When I was first trying to sell a book, I struggled to find some magic formula that would take a book good enough to win contests to perfect enough to sell. What I found became a checklist of sorts, which I’ve posted below. What makes a book SOLD instead of simply good enough to win contests? Several factors, I discovered when I took two previous manuscripts that had done well in contests and later revamped them to make them sell.
The first of those books was THE VIRGIN’S PROPOSAL, my first Harlequin Romance, which went on to win the Booksellers’ Best Award. The second (and the one I have examples from) is THE BRIDE WORE CHOCOLATE (adult content), recently re-released to Nook in their Nook First program (it’ll be on Kindle in a few weeks and the rest of the books in the series are on both Nook and Kindle).
Going from Good to SOLD to me is all about taking the book one step further:
1. Make sure every Scene has a Goal and a Sequel. Does your main character in each scene have something he/she wants to accomplish during the course of the scene? If you have a scene that just seems to be sitting there, with no real purpose, then nine times out of ten, the lack of a goal is the problem. Each of the scene goals should feed into the main book goal, and should raise the stakes and the tension. The minute you lose your tension, you’re at the end of your book, because the characters have achieved their goals.
2. Make sure your plot hangs together. This usually requires one read through to look for any potential holes in your plot, any questions left unanswered, etc. Be sure to make notes as you go along, rather than trusting your memory. Often, it’s a dangling plot that keeps a book from being unique enough.
3. Did you make the most of your voice? Voice is that indefinable thing that really sets you apart from another writer. Structurally, you might have a fabulous book but if you haven’t given it your own unique flavor -- the stamp that makes that book YOURS and yours alone -- it won’t stand out among the others on the editor’s desk.
4. Conflict, Conflict, Conflict: Don’t be afraid to throw more and more roadblocks into your characters’ paths. As authors, we’re often too nice to our characters and don’t give them enough hardships. Hardship fosters change which in turn creates character growth. Also, characters who solve their internal and external obstacles too early end the book too soon. Be sure there is some “but” still getting in the character’s way, forcing them to continue on their emotional (and physical, if you have one) journey before you get to the final concluding scene.
5. Motivation, Motivation, Motivation: Do your characters have reasons for everything they do? And do those motivations come from the character’s character -- i.e., what makes him/her uniquely themselves -- rather than some contrivance on your part? Character actions should grow out of character experience, self concept and wants or needs.
6. Look at your balance of narrative and dialogue. Do you have too much of one or the other? Too little in one area? Do you have long passages between spurts of conversation, which make for unnatural pauses? It really helps to read aloud at this point to make sure the dialogue olds together naturally. If necessary, act it out to really see the places where your narrative is too long.
7. Speaking of dialogue — make sure every bit is necessary. Dialogue is a plot tool. It’s used to further the plot and show character, rather than just sitting there, filling up space.
8. Check the obvious. Did you look at all the spelling and grammar errors? Fix the dangling participles and split infinitives? Remove all the extra “thats” and “justs”? Take out as much passive writing as possible? Try to show instead of tell?
9. Tighten. And tighten again. Once you’ve gone through the manuscript for all of the above reasons, go through it again for tightening. Can you use one word instead of five and get the same impact? Can you reword passages with stronger verbs and adjectives, delivering more punch in every sentence?
10. Can you use more unique phrases to express the same thing? Too often, writers relay on clichés for their descriptions instead of striving for something more unique. This is that indefinable aspect that editors are looking for — a strong book written by an author with his/her own distinctive style. To achieve that, you have to write better than those who have gone before you. Be stronger, be more precise. Try harder. That means coming up with several versions of a turn of phrase or striving to go beyond the stereotype. Don’t settle for what’s easy and predictable. Take it to the next level and you’ll soon be hearing your career go to the next level of...
(a side note on the excerpt—it’s a little sassy)
|eBook (adult content)|
The sign on the corner and the Mercedes parked beside it told her she was on Beacon Street in a very exclusive part of Boston. She barely had to raise her arm before a yellow taxicab pulled up beside her. (THIS IS THE OPENING OF CHAPTER TWO. NOT BAD, BUT NO HOOK, AND LOTS OF TELLING)
As she rode home, she realized she wouldn’t trade her cozy two-room apartment near the North End for any of the brownstones on Beacon Street. She loved the smell of the bakeries, enjoyed talking with her neighbors and especially liked the quaint cobblestone streets. (WORKS IN BACKSTORY BUT DOES IT IN TELLING, WHICH ISN’T GOOD. AND NO SCENE GOAL HERE EITHER.)
