Fit a Genre
Get a group of agents together, (booze helps) and a near-universal complaint is the author who can’t define their work. Sure, we’re all writing a groundbreaking work that defies labels. You know where that book goes? Neither does the bookstore clerk or, more importantly, neither does the Amazon recommendations algorithm. An agent needs an idea which publisher to pitch your book to. Upmarket fiction? The agent doesn’t want to pitch that to Hard Case Crime or Avon Romance. If you don’t want the agent to assign your genre, you need to tend to this matter first. Especially since many agents specialize in two or three genres.
Read Your Genre, Know Your Genre
See a theme? Someone said 300 books. I don’t know that there is an exact number. A good rule of thumb is to read the good, the bad, and the ugly in your genre, enough to know genre norms, (tropes, length, etc.). Does that really matter anymore? Well, one-hundred-ten-thousand words may be the sweet spot for epic fantasy, but both the agent is rejecting a 110K-word mystery novel at the query-letter stage.
I once read a science fiction novel in which the emperor of the known universe plays what appears to be billiards on a miniature table, (using tiny sticks) while conversing with his deadly assassin. This conversation could have taken place on the grasslands of a Savannah-like moon, orbiting a gas giant, with a lavender horizon, while hunting sauropods with shoulder-mounted rail guns.
Why wouldn’t you do that, (instead of playing with the type of toy nobody wanted for Christmas)? It’s not like you have to get approval for a travel budget.
But this applies to more than just science fiction. Forbidden love? Extramarital affair? The Bridges of Madison County is about a romance blooming in the middle of a family secret. Family dissolution drama? All the Pretty Horses is about a teen unable to accept the 20th century even as it swamps his life. "Chick lit"? The Color Purple is about an awakening of love, from a nightmare of abuse.
All are simple stories told in EPIC terms.
Train your Hero
Nothing kills a reader’s love for a protagonist more than a writer’s logic issues. Because: mentally ill, in love (same?), or “not thinking” is lazy writing. And before you namedrop the Brontë Sisters, please remember that we stuck with Jane (Jane Eyre) and (basically) everyone in Wuthering Heights based on the strength of Charlotte and Emily’s prose. Or, to put a finer point on it: Heathcliff makes sense because jealousy and narcissism makes sense. Jane marrying Rochester does not make sense.
Your protag, whether the reader is supposed to love or hate them, MUST make sense. Achilles went to Troy and met his doom for glory. John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport is one step from the psychos he hunts. Clarice Starling’s compulsion to exceed her dead father continually exceeds all reason and self-preservation. But decisions still make sense.
Love Your Villain
If the big-bad is shallow, so is your story. I strongly subscribe to the idea that the villain (mostly) is a hero taken to their logical extreme. Magneto is a pragmatic Charles Xavier with a much lower “had ‘nough,” threshold. In Ryan Murphy’s Pose, Elektra Abundance is Blanca Evangelista without an Elektra to cut the trail for her.
Forget Hawkeye and Cora in Last of the Mohicans, we only cry for Uncas and Alice. Likewise, by season two of The Umbrella Academy, I was GOOD and over Luther and Allison but desperately wanted Vanya and Sissy to have a happily-ever-after, (Hazel and Agnes, too). You have no idea which characters your readers will seize onto. Each character has goals and fears of their own, the more those lives intersect with your protagonist and antagonist, the richer, your story will be.
Repetition is the Enemy
Most new writers will end up writing the same scene, conversation, or event multiple times. This is due mostly to the fact that most new writers are writing in fits and starts. That’s where editing is imperative.
Edit ruthlessly. Identify duplicates, sift out the strongest and cut the rest. If you have to “catch the reader up,” consider more massive cuts. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga is immense—but he writes it lean and relies on compelling stories, engaging characters and short, stabbing scenes to hold the readers’ attention.
Clean it Up
Whatever you do with subplots, don’t just drop them. Examples of how it’s done right include the following. George R.R. Martin breaks your heart but he also gives you kiss on the forehead for your pain. Sure Hot Pie makes it but more emotionally compelling, so does Nymeria. Alice Walker brings you through Celie’s heartbreak and her healing but she also heals Shug Avery and Albert. Most importantly, she heals the reader’s heart with Sofia’s recovery. I’m damn-near teary just typing that. THAT is a writer in full command of their craft. Chris Claremont has no small characters. Rogue ambushes Ms. Marvel to steal her powers—and incidentally, her memories. Rogue suffers with mental illness, unable to tell her memories from Carol Danvers’ memories. Wandering the African plains without her powers, Storm finds the ultimate hero in a village shaman who sacrifices himself to sustain the least among his people. Claremont’s writing is a master class in juggling seven (or 17) subplots and a chainsaw and tying it all up in a story cycle.
POV is Your Discipline
You can have one or two or twenty-two POV characters, (hey, it’s your sanity). But if you’ve been working through 1-21 POVs for the run of your story and bring in POV 22 in the last chapter, you will have a confused, if not cranky, reader. You must also be consistent in each POV character’s tone and use. Whatever you do, DO NOT jump POV in mid-scene and NEVER in conversation or you run the risk losing your reader.
Conflict is the Heart
Physical conflict, verbal conflict, and soul scouring internal conflict—it’s the meat of your matter. Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre is a master class on conflict variety. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books take it all to the back alley. Get in where you fit in and then cause trouble.
The image at the top: Checklist, is by yours truly.