Taking Your Novel from Good to Great

Hey Gang! Happy Friday. For those who happen to read my blog, you know that most Wednesdays come with what I call The Mash-Up of Awesomeness. This is a list of links and articles I’ve found noteworthy enough to bring to your attention. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Penguin USA has officially launched a service to help writers self-publish their own books, called Book Country. I’ve actually known about Book Country since early this past spring and was privy to the beta version of the site. I must admit is was super cool blessing to get this sneak preview into the future of publishing. But what was even cooler? I got a chance to meet and hang out with Danielle Poiesz, the Book Country Editorial Coordinator.

I asked Danielle to come offer a guest post to show you guys how to bring your Novel A-Game, no matter what avenue of publishing you decide is the best fit. And guess what? She agreed! I never even had to publish those pictures of her dressed as a Klingon at a Trekkie Convention….oops. Inside words stay inside. I always forget that.

Take it away, Danielle!

***

Writing a novel isn’t an easy feat. Writing a good novel is even harder. And even after you’ve conquered that tricky task, you still have a complex, exhaustive, and strenuous revision process to go through in order to make that good novel great.

But how do you know what needs fixing, which parts aren’t “great” just yet? How can you pinpoint your weaknesses so you can work to strengthen them?

Well, the first thing you need to do is get off the horse. View the world of your book from the ground, as your reader would, instead of from your author’s perch. When you’re kicking around on land, getting your feet dirty and smelling the trees around you, you can then objectively start looking at the big picture. (Always look at the whole before you get distracted by the details!) Focus on what your reader knows–what’s actually on the page–and not on what you know as the creator of the world, story, and characters.

The way I always approach an edit–whether of my own work or someone else’s–is by focusing on eight main criteria: point of view, voice, character development, plot, dialogue, pacing, setting, and continuity. At Book Country, we use these eight editorial elements as guideposts for peer review–they are the most important “big picture” parts of your story! Each one can make or break you and your book, so you want as much feedback as you can get in these areas.

But being able to recognize these parts of your own writing, which parts are strong and which need work, is just as significant as getting the constructive thoughts and opinions of fellow readers and writers.

Let’s take a look at what exactly each criteria means and how to start thinking about them:

  • Point of View: POV isn’t an easy element to conquer, but when your story is told through the right eyes, it makes all the difference. Ask yourself: Does this POV work for the story? Which character’s perspective is most interesting and/or useful to the reader? Is the POV consistent? Are intentional POV shifts clear and transitioned smoothly?
  • Voice: A strong, engaging, and fresh voice is key to capturing a reader’s attention. Ask yourself: Is the overall voice compelling? Is it unique? Does it fit with the genre in which I’m writing? Does each character have his/her own individual voice?
  • Character Development: Not only do characters need to be relatable, but they also have to grow and learn over time, just like real people. Ask yourself: Are your characters engaging and believable? Do they have clear strengths and weaknesses? Do they grow over the course of the narrative (aka do they have individual character arcs)?
  • Plot: Without an intriguing plot, there can’t be a story. Ask yourself: Is this book’s plot believable? Is it confusing? Is it entertaining? Is the conflict strong enough to maintain the story? Does each plot point move the story forward?
  • Dialogue: Dialogue doesn’t have to be perfect; it has to be real. Ask yourself: Does the dialogue sound genuine? Does it sound natural for the time period, location, and culture? Is it consistent for each character and is his or her dialogue distinct? If you use slang/accents, does it distract from the story?
  • Pacing: A story must always move forward with a speed and rhythm that feels natural and unrushed. Ask yourself: Is the progression of this book’s narrative compelling? Is it keeping my interest? Does the pacing fit with the genre (i.e. if it’s supposed to be suspenseful, does it move quickly? Does it supply that feeling of suspense in the cadence of the writing)? Is the pacing smooth and consistent?
  • Setting: In most fiction, setting should take on qualities of a character—be believable, detailed, well-drawn, and powerful. Ask yourself: Is the setting clear? Will the reader understand where he/she is? Is the place, culture, and/or time convincing? Are the details making the story come alive?
  • Continuity: Even with multiple plotlines, a story needs to flow, make sense, and follow a full narrative arc. Ask yourself: Are there loose ends or inconsistencies in the story? Are all elements of the story consistent throughout? Is the story linear? If it’s intentional non-linear, will it make sense to the reader? Is the time-line clear?

Asking yourself these questions and other related questions that are relevant for your story can help you get a handle on which areas need some T-L-C.

(What do I mean by “other related questions”? For example, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, you’ll want to focus on setting in terms of world-building: Have you explained the rules of the world? Does it make sense of the reader? Will they believe it?)

Once you’ve rolled the answers around in your head, you can really get down to the nitty-gritty and revise with specific concerns in mind.

