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?