Tag Archives: Writing

In Defense of Novels: Jane Austen’s Perspective

In December 1817 Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was published posthumously.  She’d been a novelist in print since 1811, and presumably, like all novelists, had occasioned to meet with derisive, if not outright patronizing, commentary when she’d discussed that activity which had brought her the most joy and possibly the most angst: writing novels.

The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer
The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer

In the 18th century, as well as throughout the 19th century, reading fiction was a questionable avocation.  It led the mind toward fancies and illusions; for weak-minded females, reading romances could turn the potentially perfect wife into an Elizabeth Bennet, a bluestocking, a virago with irrepressible opinions.  Gentlemen cautioned against these idle amusements, but Jane Austen and erudite intellectuals like herself offered their vehement replies.  Her sentiments on the matter appear within Northanger Abbey.  Couched within is a soliloquy in defense of novels, and I can put her argument in no cleverer words than she already has.  The passage of interest appears shortly after a description of Catherine’s and Isabella’s progressing friendship and informs how novels allow for invaluable ingress into the human condition:

” . . . and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.  Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding–joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages in disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it.  Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.  Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition have been so much decried.

Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs
Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.  And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  ‘I am no novel reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.’  Such a common cant.  ‘And what are you reading, Miss –?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.  ‘It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbably circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

Hurrah for Jane!  The above is a total smack-down, and I can’t say I blame her for the rebuke, but I do adore history. Of course today’s society is much more approving of novels, but I, too, have heard many an opinion on the uselessness of fiction–from people who have obviously never read Austen! The bottom line is: can we not applaud both pursuits and be all the more finely tuned by what the two subjects have to offer each other? I like to think so, but I also can’t help but wonder that if Austen were alive today, would she be writing incisive commentary on modern day life, something along the lines of (don’t smack me) Lena Dunham’s Girls? Or even Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary?

7 Kiss Scenes to Heat Up…Your Writing

Stumped on how to write a moving kissing scene? Here are 7 types to get the juices flowing. Just don’t end up drooling on your own hand while, ahem, “practicing”! And remember, one of the best parts about writing is involving one’s partner (or if dealing with a lack thereof, an unassuming friend, a random and willing stranger, hell, maybe even your neighbor’s garden gnome) in research. Hey, honey . . .

The Kisses

1.  The angsty, “I’ve loved you so long, but wanted you longer,” kiss.  Also known as, “You might be dating my brother, but in another life I was dating you, and damn, I think I just stopped caring.”

2.  What do you get when you combine a fragile, doe-eyed girl human with a boy-rock-band-bodied vamp?  The “I don’t want to hurt you, I want to eat you, but no! we can’t . . . can’t . . . can’t . . . oh, yes!” kiss.  P.S. Ms. Meyer, I know you’re writing for teens, but I can’t help it.  When Bella and Edward’s sexual tension explodes and you fade to black, I’m holding that against you.  Kinky creatures that they are, I don’t think vampires would approve and I don’t either!

3.  In short, ugly girl Penelope becomes a swan, but Scottish guy already thought she was beautiful, pig nose and all.  Ah, sweet.  No, spicy!  I could be wrong here, but I think James McAvoy can kiss with the best of them. 


 4.  The “I’m drenched, you’re drenched, and we’re so mercurial together, the weather’s mimicking our mood” kiss.  Pride and Prejudice, you get the award for the hottest kiss that wasn’t. 

5. The passionately angry, long time coming kiss.  Summarized as:

Allie:    “I waited for seven years! Now it’s too late.”

Noah:   “It wasn’t over.   It’s still not over.” 

Me: Swoon

Click to watch video

6.  The fated and mated kiss.  Who would’ve thought animations could be hot?

7.  The slightly subversive meets secret yearnings kiss. As somebody wrote on the youtube comments, “Why can’t that be my leg?!”  Bittersweet, tender, and yet sizzling.  Now that’s my style.