If you can, it’s also a good idea to consider these criteria while writing your draft in the first place. You can minimize the heft of the revision process by making sure you’re on target as you go. Many writers, however, have a difficult time with this–or are just “pantsers” by nature and don’t know the answer yet!–and prefer to let the first draft just flow from their fingertips and go back to it later. That works too–then you can just use these criteria as your first-round revision tools.

Take the path that suits you best, but never forget these eight building blocks. They’re simple, but they have the power to take your book from good to great…if you let them.

Bio: Danielle Poiesz is the Editorial Coordinator at BookCountry.com, an online community for genre-fiction writers and readers. She’s also an avid reader, dabbles in writing, freelance edits, and runs a book blog, Reading Between the Lines. As a firm believer in helping writers grow and aiding readers in find books they love, Danielle’s always ready to encourage authors to create work that is eye-opening, meaningful, and of course, entertaining. You can also find her on Twitter: @daniellepoiesz.

Thank you, Danielle! And guys, please take some time over the holidays to check out Book Country. There are some tremendous resources available to all kinds of writers, and you might even be lucky enough to hang out with Danielle.

So come on, guys! Show Danielle some WANA Luv. Ask her questions about writing, about Book Country. Heck ask her if Warp 10 is faster than the speed of light. Captain Kirk or Captain Picard? ….or ask about publishing stuff.

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of November I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!

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  1. #1 by M.E. Anders on November 18, 2011 - 1:06 pm

    Taking a story from its infant stage 1st draft to the adult stage final draft is often too daunting for new writers. Putting these pointers into practice is key to polishing that story.

    Just a plug for BookCountry – I highly recommend using that community as a place to talk about books, get critiqued and feedback from other authors, and share your knowledge about writing. I’m glad to be a part of that support system…I better follow my own advice and up my involvement. LOL :)

  2. #2 by Jolyse Barnett on November 18, 2011 - 1:23 pm

    Hi Danielle!

    Perfect timing…I recently finished my first book. I’m pleased with it, but want to take it from good to great, like you said. I’m in the process of using beta readers to help me determine where to revise before sending out to more agents. (I’ve sent it out to two agents who’d requested the full and one responded so far with a personalized rejection.)

    Your list of eight critical points to consider gives me even more focus. I’ve narrowed my book’s weakness down to two of those points. Now for the hard part–using that big picture to revise those story details. Would you suggest any specific method or resources as I go through this final stage? Besides Hemingway’s suggestion to sit down, write, and open a vein, that is.

    Thanks again, and thanks also to Kristin for hosting you here. I’m a little sponge. :)

    • #3 by Danielle Poiesz (@DaniellePoiesz) on November 20, 2011 - 10:59 am

      Congrats on your first draft, Jolyse! That’s a huge accomplishment. And it’s fantastic that you are already able to narrow down the areas that need work so you can truly focus your revision process.

      As for a specific method, every writer is different. Depending on which areas you struggle with, there might be some great books on the craft of writing that could help, or particular exercise that might come in handy.

      For example, if you need to flesh out character development, the first thing I always suggest is doing little writing exercises where you throw your character into crazy situations and see how he/she reacts. It’s a way of getting to know your character on a deeper level so that you are able to portray him/her more accurately throughout your actual story. I also like to write character bios, make a list of questions and answer them about my character, really get to the heart of his/her flaws and what kind of growth he/she needs to succeed in by story’s end.

      Like I said, there are lots of different ways to address your revision based on what parts need work. =)

  3. #4 by Diana Stevan on November 18, 2011 - 1:37 pm

    Nice to know about another legitimate self-publishing resource. I personally think it’s sicidal to self-publish without an objective critique and editing suggestions that can make that good novel great. Thanks for the info.

  4. #5 by Deb Marshall on November 18, 2011 - 1:39 pm

    thank you for this! will be printing if off as not only will it help me with revising my own novels, it will help with critiquing others! Thanks again and enjoy the weekend.

  5. #6 by K.B. Owen on November 18, 2011 - 1:50 pm

    Hi, Danielle! So glad you came to chat with us. I’m curious: why did Penguin, a traditional brick-and-mortar publisher, decide to launch a service for writers to self-publish?

    Thanks!
    Kathy

  6. #7 by Danielle Poiesz (@DaniellePoiesz) on November 18, 2011 - 2:19 pm

    Thanks for having me at Warrior Writers, Kristin! Such a great blog for writers! =)

  7. #8 by Carrie on November 18, 2011 - 3:54 pm

    Thanks for the information and laying out those basic criteria to keep in mind. I know that as a story takes hold I slip in my POV or have inconsistencies that need to be addressed. I guess I am a “pantsers” writer :)

  8. #9 by nakedlobster on November 18, 2011 - 4:09 pm

    What a great list of things to look for when editing! I am going to print it and hang it up in my office. Thanks, Danielle, and thanks to Kirsten for hosting you on her blog. I’ve been editing and editing, and now I can do another round using these points.

