Thursday, April 19, 2012

Novel Writing Formula

I was editing a manuscript the other day. I had already been through it once before, and the author had done a good job revising it and making the story smoother.

But there was still something missing.

It got me thinking. What makes a good novel? Is there some magic formula?

I went back to the manuscript and read a few passages over and over. Then a light bulb came on. It wasn't just one thing that the author needed to work on -- it was several things that needed to be used effectively in order for the novel to make sense to the reader.

I believe there are four key items that need to be balanced in order for a novel to work. A sort of "formula" if you will. Test them against your favorite novels and see if you agree. Or test them against the manuscript you are writing to see if you left anything out. Each item below needs to be in balance, or the story will feel off to the reader.

1. Action. You can't have a story without it. The people in the story are doing something, or something is happening to them. We read the story because we want to know what is going to happen next. The action sets the pace and hooks us.

2. Description. We need to know what the scene looks like. We need to know what the characters look like. And then we need to know what the action looks like. An author who can paint a picture with words has the makings for a great novel. If we can picture the story in our minds as if it was playing out like a movie, you've hit gold.

3. Dialogue. This is further down the list, because without great action or description, you can't have great dialogue. You have to know what a character is doing and looks like before the dialogue will even begin to make sense. Dialogue should only include the most important things the characters say -- summarize the rest. Dialogue will bring attention and punch, so use it just in the places you want the move attention and punch.

4. Reflection. Readers need time to unwind. They want to think about what they are reading while they are continuing with the story. The need a minute to breathe. So the characters must reflect. If you are writing a novel, talk about the characters' insights on what is happened. While they are moving to the next adventure, show us their thoughts. How is it changing them?

Once you have each of those in balance, then simply repeat, repeat, repeat.

As it turns out, the manuscript I was editing was strong on action, ok with description, ok with dialogue, and definitely did not have enough reflection. So I complimented her action, offered a few additions to aid in the descriptions, added dialogue where she had previously summarized for some extra attention and punch, and finally I left long comments about how she could reflect.

What do you think is a good formula for writing a novel?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Broadway Review: In the Heights

The creator, writer, lyricist and original star character, Usnavi, are all the same person -- Lin-Manuel Miranda. He started writing the musical as a college student. He was inspired to basically tell his own story about growing up in Washington Heights in New York. It translated onto the stage beautifully.

My husband is bilingual and lived in Latin American for two years, and I've learned quite a bit of Spanish over the last few years. We also have many Latin friends and we associate with them often. Their culture is vibrant, musical, and loving. Thus, In the Heights was something we really wanted to see.

It didn't disappoint. The current touring company's star had a unique speaking and singing voice -- I looked forward to everything his character portrayed. Other break out roles were the cousin, and also the two gossiping Latina hairdressers. Comic relief at its finest.

The overall theme was finding where you truly belong. As first generation citizens, these sons and daughters of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and others struggled to find themselves. Did they belong back in their parents' home country? Or did they belong in the U.S.? Was Washington Heights where they would be forever, or would they seek opportunity somewhere else?

A few times I couldn't hear the words over the music, so a little of the story was lost to my ears. There were also a few numbers or characters that weren't quite as exciting or compelling as the others. But overall, it was a fun show.

My husband wondered if perhaps the regular older crowd that frequents musicals that come to town would stomach the "rap" music in the show. After all, the opening number was the main character rapping about Washington Heights. But really, it wasn't typically "rap" ... it was softer, with the reggaeton beats of Latin America. It was storytelling word-singing. It was fun. It was hip. It was different.

Combined with intricate Latin dancing, the music and dance was the true star of the show. The dance switched between casual hip hop to slower interpretive. It showcased the musical beats and showed characters' emotions. I loved it.

We all struggle to fit in. But I think for the Latin community, their own story of struggling to find their place was largely untold. Until now.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Is My Manuscript Worth Publishing?

It's a safe bet that any successful author has had the same thoughts as you. Before they became a success, they were staring at the words on a page, having reservations about turning in his or her manuscript to a publisher.

Will they like it? Will anybody even read it?

It's funny thinking of a best selling author having those types of thoughts. Even the first Harry Potter was rejected eight times before it was published. Don't you think maybe J.K. Rowling felt a little defeated and maybe even thought to herself, "Is my manuscript worth publishing?" Thankfully she plowed through those thoughts and did end up getting published.

To bring a dose of reality, for every Harry Potter success there are almost countless other manuscripts that are never published, or (perhaps even worse) are published and then never sold or read. We can discount the author's lack of marketing, the timing, the quality of editing, or even the book cover design--yes, there are many things we can blame are the cause of a book being unsuccessful. But it really goes back to the author and his or her story. It is disheartening. To dream so big, to go through all of that hard work, and in the end only to have hopes dashed away.