Know of any scintillating kiss scenes that set the bar high? Do share! I’d love to hear about which ones you find memorable and romantic.

Writing the opposite sex

Men are my favorite part of romance novels and hands down my preferred characters to write.  Why?  I grew up around men, never had any sisters, and because of that, tend to be bewildered when it comes to certain female behaviors.  For example, I take less than a minute to order off a restaurant menu. When I go to the hair salon, I’ll chop my hair off on a whim and not cry about it later.  And yes, handbags the size of houses are just plain odd. 

Stereotypes aside though, I do love romance novels (a decidedly feminine interest, or so I’m told).  In a well-written romance sexual tension and witty repartees cannot be beat and although the experience hinges on a relatable  heroine, the hero should tantalize the reader.  Otherwise we’d be reading chick-lit wherein bad boyfriends with bad teeth and bad manners reign and maybe, just cross your fingers, the heroine is slightly happier in the end.  (OK, chick-lit is not that bad.  BJD and the like were very, very good.)

More often than not, creating compelling male characters results from toeing the male pov line, which next to your complicated heroine’s brain should be refreshingly simple.   Heroes are action oriented beings, moving the plot along at a quickfire pace until confronted with the sole problem they cannot conquer and immediately solve: lust and subsequent love for the heroine.  Rationality doesn’t work in dismissing the hero’s interest just as flat out charm fails in gaining the heroine’s affection.   They must fight and fight dirty to end up happily ever after. 

This is where writing by gender (or switching it up) comes into play.  Vexing the heroine is a beloved sport and the hero often accomplishes this with masculine observations, i.e. vulgar and/or amusing honesty.   Although contemporary romance might be the exception, this direct manner of speech does not work so well with the historical heroine, no matter how feisty she may be.  Men can get away with so much more than women:  noncomittal grunts, the cliched pleated brow, the stalkerific yet somehow compelling stare.  They don’t even have to talk to get their point across!

Male characters also have freer license to act unreliably.  They can make demands without being regarded as high maintenance or bitchy.  They can be unbelievably rude, sexually frustrated, evasive, and dense without these flaws overshadowing their character.  Display this behavior in a woman and many readers are going to assume there’s something imbalanced about her. 

But the most rewarding aspect of male characters is that you, the writer, can forget using all adverbs and many adjectives, throw out vague modifiers, and stick with strong verbs.  “Would you kindly step aside?” becomes “Get out of my way!” and so on.   There’s also the fact that men get to bellow and bark, which is a minor cherry on top. 

Now Get Working:

Writer’s Digest has a great article to jump start your thinking on “How to Write Intriguing Male and Female Characters.”  For reference, I also like to read work by alpha dogs like Hemingway and then scale back degrees from there in terms of speech and observation.  His style is sparse and to the point, some may even argue masculine at its best.

Hope you enjoyed!

Write Romance? You Must Visit This Blog!

Not only is Gracie O’Neil’s advice at Romance She Wrote spot on for the toiling writer, she somehow makes writing synopses and queries seem, well, easy. I’m baffled by how she does this, but I think it breaks down to one essential thing: writing in baby steps.

Her workshop series is broken down into amazingly manageable parts, therefore blinding the big picture in the short term, and making a writer believe the dreaded business aspects of writing are not so terrifying after all. Her authorial tone is conversational and uber-friendly, and oddly, made me want to whip out my work lickety-split.  Describing my book in 50 words or less took me fewer than ten minutes to write and polish.  Beats staring at the screen with cow eyes, doesn’t it?

Now, since there’s tons to explore, I suggest you dive into the following:

Or, if you prefer, Gracie also has the condensed version of How to Write a Synopsis (without turning homicidal).  It located on her site, right side bar, under “Special Give-Away.”

Enjoy!

11 Ways to Increase Writing Productivity

1.  Make your computer smarter than you

Step 1: Work on a computer that does not connect to the internet.  What????  Yes, tweety, delete your network setup so you won’t be tempted.  Also, ensure that your internet capable computer is a) on a shelf taller than you AND requires either a ladder or a chair to reach, or b) located on the other side of the house.  If you have seperate wings in your house, all the better.  Laziness will triumph.

