By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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