In his classic book on writing, The Art of Fiction, the novelist and academic David Lodge says that, ‘The golden rule of fictional prose is that there are no rules.’ Before you decide that anything goes, give some thought to the following questions as they relate to your book or story.
Have you maintained the promise of the premise?
You’ve hooked us in with the set-up to your story or novel, and we’re excited about seeing how it will develop, but then you change tack completely, dropping that idea, and taking forward a new one without satisfying our curiosity about the first.
It’s good, and also important, to surprise your readers with incidents they don’t expect, but it’s unfair to cheat them completely out of the conflict you had initially promised.
Whose story is it?
Yes, of course you can have multiple narrators and a cast of thousands in your book, but are you sure your readers will be able to navigate their way through quite so many protagonists? Who in your story should they identify with or care about?
Having multiple protagonists may require multiple plots or sub-plots. Your story can risk becoming so complex that you lose your motivation trying to write it. If you’re having problems finishing your novel, this could be the reason why.
Try focusing instead on a single protagonist and collapsing several superfluous characters down into just one character. If all else fails and you are determined to take forward this unwieldy saga, at least provide us with a list of characters or a comprehensible family tree to guide us through it.
Should you write a long book or a short book?
A writer at one of our workshops once told me that her fantasy novel kept getting longer and longer. It already weighed in at around 200,000 words. This was, she said, because she kept thinking up more sub-plots. This is one instance when having an outline – and an overview – might have helped.
If you are a writer without a set of successful publications under your belt, a publisher will be apprehensive about spending time, effort, and money to publish and market your very long book. They’ll do it for Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, and George R.R. Martin, but will they do it for you?
How about dividing that one book into three? Or how about trying to produce one short book of quality rather than one massive tome that rambles on through eternity?
Do you know what your book is about?
You should know your work well enough to be able to tell an agent or publisher about the genre of your book, about its themes, and its likely audience. Mixing genres is fine, so long as you understand why you are doing it.
A writer I worked with recently explained to me that her book did not fit any genre or adhere to any one style of writing. She probably wasn’t far wrong. Her book was a mixture of literary fiction, non-fiction, romance, crime fiction, poetry, history, religion, and self-help. She was actually writing several different books.
It helps to think about who might want to read your book, and to focus it accordingly. Only as you re-read and redraft your work will you find out what you are really writing. When that happens, it will be a very sublime ‘Aha!’ moment.
Written by Janet Olearski
Janet Olearski is an author and writing coach, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. She is often surprised when she finds out what she is really writing about. It’s not always what she had originally imagined. Read more at: http://www.janetolearski.com