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For the last year, I’ve been working for a literary consultancy. I read unpublished novels and try to help their writers make them better. In the course of doing this I have observed certain things, and also, in my time on earth I have read and watched many things that did get published or aired, but were unnecessarily annoying in certain respects. Here, therefore, I offer you a small bouquet of wisdom collected from this experience.

(All points are mandatory and legally binding for everyone reasonably defined as ‘a new writer’  with immediate effect).

1)   Cut the elves.

2)   (Elves called the Bla’fla-tra-la-la, which, in their ancient language, means the Shiny Superior Magical Pretty People Who Are Better Than You are still Elves. THEY SHALL DIMINISH AND GO INTO THE WEST AND GET OUT OF YOUR BOOK FOREVER THE END.)

3)   Your book shall contain the minimum level of magic possible to maintain its existence.

4)   Your book shall likewise contain the minimum possible level of rape to maintain its existence. (Yes, that certain novels treat “magic” and “rape” as likewise irresistible bothers us too).

5)   A novel is not the means by which you get revenge on all the hot people who cruelly failed to find you attractive.

6)   No, not all novels need likeable protagonists. Yes, your novel needs a likeable protagonist. You want to write an unlikeable protagonist? Wonderful. First write a likeable protagonist. And another one. And another one. And maybe one more after that. And then, when you know you can keep a reader interested in what happens to a character, (which is difficult even when that character is not a tremendous sack of shit) you can think about trying to convince the reader that time with a mopey, genocidal bastard is time well-spent.

7)   Do not assume that your character is coming across as likeable just because you based him on yourself.

8)   Or on Batman.

9)   When your character cooks something it is not required that you take us right through the recipe, including cooking times and gas marks.

10) Your erotic imagination is not wholly separate from the rest of your imagination and that is fine. But bear in mind: readers can tell when the author has one hand in their pants.

11)  Your heroine may have violet eyes, or she may be called Persephone, but not both.

12)‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ is the only work to which retroactive permission is granted to end in the following manner: with the hero or heroes on a stage, receiving a medal, being applauded by a whooping crowd of friends and erstwhile enemies, basking in the glow of how fully their awesomeness is finally acknowledged. This shall not happen to your heroes. It makes me hate them.

13)  Likewise your favourite celebrities shall not enter the work to tell the protagonist how great they are.  It makes me hate them.

14) Your villain is there to make things difficult for the protagonist, not to be your punching bag.  Your villain shall not have every trait you despise, nor shall every character in the novel be talking about how awful they are, nor shall they fail at everything. Your story will be boring because the villain will clearly not be a threat and your protagonist will coast to easy victory. But  also  I will be sorry for your villain, and I will want to take them out for cocktails.

15) Likewise you shall not write random annoying people into your novel just so your protagonist can complain about how awful their tastes and manners are: it will makes me perversely fond of the supposedly annoying people and hate your protagonist more.

16)  Your protagonist shall go to places and do things without always needing to be told by someone else where to go and what to do.

17) Things shall be difficult for your protagonist and they shall suffer, however…

18) Your initially interesting protagonist may not become the most tortured person in their world.  COUGH DEAN WINCHESTER JACK HARKNESS GREGORY HOUSE.

19) All your secondary characters shall have interests other than your protagonist, your protagonist’s destiny, and your protagonist’s smouldering good looks. They shall not apparently have spent their entire lives before the story started sitting around waiting for the protagonist to turn up. They shall have goals and intentions that are not about the protagonist. This shall be especially true of the male protagonist’s female love interests. PLEASE.

20)  You shall ask yourself, is it possible I am writing terribly racist things and have never noticed it? BECAUSE  YES. IT IS POSSIBLE.

21)   (I still see elves there).


Originally published at Sophia McDougall. You can comment here or there.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 25th, 2013 03:17 am (UTC)
This is awesome! Thanks so much. V. hilarious. I don't write fantasy so a few of these didn't apply but some were scary relevant to my novel :S I'd rather read it on the internet than on an editor's rejection slip!
Mar. 25th, 2013 01:04 pm (UTC)
I may have burnt my tongue from laughing too much reading this. It is, alas, all so very true. Please, no elves and 4 is very, very important. It will help with all the other numbers too.
Mar. 25th, 2013 03:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Mar. 26th, 2013 02:23 am (UTC)
Unless your name is Jim Butcher. :)
Mar. 26th, 2013 04:01 pm (UTC)
Linky linky
User aliettedb referenced to your post from Linky linky saying: [...] hand by history. -Sophia McDougall on Twenty-One tips to make your book better for new writers [...]
Mar. 26th, 2013 11:46 pm (UTC)
Just before the collapse of the Inklings, Hugo Dyson is supposed to have interrupted a Tolkien reading with frequent mutterings of, "Oh, Christ, not another fncking elf." If only Tolkien had listened ....
Caroline Mackworth-Praed
Nov. 21st, 2013 11:54 am (UTC)
Authors for the Phillipines

I came second in the bidding to win your 'Authors for the Philippines' item 466: the critique [for my daughter's (6th) Fantasy novel - not a single elf, not one, promise!!!]

We adore your advice. My daughter [22] was actually reading it out loud to her Dad the other evening. Not the bits about writing sex, obviously...

And the bid I made was for every last penny of my Income Tax refund.

If you are prepared to crit the first 50,000 words of her novel, which would be extremely generous, then I am still very happy to donate the £212 I bid. Or I would somehow find the funds to match the winning bid if that made it fairer.

Best wishes
Caroline Praed
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )