if the villain wins?
Establish the setting--where and when the story takes place.
Establish the area of conflict . If the setting is the Nanaimo coal mines at the turn of the century, the area of conflict may be relations between miners and owners, or within a family of miners, or within a single miner's personality.
Foreshadow the ending. If the hero dies in a blizzard at the end, a few flakes of snow may fall in the first chapter.
Set the tone of the story: solemn or excited, humorous or tragic.
In the body of the story...Tell your story in scenes, not in exposition. A scene contains a purpose, an obstacle or conflict, and a resolution that tells us something new about the characters and their circumstances.
Develop your characters through action and dialogue. Show us, don't tell us, what's going on and why (not He was loud and rude, but ``Get outa my way, you jerk!'' he bellowed.).
Include all the elements you need for your conclusion. If everything depends on killing the victim with a shotgun, show us the shotgun long before it goes off.
Give your characters adequate motivation for their actions and words. Drama is people doing amazing things for very good reasons. Melodrama is people doing amazing things for bad or nonexistent reasons.
Develop the plot as a series of increasingly serious problems. (The heroine escapes the villain in Chapter 5 by fleeing into the snowy mountains; now in Chapter 6 she risks death in an avalanche.) Establish suspense by making solution of the problems uncertain (How will the heroine escape the avalanche and avoid freezing to death in Chapter Seven?).
Make solutions of the problems appropriate to the characters (Good thing she took Outward Bound training in Chapter One).
In the conclusion...Present a final, crucial conflict when everything gained so far is in danger and could be lost by a single word or deed: this is the climax, which reveals something to your readers (and perhaps to your characters) which has been implicit from the outset but not obvious or predictable.
Throughout the story...Remember that nothing in a story happens at random . Why is the heroine's name Sophia? Why is she blind? Why is her dog a black Lab? The easy answer is that you're the God of your novel and that's the way you want things. But if you have a conscious reason for these elements, the story gains in interest because it carries more meaning: For example, ``Sophia'' means ``wisdom'' and the name can provide a cue to the reader.
Use image, metaphor and simile with a conscious purpose, not just because a phrase ``sounds good.''
Maintain consistent style, tone, and point of view.
Know the conventions of the form you're working in, and break them only when you have a good reason to. For example, if it's conventional for the private eye to be an aggressive, hard-drinking single man, you're going to shake up the reader if your private eye is a yogurt-loving, shy mother of three school-age children. You'll shake up the reader even more if she goes around pistol-whipping people; as a private eye, her behavior will still depend on her personality and limitations.
- Do any sentences begin with the words ``There'' or ``It''? They can almost certainly benefit from revision. (Compare: There were three gunmen who had sworn to kill him. It was hard to believe. or: Three gunmen had sworn to kill him. He couldn't believe it.)
- Are you using passive voice instead of active voice? (Compare: Is passive voice being used?) Put it in active voice!
- Are you repeating what you've already told your readers? Are you telegraphing your punches?
- Are you using trite phrases, cliches, or deliberately unusual words? You'd better have a very good reason for doing so.
- Are you terse? Or, alternatively, are you on the other hand expressing and communicating your thoughts and ideas with a perhaps excessive and abundant plethora of gratuitous and surplus verbiage, whose predictably foreseeable end results, needless to say, include as a component part a somewhat repetitious redundancy?
- Are you grammatically correct? Are spelling and punctuation correct? (This is not mere detail work, but basic craft. Learn standard English or forget about writing novels.)
- Is the prose fluent, varied in rhythm, and suitable in tone to the type of story you're telling?
- Are you as narrator intruding on the story through witticisms,
editorializing, or self-consciously, inappropriately ``fine'' writing?
In the dialogue:
- Are you punctuating dialogue correctly, so that you neither confuse nor distract your readers?
- Are your characters speaking naturally, as they would in reality, but more coherently?
- Does every speech advance the story, revealing something new about the plot or the characters? If not, what is its justification?
- Are your characters so distinct in their speech--in diction, rhythm, and mannerism--that you rarely need to add ``he said'' or ``she said''?
Once your book appears in print, your publisher will return your manuscript as ``dead matter.'' At that point it's of interest only to future Ph.D. candidates. But when it first arrives in the publisher's office, it ought to look as inviting, clean and professional as you can make it. You want to make sure it's as readable (and correctable) as possible; don't give the editor an excuse to reject you because you make her eyes hurt, and she can't even find room to insert proper spelling. Ideally, you'll submit your manuscript in laser-printed form. If you can't afford that, then use an inkjet printer (used with good bond paper, it's almost as good as laser), a good dot-matrix printer, or an electric typewriter. If your dot-matrix printer has a pale ribbon and you can't replace it, make a darker photocopy of the original printout.
Consider your choice of font. A sans serif font is legible but not readable--that is, you can recognize a word or phrase quickly, but reading page after page would be exhausting. A boldface font is even worse. A serif font is more readable, so by all means choose one for the body of your manuscript text. Point size is also important. For the Mac, 12-point Times isn't bad, and it lets you put a lot of text on one page. But 14-point Times is more readable.
(This issue, by the way, recently kicked up a big fuss in this newsgroup; some people argued that only a monospace font was acceptable. I finally phoned Del Rey Books to see if they preferred a monospace font like Courier, or a more flexible font. The editor I talked to obviously thought I was bonkers; they don't much care as long as they can read the manuscript.)
Paper should be standard 8.5x11, 20 lb. white bond. If you use fanfold paper in a dot-matrix printer, make sure it's reasonably heavy. (You will of course separate each page and remove the strips on the sides.) Give yourself a margin of at least an inch top and bottom, and an inch or an inch and a half on the sides. Double-space your text. Do not put an extra double-space between paragraphs, unless you want a similar gap on the printed page to indicate a change of scene or passage of time. Indent each paragraph about half an inch. If you are using a font with letters that take up variable amounts of space, a single space after a period is enough. If you are using a typewriter or a monospace font, two spaces are better. Either way, a single space should follow every comma, semicolon, and colon. If you can, use an ``em dash'' with no spaces between the dash and the surrounding words. Two hyphens -- are an acceptable substitute. Underline text only if you cannot italicize it.
Do not use a right-justified margin! It may look tidy, but it creates gaps between words that make reading hard. Avoid hyphenations. Also avoid ``widows and orphans''--that is, a paragraph that begins on the last line of a page, or a paragraph that ends on the first line the following page. Most word processors can kick such paragraphs onto the next page. This may create huge lower margins, but it's better than breaking a paragraph.
Be sure that each page displays a plain Arabic numeral in the upper right-hand corner. Otherwise, don't bother with a header. They're not going to scatter your ms. or lose the title page. And when you send it in, don't bind it in a cute cover. Send it loose, in a typing-paper box. Make sure you have at least two copies on disk (in separate locations) or a photocopy. In 1979 I sent half a manuscript (240 pages, a year's work) to my editor in New York; he sent it back a couple of months later, but I'm still waiting for it. Fortunately I had a carbon copy.
The publisher may want you to send along a disk with the manuscript on it, as well as the hard copy. When I did that recently, I found that the editor just poured my files into a new font and layout and sent me the page proofs for correction. That meant all the mistakes I found were my own; I couldn't blame some clumsy typesetter. This is the downside of the computer revolution, folks.