When is your novel good enough to publish?

I see variations of this question on writing boards all over the internet. It is tempting for me to read a few lines of the book and answer the question for them. “No, it isn’t ready. Go back and fix these issues.” After all that’s really what I’m doing when I’m editing for people. I’m showing them the parts of the novel that make it not ready for publication.

But that is just my opinion. I’m one person with one set of ideas about what constitutes a well written novel. One of the things I’ve learned in my years of reviewing is that there aren’t many rules that can’t be effectively broken. I probably would have sent 50 Shades of Grey back for more editing.

I’m not going to tell you if your novel is ready for publication. I will tell you what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of that novel. I will push you to polish and make it as ready as possible.

So, how do you know?

I use beta-readers. Those are people who don’t know me and have had no part in the creation of the book whom I ask to read the book and tell me what they don’t like about it. It may seem harsh to ask only what people don’t like, but I find it is a very effective way of getting the most out of my beta-readers. If they don’t like something, the chances are very good that other readers won’t like it either.

I fix what the beta-readers don’t like. If there was a lot of things they had problems with, I might find a second set of betas and turn them lose. When I start hearing that the book works well -they finished it without a struggle, they didn’t have major issues with the plot and/or characterization in the book, then I know that it is close.

I have my content editor go through the book before I send it to beta. The line editor I have look at it after. I’m not longer going to make huge changes, but just make certain that I’m consistent, that I don’t use the same word too many times (unless I have a good reason to do that).

I make the changes suggested, then I sit down one more time and read the book from cover to cover. I don’t use a pen to mark it up. I just read. I want to see if the story pulls me in. Does it evoke emotion at the right places? Do I like this book? If I hadn’t written it, would I buy it?

Now I’m ready to answer that question. Is my book ready to be published? Not only can I answer it, I can answer with confidence. That is very important when you are marketing. You need to know that you’ve put out a quality product. If you’re apologetic or uncertain about your own book, you won’t sell very much.

I’m still learning. I can see the difference in my two books and I’m working to create as big a difference in my third book. That doesn’t mean the first two weren’t ready, though I’d do things differently now. It means that I’m getting tougher on myself and raising my expectations.

That’s why you need to ask yourself that question each time you finish a book.

I get my ideas under cabbage leaves: the creative process.

I see lots of writing sites that are driven by giving people help with their writing. I can understand needing help. Lot’s of people tell me that I need help, but that’s a different post. The problem is the way many people need help is not very helpful. What I see writers asking more and more for others to help them with their titles, their characters, points in the plot, even the core idea for the plot in the first place.

It is time to talk about the creative process. That is, the means by which we come up with the ideas that we later turn into stories. Ask any writer where they come up with their ideas and you will get either a blank stare or a sarcastic answer. This is because everyone has their own way of generating concepts for writing stories. I know authors who never leave the house without a little notebook in which they write ideas down about characters, situations, dialogue etc. It is a little disconcerting when they pull the book out in the middle of a conversation, but at least you know that you may be immortalized in their next book. Others research trends and try to find concepts that haven’t already been addressed.  They place their stories in the cracks between other people’s stories. All my books have started with a single image or scene; a princess who didn’t get enchanted, a girl who befriends a tree, a devil who gets a chance at redemption. I read one author who when asked said that he found his ideas under cabbage leaves.

The point of all the different methods is that they imply an openness for the story to come and take up residence in the writer’s consciousness. So the real question is not “Where do ideas come from?” but “How do I open myself to the ideas?” If you only read one kind of book, you are only going to write one kind of story. If you only talk to a select few people, you will only have a certain kind of dialogue. I think you get the idea. The broader your experience and the more different people you encounter, the richer ground for ideas you will develop.

So how do you move from that initial idea to a full blown story?

Some people are outliners – they carefully set up each plot conflict and character point and arrange the time line to work best with the story. This is good. It means that you are in control of your plot, you aren’t likely to have holes for trucks to drive through and you can manage plots and sub-plots of great complexity.

Other people just start and they keep going until they stop. They have no idea how the book is going to turn out until they reach the end. Then they go back and try to find the inconsistencies and holes to fix them. This is good. It means that the story is fresh and exciting and can take wild turns at a moment’s notice. Character grows in an organic way.

Some people use a bit of both.

The important thing with however you plot your story is that you make the story and the characters your own. This isn’t about originality, or not completely. It is about taking the time to be open to what your story is telling you. How is your blond bimbo different from all the other blond bimbos? What does that difference mean to the story? That difference may become the fulcrum of the story upon which everything else balances. The same thing is true of setting and culture. The more you can own the setting and the people of your story, the richer it becomes.

So why is asking for plot ideas, or character ideas not helpful? It isn’t that it is bad. When I’m writing I will sometimes use random generators to give me words or names. The difficulty comes in that it is very much harder to use someone else’s idea to create a story. It is a stranger to us. We have to woo it and get to know it, maybe buy it drinks before it starts to blossom in our minds into a story.

If you are having a hard time writing your idea, spend some time with it. Play with it. Turn it around and twist its sides like a Rubix cube. At some point it will tell you what it wants you to do. Talk to your characters, push them and see how they push back. If your story is stuck, you may be in the Swamp, or you may have taken a wrong turn. Go back and read your story and listen for what it is telling you.

If you are desperate for an idea, any idea, go look under a cabbage leaf, there may be one waiting there for you.

Writing Articles

Over the last couple of years I have been on and off active at Wattpad. I have a fair collection of stories there, but I also have a large collection of articles on different aspects of writing from dialogue to character to avoiding cliches.

I am going to port them over to this site since much of the material is useful in looking at your writing to work on it before you hand it over to an editor. If you have a specific area that you would like me to write about I will look at it and post something here.

So you’ve finished that novel…

You accepted the challenge of National Novel Writing Month and came out of it with a novel. Everyone told you that first drafts were rough, but you didn’t believe them until you went back and read your book. The first time you read one of your first drafts is always a traumatic experience. The good news is that your novel doesn’t have to stay in that rough shape. There are ways to make it better.

The first thing I do is let the writing sit for a few months. I always have several projects on the go, so put the book on the shelf and do something else for a while. Then come back and read it. For this first read through I like to print it and use highlighters and a pen. I have a red highlighter for stuff I’m deleting. It’s terrible and it’s going. I use a green one to mark stuff that I like. I want more of that, but for now I just mark it so I know it’s there. The pen is to make notes in the margins. Comment about gaps in the plot, descriptive needs,  characterization, anything that you want to add to the novel.

When that is done, I go back to the computer and work through the draft with that marked up copy on my desk. At this point I rename the file so I’m not saving over the draft. I may need that someday. It’s a good idea to start a new version for each major revision. I delete stuff, move things around and add what I need to add. If you aren’t sure you’ve got everything at the end of the first read through. Do it again.

If you think you’ve got a decent quality draft, it is time to get someone else to do a similar process. That’s your content editor, me. I will not only focus on the good, the bad, and the missing, I will talk about structure, plotting, voice and a lot of other things.  If you pay me to look at your book and comment on it. Expect to work hard when you get the book back. You don’t want me to send it back saying “It’s great.” That doesn’t help your story improve. I may tell that parts are great, but I’ll also suggest ways and methods of making them better.

If you aren’t sure about what I can offer you. Send me a chapter and I will comment on it free of charge.