Just for the record: this is not an article about marketing or how to become a best seller. It's about writing a decent book. Who knows; if you do the latter, the former might follow!
For ease of reading, I shall refer to the writer as 'he' and the reader as 'she'.
1. Is that it?
Give the ending as much thought and planning as you do the beginning. In writing advice articles there is so much focus on hooking the reader in with the first paragraph, but few mention the ending. Why is this? Maybe because if you don't hook the reader at the beginning she'll never get to read the fabulous, jaw-dropping end twist ~ fair enough, but it's such a disappointment to read a basically good book with an ending that reads like the writer's been told he has to finish it by noon or he can't go to lunch.
The last few pages are the bit that will stay in the reader's mind when she turns the last page and tells her friends/tweets about it. Or reviews it. A lacklustre, rushed ending might turn a 5* review into a 4* one; by the end, your reader might not even remember that neat hook on the first page.
Ends that make me go 'ouch':
- When all the storylines are too neatly tied up, with characters finding sudden and out-of-character solutions.
- When you expect a crescendo and get a fizzle - if the book's of a type that has built up to a finale all the way through (the discovery of whodunnit, the reunion, the arrival at a destination, etc), you've got to make it a real belter.
- All the characters getting an HEA. Too unrealistic, unless it's a romcom, which is unrealistic by definition, and happy to be so. Generally, it's much better if one or two are left hanging/a tad bittersweet.
- Plot twists that haven't been properly worked in all the way through; the ones that read as though the author thought of it while writing the previous chapter, or the publisher said, 'give it an unexpected twist at the end so we can advertise it as having a blow-your-socks-off plot twist.'
- I love cliffhangers, but if you want the reader to dash straight to Amazon to buy the next episode, it's got to really pack a punch. Like, on the edge of a cliff.
2. Get connected
You may not use social media much, and think of it as something you nip onto twice a week to tweet about your books and have the odd chat with other writers, especially if you're over fifty—you grew up in a time before Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/whatever became as much a part of everyday life as the phone, the telly, or ... okay, breathing. But if you're writing a novel set in the present day about characters of forty and under, you need to be aware of how big a part the internet, generally, will play in their lives.
I recently read an otherwise jolly good book in which the world was falling to pieces because of a pandemic, and the main characters, who were in their early thirties, followed its progress on the network TV news. You know, like they would have done 20 years ago. Uh-oh.
|Pic from Charlie Brooker's Nosedive, Black Mirror Series - if you haven't seen it, do - it's brilliant! On Netflix|
3. Don't overdo the speech quirks
Okay, so your Californian surfer dude will call you 'man', as may your Geordie fella down the pub. But not in every sentence. Your parent may call his son 'kiddo', but not every time he talks to him. Your teenager will, no doubt, say 'like' and 'awesome' a lot, but you should probably delete a fair few of them in your rewrites; it's better to err with great caution in all cases, as overdoses of these quirks can be irritating for the reader. In my most recent books, some of my characters are Geordies. I allow myself one 'howay' per book. Even if they might say it more than that, you have to be careful not to make characters look like caricatures (I've just re-read one of my older books and realised I did this - made me cringe, badly!). And please, don't have foreigners say 'how you say' before coming out with a hilariously incorrect English phrase. It's totally 1970s sitcom.
4. Talking of rewrites....
.... if you're not prepared to do loads and loads of redrafting or revising, over and over again, so that you're fed up with the sight of the thing and know some of it by heart, you're probably not ready to write a novel. You need to be able to edit your own work, before you give it to your editor, if you have one. I still find sentences and paragraphs that could be written more succinctly on drafts 6 and 7 of any novel I write, and you will, too. If you don't redraft enough, the book won't be as good as it could be. 'Being a writer' isn't about feeling madly creative and scribbling down this wonderful story that's bursting out of your head, then giving it over to someone else to turn it into something publishable. It's about knowing how to make it publishable yourself.
5. Whose point of view?
Even if you're writing in 3rd person point of view (POV), writing from inside the character's head rather than from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator gives the reader much more opportunity to connect with the character. And watch out for head hopping - this is when you flit from one POV to another with no gap in between. For instance, if you're describing the row between Sean and Max from Sean's point of view, and then tell the reader that 'Max was furious', that's head-hopping. You've hopped from Sean's POV into Max's. Sean will not know that Max was furious, because he is not inside his head. You could say that Max looks furious, but not that he is. Only Max knows how he feels.
6. Get Your Facts Right
By this I mean checking that the flower Gavin is picking is actually in bloom in May, before he picks a whole bunch of them. Or that Sean could actually drive from Leicester to Manchester in one hour. Of course we sometimes get facts slightly wrong; I do, we all do, but it should never be because you were too lazy to look it up. If you're not absolutely sure what a word means, check it. I find myself doing this every single day, still. If you don't know how the butler would announce the arrival of the duke, find out. Don't rely on your editor to do it. Not only is it lazy, but what if they don't know? Again: your book should be the best it can be before it goes to the editor/proofreader.
7. Talking to yourself.
Do you? Really? I mean, other than uttering the odd expletive when you bump into a door, or urging yourself to get on with something? Maybe you do have the odd little conversation with your own head here and there, but, generally, people don't have out loud, lone conversations discussing the whys and wherefores of a problem, down to the very last detail. I've read these in a few books lately, and the last one made me abandon the book. Don't do it. If you need your character to be pondering something on his own, use inner dialogue. It's 100% more convincing.
8. Beta readers
If you use beta readers, make sure they're people who will can comment on the book objectively; by this I mean those who will understand the difference between personal preference and whether something works or not. Also, be careful not to only choose friends who will tell you it's great because they don't want to hurt your feelings. I've beta read on a couple of occasions, and on one of these I sent the author back a list of all the stuff I thought needed looking at. She said, 'Thanks, this is what I need. Everyone else just told me it was brilliant.'
Can't be said often enough - don't skip this stage. Ever. And get a proofreader who knows what they're doing. You need someone who knows how to punctuate properly, and understands stuff like when words should be hyphenated, put in italics, have capital letters, etc. Get recommendations, don't believe website blurb. Your friend/spouse who is good at English is not the person to do this, unless they have experience. Sorry, but you really will have to pay out to get it done properly. If you want some recommendations for good editors and proofreaders, feel free to ask me.
10. Paid promotion
Okay, this one is about the marketing side: if you've seen a book advertising/promotion service that looks promising, check it out first by asking some of the writers featured if it really does increase sales. There are literally hundreds of book promo services around today, and some of them do very little for you. I get targeted by some on Twitter who offer to do so many tweets for me for X amount of money. Often, they have thousands fewer followers than me, and they haven't read my books, so how can they possibly tweet about them in an authentic fashion? There is no point in paying them to do Facebook posts for you if these posts are not targeted towards hundreds of readers who are interested in your genre. Etc, etc. Always, always research!