2.  Deal with distractions and delegate

Dirty dishes in the sink?  Barter with your partner.  I’m sure you have something he/she wants more than not wanting to do the dishes.  At least you better hope so.

Dog barking at the door?  Install a doggie door and don’t cry when Bubbles goes missing. She’ll come back eventually.  Or not.  It’s okay.  Really.

Ecstatic when the mail person comes?  Install irretractable blinds in your office window.  Not only will this stop you from watching enrapt as a robin hunts worms in your grass, you won’t react like its christmas when the post comes. 

3.  Take a hike.

You can’t always work in the same location.  That would make you a hermit and we all know what happens to hermits, especially ones who own cats. 

4.  Acknowledge that you are a facehooker and that does not make you special.  It makes you easy.  Good writing should be difficult, not easy.

5.  Stop creeping so much

I know it’s important to update yourself on the latest gossip about the 42nd time Brad and Angelina are allegedly breaking up, but who cares?  Do they care about you?  That’s a big no.  They’re beautiful, rich, and successful.   Most of us writer types can’t even touch one of these!

On second thought, indulge.  Anecdotes about rearing 6 children and ho-running (Angelina, duh!  She was married to Billy Bob and once stated she wanted to taste the world) is the best vicarious living you’re gonna get this side of West Virginia.

6.  Get yourself a real live muse.  And no, if you’re a middle-aged male, make that male, the teenage ingenue next door doesn’t work. 

7.  If you must write agents hate mail to re-invigorate your writing (because yes, you are a superstar and they are just stupid to reject you), please do so with an invisible ink pen.  Better yet, don’t do this.  Does the word gatekeeper mean anything to you?

8.  Commit to eating one food all day to avoid unnecessary hunger pains.  Especially baby carrots.  When you turn orange, you will have the perfect excuse to call in sick to your actual job. 

9.  Make like Bella and write longhand in a pristine, mountain meadow.  Hey, don’t knock it.  It worked real good for Stephanie Meyer.

10.  If alcohol motivates you, develop a reward system, kind of like a punch card.  One drink for every 1,000 words.  If that doesn’t cut it, consider the substance abuse-talent paradigm.  Ernest Hemingway? Stephen King?  Why the hell not you?  When you think about it like that, you’re just one alcohol induced coma away from your breakout book.  God, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that earlier!

11.  Stop expecting me to tell you 11 ways in increase your writing productivity.  Don’t you know that top ten lists are the ones with all the answers?

Got a snarky tip of your own? Do share.

Oh, Don’t Be So Factsy About It

Image by ©LWA-Dann Tardif/CORBIS

Facts are important, some might say non-negotiable in your work. Get it right or make a fool out of yourself.   But is getting it right in every single instance really essential? For beginning writers most would probably say, “Absolutely.”  For seasoned authors, “Ehh….”

Facts are bendable, at least those that twitch about in the corner and catch the fancy in our eyes.  However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know your facts.  Madame Du Barry escaping the French Revolution?  Only if it’s speculative fiction.  A gentleman in the 1780s wearing trousers instead of breeches?  If he’s eccentric and fashionably progressive then why the hell not?

Checking, Rechecking, and Rechecking

As far as productivity goes, summer is the worst  for my writerly mindset. It’s muggy, I can’t see my computer screen in broad daylight, and there are extra chores like yardwork. Well, yeah, pretty much yardwork.

Right now I’m knee deep in editing Round Two. It’s more painful than the first draft and by that I mean I’m questioning everything. Was the Marshalsea London’s Southwark debtors’ prison? Would a fashionable lady in the 1780s be caught dead wearing a pouf de sentiment? Can one really have a surfeit of admiration or is surfeit only used to denote negative excesses? And then there’s the real nitpicky: What month did foxglove bloom in the 1790s? Are hazelnuts more brown or gold?