  9. #10 by Jess Witkins on November 18, 2011 - 4:36 pm

    I agree with the advice to get off the horse. Since I’ve been reading more this year, it’s been easier to understand why it’s important to let other eyes see or even take time off and then review your work yourself because you catch the parts where you thought it worked or sounded so good, and suddenly you realize it was an info dump, or it’s too long. That in and of itself is really helpful advice.

  10. #11 by authorleannedyck on November 18, 2011 - 5:02 pm

    Thank you for this very helpful list, Danielle. I’ve taken notes and will use your questions as a guide post through my novel writing journeys.

  11. #12 by patriciasands on November 18, 2011 - 5:16 pm

    Thanks Kristen and Danielle. Excellent advice and the list keeps it all nicely organized for a pantser like moi. I promise to use it!

  12. #13 by Karen McFarland on November 18, 2011 - 6:12 pm

    As I am at the editing stage, so I thank you for a simplified list of what to look for.

    Thanks for all the advice Danielle.

  13. #14 by tomwisk on November 18, 2011 - 9:29 pm

    Good post. Everybody who has a novel on the computer or in their head can learn from the post. Self publishing is an option that has to be considered. Publishers can only handle so much. For those of us who are not lunching with editors, we have to look for a way to get our story out.

  14. #15 by Kyllan Brindle on November 18, 2011 - 10:25 pm

    Oh come on Kristen, everyone knows that warp 10 is faster than the speed of light. Any first year engineering student could tell you that!

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 19, 2011 - 8:37 am

      Yes, but the key is….did DANIELLE know? Would she fall for that tidbit of Trekkie bait?

  15. #18 by Catherine Johnson on November 19, 2011 - 7:23 am

    Great list, Danielle. Thank you very much!

  16. #19 by Jami Gold on November 19, 2011 - 9:53 am

    Interesting! I’ve been hearing about Book Country since the beginning, and I’ve poked around a bit, but not deep enough to see what all they have to offer. Thanks for the inside scoop, Kristen!

    And Danielle, thank you so much for your insight on what it takes to bring our story to the next level. I just finished the first draft of another WIP, so this is great timing. :)

  17. #20 by August McLaughlin on November 19, 2011 - 10:47 am

    Fantastic post. Thanks Kristen and Danielle!

    Question for Danielle… Do you recommend hiring a qualified freelance editor to go over your manuscript–whether we go the traditional or self-pub route?

    • #21 by Danielle Poiesz (@DaniellePoiesz) on November 19, 2011 - 12:14 pm

      Hi, August–

      I’m all for having your manuscript edited pre-pub. But how I would go about it would change based on publishing track:

      When you go the traditional route, you’ll have an editor there to do an in-depth edit–and presumably, you’d first find an agent who will likely put you through at least one round of revisions before the manuscript is really to go out on submission to editors. So, if traditional is your goal, I would recommend having either a professional or someone whose proofreading/grammatical knowledge you trust look over the manuscript before you submit to agents. Little errors can be a big turn off. I would, of course, also be sure to have beta readers or a crit group work with you before you get that stage to make sure the big picture items are good to go. :)

      If going the self-publishing route, I would recommend, again, beta readers, etc. for a first round of revising, and then would definitely get at least a developmental edit and line edit done professionally. I would probably go so far as to have someone proofread the material once the file is formatted too, just to make sure, but that all depends on how strong your line edit is, I suppose. You definitely want your book to shine inside and out before you pub!

      Hope this helps! :)

  18. #22 by Kimberly Mullican on November 19, 2011 - 11:04 am

    I follow a popular self-pubbed author’s blog and he all but flogged Book Country for their price to publish. But he seems to be angry about a lot these days. It’s very nice to see the other side of the coin. Self publishing can leave one . . . nervous about what advice to follow.

    All in all, the most pleasant surprise I’ve discovered since beginning my writing journey is how unbelievably supportive the writing community is. I can think of no other aspect of life where your competition can also be your largest ally.

    Thank you Kristen & Danielle for shedding an informative light on Book Country!

    • #23 by Damian Trasler on November 19, 2011 - 1:46 pm

      Hey Kimberly,

      I just came here from what I think is the blog you mentioned. I remembered that Kristen was bigging up the Book Country launch and wanted to do a comparison. The scare -stories are alarming, but I notice that Kristen and Danielle aren’t doing anything other than mentioning Book Country, saying it’s useful and providing a link to go look-see. (Oh, and top editing and writing advice, thanks Danielle!)
      When I did follow the link Kristen provided, I found the angry blogger man (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/11/book-country-fail.html) that I had read had mis-represented or misunderstood at least part of the deal – you can get help with editing, cover production and so on. Yes, it’ll cost you more than going it alone, but that help may be the key to success rather than failure. The big point here is, I guess, to look at what there is, ask questions of your social network (via Kristen’s site!) and then decide whether to take the next step or not.

