“31 Specific Strategies for Improving Your Novel”
by Joe Walters
When you first set out to write your novel, did you aim to write the best one possible or did you aim to finish?
As authors, it’s easy to get starry-eyed when we see the finish line. We’ve been working on this thing for what feels like forever, and in the end, it’s up to us to decide when it’s over. We are the ones who choose to query agents. We are the ones who send it to our copy editors and receive edits that make our book grammatically correct, efficient on a sentence-by-sentence basis, and one step closer to publication.
If you rush this process, your manuscript may read cleanly, but your story might not be ready yet. Each book, whether traditionally or independently published, needs to go through an extensive period of revision to improve its structure, plot, characterization, pace, and countless other big-picture novel-writing categories. They call this developmental editing.
As a developmental editor, it is my job to identify the areas in a manuscript that get in the way of my enjoyment of a book—boredom, frustration, disappointment—and offer potential solutions on how to improve them. In this list, I’ll be giving you some pointers to identify and solve these issues yourself.
So break out that manuscript and start answering the questions below. These strategies for improving your novel are separated into five sections for an easier browsing experience: Introduction & Set-up; Inciting Incident & Beyond; Characterization & Secondary Narratives; Spicing up the Murky Middle; and Climax & Resolution.
Not all thirty of these strategies will apply to your book, but each one will get you to pay closer attention to what’s happening in your book and offer potential solutions on how to inject tension even in the quietest of scenes.
Want me to do the dirty work for you? Read more about improving your novel with IBR developmental editing.
Without further ado, here are “31 Specific Strategies for Improving Your Novel.”
1. Can your reader determine the following in the first chapter?
- Who will be the protagonist(s)?
- What situation needs to be improved?
- What is the protagonist’s role in the world they surround themselves in?
2. Is your protagonist’s primary personal issue introduced in the beginning of the book?
For example, will your protagonist change from nervous to brave? Then show me his/her nerves in the beginning. From selfish to selfless? Let me watch him steal early on. Before we take the journey toward his/her improvement, the reader should be able to recognize what the issue is (even if only hinted at) as early as possible.
3. Is the reader made aware of important factual information?
Think characters’ ages, familial situation, time period, setting, etc.
4. Is your inciting incident within your first few chapters?
Readers love to spend time in the everyday life before the character is about to change—but not for too long. So don’t waste any time getting there. If something is going to come along and change the MC, the reader will want to see it quickly.
5. Have you introduced specifically what the protagonist has to do to achieve his/her goal?
How far do they have to go? In which ways are they going to put themselves in danger of not achieving those goals?
6. Is your protagonist’s physical goal attached to an emotional counterpart?
For example, if their goal is to save their friends from an evil Demogorgon, consider giving him/her a deep-rooted personal fear that they also must conquer in order to save them. As readers, we’ll be excited to hope for a future where the MC will be in a better position emotionally than when he/she started.
7. Do all of your characters get along?
If not, air out some dirty laundry in one of the first scenes they have together. You don’t have to spell out exactly what the problem is, but you may want to give the reader this problematic dynamic to pay attention to.
8. Does the reader know the answer to the question “What if the MC does not achieve the goal he/she sets out to achieve?”
As readers, we need to understand the stakes, and this is one of our first indicators of how high they are.
9. Have you established clearly the first step that your protagonist has to take in order to get started on their physical and/or emotional journey?
Make sure it’s clear why the direction that they are headed in is described as the only way to achieve their goal and why he/she believes that each step will give them a chance to succeed.
10. Do your characters consider what they will do after they achieve their goals?
It could be as monumental as holding hands with a new girlfriend in an alien-free world or as small as eating a baguette from Panera. Up to you. A little specificity never hurt anybody though.
11. When your characters recognize what they must do, are they also aware when they have to complete it by?
A sense of urgency creates some excellent narrative tension. As the clock ticks on, your reader’s heart will be pumping right alongside Captain Hook’s. Look at all of the tasks that your protagonist has to complete: which one(s) could benefit from a ticking clock?
12. Who are your side characters and what do they want?
Did they want it before their first appearance in this book? Will they discover it in the near-future? Treat each character’s motivation like a novel in itself, except we don’t get everything like we do in the protagonist’s story. Everyone has baggage in real life, so it should be that way in your novel too. No?
13. Is your primary narrative being mentioned in nearly every scene?
Good. As a reader, I want to follow that thread even while I’m taking detours for secondary narratives. I don’t want to turn off onto a secondary narrative’s road and stay there for too long.