Har-de-har-de-har.  I can tell you already, I’ve looked up these answers several times. Like a scatterbrain, I assured myself they would glue to my memory. They didn’t. Yeah, I’m dumb with a capital D.U.M.  I need to Excel spreadsheet this stuff.

So let me tell you, when I stumbled across this article Hilary Mantel on Getting Facts Right in Historical Fiction, I found the advice spot on for what I needed today.  I especially loved the following:

“I heard Penelope Fitzgerald say that she did her research after a book, not before. Didn’t she get angry letters, asked a shocked member of the audience? Oh yes, she said, smiling. They tell me about the birds in the trees, she said; in no way could the hero, in such a place, in such a year, have seen or heard a collared dove! She had a certain way of smiling, which suggested a mind above ornithology, an imagination licensed for its own flights.”

Research after writing a book?  I recently read about a bestselling author who does this.  Maybe getting the words down first is the pivotal part of the process?

An imagination licensed for its own flights?  Oh, God, I love this.

(p.s. – In case you’re wondering, factsy is not an acknowledged word in the dictionary.  Yet.)

Writing on Life’s Periphery

Most ideal writing days end up like this for me:

a) I get up early, sit down to write, and my dog immediately rings the door to go out (yes, I trained her to do that. Poochie bells; they’re awesome!). She runs to the neighbor’s yard, refuses to come back, and I chase her down. She resents my writing, tells me I love it more than her, and she has a evil plan to ruin my concentration (and if you’re wondering if she can talk, she can. Crazy, right?)  Lesson learned: distractions happen and if it’s not the dog, it’s a person, an ailing plant, or maybe even a machine.  There is no way out of this.

b) I plan for a day off to write, uninterrupted in my quiet, tranquil – Oh, but what, I have to leave my comfy chair? An appointment got rescheduled? The office workload just doubled and I gotta come in?  What an absolute surprise!  Yeah, no. Life doesn’t want me to write, it wants me wade through the to-do list that magically grows BY. THE. HOUR.

Per Virginia Woolf’s advice of “killing the angel in the house” I have tried to ignore the laundry until it starts sliding out of and over the top of the basket. I’ve turned an eye from the dishes stinking up the kitchen, the floors that collect dust bunnnies like they are pets. But as well as being a writer, I’m a wife and a pretty damned good one. Maybe it’s a little 1950s-ish but claiming I’m domestically challenged doesn’t help anyone cause I’m not.  If I learned one thing from my southern grandmother Ruby it was, “you gotta take good care of your man.” And I do.  And although I don’t regret it one bit and my husband helps out at home a lot, all that supportive domestic lovin’ takes time that sometimes I don’t want to give up.  So back to writing. . .

I’ve learned through much trial and error that there is no time to write. It’s squeezed in. I jot down notes when I’m waiting in line, edit in bed, laptop tilting precariously as I nod off. I’ve read about writers who write in the bathroom – not an altogether bad idea if that’s truly the only moment you have alone!  Desperation calls for desperate acts.

I’m even starting to believe that I don’t really need that much time to finish that book, or that editing, or that short story I’ve been dying to get to. I just need a few spare moments and the confidence to know that like pennies in a well, writing on the periphery can add up if I keep throwing my coppers toward a wish. If I’m lucky, my wish might even come true.

Adjusting the Writer’s Brain

One way to beat woolgathering – listen to the dead!  Don’t laugh.  I’m actually serious here.  Whenever stress creeps up and I get writer’s malaise, my no fail approach is to commiserate with other writers, preferably with those come and gone.  It’s easier when they don’t respond to my complaints. That way I don’t have to either.   

When you can’t stomach your own work one more second, or are in the process of editing:

“To begin with, [writing a book] is a toy and an amusement.  Then it become a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant.  The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling it into the public.”  – Winston Churchill

Writing can feel like a mental illness.  It’s great to know torture is a normal part of the process. 

