Sunday, November 15, 2009

Full novel evaluation (useful for revisions)

In light of how the combination of plot + character needs to be strong to make your book viable, here are some things to consider when you are evaluating your own ms or someone else's.

Overall structure:

1. What is the main problem that the MC must overcome (ie, the central plot issue)? Where does the reader learn of that problem? It should be early on, like in the first chapter!

2. What are the major turning points within the novel? In some books there are three acts. Action should lead up to these turning points, which change the character and the situation, complicating the story until the climax, where there is no turning back. The results of the climax are irrevocable (to some degree, on a much smaller level, the turning points are a little like that, too.)

3. The turning points should occur because of the MC’s choices. Ie, the characters and their choices MAKE the plot. So track very carefully what your MC (or villain) does, what that sets off in terms of natural consequences, and how your MC (or villain) reacts to and deals with the new situation.


1. Characterization cannot really be separated from plot. Who the characters are determines how they choose to act—which in turn determines the plot.

2. Make sure, especially when writing for children, that their ages match their action and dialogue. Excessive exclamation points and yelling/exclaiming in text indicates very young children, for example. A story about fun adventure with your siblings and parents is normal for a MG. Not so much for a YA (which is usually one character against the world, and usually has some romantic element, or at least the acknowledgement that romance is one of the things on the MC’s mind, even if it does not come strongly into the story).

3. Again—character IS plot. What gives a character joy, what the character most wants and fears, and what obstacles they face ARE the story. (This point via Cheryl Klein.)

4. Is your MC driving the plot? Or are they just reacting or moving along amid things that just happen? Sometimes it’s easy to mistake action scenes for plot development. They are not always the same thing!


1. Look for long, expository asides that do not move the plot along. Delete them. Description should always be in motion. Starting a novel with “It all started when…” or some other device that rambles endlessly before the actual story begins is a kiss of death.

2. It can be helpful to list the events in each chapter and look at that outline (without the actual text of the book). What is the purpose(s) of each scene? Are there duplications in the book? If a scene isn’t contributing—or isn’t contributing enough—it needs to either be cut or expanded. Holly Lisle says that a novel is all of the passion and none of the toothbrushing.

3. Stuff that builds the tension should always be present. Occasionally your readers may need a rest, so it’s okay to have small conclusions (finding a clue after a lot of effort, for example, or a romantic scene, or whatever)—but don’t pause too long! Don’t let anyone get too comfortable, or the reader will quit reading.


1. Conflict is personal. It’s not enough to save the world. The character needs to save something important to him or herself.(This point courtesy of Kristin Nelson.)

2.You need a careful balance of action and character info at the beginning. A huge disaster at the beginning is still a “so what?” situation unless we care about the character. But you don’t want to put a bunch of boring expository stuff at the beginning, either. Instead, show us the scene through the biased filter of the MC’s eyes.

3.Stakes are something that have to be carefully laid in before a medium or major conflict arises, so that the reader can feel the meaning of what is happening. Read Marcelo in the Real World or Flipped for an example of the careful and purposeful laying in of stakes and see how they become charged with meaning when the MCs make their big moves.


1. Is this different enough from other books (or movies), or is it leaning on tired tropes?

2.Even if it is on a similar topic as something else, a book also gets its originality from voice, from details that are very character-specific, and details that are grounded in the author’s personal experience.

3.Markus Zusak (author of The Book Thief) suggests thinking of what a reader will expect in a given situation—and come up with the opposite. He tries to make a little surprise for the reader on every page. He recommends The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay as an example of a book that does this. His, of course, do, too.


1. Show, don’t tell!

2.Use sensory details (and not just sight)

3. Act out the scenes, and add kinetic details you have experienced from being there and inhabiting the character.

4. Don’t forget common details. Beginning writers often splurge on glorious or horrific details, but forget the non-emotionally-charged ones that ground a story in reality and make it real (even if it’s fantasy).

5.Nouns and verbs. Use them! It's better to have a single strong noun or verb than a weak one with a weak modifier.


1. Repeating from above, nouns and verbs are worth a lot more than adverbs and adjectives. Also avoid vague words like almost, nearly, sort of, someone (as opposed to being specific when possible), etc.

2. Sensory and other details that are character-specific build voice, immediacy, and even stakes, quite aside from making a pleasant reading experience for the reader.

3. Use active language!! Both grammatically active (vs. passive) and interesting verbs instead of was –ing.

4. Watch for impossibilities, such as using two –ing phrases in a sentence (which grammatically indicate the actions are happening at the same time) when the two events are in reality sequential, not simultaneous.

5. Vary your sentence structure. Don't start all your sentences with -ing phrases.

6. Length of sentence can indicate passage of time. Use short sentences and punchy words for action scenes.


1. Dialogue is an approximation of real speech—not a copy.

2. Individuals speak differently—make sure your characters do, too.

3. Make sure that you are not dating your book by using outdated speech, especially in children’s books.

4. Characters should say things that people would actually say. Avoid the “So you know, Bob” situation where characters tell each other things that they would already logically know. There are other ways of getting this info across to the reader (such as straight-out, succinct narration).

5. The dialogue should stand on its own as much as possible, instead of depending on adverbial tags to describe the way in which it is said. (Sometimes you need them because it cannot be obvious from the dialogue alone. But go spare!)