Would-be authors take a lot on the line when they decide to publish. Their name, their reputation, and their pride are on the line. As an editing manager, I work directly with authors, and I have seen first hand how anxious they are. Especially as their manuscript gets closer and closer to printing, they become quite nervous. "Will they like it? Will anybody read it?"

What I'm trying to say is, you are not alone if you feel this way.

Not that it makes it any easier.

But that's publishing, baby--it's one of those love-hate things. 

So there on paper, or your computer screen, is your baby. Your story. Your manuscript. Maybe you've worked on it for years, you've gone through 13 drafts, and you've had every family member, co-worker and friend read it. Now it has come to the point where you either put it away forever, or publish it. You just can't decide. You need help.

How do you know if your manuscript is worth publishing?

Here are some things to consider:

1. Have you had anyone read it who doesn't know you?  Readers can give more honest feedback if they don't have a personal tie to you. Ask for good and bad feedback. Crave negative comments. It is through negative comments that you can grow as a writer.

2. Is there a hook? Is the book so compelling that people will be telling their friends that they HAVE to read it? If not, why? Is the character likeable enough? Has the plot been done before? What is so different about your book that makes it worth reading? What could be different?

3. How many rewrites have you been through? Just a few is not enough. Keep rewriting.

4. Have you had a professional editor read it? (Shameless plug.) I work in publishing, and I also edit on the side for a flat fee. There are many good professional editors out there -- get one to read your manuscript. It'll be worth it.

5. What do you know about the publishing industry? Learn all you can or you are in for a surprise.

6. How will you market your book once it is printed? Yes, you--the author--will need to market your own book. That is how it works. What can you bring to the table? Are you savvy at social media? Could you get a reporter to write or do video a story about you? Marketing is almost just as important as the story, so don't skip this.

7. Have you had anything else published? It's relatively easy to get published these days. Magazines, newspapers, online sources -- they all need content. Write up an article that ties in with your story and get it published. See if you can hack it. Ask for feedback. Get known in the industry. Build up your writing/publishing portfolio.

8. Are you a finisher? Will you stick with this through the end? Publishing is a long process. Not only does writing take time (as you well know), but editing, cover design, formatting, etc., when done right and in a quality manner take time. After that, if you stick with it and market it, it can easily take a year or more to gain enough ground to be moderately successful.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell authors whether their manuscripts would be successful as published books. Sadly, I don't have one. I wonder if a prediction could even be possible, as there are so many things that have to come together to produce a book. When they are all working together, and the public likes the story, it's magic.

Any questions?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review: Raising Abel

I was lucky enough to find Raising Abel by Carolyn Nash when it was offered as a free ebook. Being a mother of three kids, the cover and title intrigued me. I downloaded it to my Kindle and started reading. Right away, I couldn't put it down.

It was one of those "stay up late until you finish it no matter what" type of books.

What really hooked me was that it is a true story. The hook was further cemented by the Prologue. Trust me. Just read it and try not to get hooked.

It's about a woman who thinks she is a little odd--she's middle aged and single and doesn't have a lot of friends. Eventually she fosters a child, Abel, and her life is changed forever. Abel is a special child, and he has special challenges. But through it all this woman sticks with it and makes both of their lives better.

I was so inspired by this woman. And I was so saddened by Abel's situation, at least until he met his foster mother.

I loved her writing. She had such an authentic voice. In true stories, sometimes there is too much or too little--I felt she gave us just enough. The imagry painted a vivid picture of the surroundings as well as the emotions.

This is definitely worth purchasing. Check out the author's blog at Raising a Traumatized Child.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

One Tip To Test Your Plot

In your head, your plot makes sense.

But how do you know if it will resonate with readers?

One Tip: Write Chapter Summaries.

Make a list of all of your chapters and then write up brief summaries (1-2 sentences) of what each chapter is about. During the exercise, a few things might happen:

1. You might decide that certain things aren't really needed in the story.
2. You might notice that certain scenes are out of order.
3. You might notice that key things that are missing from the story.

Not only will this be good for you (the author), but it is great for your editor as well. When you send your manuscript to your editor, send along the chapter summaries as well.

As an editor, I can tell you from personal experience that this is very helpful. I am editing a manuscript, and currently I am working on one particular chapter that is difficult to understand. I've referred to the chapter summary more than once to keep my edits focused on what the author is trying to accomplish.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Editors Against Unedited Ebooks

It's funny that despite how much reading I do for my job, in the evenings I still like to unwind by.... reading.

I pulled out my Kindle Fire the other night and browsed the "free" ebook section. There are so many to choose from, I shouldn't need to actually BUY an ebook, right?


I picked a few titles that looked interesting--nice covers, good descriptions, and good ratings (if any).

