Is Your Story Idea Worth Publishing?

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Ever have an idea for a story that you thought for sure would become the next Great American Novel only to flame out when you couldn’t write past the third chapter? The truth is, not every story idea that crosses your mind is worth writing about. So how do you know which ones are viable as a novel or short story while others are better left as a stand-alone scene, or worse, dumped in the trash?

In a recent Reedsy webinar, author S. J. Watson spoke about the idea generation process and how writers can determine which ideas are worth developing. .

Watson said the idea generation process can be divided into four segments:
* Finding story ideas and recognizing them when they show up organically
* How to retain those story ideas
* How to determine if an idea has the potential to become a novel
* How to keep the original idea from going off the rails, and what to do if it does.

An idea is “a sense that something is possible,” he said, and they can come from anywhere around you. But he cautions writers to keep them close to the vest.

“Ideas are like hose pipes,” Watson said. “If you overshare an idea too soon with your family and friends, it might poke holes in it.” Once the holes are poked through, the story tends to lose its novelty and impact.

To generate meaningful and relevant story ideas, there are several things writers can do to prime the pump.

  1. Show up at your desk every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Ideas don’t show up automatically. You still have to put in the time and effort before ideas begin to flow.
  2. Observe your surroundings. Look out the window or take a walk. Notice something on the street that you don’t normally see, such as a mobility scooter or a three-legged dog. Then brainstorm different scenarios about what you see. You may surprise yourself by coming up with a viable story idea.
     
  3. Write when you’re half-asleep. The brain isn’t quite awake then and it can amplify the connection between seemingly different ideas. In this half-sleep mode, you’re less likely to censor yourself.

To retain your ideas, keep a notebook. Either carry one in your pocket or purse or use the Notes app on your phone. Any time you notice something in your environment, overhear a conversation, or get sudden inspiration, jot them down. Watson admits he rarely looks at his notes, but the act of writing ideas down helps him to retain those ideas for easy reference later.

Connecting the Dots

Which ideas are worth turning into a full-fledged novel? Watson said ideas begin with the sense that something big could happen, such as winning the lottery or getting into a car accident. They open doors to broader concepts, and they invite random scenes and characters to show up. You may have two seemingly unrelated scene concepts, yet there may be a thread that connects them within a single story.

Also ask yourself several questions about the story’s viability:

  1. Does the story idea stay with you, and do you feel a desperation to work on it? Some ideas come and grab you by the throat, demanding your attention.
  2. Can you visualize the protagonist or antagonist?
  3. Do you see the conflict? Do you know the characters’ goals?
  4. Most important, can the problem in the story be made to feel relatable, such as learning that a family member is terminally ill?

Another possible approach is to take other people’s ideas and remix the elements to make them your own, Watson says. Whatever approach you take, make sure you don’t second guess yourself.

Drifting Story Lines
If the story drifts from the original concept that you envisioned, you may need to make adjustments. If, at the 20,000 word mark, the story seems to be heading in a different direction than what you intended, take a step back and review the work you’ve done so far. If the changes in the story scare you or excite you, then keep going. You may be on the right track even if you don’t have a clear idea where the story is headed.

However, if the new direction of the story isn’t exciting, it may be a sign that the story is too safe. Watson suggests backtracking to the original spine of the story and starting over from there to regain the excitement. “Occasional drifting is okay, especially if it takes you to scary or exciting places,” Watson says. “If you drift too far away from the original intent of the story, it may need to be scrapped. Occasionally returning to the story spine can help you make sure you’re in the right place.”

Story ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Knowing which ones are viable as potential novels, and which ones aren’t can save you a lot of time and needless effort.

You can view the Reedsy webinar here.

Tips for Developing Suspense in Your Novel

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When you read a book, what is the one element that keeps you turning the page? Most likely, it is suspense.

Everyone has their own definition of suspense. Some dictionaries describe it as a state of excitement, anxiety or mental uncertainty. For works of fiction, book coach Samantha Skal defines suspense as “the question asked.”

