No matter how great your idea may be, or how skillful a writer you are, there are always ways to improve the manuscript you're working on. Perhaps you've already tried some of these, you may be too far along in the process to benefit from others, and a few won't work for every novel. Still, the chances are you can find something here you could use.
Of course, keep in mind these aren't magic spells. They won't breathe fresh life into any story, just because you went through the motions. You have to learn to use them wisely and well. That's true of any writing skill; you need to take the time to know and master it. Whenever you blindly follow a set of rules you don't understand, everything you write will come out wooden and unnatural.
1: Keep writing!
Don't hold back because every word, or every story, might not be perfect. Even if the result isn't always your best work, you'll have more chances of writing a masterpiece if you keep on writing. And that fleeting thought as you struggle for the perfect word might be just as important. So get as much as you can down on paper; you can always go back to rewrite it later.
2: Write yourself into a corner, then find a way out.
When your characters, or your plot, run into trouble, make sure they, and you, are focusing on the real problem. Consider every possible angle of attack. Look for answers that aren't obvious. Real, tough problems you have to struggle with keep your readers interested. Difficulties you have ready answers for look dull and predictable on paper.
3: Understand every character.
Each one must have reasons for what they do, hidden traits, and contradictory impulses. The most evil villains often believe fiercely in their choices, and the purest of heroes must battle baser motives. Brutal men have family and friends, who may even view them as kind. Decent men are lured into awful deeds by good intentions. No trait is as simple as it seems.
4: Combine the unexpected.
Pairing mismatched characters, or plunging your protagonist into a setting or situation utterly alien to them, is certain to generate excitement. Force a biker to cooperate with a book dealer. Strand a sailor in the desert. Relocate a hillbilly in the midst of a huge city. Make a recluse get involved with an acting troupe. Then stand back and watch the sparks fly!
5: Don't take shortcuts.
Resist the temptation to save your characters, and yourself, a lot of work. When they have to accomplish something to move the story forward, make them do it honestly. It's much more interesting reading about their struggles to build a raft to escape the wilderness than about the convenient discovery of an old boat that just needs a little moss stuffed in the cracks.
6: Pursue paradox.
Train yourself to recognise the opposite forces at work in most situations, and to explore them in your writing. This will add depth to your work. Explore the issues many paradoxes raise. They can lend extra dramatic tension to your story. Handled skilfully, such a treatment may even highlight the ironic aspects of life, or illuminate some of the deeper truths life has to offer.
7: Let your characters fail!
If you find your protagonist about to make a serious mistake, avoid the temptation to intervene. Instead, follow them as they deal with failure and its consequences, then pick themselves up to try again. Watching them go through this process enriches the story for your readers, and allows your protagonist, and your readers, to savour success even more when it comes.
8: Build up layers of metaphor.
While metaphor can be an excellent way of describing things in a fresh way, there are other ways to use it in your story. Look for unexpected similarities between very different things, then weave these into the fabric of the story itself. Such a technique can enhance your theme by providing fresh insights into the topic you have chosen to explore.
9: Save everything.
When you find passages or scenes that must be trimmed, don't discard them. Put them in a separate file instead. This will free you to cut out parts that need to go, secure in the knowledge they won't be lost forever. Later, review what you've kept. Well written scenes or passages might, with some changes, be the nucleus of a sequel or even an entirely different book.
10: Live your own book.
It's fine to jot down descriptions of your characters, or notes on your setting, but don't rely solely on those. Try to see your characters in your mind, hear them talk, sketch places where they spend their time. Get to know even minor figures. The better you know the people, places, and events in your book, the more real you can make them seem to your readers.
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