I've spent the last few weeks reviewing my Work In Progress. It was time to pick up the red pen and pinpoint elements that it's so easy to overlook, those factors that can evade you but which come back to bite you viciously later on.
I decided to make a list of these offending miscreants so I could keep it on a metaphorical clipboard as I reviewed what passed through Checkpoint Charlie. (A reference to the main gateway into East Berlin during the Cold War, while the Berlin Wall existed). So here's my list.
Fight the Flab: is the story lean enough? Is it trimmed of fat?
By 5,000 words in, is the story established?
Are protagonists clear yet (or sufficiently mysterious to have hooked the reader?)
Has the "inciting incident" occurred that defines the protagonist's struggle?
There's a danger that too long a build-up can slow the narrative, lose its energy and therefore the reader. It's fine to have mystery and unanswered questions - but not at the expense of a meandering route to them.
And finally in this section - is there a load of information dumping going on that needs trimming back, or writing in a different way?
More twists than a pig's tail? How coherent is the story?
Can it be followed if someone is reading through it quickly? Is it going to cause the reader to re-read sections because they're confused?
The need for twists keeps the reader guessing. But avoiding too many is vital. Sooner have a few than too many surely? The danger of losing your reader and throwing them out of the story is the alternative.
The same is true for sub-plots. Shakespeare was the king of this art.
The danger with too many twists are - the plot gets too complex, it can stretch credibility if the twists get to be unlikely, you rely so much on coincidence the story becomes a Thomas Hardy novel!
High stakes: does the story have enough jeopardy? (Again, keeping in mind the
point about stretching credibility).
Are the stakes so high you can't see anything else beyond them? - such as world building and character.
Are the stakes so high that the story speeds along without brakes and we're left with little engagement with the characters? Or are they merely screaming as the story plummets down the hill or are they sharing secrets and long-overlooked love?
There's also the shading of tone and its link to the high stakes - are characters flippant about the threat so they start behaving in unrealistic ways? (You know what I mean, think of any Roger Moore James Bond film!)
Characters on the couch: do you really know your protagonists and antagonists?
Where's the proof? Have you made detailed notes? Timelines? Family trees? I like to write diary entries for this purpose, or short stories that define events not included in the story. (See what I did with Robin Goodfellow from my Knights' Protocol trilogy here).
Is there a clear character arc? Do it intersect with others? How? Why
What are their motivations and are they realistic? Clearly shown several times? Do characters actually express them enough?
What are the backgrounds of these people and how does the past impact on the present and future? (Why timelines are so helpful here.)
What makes the characters vivid? What will make readers talk about them afterwards? Discuss and argue about them? (Memory of an English lesson here - debating the motives of Iago in Othello on this subject!)
Whose view? Are you telling the story in the most effective way?
If you want the reader to really engage with your protagonist then does a First Person perspective offer greater opportunities.
Does it work better as an Unreliable Narrator this way? But if it's the story that's key and you are narrating events, Third Person is probably best.
Are there too many PoV characters - harkening back to my earlier point about subplots here! Are you in danger of losing reader engagement with a cast list like a Shakespeare tragedy?
Or are you going to be brave and use an omniscient narrative? (Because be careful with such a bold move. Few succeed at this difficult form!)
Is dialogue working for you? Is it helping define people or only moving the story along? Does it illustrate, in a tight, dramatic way, the relationships that exist?
There's also danger in writing in a perspective that doesn't take into account what you want the reader to do when they read it. (One of my mantras to my students - "Audience awareness! Remember who it's for and what you want them to do!") No good deciding this at the end of your novel - believe me, from personal experience this is a real time waster!)
Putting on the style: how do your rate the quality of the writing?
Does it have the right atmosphere? (Is there ANY atmosphere?) What are you trying to generate?
What mood does the writing evoke in the reader? Is it upbeat or downbeat? Reflective or active? Dark? Light and frothy? And does the atmosphere remain the same throughout?
What's the prose like? Look at your language and analyse it. Is there an obsession with certain words that need eliminating? Are you aware of the words you overuse? (Got a list??) Are you using too many similes? Are you metaphors cliched? Are there too many cliches??
Is the language overly dramatic and emotion so it's looking distinctly purple in hue?
Writing is a complex craft isn't it? So many things to consider. I hope you find my checklist handy and you make sure you don't let any unwelcome visitors through your Checkpoint Charlie.