14. Does the primary relationship in your novel get a full story?
Does it have a beginning? Do the characters’ have goals relating to that relationship? What obstacles stand in their way? What does their climax look like? This relationship storyline might be a quiet one, but it should probably still exist if I’m asked to invest in it.
15. How are your side characters doing compared to the last time the protagonist has seen them?
Has their general demeanor changed? Their clothing, hair style, health? Is there anything that the reader can insinuate about this character’s previous change and wonder where he/she will go from here?
16. Is the reader being updated on the side character’s attempts to achieve their personal goals?
Don’t let go of their motivations. Their goal might even complicate things for our protagonist down the road.
17. Is your protagonist nervous to meet any of the characters?
If so, the first time we meet this character on the page, something should either explode or feel like the explosion is coming slowly. They’re nervous for a reason, so why not use that tension?
18. Do you have a loose cannon character?
If so, how does the reader meet them for the very first time? If they don’t do something crazy in scene, let me know the previous thing he/she did that classifies them as a loose cannon. Each time they show up in the future, the reader will consider that they might affect the plot in a big way. Even just the prospect of conflict can excite your reader.
19. Is someone backstabbing the main character and/or primary narrative?
If so, great conflict! If not, don’t be afraid to hint that this is possible. Readers love to keep a close eye on someone, even if they surprise us by being a hero later on.
20. How deep-rooted is your main character’s personal conflict?
Does he/she start off on a good path for a period of the novel? Then let them fail a little bit. Then do it again—with even more complications to the plot. When he/she finally achieves that personal goal in the end, it’ll feel like a monumental breakthrough.
21. Is your MC too perfect?
Consider having them take a questionable route in order to achieve their physical and emotional goals. Maybe they’ll lie to a friend to make him/her come along. Maybe they’ll steal something. Make sure we know how much they really want it—and how much they’re like us.
22. Are any of the side characters’ goals dependent on the protagonist?
If not, this would be a great way to put additional pressure on your protagonist to succeed.
23. Do your characters’ obstacles alter the chances of achieving their goals?
In some manuscripts, bad things happen, but they don’t affect the plot in the long run. If a character runs into an issue at the beginning of a scene, it should probably not be resolved by the end of the scene, unless that character or another learns something extremely valuable to the plot in the process.
24. Are your characters on a never-ending losing spree?
Quit being so harsh. Give the reader hope that the characters can do this with little wins sprinkled throughout the novel. Readers love impressive main characters and enjoy believing in their ability to succeed.
25. Are your protagonists tight-lipped or big-mouthed?
Doesn’t matter. If someone wrongs them, I want to hear that they recognize it. Even if it’s internally, I want to share those thought processes with my main character so that I can trust them to defeat obstacles and antagonists in the future.
26. Do the characters’ relationship dynamics fluctuate during their journeys?
Don’t go overboard with these side character conflicts, but I’d definitely recommend using them. This is an easy way for readers to stay engaged even during a chapter full of dialogue and exposition.
27. What percentage are you at from completing your book?
If past 60%, the protagonist should probably be in a different position than when they started. If they haven’t changed by now, then have the plot points really been doing their job?
28. Just before the climax, does your protagonist express doubts about achieving their ultimate goal?
Does something terrifying throw a wrench into what they expected out of the climax? Keep your reader on their toes, wondering up until the end if they are going to succeed.
29. Was your main character advised by someone else to achieve their goal in a certain way?
Great. Have them fail at it. Then, they’ll need to achieve their goal in their own way and make us proud of their intuition and strength.
30. After your climax, does your reader have time to decompress and understand the trajectory of where each of our mini-storylines will go from here?
They don’t all have to be covered in-depth (or at all, really), but we should absolutely have an idea of where they’re headed.
31. What is life going to be like after this?
Now that this story is over, is something else on the protagonist’s mind? The perfect ending is cool and all, but the more you can make me think into the future, the more I want to envision our main character being a stronger person and overcoming anything that stands in their way.
And that’s it—for now! Happy rewriting, friends. I’ll pop back in as soon as I can with more strategies for improving your novel, but for now, if you want to get ahold of me, I’ll be in a deep, dark cellar reading manuscripts by candlelight.
And emails by phone.
Joe Walters is the editor-in-chief of Independent Book Review. When he’s not completing developmental edits, editorial letters, and book reviews, he’s working on his novel and trusting the process. He tweets @JoeWalters13.
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