How to Tell If Your Story Is Really Ready for the Big Leagues
Is your next book or screenplay really ready for showtime? As tempting as it is to get your work out there, you may benefit from doing some last-minute analysis. After all, you only get one chance at a good first impression. If you’ve taken the time to set up an efficient and effective author platform, do yourself a favor and run through this checklist.
Back to Basics
If your goal is to make it to the big leagues, you must capture and hold your reader’s attention. Let’s face it, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling can do whatever they want. You aren’t them-until you are. It’s time to take a critical look at your book to determine whether your plot is up to snuff. As you read the following checklist, ask yourself whether you’ve hit all these marks.
Try to be objective.
- Does your story have a theme? What is the work saying overall? What is it trying to convey about life? Not every story has an overt theme, but arguably, the best stories do. But don’t be preachy. You shouldn’t have to hammer the reader over the head with your theme, it should emerge organically through the telling of the story.
- Does your story have an active protagonist? There’s something to be said for experimental formats, but if you’re trying to get an agent, get published for the first time or make it big in the self-publishing industry, you need to give readers what they expect. This means ensuring that your story has a protagonist that readers can relate to. This doesn’t necessarily mean your protagonist has to be likable-the anti-hero angle can work well. It just means you need a story that is driven by the desires and motivations of one specific character.
- Does your story have a plot? You don’t have to plot every scene ahead of time, but there should be a clear progression from plot point to plot point. Actions should have consequences.
Note: if in your analysis you realize your plot is somewhat haphazard, use this simple trick to supercharge and focus it. Go back to the beginning. Then, at every crucial juncture, ask yourself, “Does my protagonist get what he/she wants here?” The answer should either be:
- Yes, but…something happens.
- No, and…something happens.
It’s possible to overdo this but starting with this basic format will ensure that your story has a plot from beginning to end. This is basically the formula that J.K. Rowling used in the Harry Potter series. Enough said.
- Does your story have conflict? There should be some form of conflict in every scene. But this does not mean that your characters need to be yelling or fighting all the time. There are many types of conflict, both internal and external. Conflict keeps the reader engaged.
- Does your story have a solid structure? Again, later on, you can do whatever you want, but when you’re first getting started, it’s best to toe the line. Does your story open with intensity and action, and does it wrap up with more intensity and more action? A mistake many new authors make is to open with a long-winded introduction. In today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, it’s essential that you grip the reader from the start. We can get to know your protagonist as the story unfolds, so start with a bang.
- Do you know your characters? It’s a good idea to write character bios before you start writing your book. Only you need ever see them. These bios will help you get to know your own characters. If you don’t know your characters, you can’t let them speak for themselves. Whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, each character should have a voice of their own.
Editing Isn’t Sexy, It’s Essential
Another often overlooked aspect of book marketing is the editing phase. Look, you might be able to tell an engaging story, but if there are numerous typos on every page, people are going to find plowing through your book a chore. This can lead to numerous bad reviews, which will, of course, dampen sales. A thorough self-edit is a good start, but you will not find all of your own errors.
One simple trick that will help is to read aloud to yourself. There’s something about hearing a story that engages a different part of the brain. You see, when you read your own work over and over, that self-critical part of your brain starts to skip over the parts it knows well. But when you hear your own story, you can more easily pick out the typos and grammatical errors. Any competent word processing software, such as Scrivener, can output your story in PDF format, and some PDF readers can read aloud. Ginger, a suite of editing tools that integrates into Microsoft Word, can also read aloud.
Don’t be disturbed by the number of typos and grammatical snafus you find when you do this-overlooking your own mistakes is natural, and you’re only human after all. What matters is that you catch them all.
A spell checker that understands context is essential. These advanced spell checkers understand the difference between words like “its” and “it’s,” “their” and “there,” etc. Catching these typos will save you a bit of embarrassment, but it will also make your book easier to read and follow, and this can save you a few negative reviews.
You should have other people look at your work before you:
- Seek representation.
- Seek a publisher.
- Decide to self-publish.
We’ve already touched on why. You’re never going to catch all of your own mistakes, and the more mistakes you catch before sending your work out, the better your odds of snagging an agent, netting a publisher or hitting a home run on Amazon, Barnes & Nobles or Smashwords.
If you have already set up an author platform, you can use it to solicit beta readers. Fans of your work will be happy to help you out. Simply blast an email you have set up email marketing, haven’t you-to your list asking for a few volunteers. Be sure to point out that being a beta reader means they’ll get early access to new stories, chapters, and other material. If your work is too sensitive to send out to people you don’t see in real life every day, ask friends if and only if you can trust them to be somewhat objective.
Note: Soliciting feedback from family is generally a bad idea. Through no fault of their own, they will be tempted to tell you what they think you want to hear.
If all else fails, pay for professional proofreading or editing. It’s worth it.
So, you’re sure it’s time to sell your work or reach out to an agent. That means it’s time to review your copy. When writing copy, your job is to put yourself in your potential customer’s shoes. What do they want? Why did they land on your book? What are they looking for? Ask yourself, what is this person going to get out of reading my book? What benefit are they going to receive? If you can’t think of anything other than entertainment, you might have a problem. What is your story’s hook? What makes it unique?
Note that when writing copy, you must take out all unnecessary words. Strip it to the essentials. This isn’t the place for flowery prose. You have a few seconds tops to grip the reader before they hit the “Back” button.
These elements may seem obvious, but they are often sorely overlooked. The truth is, setting up a powerful author platform won’t do you much good if your output is sloppy or poorly marketed. So take however much time you need to go through this checklist carefully. Most importantly, take action.