It’s an odd definition, to be sure. But think about the myriad of questions you ask yourself, however subtly or subconsciously, as you read a story.

* Will the hero stop the bomb in time or will it explode?
* Will the couple get together at the end, or won’t they?
* Will she keep her baby or give it up for adoption?
* What will they do next?

“Suspense is the engine that keeps the story going,” says Skal who spoke at a recent Pro Writing Aid Romance Week event. “It increases reader engagement, reader satisfaction and improves pacing of the story.”

There are different types of suspense. There’s the big, scary kind where the serial killer terrorizes the town. Romantic suspense teases readers with the promise of two people getting together. There’s emotional tension, too, when the main character is battling internal demons, such as guilt or resentment. Finally there’s goal tension when readers wonder whether the character will finally earn that promotion or new job.

The simplest way to achieve suspense is to put obstacles in the way of the characters. Whether you’re writing a thriller, science fiction or a romance, several techniques can be used to add suspense to your story.

  1. Reveal inner thoughts and reactions of the main character. This is especially true if you’re writing in first person or third person close. By revealing the main character’s thoughts and perspective. In this way, readers are able to see the action in the same way and at the same time as the main character. So when the character feels tension makes an assumption about another character or misinterprets what they see or hear, readers witness that experience too. That moment when the character experiences a crisis creates tension that the readers feel.   

  2. Use hanging questions. Ending chapters with a hanging question often leaves audiences wondering what will happen next. For example, the character may ask themselves how they got themselves into such a mess, which may make readers wonder how they will get out of it. Hanging question keeps the action going, and keeps readers turning the page to find out what really does happen next. Make sure you answer the hanging questions right away, preferably in the next chapter. A word of caution though. If you have too many hanging questions in consecutive chapters, it can appear redundant. In other words, boring.

  3. Ramp up tension gradually. Skal suggests establishing tension as close to the action as possible. Then gradually ramp up the intensity with each chapter. At the halfway point of the story, something in the story changes, moving it in a new direction. At the resolution, wrap up all loose ends. But just to be sure you haven’t lost readers’ interest, add another twist or surprise revelation at the 95% mark.

  4. Emotionally manipulate your readers. Skal says it’s okay to do that since most readers expect certain things to happen at certain times in the story. In mysteries, for example, readers look for the mystery to be solved. In thrillers and suspense stories, they want to feel a low-grade fear the whole time, and they want to feel their heart racing.

  5. Be intentional about what you reveal – and when. Details about a character’s backstory, family history, and personality should be sprinkled throughout the story, when it makes sense to a particular scene. If you reveal everything at one time, it can be overwhelming for the readers. Also remember that if you mention a detail early in the story, it should have a purpose later on. For example, if your character notices a clock that has stopped early in the story, that detail should come into play later on.

Without suspense, your story won’t keep readers interested until the very end. By paying attention to these techniques, you can create stories that will keep readers turning the page.

Is a Fear of Being Published Preventing You from Writing?

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Many writers are plagued by fear. Whether it’s a fear of not being good enough, a fear of criticism or a fear of success, some writers can be so haunted by fear that they can’t write a single word.

Add one more fear to that list: a fear of being published.

It’s ironic considering that most writers I know strive to get published. That is the ultimate goal of writing, isn’t it?

But I can see why some writers would be afraid to have their work published, and the reasons they give are similar to the list of fears I mentioned above.

* Fear of exposure. Your work might reveal some deep, dark family secrets, or more likely, show off aspects of yourself that you’ve keep hidden. Getting published means putting yourself out there, and that can be scary. What if someone somewhere sees you for who you really are?  

* Fear of criticism. Once you’re published, people will read what you wrote. That’s a good thing, right? The thing is, they may either love it — or hate it. Many writers focus on the negative reviews rather than the positive ones, even though there may only be one negative review compared to one hundred positive ones. It’s the thought of the naysayers that can scare you away.  Getting published means the you risk getting negative reviews.

