Taking Your Novel from Good to Great

Writing a novel isn’t an easy feat. Writing a good novel is even harder. And even after you’ve conquered that tricky task, you still have a complex, exhaustive, and strenuous revision process to go through in order to make that good novel great.

But how do you know what needs fixing, which parts aren’t “great” just yet? How can you pinpoint your weaknesses so you can work to strengthen them?

Well, the first thing you need to do is get off the horse. View the world of your book from the ground, as your reader would, instead of from your author’s perch. When you’re kicking around on land, getting your feet dirty and smelling the trees around you, you can then objectively start looking at the big picture. (Always look at the whole before you get distracted by the details!) Focus on what your reader knows–what’s actually on the page–and not on what you know as the creator of the world, story, and characters.

The way I always approach an edit–whether of my own work or someone else’s–is by focusing on eight main criteria: point of view, voice, character development, plot, dialogue, pacing, setting, and continuity. At Book Country, we use these eight editorial elements as guideposts for peer review–they are the most important “big picture” parts of your story! Each one can make or break you and your book, so you want as much feedback as you can get in these areas.

But being able to recognize these parts of your own writing, which parts are strong and which need work, is just as significant as getting the constructive thoughts and opinions of fellow readers and writers.

Let’s take a look at what exactly each criterion means and how to start thinking about them:

Point of View: POV isn’t an easy element to conquer, but when your story is told through the right eyes, it makes all the difference. Ask yourself: Does this POV work for the story? Which character’s perspective is most interesting and/or useful to the reader? Is the POV consistent? Are intentional POV shifts clear and transitioned smoothly?

Voice: A strong, engaging, and fresh voice is key to capturing a reader’s attention. Ask yourself: Is the overall voice compelling? Is it unique? Does it fit with the genre in which I’m writing? Does each character have his/her own individual voice?

Character Development: Not only do characters need to be relatable, but they also have to grow and learn over time, just like real people. Ask yourself: Are your characters engaging and believable? Do they have clear strengths and weaknesses? Do they grow over the course of the narrative (aka do they have individual character arcs)?

Plot: Without an intriguing plot, there can’t be a story. Ask yourself: Is this book’s plot believable? Is it confusing? Is it entertaining? Is the conflict strong enough to maintain the story? Does each plot point move the story forward?

Dialogue: Dialogue doesn’t have to be perfect; it has to be real. Ask yourself: Does the dialogue sound genuine? Does it sound natural for the time period, location, and culture? Is it consistent for each character and is his or her dialogue distinct? If you use slang/accents, does it distract from the story?

Pacing: A story must always move forward with a speed and rhythm that feels natural and unrushed. Ask yourself: Is the progression of this book’s narrative compelling? Is it keeping my interest? Does the pacing fit with the genre (i.e. if it’s supposed to be suspenseful, does it move quickly? Does it supply that feeling of suspense in the cadence of the writing)? Is the pacing smooth and consistent?

Setting: In most fiction, setting should take on qualities of a character—be believable, detailed, well-drawn, and powerful. Ask yourself: Is the setting clear? Will the reader understand where he/she is? Is the place, culture, and/or time convincing? Are the details making the story come alive?

Continuity: Even with multiple plotlines, a story needs to flow, make sense, and follow a full narrative arc. Ask yourself: Are there loose ends or inconsistencies in the story? Are all elements of the story consistent throughout? Is the story linear? If it’s intentional non-linear, will it make sense to the reader? Is the time-line clear?

Asking yourself these questions and other related questions that are relevant for your story can help you get a handle on which areas need some T-L-C.

(What do I mean by “other related questions”? For example, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, you’ll want to focus on setting in terms of world-building: Have you explained the rules of the world? Does it make sense of the reader? Will they believe it?)

Once you’ve rolled the answers around in your head, you can really get down to the nitty-gritty and revise with specific concerns in mind.

If you can, it’s also a good idea to consider these criteria while writing your draft in the first place. You can minimize the heft of the revision process by making sure you’re on target as you go. Many writers, however, have a difficult time with this–or are just “pantsers” by nature and don’t know the answer yet!–and prefer to let the first draft just flow from their fingertips and go back to it later. That works too–then you can just use these criteria as your first-round revision tools.

Take the path that suits you best, but never forget these eight building blocks. They’re simple, but they have the power to take your book from good to great…if you let them.