When rejection and doubt hinder your creativity:

“I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.”  – Jane Austen

Even the most lauded authors had doubts. 

On blank screens:

“Many times I just sit there for three hours with no ideas coming to me.  But I know one thing: if an idea does come between nine and twelve, I am there ready for it.”  – Flannery O’Connor

As in, sit your ass down and write.  Or don’t.  I’m off to do that right now.

Georgian Word of the Day:  Banyan

Not to be confused with the tree, a fig, a men’s vest worn in India, or a certain type of alternative rock band.  The banyan I’m referring to is a loose kimono-type robe influenced by Persian and Asian clothing.  In the 18th century, men would wear a banyan over their shirts and breeches while they were relaxing at home.  Although it is referred to as a robe, it is not for sleeping.

How to Write a Page-Turning Love Scene

Reprinted in the April/May/June 2012 issue #67 of Vision: A Resource for Writers

A love scene in a romance novel represents the physical culmination of emotional tension. When written right, it packs a powerful punch, leaving readers with a sense of where the hero and heroine stand. It should be passionate, but also purposeful. My advice? Make the love scene illuminate more than the act of intimacy. Treat it like a major plot point – a means to advance and solidify your story – and hook the reader.

1. A love scene must advance or hinder the courtship of your hero and heroine. Look at it this way: sex either binds them together or pushes them apart. Before you begin writing, decide which motives to instill in the hero and heroine. What are his/her goals? What’s going to happen after the scene? Doubt? A fight? Will the love scene be completed or interrupted?

Another thing to remember: a love scene at the middle of the book must be treated differently than a love scene at the end. When the hero and heroine get along too soon in the novel, it’s a passion killer.

2. Avoid purple prose. Find the delicate balance between flowery and erotic words by familiarizing yourself with love scenes in published romance novels. Check out Goodreads, go to romance groups, and see what people are saying about specific love scenes. Pay attention to which words/actions distract or entice. Think about your own turn-offs and turn-ons. Experiment with the latter until your scene feels steamy.

3. Physical intimacy between a hero and heroine should be consistent with their overall behavior in the novel. If the interaction seems out of character, the reader will sense it. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but your typical shy heroine won’t behave wildly in the bedroom. Unless you’ve provided adequate foreshadowing, this will come across as an inconsistency in characterization. It may even cause the reader to flip through the scene.

4. Page-turning love scenes don’t use formulas. Surprise your readers. Physical intimacy is more than a sequence of events in a bedroom. Try putting a spin on the typical format of kissing, then sex. Think about location, position, etc. It can be vanilla sex, but make it fresh. One new element is enough to make the scene as unique as the characters involved.

5. Understand your comfort level when writing love scenes. On the spectrum of sexual openness, everyone has preferences and limits. Don’t push beyond those to tailor your writing to the market. Your discomfort will show and the love scene will seem awkward. Instead, focus on what you find sexy, while keeping in mind that the world will be reading this. Have a partner? Experiment! It’s a great excuse for research. All in all, confidence in writing the love scene will give it a quality of realness and that is hard to resist.

6. Consider putting yourself in the mood. How would you romance your mate? Candles? Soft music? It may seem cheesy, but seducing yourself prior to writing lends a mood to the scene. Pictures this: you’re in sweats and have greasy, unwashed hair. What kinda love scene are you gonna write? Now imagine the lighting is soft, you’re wearing a silk negligee, blues music is playing in the background. Definitely sexier.

This is one occasion where you need to stroke your muse. Listen to your inspiration, focus on your characters, and write true to their passion. Even if your first attempt at writing a page-turning love scene requires revising, I’m thinking your mate might be very happy tonight. Sounds like a win-win to me!

The oh-so-fun revision checklist for writing

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes – Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos

First thing’s first . . .