* Fear of success. Because, after all, getting published is a sure sign that you are a successful writer. But along with publication comes responsibility. Once you publish one novel, readers expect you to publish more. What if you can’t come up with a suitable follow up?

* Fear of a new identity. Once you become published, you shift from being an aspiring writer to a published author. The new identity means you have to live up to new standards and expectations for your writing. It may mean a new lifestyle, complete with travel, public appearances and author readings – things you may not be prepared to deal with.

* Fear of being found out. What if you believe the published work isn’t good at all, no matter how many positive reviews you get? People might find out that you’re a fraud or a phony, and your novel was published through sheer luck, not talent. You might as well give up writing, or so you think.

For many writers, getting published is scarier than writing. Writing is safe because you can do that in the privacy of your home. You can work in isolation, and it’s just you and your story ideas. You can hide behind your laptop screen and play with words and stories all you want. You don’t have to risk anything.

But once you become published, all that changes. You have to take your writing more seriously than before. It’s no longer a hobby but a business. You have to treat your writing as a product.

Once you are published, you might have to view yourself differently. You are now a business person with creative talent and a product to offer readers. To continue that success, however, you have to keep writing and you have to keep putting your work out there for people to see.

No wonder writers are afraid of being published.

Thankfully, there are some things writers can do to assuage those fears.

1. Hire a good editor. A professional editor might cost money, but it’s money well spent if they can catch miscues, provide meaningful feedback and suggest improvements to your work. A good editor can help you create a product you can be proud to publish.

2. Join a writers’ group. If you aren’t part of a writers’ group, form one of your own. Getting support from other writers can help you through the rough patches of the writing process. When you finish that first draft or finally get published, they can help you celebrate your successes.

3. Take criticism in stride. This might be easier said than done since most writers tend to remember the negative feedback more than the positive. It doesn’t matter if those critical voices come from within or from outside yourself (such as readers and editors). There will be times when you should shut it out. The only exception is when working with an editor or agent who may offer suggestions for improving your work. Their feedback should be taken to heart. The rest can be dumped in the garbage along with your rough drafts.

4. Remember why you write. If you feel overburdened by criticism or fear the unknown as a newly minted published author, remember why you decided to write in the first place. It might help to put things in perspective.

Remember that not everyone will appreciate your writing. Just because one person bashed it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a well-written book. It simply means it wasn’t their cup of tea.

Focus on the people who do care about your success. Even if only one person comments that they enjoyed your work, hold onto that. Don’t let a fear of publishing hold you back from doing what you truly love: writing.

Why Writers Need an Editor

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Many writers say getting a novel’s first draft down on the page is the easy part. It’s the rewriting and editing afterward that presents the biggest challenge, especially for beginning writers. Even after rewriting and editing it several, you may feel there’s something lacking in your manuscript. Most editors agree it’s at this point that writers may need to hire a professional editor.

Recently I attended a webinar called “Maybe It’s Not Your Plot” presented by author and book coach Susan DeFreitas. She says the problem with most manuscripts isn’t about what happens (the plot) but about WHY it happens, which is tied to character arc. She explains the role of character arc best on her blog.

DeFreitas outlines the six steps of a character arc, which I have shared below:

  • The protagonist has an internal issue to overcome, a mistaken belief about their world that will be challenged as the story unfolds.
  • Connected to this internal issue is the protagonist’s backstory, which explains how the misbelief originated.
  • There are conflicts and challenges that push the protagonist to view their misbelief in a different light.
  • The protagonist resists making necessary behavioral changes that fit the new belief. They want to go back to the way things were when the story began.
  • Change occurs incrementally to show how the protagonist fights against themselves.
  • The moment of truth occurs around the climax. The protagonist must face a hard truth, discover what’s been missing or didn’t understand.

