Designing the Novel

by Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve read many a bad book in my day. One day, while moaning about a good writer gone bad in my opinion, my friend Susan Palmer admonished me that “It’s just as difficult to write a bad book as it is to write a good one.” She’s right. Believe me, I know.

In the past couple of months, however, I’ve been asked to read three bad novels. These were not written by anyone I know (y’all can relax). I was asked on behalf of the author either by a friend, or the author’s publisher to review, comment, edit (!) or provide whatever rewrite information I could to help the author along.

Normally, I don’t do this. Not anymore. But for some odd reason, those requests came when I had perfectly-sized time slots to devote to them.

Design fail

One of the three was passable. Two were unreadable. Each of these books suffered from the author’s failure to plan. Failure to take the time to design the book.

Here are some of the notes I made:

  1. There is no conflict in this book. When she comes home from work, there are six pages of lovey-dovey “I love you so much,” with her husband. Boring. One sentence of this will get the message across, and then get into the conflict of the scene, although, ultimately, there was no conflict in that scene. Or any other scene, really.
  2. What conflict eventually arises in the book is clearly petty and contrived so that there would be some conflict. One woman says a thoughtless thing to another, and then is forgiven. Hmmm… My life in a nutshell.
  3. The big conflict at the end comes out of nowhere, affecting each character in different ways. This is good, but it’s all in the last chapter. Couldn’t some of that Big Conflict show up earlier to provide a little ongoing tension?
  4. Way too much internal dialogue put in quotation marks.
  5. Crazy point of view shifts without rhyme or reason. Point of view is part of the book’s design.
  6. Writing the way to the story. The story starts when the conflict starts. And when the conflict is over, the story is over. Don’t start three months before the conflict, and don’t end three years afterward. There are ways to insert essential back story information into an ongoing work.
  7. All the characters sound the same. There are situational differences, but no personality or speech differences.

A novel must be designed. You can get a good idea and a wild hair and sit down to write, but if you don’t have at least a blueprint to follow, there will come a time when that novel goes into the drawer.

There is value in taking a flyer at a story idea, for certain. But at some point the author has to sit back and re-evaluate certain aspects.

  • Whose story is this? In other words, who is the protagonist (just one, please), who changes over the course of the story? Introduce this character first.
  • Who is the antagonist? A story is only as strong as its antagonist.
  • Who is telling this story (POV)? How are they telling it?
  • What is the time frame for this story? One week, one year, multi-generational? Tighten it up if you can.
  • What is the point where the protagonist accepts the quest? (Research 3-act structure)
  • What is the darkest moment?
  • Will the protagonist triumph over his/her fatal flaw at the end, or succumb to it?

These are the very basics. When the answers to these questions have jelled, the author will have a framework within which to play.