Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 6, 2013

Be Your Own Book Doctor

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Lynn Kelley Author

Photo Credit: Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons

If you Google “book doctor” you’ll get pages of folks willing to analyze your book and tell you what’s wrong with it. While this might be a helpful option for some, not everyone can afford to pay for this type of advice. But never fear, because with a little objectivity (and a plan), you can give your novel a checkup all on your own.

One of the reasons a good book doctor is so successful, is that they look at a story without all the emotional baggage us authors bring to our own work, and can analyze the critical elements of good storytelling. (We love our words. Our words are perfect, aren't they?)

The first step is to look at your manuscript as if you've never read it before. This can be hard because you do know your story, so let it sit for a month or two before taking a hard look at it. That will give you some distance so it's not fresh in your mind. And be ruthless. Pretend you paid good money for this book, and you want it to be worth every penny. What's not working?

Ask yourself:

Is the Tone Consistent?

Tone helps hold a novel together, like a soundtrack playing in the background. It tweaks the emotion at the right moment and nudges the reader toward what you want her to feel. If you’re writing a light and funny romance, your book had better be light and funny. Long angst-ridden passages probably aren’t hitting the right vibe and might need to go.

  • Does the opening scene convey the tone of the novel?
  • Is that tone consistent?
  • Does the imagery and word choice reflect this tone?
  • Does the tone change over the course of the novel? Should it?
  • Does the tone enhance individual scenes to bring about the desired impact on the reader?

Is the Theme Clear?

Theme is the unifying force of a novel. It's what the book is about, and without it, a story can feel shallow at best, pointless at worst. Themes are what keeps a reader thinking about the book long after she's put it down.

  • What is the theme (or themes)?
  • Are there examples of this theme throughout the novel?
  • How does the theme deeper the character arcs?
  • Is the theme stated clearly in the opening chapters of the novel?
  • Does the theme tie into the resolution of the novel?

Is the Plot and Structure Solid?

Structure holds a novel together. Each scene should move the story and plot forward, building on each other to form a cohesive novel. It's not just a series of dramatized moments from someone's life, but characters making choices that affect them and others.

  • Does every scene have a goal and consequences if that goal isn't met?
  • Is there an inciting event within the first 30 pages (or 50 for longer books) that puts the protagonist on the path to the rest of the novel?
  • Is there a moment at the 25% mark where the protagonist makes the choice to pursue the story problem?
  • Does something happen in the middle of the book that changes how the story problem is viewed?
  • Is there a dark moment or setback at the 75% mark that sends the protagonist into the climax?
  • Is there a clear "win" for the protagonist at the climax? Something she has to do in order to succeed?

Are the Stakes High Enough?

Stakes make or break a story, because if the reader doesn't care if the protagonist wins, she doesn't keep reading. Low stakes is a common problem with stories that aren't quite making it but the author isn't sure why. If the protagonist can walk away from the problem and nothing in her life changes for the worse, then the stakes aren't high enough.

  • Will the protagonist's life change for the worse if she fails to achieve her goals?
  • Are the stakes big enough to be worth the reader's time?
  • Do the stakes affect the protagonist personally?
  • Do the stakes escalate as the novel progresses?
  • Are the stakes clear from the beginning of the story?
  • Are their stakes in every scene? (doesn't have to be the same stake)

Is There Enough Conflict?

Conflict is an often misunderstood word. It's easy to assume it means fighting, but conflict is just two sides opposed to the same goal. It can be adversarial (bad guy wants to nuke the city, good guy wants to stop him) or friendly (sister wants to win the race, brother wants to win the race). It can be different approaches to the same goal between friends, or even conflict within oneself.

  • Is someone or something opposing the protagonist in every scene?
  • Is the bad guy working against the protagonist?
  • Are there personal beliefs in conflict?
  • Are there philosophical differences that cause the protagonist trouble?
  • Is it ever too easy for the protagonist to achieve her goal?
  • Do coincidences work to aid the protagonist instead of hindering her?

Is There a Strong Narrative Drive?