Character arc is what drives the story and provides the emotional quotient that readers want to experience. But it’s also where most writers struggle with their story. This is when they tend to reach out to professional editors for advice on how to move forward.

According to DeFreitas, writers might need to hire an editor because:

  • The story is overwritten. There are too many words. A well-crafted novel should contain roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words. Romance novels require less than that while some science fiction or fantasy novels can run more than 100,000. Generally speaking, if your novel is too long, you’ll need to cut word count and scenes. Since you might be reluctant to do the cutting yourself, an editor can help you sort through the extra copy to determine what to keep and what to discard.

  • You have a million drafts. Perhaps after working a story multiple times, it still has not jelled the way you imagined. Or you have so many drafts that the story no longer resembles the one you started out writing.

  • You’ve gotten lost in world building. This is especially true for speculative fiction and sci-fi novels where alternate world is key to the story. You can get so caught up in the details of this other world that you lose sight of the plot and character development.

  • You have no clear idea how to end the story. You may have started off strong with your writing but by the middle of the story, you have no idea how to get to the end. I’ve found it helpful to write the ending before I begin writing the beginning so I know how the story will proceed. An editor can provide tips on how to visualize the ending of your story.

  • You can’t figure out how to revise your manuscript. This is especially true for pantsers who write their story organically with no initial planning. Once the scenes from inside your head are written, you may realize that the story heads off in different directions. You feel stuck on how to fix things. An editor can help you scale back your ideas and formulate a revision plan moving forward.

  • You received lukewarm response from beta readers. The good news is you’ve completed your manuscript. The not-so-good news is that your beta readers gave it a lukewarm reception. They politely offered feedback, which you gladly accepted. But you want more than that from them. You want them to feel enthusiastic for your work. A lukewarm response is a warning sign that something is off about your manuscript.

  • You’re not getting responses from publishers or agents. If you’ve reached this step, congratulations. You’re much further along than most aspiring novelists. Only problem is editors and agents aren’t responding to your novel at all. That should tell you that they either have not gotten around to reading it yet, or that it wasn’t worth their time to respond to you. You want to create excitement for your manuscript, and when a book editor or agent is excited about your novel, they’re more likely to get behind it.

 Editing your own manuscript is never easy. But working with a professional book editor can give you a better understanding of the revision process.

Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing (and everything in between)

At a recent meeting of my writer’s group, we were talking about how we planned to publish the books we were working on. The vote was split between self-publishing and traditional publishing.

When I researched options, however, I learned that there’s more than those two paths. Thankfully, the publishing industry provides numerous options for aspiring writers, nor do you have to aim for the Big Five to be successful. Many small presses can provide the same benefits as the larger ones, and hybrid publishers can give writers more control over the final product, though it comes at a price.

Which path you choose depends on a number of factors, such as the type of product you’re creating, how much time and money you want to invest in it, and what you hope to gain. As new technologies emerge that impact the publishing business, authors have more options to choose from than ever before. It helps to understand what they are, and to ask yourself several questions to clarify your goals.

There are three primary publishing options: traditional, self-publishing, and hybrid. Each is explained below. For an even more detailed overview of publishing options, Jane Friedman has published this fabulously informative chart that describes and compares each option more fully.

Traditional publishing. Traditional is as it sounds, the conventional path to publishing where an author signs a contract allowing a publisher to produce and deliver a book that the author has written. The defining characteristic is the signing of a contract. Authors have few expenses to worry about in this option, but they share in the profits. Many traditional firms offer an advance against royalties. Authors usually need an agent to get their foot in the door and should have a completed manuscript to submit.

The traditional path is dominated by the Big Five publishing firms: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. Each has dozens of imprints.

Then there are numerous small and medium sized firms that provide the same benefits to authors. These traditional firms have marketing teams that can help promote the finished product, although they may also request an author’s involvement in the marketing process, such as promoting on your social media and website, doing live readings at libraries and appearing at book signings.