She had lived in Boston ever since she went to college. Her parents never understood how she could prefer the crowded, noisy city over the tranquility of the suburb where she’d spent her childhood. (AND IF THAT WASN’T ENOUGH TELLING FOR YOU, HERE’S MORE ;-)
How could she ever explain that some tiny part of her needed the bustling atmosphere of the city? The hum of the traffic, the people hurrying by in the mornings, were fuel for the drive that burned inside her. (AND MORE)
What no one knew, not even John, was that her dreams were here, the ones she’d had in college when she majored in business, hoping someday to open her own flower shop, to have the independence and financial security she craved. (AND MORE)
At her graduation, she had every intention of announcing her plans. But when her parents hurried over to congratulate her on her degree, she didn’t get a chance to say anything. John knelt down in front of her, held out a sparkling diamond and asked her to be his wife. (AND NOW HERE’S A BACKSTORY DUMP…AND MORE TELLING. SO FAR, NO COMEDY, NO GOAL, NO CONFLICT, NO MOTIVATION).
“Oh, Candace, I’m so proud. Now you can settle down and have those grandchildren I’ve been dreaming of,” her mother exclaimed, tears glistening in her eyes. “You’ve got everything now, dear, everything you could ever dream of.”
I suppose I do, Candace mused. It was her father’s heart attack the following autumn that had sealed her fate and kept her from pursuing the shop. In the years since, both her parents had become dependent, financially and emotionally, on their remaining child. It was a pressure that was hard to ignore. (AND EVEN MORE TELLING, JUST TO KEEP IT THAT WAY ;-)
Compare all that above to the SOLD version, which I think uses my voice more, adds more conflict and showing, and has a clearer goal. It’s also funnier and has more tension.
SOLD version of THE BRIDE WORE CHOCOLATE:
Every block of the trip home compounded Candace's guilt, rolling in her stomach along with the stench of the cabbie and his faux Cuban cigar. How could she have done something so stupid? And if Barry ever found out... (ACTIONS ARE HERE, AND THERE IS LESS TELLING, LESS OF THE TO BE VERB)
He wouldn't. She’d sweep this momentary lapse of common sense under the rug and leave it there with the Cheetos from last year's Christmas party. The only people who knew were Rebecca, Maria and herself. The three of them could keep a secret for the next, oh, fifty years. (NOW I WORK IN SOME COMEDY AND LOTS OF CONFLICT. AND HERE’S HER GOAL—TO FORGET ALL ABOUT IT AND PRETEND THE NIGHT NEVER HAPPENED)
As the cab rounded the corner of her street, a swell of anger rose in her throat as she thought about how she must have ended up in the pickle in the first place. How could her “friends” leave her with that Rudolph Valentino wanna-be? What had they been thinking? Had this been some twisted bachelorette scheme? (NOW HERE’S A BIT OF TELLING BUT IT WORKS BETTER BECAUSE SHE’S IN THE CAB. ALREADY ESTABLISHED ACTION, SO I HAVE THE MOMENTS TO DO THIS. I ALSO DID IT WITH LESS TELLING)
He'd claimed she'd asked him to take her for a ride on the wild side. Impossible. He was lying, taking advantage of her hungover state. She wouldn't have. She couldn't have.
Well...yeah, but she kind of had with that kiss.
No, that was a pod twin of herself. A temporary fugue state. Candace tossed the possibility that she'd had anything to do with her own predicament right through the smeared dirty window. (BRINGS IT BACK TO THE PRESENT WITH THE LAST WORDS, AND ADDS CONFLICT)
The cab stopped. Candace paid and hopped out. She crept into the house, hoping to pass by Grandma's door undetected. It was, after all, only a little after seven in the morning. Maybe Grandma had slept in. But since Candace had all the sneakability of an African elephant and Grandma had the hearing of a Navy man, that wasn't to be. (NOW I ADD ACTIONS AND DIALOGUE TO SHOW INSTEAD OF TELL THE BACKSTORY)
“Candace? Is that you?” Grandma Woodrow opened her door and stepped out into the hall the duplexes shared. Dressed head to toe in purple-and-teal Spandex, punctuated with knee pads, elbow pads and a dark purple bicycle helmet, Grandma looked equipped for extreme knitting. (ADDS COMEDY AND RATHER THAN DOING A BACKSTORY DUMP, KEEPS IT PRESENT AND ACTIVE)
Candace let out a laugh. “Don't tell me. I don't think I want to know.”
“Pshaw.” Grandma waved a hand at her. “George is teaching me to Rollerblade. We're thinking of going to Venice Beach in January, and everyone who's anyone there Rollerblades.” (SETS UP GRANDMA’S CHARACTER IN A FEW WORDS AND A VISUAL)
Hopefully seeing the “rules” in action help you apply this to your own book. And before you know it, you’re going from Good to SOLD!
Leave a comment for a chance to have the first page of your manuscript critiqued by Shirley.