Narrative drive is the force that moves the story along. It's the reason the characters do what they do and makes the plot feel as though it's going somewhere and not just wandering aimlessly.

  • Does the protagonist have a plan of action?
  • Is the motivation for that action clear?
  • Is there a story point to every scene?
  • Is that point clear from the start of the scene?
  • Is the protagonist making decisions that change how the story unfolds?
  • Are there story questions dropped throughout the story that readers want answers to?
  • If you took the scene out, would the plot change?

Is There Tension?

Tension works on micro and macro levels. It's the big face-off between hero and villain, or it's the small nail-biting moment waiting to see if one character notices something. It's what makes a reader stay glued to the page to see what happens next.

  • Is there tension on every page? (A reason the reader keeps reading)
  • Is there tension between characters? (good and bad)
  • Is there tension between characters and the setting?
  • Are there moments when the protagonist is relaxed? (if so, how can you shake her up?)
  • Is there an unanswered question in every scene?
  • When one question is answered, does another take its place?

Are There Character Arcs?

Like plot moves the story, character arcs move the theme. Characters typically grow and learn something over the course of the novel and are changed forever by this experience. No growth can leave a story feeling flat.

  • What does the protagonist learn over the course of the novel?
  • What lie is she telling herself/does she believe at the start of the novel?
  • When does she realize it isn't true?
  • What does she want most of all as a person?
  • Does the external plot facilitate her achieving this personal desire?
  • What is she most afraid of?
  • When does she face this fear?

Are the Characters Fully Formed?

Characters are the souls of the story, and the more developed and real they are, the more drawn in to the story the reader will be. People are flawed and wonderful at the same time, with layers and complexities that often contradict each other.

  • Are the characters flawed in ways that affect their decisions in the story?
  • Do they have virtues that affect their decisions in the story?
  • Do they have contradiction beliefs?
  • Do they have backstories that have shaped the person they are now?
  • Are those backstories relevant?
  • Are the motivations plausible?
  • Are the characters fully formed people or clichés or stereotypes?
  • Do the characters have different approaches toward things?
  • Are the supporting characters as developed as the main characters?

Does the Dialog Sound Natural?

Stilted dialog can stop a story cold or make it feel melodramatic and cheesy. Good dialog captures the essence of real life conversations without the awkward pauses and interruptions that actually happen.

  • Do the characters sound like real people?
  • Does each character have a unique voice and style of speaking?
  • Is there any "As you know Bob" dialog that info-dumps or tells that should be cut?
  • Do characters use language suitable to their status, age, or cultural situation? (for example, five-year-olds don't typically sound like college professors unless there's a reason)
  • Is the dialog actual conversations or just two people stating information at one another for the readers' benefit?
  • Are they telling each other things they already know?
  • Are there empty dialog phrases slowing the pacing down? (pointless small talk)

Is the Setting Developed?

A well-develop setting and world helps draw the reader in and immerses her in the story. A badly developed setting or world leaves her confused and frequently jarred out of the story.

  • Does every scene start by grounding the reader in the setting? (where applicable)
  • Is the setting clear from the start of the book?
  • Are there enough specific details that show the setting, or is it too general for a clear picture?
  • Does the point of view character share her thoughts and views on the world around her?
  • Does the setting or world make sense?
  • Are their people interacting with the world or is it just a backdrop?
  • Is too much focus spent on the setting descriptions?

Is the Pacing Working?

Pacing is the speed at which the reader learns information. Longer sentences slow the pace down, shorter sentences pick the pace up. Dialog (internal and external) typically reads quicker than description and stage direction. Too fast can be exhausting, while too slow can be boring.

  • Is the pacing consistent with the genre?
  • Does the pacing speed up during major plot moments?
  • Are there waves of fast and slow pacing throughout the novel?
  • Is the pace quick enough to keep readers reading?
  • Are there any slow spots?
  • Are there any spots that are too fast and the reader has trouble absorbing the information?
  • Are there any spots that encourage reading skimming that should be revised?

This is only a small sampling of possible things to look at, but they should give you a solid plan for examining your novel for trouble spots.

What things do you look for when you're evaluating a manuscript?