However, there are some downsides. For example, this may not be the most profitable option for authors. Once the publisher and agent get their cut of the profits, there’s less available to the writer.

Self-publishing. With this option, authors publish their works on their own and at their own expense. It helps to have strong business acumen to understand both the creative and business aspects of publishing process. While self-publishing provides greater creative freedom to write what you want to write and publish, you absorb all the expenses. It may require more work and more time than you’re able to give it.

Authors oversee all aspects of development from editing and formatting to book cover design and distribution, which is great if you like to get your hands dirty and be involved in all aspects of production. Writers are also responsible for doing their own marketing to make sure the book gets noticed in the marketplace. If you’re not skilled at certain things, like book design or editing, be prepared to hire designers and editors to help develop the book the way you envision it. That means paying for those services too. It’s why self-publishing is not for everyone. That said, the profits are all yours because nothing is going to a publishing house.

Hybrid publishing. As the name implies, this option combines the benefits and flaws of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Many of today’s authors opt for this approach because it gives them more creative freedom and control in the process. As Barbara Lynn Probst explains on Jane Friedman’s blog, hybrid publishing:

“resembles self-publishing because the author carries the cost and financial risk; thus it involves an investment of your own capital. It resembles traditional publishing because professionals, not you, carry out the tasks required to transform a Word document from your laptop into an object called a book that people can buy and read.”

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. When choosing the best option for you, it may be helpful to ask yourself a few questions.

  1. What type of product are you publishing? Is it a non-fiction book, a novel or an e-book? Smaller products like novellas or business e-books might be better suited for self-publishing while larger works might be better suited for the hybrid or traditional model.
  2. Do you have an agent? Most large publishing houses don’t accept manuscripts from unagented writers. If you’re a first-time author, you might be better off at a small press or hybrid.
  3. How much time are you willing to spend on the production and promotion processes? Some paths require significant time on your part while other paths require less. How involved do you want to be? If you have a full time job, you’ll likely want the path with less time involvement. Either way, be prepared to put in some time and effort to make your publishing dream come true.
  4. How much of a risk taker are you? How much risk are you willing to take on? Self-publishing requires more time, money and energy on your part, but the rewards are greater too.
  5. Are you a DIY-er? Do you like do-it-yourself projects? If so, self-publishing will allow you to get your hands dirty and get you involved in all aspects of the publishing process.
  6. How much control and creative freedom do you want? If control and creative freedom is important to you, then self-publishing is your best option. If you’re willing to give up some of those factors, the hybrid or traditional path will work best.
  7. How involved do you want to be? Some people like being involved in every phase of the publishing process, while others are only interested in writing. Knowing how involved you want to be will determine the best option for you.
  8. How much money are you willing to invest? Publishing costs money, and some of it may come from you. Depending on which path you choose and what size publishing house you work with, be prepared to invest some money on production and marketing. Most beginning authors don’t have a lot of money to invest. My advice is to set aside some cash to cover costs.

No matter which publishing path you choose, be sure to know your writing goals and be prepared to wear several hats.

Use Your Writing to Build Authority

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Be sure to check out this week’s writing prompt: Write a story about a childhood memory related to food (learning to cook, family barbecue, tasting something for the first time, etc.)

When you’re just starting a writing career, you naturally want to be taken seriously by your readers. This is especially true if you’re writing non-fiction or starting a blog, or anything based on factual content as opposed to fiction writing.

It can be difficult to establish your authoritative voice in a sea of experts on the internet. How do you set yourself apart from them? How do you establish your own authority? How do you make your voice stand out from the rest?

This is especially important if you’re a beginning blogger. Many beginning bloggers are unsure what to write about, so they write about everything. Unfortunately, this gives the impression of being scattered, so scattered that it’s hard to know what their specialty is. Even publishing expert Jane Friedman has admitted that she did not have a niche when she began her blog. But that’s okay. Sometimes your niche or book concept can grow over time as you post consistently and readers respond to your posts.