Let’s get one thing straight: editing is not for the faint of heart.  It requires you to admit that parts of your novel either don’t add up or add up too much.  Word count could present a problem or characterization or plot or dialogue . . .  The list of what might go wrong is almost endless.  The good new is, as much as your characters stole the story from you, injecting it with their voices, this is your time to steal it back – just not too much.  At the heart of editing/revision problems is author intrusion, that little egoist voice that says, “Hey, remember me?  I’m the author.  Don’t forget!  I’m the one who makes this story amazing!”

Or sucky depending on how much you, the author, interfere.  While we’re at destroying illusions, let’s clear up another issue: this work is not your baby.  Treat it so this and you will refuse to see that your precious spawn has bulbous eyes, a bumpy, crooked nose, and bloated cheeks.

To the plastic surgeon it goes

Other than actually forcing your butt in that writing chair, the editing/revision process is vital to producing work that shines.  It’s strenuous, defeating, and in the end, glorifying.  But it’s never perfect.  This is a hard one for me and as a result, it’s my mantra for success.  No piece of writing will ever be perfect, but it can be perfected to the best of my ability at this very moment.  That’s the best anybody can ask for – the job done with the talent provided.  If every agent/editor rejects it, there’s always another book to write, another story to tell, but for heaven’s sake, just get it out there!  Just like over-spoiling a real baby creates a demon-child later on, babying your book will result in the creation of a self-absorbed gnashing, greedy monster that absorbs much of your time and energy (which you should be funneling into your next manuscript).  We’re all guilty of not being able to cut that cord, but if you want to save yourself some misery, go ahead and snip.  Edit.  Revise.  Submit.  Write another book.

One more tip:  I find a pot of tea or coffee immeasurably helpful.  Music that induces alpha waves – those that help us focus on a singular task – will also ready you for your task. That, combined with a clean, quiet workspace, should get you off to a smooth start.

Revision Checklist

Scene

  • Emotion Thesaurus – does the emotion fit the scene and can it be stronger?  Can’t put words to how your character is feeling?  Browse the emotional thesaurus,  provided by The Bookshelf Muse , for inspiration.  She has several other useful thesauri.
  • Does the scene have an expressed purpose, leaving the reader with a question or a sense of immediacy?
  • Is the POV established immediately at the beginning of a new scene?  Are you head hopping?
  • Is the POV character’s name used seldom, replaced by he or she when suitable?
  • Is the POV consistent and/or the change reasonable and subtle?
  • Could the scene benefit from narrative summary (beings slowed down)?  Or should you use dialogue to speed it up?
  • Is the voice of the scene consistent with the mood/reactions of the POV character?
  • If the scene is action oriented, have you provided narrative distance?  With an emotive scene, narrative intimacy?

Grammer/Technicalities

  • Are there overused words chapter to chapter, or paragraph to paragraph?
  • Are there unnecessary words such as “that” or “of” that could be deleted without notice?
  • Lay vs. Lie (or any other commonly confused words)
  • Does the reader have a sense of time from chapter to chapter?  (ie, when a new chapter is begun, is the reader disoriented being thrown into a new and unexplained scene?)
  • Are unusual or descriptive words used correctly?
  • Are gerund (-ing) phrases kept to a minimum and seldom used to begin sentences?
  • Can long sentences be fragmented into two sentences?  Does this read better?
  • Are fragments kept to a minimum and used to full impact?
  • Are place names spelled correctly throughout?  Character names? 
  • Are beats varied?  Are they used after every piece of dialogue?  If so, trim.  Beats, though telling, are interruptions.
  • Does your dialogue agree with your explanations of character reactions?  Tell and show; there’s a reason why babies cry when one smiles but speaks to them in a stern voice.
  • Do you overuse adverbs?  Does the dialogue really need the explanation provided by adverb?  Be careful not to erase “how” a character said something when it cannot be conveyed through dialogue (the hearing adverbs: softly, quietly, etc.)
  • Are your speaker attributions too varied?  (i.e., she cried, he demanded, she begged)?  Said is often, though not always, best.
  • Are characters’ names repeated in dialogue?  (“I don’t know, Harry,” said Sally.  “Well, I don’t know either, Sally,” Harry said.)
  • Does your dialogue sound stilted?  Unnatural?  Real dialogue includes run on sentences, fragments, contractions, can be ungrammatical at times.  Thoughts are not always finished.
  • Are your sentences varied in length?
  • Do you lean upon a particular plot device or cliché?  Be honest.  Are you using it as a crutch?