Janice Hardy RGB 72Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her teen fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, BLUE FIRE, and DARKFALL. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

Janice is presenting her "It's Showtime! Show, Don't Tell" workshop at the SCBWI Southern Breeze WiK Conference in Birmingham, AL on October 12. Non-SCBWI members are welcome to attend.

Mark your calendar for next Wednesday. Writers in the Storm is gearing up the fanfare for the launch of an exciting new feature. To celebrate there will be bonus posts--and more.

43 comments on “Be Your Own Book Doctor”

  1. Janice,

    Thanks for the thorough list of items to evaluate! After reading through the extensive list, I got a kick out of the final line ("this is only a small sampling of things"). This post comes at an excellent time for me (a pantser in the middle of a WIP) because I've been mulling over the issue about the stakes for the past two days (trying to figure out how to raise them).

    I wanted to share something I heard at a conference (about reading your MS with fresh eyes). One editor suggested writers print out a copy of the MS in a different font before reading/editing. She said the new font "tricks" the brain into seeing the MS as if reading it for the first time. I tried it, and it did help me notice both small mistakes (typos) and bigger issues (like dialogue).

    Okay, back to work for me!

    1. Jamiebeck, oh good, glad it hit you at the right time. I've heard that about changing the font, too. Someone somewhere did a study on that, and found that folks concentrate more on harder to read fonts and retain more of the information. (not that I'm suggesting making a MS hard to read during proofing, just backing up the idea that it works, lol) It's a great tip.

      Reading the pages out of order is another good one. You don't get caught up in the story that way.

  2. Thanks, Janice. Excellent information. It is amazing what you see when you set the MS aside for a while. I just picked up a ms I set aside for three years. Talk about cringing....

  3. Love this checklist, Janice. The thing I've always found hardest to do is to set it aside and let it 'rest' for awhile.

    I love the dichotomy of posts lately - should you hire and editor/be your own editor.

    1. Thanks! As crazy as publishing is right now, it has created so many options for writers. We're not trapped in any one thing or track, and we can do whatever works best for us. That's a win/win too!

  4. Janice,
    Thanks for a great outline of steps to use when editing a book. It shows all the segments that need to be addressed. Objectivity is difficult when it comes to editing our own work, but it's easier if we set the WIP aside for a few weeks. Fresh eyes will help us improve our manuscript.

    1. They really do. I've also found breaking the editing down to manageable steps helps as well. Pick one thing as a time and work down the list. Makes it much easier to focus.

  5. Thanks, Janice, for your tips. You have reinforced what I have been learning recently about evaluating, revising, and editing. Checklists are so helpful, even when their length is daunting!

    1. I LOVE lists. I have list for editing, drafting, planning, revising, you name it. If they're too long, break them into smaller bite-sized lists 🙂 It feels quicker and you have more satisfying moments to cross things off.

  6. How cool to have one of my favorite bloggers at one of my favorite blogs. 🙂 This list is tremendous. I love the questions. I can see how they'll be helpful during my pre and post writing. Thank you, Janice. 😀

  7. Uh, this could be a book--you have the whole outline! This is awesome information. And something I can use throughout the writing process, not just after I type The End. Thanks for sharing this wealth!

    1. That's in the works (grin). I'm actually in the final stages of a writing craft book (on planing your novel) and the series will go from planning to drafting to editing and then submitting. I probably will use this for the editing outline.

  8. Oh Janice, this is just what I needed. I'm getting ready to work on a project that I've left alone for several months. I'm printing this post, it's going to be so beneficial. Thank you!

  9. Janice,

    Awesome checklist!

    When you mentioned there should be "an exciting incident" in the first 30 pages, or within 50 pages in a longer novel - I wound not wait that long. I'm from the school that you want to hook your readers with an incident early, though it might not be the main incident that throws your story into its drive.

    Thanks for this great article.

    1. Oh, that's not the only hook or the first one. That's just the conflict that sends the protagonist on the path to the core conflict. You want a hook on page one. Maybe the inciting event happens in the first few pages, maybe it's later, but there will be other hooks along the way for sure.

