Novel Writing 101

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that lots of things piss me off in politics, healthcare, the environment, and of course, in the business of writing, and that I don’t mind whining about them. I’ve been told that I am way too critical of other writers and that I need to chill out and forget about the technical stuff when I’m reading a book and to just enjoy the story. I try to. I really do. But when I come across a New York Times Bestselling author whose novels read like the work of a tenth grade high school student, how can I let it go? 

Without mentioning names, let me tell you about the thriller I’m struggling to read right now. This female author has had 10 bestselling novels. I will admit that the story is interesting and the plot is compelling enough to keep me engaged. However, it drives me nuts and distracts me from enjoying the story when I see fundamental technical errors throughout. 

When you write dialogue in a novel, the author must pay very close attention to what we call “dialogue attributes”—he said, she said, following a statement. Here’s an example. “I love your red dress,” he said. In this case, “he said” is a dialogue attribute. The first commandment of writing dialogue is to minimize “ly” adverbs. It is the novelist’s job to show more than tell, so in most instances, overusing “ly” adverbs exposes a weakness in the writer’s ability to show action. It’s the lazy author’s way of telling instead of showing. 

The other issue here is that a constant flow of these “ly” adverbs distracts the reader. If a writer is truly doing his or her job, and is crafting crisp, clean dialogue, then throughout an entire novel, “he said” and “she said” are sufficient. The only reason to use a dialogue attribute is to identify who’s speaking. Period. 

Here are a few examples of the dialogue attributes I found on page after page of the “bestselling” novel I’m currently reading. 

He said softly.

She said briskly.

He said quietly.

She said immediately.

He said abruptly.

She said tersely. (Are you kidding me?)

He said gently.

She said testily. (Testily? What an awkward word)

He said grudgingly. (This particular adverb appears repeatedly)

She said shortly.

He shrugged modestly. (Huh? Is it possible to shrug modestly?)

She said honestly.

He nodded glumly. (How do you nod glumly?)

She said supportively.

He said dryly. 

All I can say is that I truly, honestly, wholeheartedly doubt that I’ll be able to finish this book.



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4 responses to “Novel Writing 101

  1. I don’t even know what to say to you. You are so intent on reading only the most technically perfect book that you are missing out on the richness of the story anyone might write that is not up to your standards. Technical perfection is just…..perfection. The same holds true with music. Someone without classic technique can be a more magical musician than someone who sticks to classic methodology. I have no musical training but I still write great music – breaking form and standards left and right. I’m not much of a stickler when I write either and people seem to enjoy it. Why don’t you write some free verse poetry for awhile and unfreeze your mind? I am reading Lonesome Dove right now. It’s absolutely brilliant, but I am sure you would hate it because of the dialogue style. You are really missing the boat on so many great books, Daniel. Sorry. I think you are just too rigid.

  2. Daniel

    If “missing the boat” means that I’m forced to read books that seem like they were written by a high school student, then I prefer to deny myself the experience. I don’t understand your point of view. It’s like saying that you hate the taste of steak but you should eat it because you love A-1 sauce. Why don’t I have the right to read well-written novels? Why do I have to choke down the steak so I can enjoy the A-1 sauce? You make me crazy.

    • poolagirl

      You do have the right to read whatever you want. All I am saying is that even bad books have value. I just read a book about an elephant and a boy from Germany. Terribly written, but the story was amazing. I consider myself very lucky that I see the good in a book and not only the bad. I think that’s what you want your readers to do too, Daniel. Not everything you write is brilliant. People must wade through things that might not interest them to get the full impact of what you are trying to say. It’s all a matter of taste. Some of the best stories I have ever read were written by children with no skill or training at all. Loosen up. Relax that certain muscle that makes you look so pained most of the time.

  3. Daniel

    Sorry, Poolie, this is one issue upon which we will never agree. One last point: considering that I only read 1 maybe 2 novels a month, and that there are over a gazillion novels out there, I have the luxury to be selective, no? So, if I start reading a novel and by page 50 I’m ready to puke, I ain’t gonna finish it–no matter how compelling the story. And by the way, my criticism goes way beyond the writing. Sometimes I’m bored because the story just sucks.

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