Plot

  • Are plot details/points consistent and foreshadowed so explicit exposition isn’t necessary?
  • Is the time frame chronological, or if not chronicle-oriented, does the sequence of events make sense?
  • Is the plot driving toward some climax, chapter by chapter increasing tension and leading the reader to the inevitable crescendo?
  • Are locales used consistently and don’t suddenly change in description or place?
  • If fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal, do magical based systems make sense?  Do they follow the rules established at the beginning of the book?  Do you give the plot/characters an easy way out?  Have you perhaps become a lazy writer with the plot?
  • Have you followed up on plot elements?  If not, is this a purposeful maneuver for more impact later on?
  • For the elements you spring on the reader as a surprise, have you weaved it into the plot without putting obvious emphasis on it?
  • Have you mislead your readers to conclusions but not cheated them?

Character

  • Are character names consistent throughout?
  • Are the character’s motivations consistent and true throughout?
  • Does the character wallow about decision making to the point of annoyance?  Does each chapter bring the character either closer to resolution, or closer to a complication that eventually creates a resolution?
  • Is there character tension that engages the reader to wonder how the character will resolve his/her dilemma?
  • If a romance is involved, do the h/h have sexual and emotional tension?
  • Do your characters’ looks and/or personality quirks develop through showing and not telling?  For example, are these traits shown through action, reaction, interior monologue, and dialogue?
  • Is dialogue believable?  Are the characters speaking for themselves or speaking for you as the writer?
  • Do your characters experience the world mostly from their dominant sensory perception?  Sight, taste, touch, sound, smell.
  • Do your characters always/often agree or do they misunderstand each other?  Don’t go crazy here but misunderstandings are the stuff of tension.

General

  • Have you resisted the urge to explain?
  • Do you have a bad niggling feeling about any part of the novel and think it can be greatly strengthened by revision or rewriting?  Don’t be lazy.  Fix this part.
  • Do you outline too many mundane details in character actions?  I don’t want to hear about loading the dishes, washing the laundry, etc.  Neither does anybody else.  Unless it’s significant or integral to the plot, it creates boredom.

Still need more help?

  • Read the manuscript aloud and see what sounds awkward.  Chances are it will sound awkward in the reader’s head too.
  • According to Browne & King, the writers of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (a wonderful resource), the most common cause for flat dialogue is formality.  People don’t talk that way; neither should characters.
  • Watch out for repetition in words and interior monologue/dialogue.  Trust the reader to understand what you are trying to convey instead of beating them over the head.
  • Do you have a good balance of dialogue, narration, and interior monologue?  Depending on the book, you may rely more heavily on one or the other, but you still need balance.
  • Does your narration, interior monologue, or dialogue stretch on, uninterrupted, for paragraphs?  Few things make the reader groan so much as dense, page-long paragraphs.
  • Try highlighting or bolding the beats in a scene.  Are they overused?  Few in number? What happens if you (temporarily) delete some or them all?
  • Re-read a novel that kept you up all night.  Take out your pencil and determine why: pacing, deft characterization, etc.  Try figuring out how to make your work stronger by employing some similar strategies.
  • Are you trying to show off?  Displaying your extensive knowledge for archaic words?  Wanting to sound clever?  Your reader will likely see through these conceits.  Just write; your talents will shine through when you don’t force them.

Well, there it is!  I hope you guys find some use in this checklist.  It’s the one I’ll be using when I sit down next month to gut my latest ms.  If you have any suggstions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.  I might even add it to the list.