  10. While it must be lovely to have a truly competent developmental editor take your manuscript and analyze the heck out of it so that, when you get it back, it is obvious how to fix its problems - it is a process which is both expensive and iffy: you are then trusting someone else's judgment.

    I say go for it if you're comfortable with the expense and the subjectivity - and willing to follow someone else's lead on what needs changing. It COULD be a shortcut for you to make this book better.

    But you don't learn as much. Asking the questions in your list teaches you to look for those problems, to anticipate them, and to write a better book this time and next time.

    It's not as if you were never going to have to learn to make sure your characters have arcs, or your settings are actually there and your reader can picture where things happen. If, after you have done it yourself to the best of your current ability, and run it through alpha and beta readers and anyone else who will hold still, you still have the gut feeling that something is seriously wrong somewhere and you haven't been able to figure it out for yourself, that is when I'd get a developmental editor involved.

    But I don't think you're ready for one before that.

    1. I think it depends on the type of editing you get. A good developmental editor can give direction and point out problems, but the writer still has to do the work to fix it. A line editor would make text changes and if someone just follows the advice without knowing why then it wouldn't be much of a l earning experience.

      Solid beta readers who are good at both the macro and micro issues are a writer's best friend. I agree you're better off starting there and not worrying so much about hiring an editor unless you plan to indie publish.

  11. A friend recommended your blog to me. I'm working on my first novel and very much appreciate the post "Being Your Own Book Doctor." I look forward to receiving additional email entries. Keep doing what you're doing.

  12. Love this post, Janice! Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I've been using it as I go through my revisions. 🙂

  13. Thanks Janice for the wonderful checklist. You clearly put a lot time into it and I know we all appreciate the effort that went into it. I usually hit all the grammar stuff first by plugging chapters into Sporkforge. It picks up redundant words and phrases. The good part is that while correcting those, I'm able to check the dept of meaning in my sentences. Usually if I'm wordy, it's because I didn't get my point across. So I kill two birds with one stone. Where your list is a good reminder of the right questions I need to ask when I'm combing through everything. 🙂

  14. Take care of macro problems before line edits... stay consistent... I have got to stop cutting and pasting these suggestions. I'm looking forward to the final writing book when it is out.

  15. Over the years, I've collected a small library of books about writing and created various work sheets based on that information, so many of these questions are answered BEFORE I ever start the first draft. Since I have a background in drama, my first drafts usually resemble scripts, with lots of dialog and the action mapped out. My second draft is the raw manuscript. Then I use the search function in my word processing program (I prefer Libre Office because it works so well for this part) and search for passive verbs, superfluous adjectives, and filter words, highlighting each one I find so the third draft edits all that out & tightens things up. I make notes on anything that needs tweaking--especially things like tags and whatever is fuzzy or unnecessary--and that's the final rewrite. I think it's easier to finish a project if you take the time to set things up right in the beginning; if too much needs fixing, it's tempting to give up & chuck the whole mess in the trash--which I did at least 3 times before I figured out how to do what I call "pre-writing." I know everyone has their own method, but I like to layer my edits so I don't miss anything.

    1. Sounds like a great process. I like to start off right as well. If I can't answer certain questions and know the ending before I begin, I always run into trouble later.

  16. Oh, I just loved this post! I am both, an editor and writer. I love having a list like this, and I hope it's okay, but I'm going to ask a writer to come to this site first, before spending a lot of money on me. Don't get me wrong, I do like making money, but too often writers come to me and expect me to make their book work, when they need to take the time and learn these fundamentals. It's a bit like having a fashion designer come to me and ask me to make a dress for them, when they don't know how to sew. I can't do the sewing for them. That's not my job as an editor. My job is to make sure the design fits, has great style, and is actually wearable, if that makes sense in the metaphorical way.

    Thank you once again for the great blog!

  17. […] If you Google “book doctor” you’ll get pages of folks willing to analyze your book and tell you what’s wrong with it. While this might be a helpful option for some, not everyone can afford to pay for this type of advice. But never fear, because with a little objectivity (and a plan), you can give your novel a checkup all on your own.  […]

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