So how do you establish your authority? How do you reveal your expertise? Here are some steps you can take to help build authority with your writing.

1. Take stock of your experience. What are you good at doing? What professional work have you done (bookkeeping, legal, marketing, etc.)? Do you have any hobbies or special interests you’d love to tell people about? Most important, what are you passionate about? Perhaps you’re an expert knitter, love animals or play golf? Make a list of all your hobbies, special interests, and work experience, then rank them according to how passionate you feel about them.

2. Focus on a single niche. Once you’ve done your self-assessment from step one, you’ll have a good idea what you’re an expert at – and what expertise you want to promote about yourself. If you’re figuring out an angle for your blog, this step is imperative. A blog focused on one topic shows more authority than a blog that covers multiple topics. A good example is The Art of Blogging (all about blogging).

3. Do your research. Even if you have particular experience about something, there will be times when you need to do some research to supplement your knowledge. Adding quotes from experts or sharing the latest research can put you in good stead with your readers. Adding one or two statistics can bring more meaning to your piece. For example, for the magazine features I write for my client, I usually include one or two statistics to demonstrate key points. When you use data from recognized experts in your industry, it adds to your authoritative presence.

4. Know your audience. Think about who you are writing for. What do they want to know? What types of questions do they ask? Use their questions as a guide for future blog posts or an e-book. By providing readers with answers to their questions, you establish yourself as someone they trust and will come back to for more information.

5. Surround yourself with outside experts. While you may focus on one niche, there may be times when you want to cover a topic that is related to your niche but goes beyond your expertise. Then you’ll want to refer to subject matter experts. Ask them questions to fill in the blanks of your own knowledge and experience. Know who you can go to when you don’t have all the answers. Be sure to provide proper attribution when you quote them. Sometimes being an authority means recognizing that there are some things you don’t know. To find an SME, check associations, booksellers, universities and think tanks for possible leads.  

6. Provide real value. Once you understand your audience’s needs, you can offer meaningful and helpful content for your readers. Avoid writing fluff content that only fills space. It might help to think of one takeaway you can include in each blog post you write. Or if writing a non-fiction book or e-book, think of takeaways for every section or chapter. What can readers learn from you that they can’t get from anyone else? Readers want information that is readily adaptable to their own needs. When you provide meaningful, practical information, readers will begin to see you as an authority.

7. Be consistent. If writing a blog, be consistent with your posting. Whether you post a story every day or once a week, make sure it’s posted around the same time or on the same day of the week. Readers who follow you will begin to look for your story at that time.

I once produced a bi-monthly residential newsletter for an apartment high-rise community. Every other month, the newsletter would be slipped under their doors. If by the first of the month, the newsletter didn’t appear, the management office would receive calls from residents asking where it was. They knew when to expect the newsletter because we were consistent with the schedule. When you’re consistent with your schedule, readers are more likely to trust you.

8. Limit attributions. It’s not necessary to attribute every piece of information in your blog post or work of non-fiction. After all, your stories reflect everything you’ve ever learned by the VIPs, teachers and parents in your life. However, attributions are necessary if you are using a direct quote or sharing a principle that someone else formalized. While you still need to give credit where credit is due, if you include too many attributions, people will wonder how much of the writing is coming from you. If it isn’t original, it isn’t authoritative.

9. Use a variety of media to share your expertise. Once you establish you’re authority, you may want to broaden your reach. If you love social media, use it to establish a following. Write e-books, guest posts for other blogs, magazine features or opinion pieces for local publications. Alternately, you can establish your own YouTube channel, produce a weekly podcast, or appear on local radio shows. If the media isn’t your thing, you can teach workshops or make presentations.

Keep in mind that building authority with your writing takes time. If you find you lose interest in your chosen topic, it’s okay to switch gears. But you’ll have to go through this process all over again, and perhaps find a new audience.

With consistent practice and patience, you can begin to garner a loyal following of readers who see you as a trusted authority on your chosen niche.