After you finish your first draft, the first question is often, now what? Well, most drafts need a little attention in these areas. These are the four areas of improvement that will take your draft to the next level, every time.
Not finished plotting yet? Think about these before you write and double check them after letting the manuscript rest.
Ready to hire an editor?
1. Weak Protagonist
Having a weak protagonist people can’t relate to will kill your story before it has a chance to live. This can be difficult for authors to sus out on your own, so you may need to enlist the help of a critique partner or beta readers to get the job done. If this is your first novel, I highly recommend working with a developmental editor for all of the issues I’m sharing in this post.
Weak traits include things that readers find annoying, excessive whining is huge, unwarranted aggression can also be a big turn off. Not that a character can’t start out that way and then grow, but if that’s the case you need to give them something redeemable that a reader can cling do as the character takes this journey.
Holden Caulfield is probably the best example I could come up with. Many people find him so annoying they hated the book, but arguably more (looking at sales and this book being used to teach) find him annoying as a character but they can sympathize with being a disaffected youth. It’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion on him one way or the other, which is exactly what you want as an author. Get people talking about your character and they’ll be buying your book just to have a place in the conversation. It’s been a minute since I read The Catcher in the Rye but I’m sure with my post story nerd brain I could come up with more on why he’s such a character. In fact, I think I’ll need to add it to my list of books to analyze for the site.
Another example for me is Abby Abernathy from Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire. Abby is young and as you learn her story you can see why she plays things so close to the vest and that’s what makes her redeemable even when you’re ready to throw the book across the room because of her inability to communicate with Travis. Which, you guessed it, 85% of their problems from her lack of communication and his misunderstanding her attempts at communication. So frustrating but also well worth the read. I really enjoyed it.
***Note*** the move Beautiful Disaster, is a completely different story. Not quite as different as How to Train Your Dragon from book to film, but pretty close.
2. Weak Antagonist
This is such a common problem with new authors. It’s easy to put all your time and energy into the protagonist and main plot that you let your villain be evil for the sake of evil. Dig deep into your antagonist's back story and figure out why he is the way he is. Give him/her motivation and purpose.
Examples of noteworthy villains are as follows. I will be doing a study on them soon.
Hannibal Lector Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs- I like to think of Hannibal as the way serial killers see themselves rather than how they actually are. Or I did until Israel Keyes was caught **insert shudder here** but I love this character for his complexity. Have a look at him in his multiple forms, from the original text of Silence of the Lambs to different actors' portrayals of the character and see what appeals most to you. Mads Mikkelsens’ approach in the show Hannibal was intense and, I felt, very true to who Hannibal is. But make sure you watch Hannibal Rising to get the scoop on why he is the way he is. It’s all fascinating and will help you build a truly horrific villain.
Billy Russo (Netflix Punisher series)- This portrayal of Billy Russo is my all-time favorite villain but he’s amazing because of the interactions and relationships he has within the show. This is a great example of how to intertwine your villain in an ensemble to bring out the worst in him. This is also a great character to study if you’re trying to build a less homicidal antagonist. I know he does kill people, but his manipulation of the situations and people is worth taking a close look at as you build your own master manipulator.
Viggo Tarasov (John Wick)- Viggo is the father of the poor sap who kills John’s puppy in the first movie. His motives are clear, protect his child, but watching someone who’s used to being at the top of the food chain so to speak fall apart as his attempts continue to fail, is really worth watching as you build your villain.
Cersei Game of Thrones- need I say more? I didn’t even feel bad for her when she’s stripped naked and forced to walk the streets. Now that’s a good villain.
Mr. Wickham Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice- I use Mr. Wickham as an example because he’s so sneaky and charismatic, that Lizzy doesn’t notice his blatant lies, until his true character is pointed out by Mr. Darcy. The moment when she reads Darcy’s letter and starts to realize Wickham’s true character, is one that you’ll relate to if you’ve ever been misled by a narcissist. It was eerie rereading it this year after really taking a look at these kinds of people. They're a different kind of malevolent from the psychopaths I usually use to haunt my characters (such as Hannibal) . These people try to manipulate and control you and when you break free of that control, they try to change the way other people see you. This is exactly what he does to Mr. Darcy. This kind of villain is eerie because they’re so real and far too often plague our everyday lives.
Stryker Sherilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters series- If you read Sherilyn Kenyon at all you know her series is broken into pieces, the first of which is the Dark Hunter series, followed by Were Hunters and so on. During that first batch of books, we had a pretty consistent big bad. Stryker. I always found him suitable as a villain but what really brought him home as one to study was when Sherrie turned around and made us love him as the hero of his own book. She gave us the full backstory and everything clicked into place with such force, my mind was completely blown. To fully study him you need to read most of the books in that first series and then his book. But it’s worth it if you enjoy Paranormal Romance.
3. Saggy Middle
When doing story math, the middle of the book actually makes up 50% of its contents. That’s a lot and makes it really easy to end up droning on about things that don’t matter. As a result, you need to have a look at your middle and make sure you’re building up tension, driving the main plot and subplots forward and any and all filler should at least be fun and character building. As a developmental editor this is one of the most common issues with first drafts and newer writers but it can be a problem for anyone. Keep an eye on it. If yours lags, see if you can swap out boring scenes for something more exciting or maybe add a subplot.
4. Bobbing Boat
This term refers to when you don’t have escalating problems. Each issue that comes up should be increasingly dire or at the very least, new. Nothing is more irritating than when the only conflict in the novel is repeated over and over when the reader can clearly see the solution.
For example, in romance, the two main characters need a reason not to want to get together. Maybe she thinks he’s not the right kind of guy for her and he thinks he doesn’t want to settle down. Great but those things need to evolve with the characters and situation and likely, in the second half of the book you’ll need to come up with new reasons for them to stay apart or your reader will get bored since by now, they usually know they’re a perfect fit for each other. A job opportunity or other external hurdle might be the answer.
In conclusionWhen you’ve finished your draft, first and foremost, take a moment to celebrate. My preferred method of celebrating “the end” is a taco from my favorite taco joint. Find something, no matter how small, and make sure you acknowledge what you just did. And then, after the book has rested and you’re ready to jump into the next step, check out the above and get started on improving your masterpiece!