I learned a lot more than five things, but it seems like a good round number. Here goes.
1. Don’t try to be too witty. When I wrote the first draft, I did so in a style that I thought witty and interesting. All that accomplished was to dilute the story and turn it into not much more than a parody. Just write the story.
2. Story Trumps Language. All the creative and artistic turns of phrase in the world will not make up for a crappy story. People read fiction primarily to be entertained. Sure, they would like to have things said in an interesting way, and they need vivid descriptions, compelling characters, and all that. But don’t let trying to be literary, or funny, or interesting, or creative, get in the way of the story. Tell the story using language that is as clear and precise as possible.
3. Structure Matters. Certain things have to happen at certain points in the story. For example, at about 10%, there has to be an inciting incident. At 25% there’s a turning point, and so forth. In a novel, it doesn’t have to be as precise as in a screenplay, but you pretty much have to follow these rules. You also have to follow the three-act structure, or one of its variants.
A lot of new/young writers think they don’t have to follow no stinkin’ rules. They’re arteests. Structure stifles their creativity. That’s cool. It’s that much less competition for the rest of us.
Do an experiment. Take any movie. Look to see how long it is (it always tells you on the back of the case), then watch it, keeping track of what happens when, by watching the timer on the player. You will find, without exception, that all the plot points happen within a few seconds of when they’re supposed to. Take, for example, a movie that is 120 minutes long. The inciting incident will be at 12 minutes (10%). The first turning point will be at 30 minutes (25%). There will be turning points at 60 minutes (50%) and 90 minutes (75%). The climax will come at 108 minutes (90%).
Apply these percentages to the running time of any movie, and at the appropriate minute, the plot point will be there. If you do the same for most commercial novels, you will find pretty much the same thing. Your novel needs to follow that as closely as possible.
4. You Need a Certain Amount of Planning. I hate to use the word “outline,” but that’s pretty much what you need to do, at least to some extent. I’m still developing my method for this, as I’ve found it very difficult to outline and plan the story from beginning to end. On the other hand, you can’t just sit down and write, unless you’re Stephen King. If you’re reading my blog, you ain’t Stephen King.
I started, as many new writers have, as a “panster.” I had a concept for a story, so I just sat down to write it. That’s no good. For me what seems to work is a hybrid outliner/panster thing. I know the plot points, and when they have to happen. I plan up to the 10% and the 25% points, and write the story up to that point. Then I figure out what should happen for the next plot point. I may have in my head a general idea what will happen throughout, and I may have made notations to that effect, but to a large degree, I plan as I go, hanging the story on the structural elements.
5. Know Your Characters. One of the biggest problems I created for myself was not spending enough time at the beginning planning characters. I don’t mean just their physical appearance. You’ve got to know them as people. What do they want? What are their conflicts? How do they talk?
The best way to do this is to do basic character sketch, and then write a short story about them. The story does not have to relate to the novel you’re working on, but it could. It may not become part of the novel, but it could.
When you get to know the characters, then put them in situations, you know how they will react, and what they will think and feel in response to the situation. That makes for a better story.