The Write Way: What Belongs in Your Novel?

What Belongs in Your NovelWhen is just enough too much?

Certain rituals develop when you change houses twice a year. Since our summers here in Western New York are short, one of the first things we do once we arrive in May is to plant our “garden.”  Garden in this instance mostly means pots because our yard is in deep shade from the oldest elm in the area, and a bevy of evergreens. We can move pots to the rare patches of sunshine for summer color and fill in with shade loving perennials like brunnera and hostas. I love my garden, even though I would love a sunny one more.

This year on my trip to the nursery, I bought a few plants, assuming that once the pots were filled with dirt and the plants divided, I would know exactly what else I needed to buy on my final nursery visit. I purchased just enough to start.


Today I finally found places to tuck in all the extra plants I bought on that one and only trip. Smiling pink begonias now reside beside astilbe who’ve never had company. Impatiens nestle cheek to cheek. A brand new pot of herbs sits beside the strawberry pot that only had room for the many varieties of basil I was certain I had to have.

Because tossing out plants goes against my nature, I found home for every one of my purchases. Still, I’ll confess by the end, I was crowding them in. They may not do well, but they’ll live until autumn’s first frost, which was good enough for me. My mission was finally accomplished.

Sadly, every part of this was far too familiar, because the same thing happens when I write.  I am always inclined to assemble too many ideas, convinced I’ll need those and more once I begin. Then I begin and find I can’t possibly fit them into one story. And unlike my garden, which is only for my own pleasure, I know I need to select the best and brightest for my readers.

What belongs in your novel?

We novelists have many ways to weed out the ideas that won’t work, ideas that might be good but need to be “good” in another book. Here’s a simple test to help you begin to make selections about what should stay and what should be moved to the next novel or pitched to the “try-again” compost pile.

  1. Will the idea clarify or deepen a readers’ understanding of a character? Will the reader find him or her more sympathetic because you incorporated it? Will the reader be interested in this new information and will it really be new, or is it a monotonous repeat?
  2. Does this idea move the story toward its ultimate conclusion? Does it deepen the story or give it an exciting new twist? Will the reader be so confused by the introduction of this fabulous idea that he/she won’t continue reading?
  3. Does the idea reflect your talents as a writer? Are you writing to your strengths? Will your reader understand who you are just a little better by the time the novel ends? Will the reader know more about you than he or she needs to?

No matter how much we deny it, our novels are about us, our viewpoints, our lives, our passions. Hopefully we don’t hit our readers over the heads, but if we pretend our own thoughts and beliefs don’t matter, that the characters have taken over the story and have nothing to do with us, we definitely are pretending.

In addition to lively, entrancing characters walking through interesting times and interesting places, our novels tell the stories of the person we were as we wrote them. Consider all three as you weed out ideas and choose the ones you’ll spend the next months or even years with.

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