After downloading a few, I decided to begin reading a general fiction mystery type. It was part of a series, so if I liked this one, others were waiting for me afterwards.

I was expecting a lot more than I received. Only a few pages in, I shut down the book completely. I couldn't go on.

It wasn't the story, or the writing, or anything vulgar. It was the sheer volume of editing mistakes. It wasn't just here and there--it was everywhere. And it wasn't stuff that just "editors" would get--it was basic stuff that I would hope most English speakers would grasp.

No matter how good the story was, I just couldn't read it. The horrible grammar was too distracting. Misplaced commas, misspellings, capitalization issues, and more. I was so disappointed.

It's really too bad. And it probably happens more now than ever before. Would-be authors have instant access to getting their work "published," as it were. Self-publishing companies, a.k.a. vanity publishers, are everywhere. Even some of the bigger publishers have self-publishing "divisions" giving authors a false sense of hope that they will get great service. Also, it's so easy and cheap to publish just as an ebook, authors forget that may "easy and cheap" are probably not the best way to publish.

In reality, these companies are doing would-be authors no favors. Self publishers put out thousands of titles per year, and there is no way they can give the service and attention each title needs in order to become a quality piece of work or to aide the author in becoming successful.

I was telling a friend the other day that so many people dream of one day becoming an author. But so many make the mistake of rushing to the finish line. Rather than take the time to get the right publisher, they randomly pick a vanity publisher. A day, week or month later, their book is ready! But it's not what they expect. Publishing is all that happens. Their dream comes true and basically dies all in the same day. The story may be out, but the chances of their title succeeding is so slim. They find that bookstores won't carry it, reporters won't take it seriously, readers are hard to find, and the whole experience is much less glamorous than they thought.

It doesn't have to be so tragic.

Take this editor's advice and please, please search out a traditional publisher. Take the time to find one that fits your manuscript. Traditional publishers have editing teams that will take the time to go through your manuscript and make sure it is ready for people to read. They will help you develop your story to make it better. They will help other readers, like me, want to keep on reading after the first few pages.

Perhaps I will pay a little extra $$ for quality ebooks from now on.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why Books Should Have Ratings

I was flipping through the Netflix instant movie selection the other day, looking for something interesting to watch. I enjoy a good suspense, action, romance, or comedy as much as the next person. But there is definitely one requirement that is non-negotiable--the movie's rating.

I decided long ago that I would not watch anything rated R. It is a personal choice, mostly religious based. It's a way to keep foul language and questionable sex scenes or blood and guts out of my life. Plus, there are plenty of other great movies out there that are less violent and sexy and foul, so why waste my time watching smut?

I work for a publishing company, and one thing we don't tolerate is smut. As we explain to our authors, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to write swear words. And as readers are going along, they tend to focus on the swear words or sex scenes and not the plot or characters. Sort of defeats the purpose, wouldn't you say?

I recently got a Kindle Fire, and while browsing what ebook I could read next, I was overwhelmed with the volume of choices. I finally settled on a book recommended by a friend. Thankfully, it was free of swearing and sex scenes. I could focus on the story itself rather than bring smut into my life.

Now I'm browsing for something else to read. As I swipe down the list of choices, I look at book covers and read summaries. Some "smut" is easy to spot right away, especially if there is a half-naked woman on the cover. Something like that is perhaps something I wouldn't appreciate. Sultry romance novels, no thanks.

Reading the book's summary, sometimes I'll see a swear word or see something about how the main character is a cheater -- again, it is easy to see that this book is something I wouldn't enjoy reading.

But other books are harder to decipher. How do I know just by looking at the cover and the description that it's as clean as I'd like it to be?

That's why I propose books have a rating system. Something like movies would be ideal in my mind. If I knew a book was rated R, I would simply avoid it. There are plenty of other great books out there to read, so I wouldn't waste my time reading smut (well, starting to read it and then putting it down or deleting it) and get to the good stuff.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Just Can't Finish

My (in progress) manuscript has been traveling.

From the computer to paper...
From the desk to the living room...
From my house to grandma's (over Christmas)...
And back home again, in a grocery sack, on top of the printer.

It's sad, really. I printed it out in hopes of doing something with it. It's such a cute story, and I really love it so far. There is just one problem.

I just can't finish it.

It's like every other undone project in my life. It was exciting to start it, and for a while it's all I could think about. Move aside lunch, I have this to do! No I can't do housework, I'm on a roll!

I'm not sure where I lost motivation or ideas. When I sit down to work on it, my brain goes limp.

I printed it out in an attempt to trick myself into reading it like it was new to me, and I had visions of having grand ideas rush to my head, whereupon I would grab a pen and furiously write until I would find the last page....

Maybe I should just go back to the digital file.