Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Is Your Book Ready to Publish? 10 Signs that It’s Not

By Jami Deise

Self-publishing has been a boon to readers and writers alike. Readers now have access to hundreds more books than ever before, and many cost less than a pair of pantyhose. Writers no longer have to search and search for that one agent or publisher who’ll take a chance on their story; publishing is as easy as uploading a file to Amazon. At Chick Lit Central, we review traditionally published books and self-published books alike. We do require self-published books to be written at a professional level, though, and not every self-published book that comes our way meets this standard. (We choose not to review these books because we do not want to hurt the author’s sale. If a self-published author is read by one of our reviewers who then declines to review the book, we are happy to share the reviewer’s feedback with the writer.)

Leo Tolstoy wrote that all happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Conversely, while most well-written books are unique, books that aren’t quite ready for prime time usually suffer from similar flaws. Following are the most common reasons a book needs a substantial edit:

1. Plot, or lack thereof. Plot can loosely be described as Character A wants X, but Y gets in the way. Books featuring a main character who does not have a goal, who meanders through one situation after another, lack focus and fail to give the reader a reason to keep reading. Does your book read like a series of episodes from a sit-com? An episodic novel is one that lacks plot. The protagonist must constantly be striving for something – even if that something is getting back to normal after a divorce.

2. Conflict, or lack thereof. This is where the all-important Y comes in. A book about a woman who gets whatever she wants without having to try all that hard isn’t compelling. (And it’s probably too short.) Your book should be about the most important thing to happen in your main character’s life, and important things do not happen without struggle. Some authors fall in love with their protagonists and don’t want to make their lives hard. But conflict – both external and internal – is a necessary, unavoidable part of story. Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could possibly happen to your protagonist – and then make it happen.

3. Scenes lacking purpose. Every scene in a book must either forward plot or reveal character (preferably both), and it must contain external or internal conflict (preferably both.) That means that fun scene with the protagonist and her best friend getting drunk and singing karaoke has to go… unless at the end they realize they’re singing to the same guy. (And please don’t quote song lyrics! Nick Hornsby might be able to get away with it, but no one else can.)
How can you tell if your scene lacks purpose? If you can delete it and you don’t need to change one thing that happens afterward.

4. Poor time management skills. If a chapter starts with “Six weeks later,” that means nothing important happened in your protagonist’s life for six weeks. Find a new place to start your story. Or start a new chapter with “Part Two.” Similarly, if your protagonist is killing time till six pm, we don’t need to hear about every Facebook status she commented on. A book needs to have a sense of urgency, a drive to the finish. The main character is running a marathon. There’s no time to stop for lunch.

5. Dialogue lacking subtext. In well-written novels, characters don’t say exactly what they mean in long, uninterrupted paragraphs. They hint around, they disagree; they never respond directly to a question. It’s the novel equivalent of, “Do I look fat in this dress?” The question is posed in order to receive a compliment or reassurance. No one ever says, “Please tell me I’m pretty.”

6. Love at first sight. Many self-published novels I’ve read have the protagonist meeting her love interest and falling for him almost instantly. Their first dates are described in minute detail, including funny stories about dogs and family members. Conversely, many traditionally published books have the protagonist’s love interest already in her life before she starts to have feelings for him. This scenario allows the reader to skip over the boring introductory parts and heighten the conflict. If you can’t give up your “meet cute,” then postpone the love as long as possible.

7. Uneven tone. It’s okay to have some funny moments in your heart-wrenching drama, and dramatic tension in your comedy. But if you go from satire to mystery to tear-jerker, you’re going to lose readers along the way.

8. Supporting characters without lives of their own. Your protagonist needs family, co-workers, a love interest, a rival. But if all these characters do is show up when she needs them, comment on her problems, and go home, they won’t seem real, and neither will your story. At the same time, however, the novel is your protagonist’s story, and the writer must be careful to establish point-of-view early on and stick with it. Most women’s fiction novels are written from first person point-of-view, or third person limited to the protagonist’s point of view. That means going into the back story of the CVS check-out girl’s tattoo is a big no-no.

9. Convenient plot points. One coincidence per story is fine. But if your heroine finds a wallet bulging with cash on the subway, runs into a famous Hollywood director, and learns she’s related to Prince William by marriage, your reader won’t be able to finish your book because she’ll be too busy rolling her eyes.

10. That’s unbelievable! Your main character is a surgeon and you faint at the sight of blood. Your protagonist is a Hollywood screenwriter and you’ve never been west of the Mississippi. There’s a reason why writers are advised to “write what you know.” But if what you know is too boring to make a good story, there’s no shortcut to doing your research. Without it, the scenes dealing with your protagonist’s job, etc., will read clipped and false, and your readers who are in her profession will write angry notes blasting your lack of knowledge.

These are the flaws that will keep me from reviewing a self-published book. (If a traditionally published book has them, I will review it and you will hear about them in my review.) One of the many benefits of self-publishing is that apparently Amazon will allow you to edit and upload a new file. It’s never too late to do another edit and take your book to the professional level.


Mari Passananti said...

One coincidence per story should be engraved on every writer's desk. I see overly convenient developments in big six published fiction all the time, and wonder why experienced editors often give such twists a pass.

Anne R. Allen said...

Great list. These are the problems every editor runs into in first drafts. Don't publish a first draft! (Or a second, third or fourth, if you're a newbie.)