Monday, June 16, 2014

Seven “story renovations” that will make your book great.


You know what breaks my heart?  When I hand my story to a reader (an honest proofreader, please!)… and they read the story. 

Here I am, and I I love the story, so I’m all, like, “well?  well?” … and they say, “I liked it.”  That “like” breaks my heart.  That is the “like” that is not love… it means my story’s not good enough.

Has that ever happened to you?

Sometimes, little changes aren’t enough to bridge that disconnect between the story unfolding beautifully in my mind and the story on paper that will make readers say “wow.”  That means your book (and mine) needs a big change.

Don’t be afraid to overhaul your book.  If they can pull up scaffolding and repaint the Sistine Chapel, surely you can take a pen – or keyboard – to your story and have it, too, emerge renewed, recharged and more brilliant than ever.

Here are seven big changes that can take almost any story and make it stronger.  Save your first draft so you can come back to it if you need to… and then plunge right in to make your story better and stronger than ever.

1. Who’s the main character?

This one may be the scariest change to make.  At one point, I was working on a story with a child as the main character, except I was stuck with the story… until my teacher suggested making the main character an adult instead. 

This was a revolution.  Heretical, sure.  What do you mean, make him an adult? 

But you know what?  When I finally calmed down to the point where I could think things through clearly, I saw that she was right.

Ask yourself: 

Why does the main character have to be a kid? (or a rabbit, a pirate, Santa Clause)  Would the story be stronger, simpler, easier or more fun if he/she was… (the tooth fairy, a bully, a badger)?

2. Can it be simpler?

Have you tried to cram too much into your book?  Don’t worry; we all do it.  But once your story is written, it’s time to simplify.  It’s like the Inuit say about their stone carvings; cut away anything that doesn’t look like your story. 

If your story has nine monkeys and the monkeys are getting in the way, cut to the chase:  how many monkeys do you really need to make it work?

Ask yourself:

Are there too many words in this book?  (here are some basic word length guidelines)  If my main character does something x times, maybe he only needs to do it x-1 times?  Can I get away with x-2?

3. Can it be more complex?

Sometimes, there’s just not enough story there to fill up your book.  If you’re writing for older kids, but your plot is too dull or straightforward, you may need to liven things up with a few twists and turns.  How will you know if you need nine monkeys or one monkey or no monkeys?  Try it out and see. 

Yes, this may mean writing several versions… and yes, rewriting is painful.  Ouch.  We have all been there and done that.

Ask yourself:

Does my book have enough words for its genre?  (here are some basic word length guidelines)  Have I thought about incorporating the Rule of Threes to build up the story and make it more interesting?

4. What does your character want?

This is his prime motivation; it’s what drives the story.  If the story isn’t strong enough, it could be that your character’s motivation isn’t clear, or isn’t worthwhile enough.  I’ve heard that your character needs to want something, even if it’s as simple as a glass of water. 

Changing up what he’s after may change the tone of your story from one that’s not quite believable to one that’s totally… perfect.

Ask yourself:

What does my character want?  Is it clear from the beginning?  Does he/she get it in the end?  Have I put enough obstacles in between my character and his/her goal?  An easy journey is usually less interesting than one with multiple challenges.

5. Is the art just right?

Okay, I lied before when I said changing the main character is the hardest.  Rethinking the art is probably the toughest change you could possibly contemplate.  But illustrations that don’t match your story are worse than no illustrations at all. 

No matter how much you love the art you’ve got already (whether you drew it yourself, paid an illustrator or collaborated with an artist who worked for free), if it isn’t perfect for the book… it’s time to head back to the drawing board.

Ask yourself:

Does the tone of the art suit the text?  Do the pictures echo exactly what is described in the text, or do the pictures actually add a dimension to the story, making it richer and more playful?

6. What age group is it for?

Most editors are pretty strict about word lengths, so if you’re over word length, take a good long look at your story. 

Is it really meant to be a picture book, or would it be better as an easy reader, or even a longer chapter book for older kids?

Ask yourself:

Have I really read those word length guidelines?  Who do I picture reading this book?  Are they reading it themselves, or is this a book parents will likely be reading aloud?  Have I read it aloud to children in the right age group?

7. Who solves the problem?

If somebody else is stepping in to solve your main character’s problem… it’s a problem.  See if you can’t find a way he or she can work his (or her) own way out of that pickle.  Remember, they don’t need to solve the problem directly – in Disney’s Cinderella, she is helped out in getting to the ball by all the animals to whom she’s shown kindness earlier in the story. 

Their help isn’t random; her good deeds have come around again just in time to solve her getting-to-the-ball problem.

Ask yourself:

Have I killed off my main character’s parents?  If not, why not?  Is he or she a strong, independent individual?  Does she or he sow the seeds of the book’s conclusion throughout the book, or does the ending come out of the blue?

When a reader doesn’t love your book, sometimes they can’t articulate what they don’t love.  That can be the most frustrating part.  I just want to scream, “well, what didn’t you like?”

Of course, expecting that is unreasonable.  It’s my story, and it’s up to me to save it, and sometimes, a big change is just the thing.

Wait a while, work on something else… and then dive back in, trying out whichever of these changes you think might make a difference to your story.  (I’ll say it again:  always save your first draft, no matter how awful, so you can go back to it later on if you need to!)

But don’t be afraid to make the big changes that could bring your book all the way from good to great.  The changes that will get you – finally – the “wow!” that makes your heart soar.

What are some big “renovations” you’ve made that turned a so-so story into a winner?

[photo credit:  Branko Radovanović via Wikimedia]


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