  19. #24 by Damian Trasler on November 19, 2011 - 1:48 pm

    Oh, and I can’t leave it. ALL warp speeds are faster than the speed of light. Warp 10 is theoretically impossible, but Tom Paris achieved it an an adapted shuttlecraft from Voyager while still lost in the Delta quadrant….As I’m sure you all knew……

    • #25 by Kyllan Brindle on November 20, 2011 - 1:01 am

      Seems warp 10 is talking about a different form of propulsion entirely doesn’t it? Since at warp 10 you would be occupying all points in the universe simultaneously then its seems we are starting to wander into the realm of the Holtzman drive. Perhaps the only reason Paris started mutating afterward was the lack of melange?

      • #26 by Damian Trasler on November 21, 2011 - 3:59 pm

        I would say occupying all possible points of the universe at once is more like the Infinite Improbability Drive, but something in me says that Star Trek and Hitchiker’s Guide are mutually incompatible….

  20. #27 by snowtravelsandwrites on November 20, 2011 - 12:38 am

    Reblogged this on Snow-travels-and-writes and commented:
    Hi, I got this from Tameri Etherton, who reblogged it form Kristen Lamb. I just purchased Kristen Lamb’s book on blogging for authors ( We are not alone). Based on her blog I expect it to be $5 well spent. Best wishes.

    • #28 by snowtravelsandwrites on November 20, 2011 - 11:53 pm

      Please forgive an error in this commnet of mine: Tameri Etherton didn’t reblog this article, she had “liked” it and I had recognised her face icon at the bottom of the article (since I know her). When I went to refer to Kristen’s article I became confused about how I first saw it. Tameri hadn’t reproduced Kristen’s article and I apologise for the error.

      • #29 by Author Kristen Lamb on November 21, 2011 - 8:29 am

        LOL. No worries. I actually don’t have a problem if people reblog my content so long as they trackback to my original.

  21. #30 by Team Oyeniyi on November 20, 2011 - 7:01 am

    Very helpful, even though I’m not writing fiction. One could think that with a memoir, the characters are as they are, which is true enough – I don’t have to make them up, but I DO have to “develop” them in the book, so they are real to the reader.

    Pace is something I am struggling with. Personally, I am a “rate of knots” person and I think I might be leaving out too much detail. I will continue the way I am going in that regard for the moment, until I get a first draft finished, then I will review the detail aspect.

    • #31 by Danielle Poiesz (@DaniellePoiesz) on November 20, 2011 - 10:55 am

      You’re absolutely right! Character development in a memoir is definitely important! And pacing is such a huge part of ANY writing at all. Definitely get out your first draft first and then go back and revise with the problem areas in mind. It’ll be much more successful for you than driving yourself crazy self-editing as you go! Trust me–that’s a problem I suffer from greatly as a writer! It’s what I get for being an editor LOL

      • #32 by Team Oyeniyi on November 20, 2011 - 2:50 pm

        Thank you for that advice, Danielle – I’m glad to hear editing as you go is not the thing to do! I’ll keep going the way I am ! :)

  22. #33 by Joe Lerner on November 20, 2011 - 8:11 am

    Thanks, Danielle. Great advice and Bookcountry shows a lot of potential (I’m now a member). However, why no separate genre for “literary fiction”? Also, I’ve found the site buggy and unresponsive, and couldn’t even report these as I got error messages while trying to do so!

    • #34 by Danielle Poiesz (@DaniellePoiesz) on November 20, 2011 - 10:53 am

      Thanks for joining us, Joe! I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble with the site though! Send me an email at support@bookcountry.com and let me know exactly what’s going on and I’ll see what we can do to fix it for you. =)

      Book Country was intentionally designed for this niche community of genre fiction—literary is a horse of a different color. So by really focusing the community, we feel that it will allow for a most valuable experience for all involved—it’s a group of like-minded writers and readers who can really offer each other a great deal of support and advice. There is also nothing currently available serving this community of writers, whereas there are plenty of online writing communities serving general fiction and literary fiction.

  23. #35 by KimberlyFDR on November 26, 2011 - 5:51 pm

    I was an early tester of the Book Country site and have gotten valuable feedback on my novel through the site. It’s a great service and I hope others take advantage of the critique opportunities that Book Country provides.

  24. #36 by Caroline Clemmons on December 12, 2011 - 9:33 pm

    One of your best posts! But, dang, you have an assistant?

    • #37 by Author Kristen Lamb on December 12, 2011 - 9:55 pm

      Not anymore :C. She got a raise at work, but she is fielding some e-mail for me. Back to doing everything myself.

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