While each manuscript is different, this is a list of questions/thoughts I’ve developed in response to common critique/revision issues for what I’ll call “advanced beginners” and, for that matter, everyone else. They’re not all the important concerns in novel writing, just those that seem the prickliest.
(1) Are the main characters fresh, three-dimensional, and memorable? Does the writer avoid stereotypes (not just regional or racial, but also, say, “all-knowing grandparent,” “hypocritical preacher,” or “mean, popular girl”)?
(2) Does the story start when the action begins? A writer needs to know a great deal more about the character and world than the reader. Look at back-story and exposition that isn’t necessary and consider slashing it into tiny, wet bits (sorry, been writing horror lately).
(3) Is the plot predictable? Readers should keep turning pages to find out what happens. Play fair, and plant the logic for your twists and turns, but remember, it’s a story, not a tour. Along these lines, there should actually be a plot. I.e., I tried to watch “First Daughter” this week. It’s sort of an exploration of what it would be like to be Chelsea-meets-Jenna. There may have been some subtext with the love interest, but half way through, I didn’t care enough to keep watching to find out. And I like Katie Holmes (“Dawson’s Creek”) and Marc Blucas (“Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”) just fine; watched every ep of both shows. But so what? Where was the story?
(4) Could the writer heighten the stakes? Perhaps because some part of us is reflected in our protagonists, we tend to protect them. But remember, the greater the challenge, the greater the hero. Of course it should be proportional to the age level and circumstances, but take a moment to ask yourself how to take things to the next level or three.
(5) Is the story focused? Do the main plot and subplots relate to one another? Are their pacing arcs in line?
(6) Is the voice believable, immediate, resonant, compelling? If you’re not comfortable writing a first person teen, maybe try third person. Ditto on language. Forced writing reads like forced writing. It’s tedious. That said, stretch yourself. Get out of your comfort zone. Do what’s best for the story. Try. (Contradictory? Writing is like that).
(7) Does the protagonist grow and change? Where is the epiphany? Circle it. A lot of manuscripts don’t have one.
(8) Does the writer trust the reader? Needless repetition can slow the story and, at the extremes, become annoying. Just because the reader is young doesn’t mean he/she isn’t intelligent. I’m a GenXer and my peers have that famous MTV attention span. For the PlayStation generation, it’s more like the attention span of gnats.
(9) Show, don’t tell. (Notice how this isn’t a question.) Particularly don’t show and tell, which goes back to the whole trusting-the-reader thing. Pick one and err on the side of showing. That said, an entirely shown story would be exhausting. At times, telling is the right thing to do. As a general rule, use telling for transitions and showing for impact.
(10) Is the story emotionally resonant? Many times we’ll tell about feelings when we need to put the reader in the characters’ shoes and make them feel what’s happening alongside the fictional player. Often writers will skip the “tough” scenes or even the climax because it requires them to put their hero on the line.
Minor But Frequent
(11) Is the writer using song lyrics? Remember that if the lyrics aren’t in the public domain, you will have to pay for the rights. You don’t, however, have to pay for the rights to song titles.
(12) Does a character find out something through eavesdropping? It’s easy, right? Too easy. Come up with a fresh twist or another venue.
(13) Is there a dream sequence? Unless you’re rewriting “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dallas,” or “Newhart” (my person favorite), just don’t go there.
(14) Does your character whine a lot? Sure, real teenagers whine (so do real adults), but it’s hard to root for such a hero on the page, stage, or screen. Don’t believe me? Watch the first Luke Skywalker scene from “Star Wars: A New Hope” a few hundred times. I have. Yes, I realize what that says about me. And yes, I loved it enough to watch it a few hundred times.
At one time or another, I have struggled with numbers 1-10 and been tempted to stray to the much-maligned number 12. And the struggle continues…