Bullet-Proof Your Novel

In these challenging economic times, more people are turning to books for entertainment.

"I am optimistic that the downturn in the economy (and cost of gas) isn't negatively affecting book buying--at least for now," says Ellen Edwards, executive editor at New American Library. "In fact, when we asked the question at the NAL Spotlight during the RWA convention, we received a decisive response that readers were buying more books, because they offer a less expensive form of entertainment than many others."

John Scognamiglio, editor-in-chief at Kensington Publishing, concurs. "I do feel that when prices are high, consumers turn to 'cheaper' forms of entertainment, such as books."

Alicia Condon, editorial director at Kensington, goes a step further: "Traditionally, people do look for happy endings and less expensive entertainment during hard times, both trends that favor romance books. My hunch is that readers will be increasingly drawn to fantasy romances, which portray characters confronting many of today's most difficult challenges and triumphing over them."

But while people may be turning to books as the best entertainment bang for their buck, they're also more careful about how they spend that buck. This, in turn, means publishers must be especially careful about the quality of the books they acquire. Scognamiglio said that in challenging times, his company is likelier to buy books in categories it traditionally does well with, such as romance and mystery--and holds the books it acquires to an especially high standard.

With the economic downturn in full swing, selling your novel just got harder, but it can still be done. Following are some tips for bullet-proofing your book in these especially competitive times.

First, recognize that (a) you have a better chance of selling or continuing to sell if you stick to safer, "tried-and-true" genres; and (b) these books must be especially strong. Then keep the following points in mind about the story itself.

Problems, Problems. An effective story begins with a person faced with a crisis-a terrible problem that turns her world upside down and forces her to take immediate action to set things right. Since this crisis fuels the action of the entire novel, it's especially important to get it right. Ask yourself the following questions about the crisis in your novel:

1. Is the crisis genre-appropriate? In my agency we often receive novels whose crises are patently unsuited to the books' intended genres. From your own reading (and you should be reading voraciously in your chosen genre) you should have a good idea of the kinds of crises that work for the kind of book you're writing.

2. Does the crisis turn your lead character's life upside down in a negative way? A crisis isn't a crisis unless it throws the lead's life into serious disarray. If the crisis isn't "bad" enough, your readers won't believe the lead would make solving it her top priority. Moreover, it won't take the lead long enough-the length of your novel-to set things right, and your story will run out of steam halfway down the track... which means you'll cast about for extraneous elements to drive your story. This is what agents and editors mean when they say a book is "all over the place."

3. Does the crisis capture your imagination? The situation the crisis creates must intrigue you. You'll be with this novel a long time. If you get bored while you're writing it, you may not finish it. If you're bored and finish it anyway, your boredom will be evident in your novel, and agents and editors will reject it.

Have you got a crisis you like but fear may not be big or bad enough? Try one or more of these tricks to make it stronger.

Make It Worse. Change the event or situation so its consequences will be more dire.

Make It Bigger. Enlarge the event or situation.

Change Certain Elements. Alter certain aspects of the event or situation.

Change the Locale. Drop the event or situation into a different setting-city to country, townhouse to tenement...

Combine Two Crises or Situations into One.

Reach for the Moon. What is your lead going to do about the crisis? She must set a goal she believes, when achieved, will solve the crisis. Her pursuit of this goal is literally what your novel is all about. To work effectively, your story goal must meet four criteria:

1. Your lead must be trying to gain possession of something (a person, an object, information-anything) or relief from something (fear, pain, sadness, loneliness, domination, oppression-again, anything).

2. Your lead must face terrible consequences if she fails to achieve this goal. There must be a lot at stake.

3. Your lead must have at least one worthy, high-minded motivation for pursuing this goal. Readers must be able to root for your lead in her mission, to admire her efforts. They will not do so unless they approve of your lead's motivation. Examples of worthy motivations are duty, love, honor, justice, dignity, integrity, patriotism, redemption, and self-respect. Softer motivations such as kindness and generosity don't work as effectively; nor do negative motivations such as lust, envy, anger, greed, hatred, revenge, covetousness, and excessive pride.

4. Your lead must be working against tremendous odds. It should appear practically impossible for her to achieve her objective.

The Right Stuff. Is your lead really lead material? Give her these four must-have traits:

Courage. She should possess an inner strength that will enable her to confront obstacles that arise as she pursues the story goal. This courage needn't be blatantly obvious; she may have a quiet or hidden courage, so that she sometimes falters before pulling herself up and facing adversity.

Virtue. She should be a moral person who knows right from wrong and understands the difference between good and evil. She needn't be a saint, but at the end of the day, if she's done something illegal, immoral, or unethical, she knows it and seeks to make reparation.

Likability. She should have a sense of humor and be able to laugh at herself, not take herself too seriously. She should be modest about her good qualities, though not falsely so. She should be kind, considerate, and concerned about the welfare of others.

Competence. She should be a sensible, intelligent person who makes full use of the above qualities when dealing with problems and obstacles. If she can't always be clever, she should at least possess common sense.

A Worthy Opponent. The opposition-also known as the villain or the antagonist-is the character who most stands in the way of your lead's achieving the story goal. Keep these points in mind as you create this character:

1. The opposition must be a person, not a force of nature such as fire or drought; not a group, such as a gang or corporation; not a general life condition such as poverty or society's apathy. The most effective opposition is a character who already plays some part in the lead's life.

2. The opposition must be an equal match for your lead, a person of roughly similar strengths and abilities, to ensure a good "fight."

3. The opposition needn't necessarily be evil; his motivation for standing in your lead's way must simply be as strong as the lead's motivation to attain her goal.

Talk to Me. Have you given your lead a confidant? Not every novel must have one, but this character is built into my Marshall Plan novel-writing system because it adds so much to a story. The confidant is a person close to your lead who is privy to her thoughts, secrets, and fears as she pursues her goal. The confidant acts as a sounding board, helping the lead make plans, analyze situations, and work through problems and dilemmas. The confidant can supply information to your lead, advise her, cajole her, persuade or confront her. Consider a friend, a spouse, a lover, a relative, a co-worker, an employee, for this role.

To Love or Not to Love. In a romance, of course, a romance is mandatory; but in many genres the love interest is optional. If you're writing in one of these romance-optional genres and haven't included a romance, why not consider it? A romantic thread adds texture and emotion to a novel. Of course, not every novel should include a romantic involvement. You'll know from your reading whether it's an option for your novel.

Do the Twist. In film scripts it's called a turning point. In my system it's called a surprise. Whatever you call it, it's a major, shocking story development that throws a whole new light on your lead's situation and makes matters worse in terms of her reaching her goal. A surprise can be a discovery your lead makes; an action by another character that affects your lead; revelation of new information that is truly bad news for your lead; or an event that has a negative impact on your lead's situation. The surprise should raise the stakes for your lead and thereby make your readers sit up and take notice.

You can have as many surprises as you feel are right for your novel, but be sure to place one approximately a quarter of the way through your novel, another approximately halfway through your novel, and another approximately three-quarters of the way through your novel.

Use some or all of these techniques in your next novel. I guarantee you'll see an improvement-one that will give you a competitive edge in these challenging times.

Article Source: Evan_Marshall

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