I’ve been an editor for a long time, both in newspaper and various other industries. I learned a lot about editing then and while earning my Master’s, but most of what I have learned came through reading (fiction and non-fiction) since I was a little girl. Since I’ve been reviewing books, I’ve had to analyze what works and what doesn’t work in a novel. Over the years, I’ve reviewed more than 1,000 books and on my blog it’s more than 500. Yes, it’s limited, but a lot of those books were debut novels. So much can go wrong in a debut novel so you can learn a lot about what not to do.
I’ve learned more about what not to do than what to do during the review process simply because when what I’m reading is working, all the tactics, intricacies, ploys, and tricks are never noticed. The story flow is so smooth and exciting nothing gets to the brain except the story. This is produced through creative writing and good editing. As numerous writing teachers teach, the writer gives the readers what they crave–those emotional brain chemicals–and the editor makes sure the story flow has an unobstructed river bed.
Why do authors of today want readers to have any other kind of experience? Don’t they want readers to remember what a great roller coaster ride they had when turning pages (or thumbing their Kindle, Nook, whatever)?
First, let’s talk about story flow dams.
Flashbacks should be avoided like the plague, especially in the first page or even the first chapter of any work of fiction. If you must flashback this early in the story, then you’ve started your novel or short story in the wrong place/time. Backup, regroup, and decide where is the best place/time to begin. You should always begin in such a way that the reader wonders “Why?” or “How?” so he or she will keep reading and turning those pages. When you answer that question then you want another question to pop up in its place so you’ve got a smooth question/answer flow for your reader. That is what keeps those pages flipping.
Empathy Poorly developed characters create reader apathy for your fictional world. After the first few pages, your book is tossed to the floor or in the donation pile without being read. Of course, no more of your books will be purchased. You want to help your readers to develop a sense of empathy for your main character, that is if you want your readers to finish your novel and buy more of your books. Who wants to read about someone you couldn’t care less about? Whether it is a villain or hero or heroine, creating that sense of caring what happens to a character is not hard to do when writing like it is real life. Make me want the villain to receive just desserts, and I’ll read all the way to the last page. Make me anticipate that first kiss, and I’ll read to the last page just to receive the reward to that anticipation.
Head Jumping Like Randy Ingermanson, I do not like head jumping, which is switching the point of view from one character to another character within the same scene. This dams up the story flow because the reader first has to figure out why we’re jumping from one character to another. There are so many ways this can go wrong. If the whole story is told from one character’s (main character) point of view, then how can the main character know what is going on in another character’s head? This creates a quandary on the reader’s part because the story flow is suddenly not making any sense. However, with a good transition, you can accomplish this writing ploy seamlessly and the reader will never notice it happened.
Read a best seller in your genre. Figure out what works for you in the story and use those same tactics as you write your own story. Warning: You will have to read the book 2-3 times because the first time you’ll be so caught up in the story you won’t be able to pay attention to transition, plot twists, empathy, head jumping, etc. But a flashback will stand out like a sore thumb.
Gina Burgess is an editor, illustrator, and author. She is co-founder of Common Sense Marketing Strategies, LLC and Christian AuthorsCommunity.net. She writes a weekly column at LiveAsIf.org and her favorite pastime is playing with her five grandchildren.