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.

Helpful Resources for Freelance Writers

Like most professionals, freelance writers don’t work in a vacuum. They have to surround themselves with a supporting cast to help them succeed. They also have to arm themselves with knowledge and skills to win new client business.

In my freelancing journey, I’ve relied on several helpful resources to refine my craft and stay motivated, especially when I feel stuck or discouraged or filled with self-doubt about the wisdom of my career path. Here are my go-to places for inspiration and skills development.

Websites/Blogs:

Funds for Writers – If you have ever wondered how to earn a living from a writing career, check out this site by mystery writer Hope C. Clark who shares tips and advice for finding sources of income. In her weekly e-newsletter, she compiles lists of writing contests, literary agencies, freelance opportunities, writers’ retreats, grants and fellowships, and more. There’s plenty to read and learn from her site, and you’ll walk away feeling inspired.

Make a Living Writing – Carol Tice’s site is a go-to place for writers of all levels of experience. The blog covers tips and advice for getting published, how to find good-paying writing gigs and how to avoid  content farms. You can download a free e-book about how to avoid scams and browse lists of freelance writing jobs.

The Muse – While The Muse is primarily for job seekers, freelancers can find helpful tips for working with clients or finding career opportunities if the freelance life isn’t working out. Sign up for the news alerts about companies that are hiring, get insights from people who work at these companies, and get advice on how to approach a hiring manager.

Media Bistro – I’ve taken several of the online courses from Media Bistro, and they are well-paced, detailed and practical, covering everything from social media, advertising and copywriting to marketing communications and journalism. There’s also a job board for full-time gigs and a freelancer marketplace called Freelancer Connect where you can look for contract opportunities.

Writer’s Digest magazine – Whether you freelance for businesses or write fiction, Writer’s Digest offers the most comprehensive information, no matter what kind of writing you do. Find out about writers’ conferences, read interviews from successful authors, or take any one of hundreds of online courses. If you get writer’s block, they also offer writing prompts to get unstuck.

Jane Friedman – Friedman, a former editor at Writer’s Digest, has developed a loyal following among creative types who want to know how to get published. While Friedman reports on the publishing industry, she also shares guest posts from successful authors and editors who discuss everything from starting an author platform and how to pitch to a literary agent to how to start a blog and how to find beta readers for your novel. The online workshops are inexpensive too – about $25 for a 90-minute presentation.

Kat Boogaard – Boogaard is a successful freelancer who offers helpful resources to writers of all levels of experience, whether you’re a beginning freelancer or an established professional. Her weekly e-newsletter written in a cozy, conversational way, gives readers a peek into what it’s like to be a freelancer. She also shares freelance opportunities that she’s gleaned from social media. Check out her site at www.katboogaard.com.

Reynolds Center for Business Journalism – I recently came across this site while doing some random research about a topic I was writing about. The weekly e-newsletter called Tuesday’s 2-Minute Tip  provides ideas and advice about covering business topics, such as politics, cyber security, and supply chain businesses. Each article shares resources on where to find key data for business stories, statistics, and industry research.

Reedsy – Reedsy is an online marketplace for creative professionals who help businesses and individuals write and publish books. Reedsy also offers free online workshops via YouTube about the writing craft. You might find workshops about character development, working with an editor, or creating tension in  stories. If you’re interested in self-publishing, Reedsy offers a platform to help bring your story to life.  

Networking:

American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) Monthly Freelancer Networking Group – Each month, freelancers meet online to talk shop. In addition, ASBPE lists job openings and news about writing for business trade publications. If you write long form articles for the business trade, this group is for you. Best of all, membership is free.

Freelancers Union – Your business is more than writing; you need to understand the financial side too. At the Freelancers Union, you’ll find numerous resources to help you operate your writing business as a business. Create contracts for your clients or learn how to manage your invoicing. There’s also an insurance marketplace for health, term life and liability insurance (among others) because well, writers need insurance too. Sign up for alerts to stay abreast of developments on laws that can affect writers. The Union may not be the most glamourous of writers’ sites to know, but it is probably the most important one.
 
Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) – As writers of fiction and/or nonfiction, there will be a point when you need to hire an editor. One of the best places to find one is the EFA. You can post a job or browse the member directory to find a match. Also check out the editorial rates page to know what you can expect to pay a freelance editor, or if you’re a freelancers, what to charge a client. There are numerous chapters throughout the country, so you can be sure to connect with other freelance editors wherever you are, and many of their events are online.

Books:
In addition, I have found the following books to be not only helpful but essential for developing my writing business.

  • Arts & Numbers: A Financial Guide for Artists, Writers, Performers and Other Members of the Creative Class by Elaine Grogan Luttrull
  • The Ultimate Guide to Marketing Your Freelance Writing by Linda Formichelli
  • A Step-by-Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success by Laura Spencer and Carol Tice

No matter where you are in your writing journey, whether you write for business clients or write fiction, these resources will help you stay on the leading edge of industry trends.

Novel Beginnings and Endings: A Primer on Prologues and Epilogues

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If you’re working on a novel or memoir, you’ve probably considered how to begin and end your work. Should you open with a prologue? If so, what should the prologue contain? Should I include an epilogue too?

There is dissent among agents and editors about whether prologues are necessary. Some suggest that your first chapter should do the work that your prologue does. If your first chapter is written well (see my previous post), a prologue isn’t necessary, they claim. Other publishing experts feel prologues can work if they are done well.

Prologues are commonly used for genres such as historical fiction, thrillers, horror, and sci-fi and fantasy. They’re ideal for world building and providing background on a character or situation that may not fit into the main text.

If you’re considering starting your story with a prologue, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Prologues

  • Keep it short and simple. Prologues are shorter than chapters, which can run as long as 12 to 15 pages or more. Most prologues are only a few pages.  
  • Provide a glimpse of the past or future. If there’s a part of the backstory that’s integral to the main plot line that readers need to know in advance, a prologue might be the best place for that backstory. It’s better than flipping back and forth between the present and that other time or place, writes Shaelyn Bishop of Reedsy.
  • Use it for world building. Readers get a sense of what this new world looks and feels like, adds Bishop. You might be able to divulge some details about scene or present a different place and time that grounds readers
  • Reboot a series. If there’s a long gap between books in a series, the prologue can re-introduce characters, scenes and story lines from previous books.
  • Use an alternate point of view. For example, for a mystery or thriller, the prologue might be written in first person from the point of view of a person who is murdered, while the rest of the story is written from the perspective of the person investigating the crime.

These are general guidelines, of course. A good example of a well-written prologue is Caught by Harlan Coben, which follows several of the guidelines above. It’s shorter than the main chapters in the book, it introduces a character who becomes the focus of the story. It provides background to this character’s life story, which later becomes a contentious issue with the protagonist. The reader is left to decide which is true about this character – the one introduced in the prologue or the one the protagonist thinks he is.

Further, the prologue provides relevant and supplemental details to the story line. In this action-packed thriller, the prologue works because readers get caught up in the action. It also does a good job of tying into the conclusion, which answers all the questions readers need to know.

Ultimately, the best judge of whether to include a prologue is you. You know your story best. Let your story determine if you need a prologue or not.

Epilogues

There is less debate about epilogues, which come at the end of your story. The Write Practice describes the epilogue as “the moment when the reader learns the fate of the characters or when the hook to a sequel is revealed.” The epilogue generally has a different tone, point of view and time period compared to previous chapters. It is often set some time in the future, such as the epilogue for the Harry Potter series which placed the characters far into the future where they are seeing their own kids off to Hogwarts. Like the prologue, the epilogue is shorter than the chapters, usually only a few pages.

According to Kirkus Reviews, the epilogue can serve any number of purposes:

  • Illustrate a changed world. The epilogue can show how the world changed as a result of the conflict and action that took place in earlier chapters. If the prologue or early chapters showed dire circumstances, show how those circumstances changed and perhaps how the protagonist’s life changed.
  • Provide closure. Whatever remaining threads need to be tied up can be done in the epilogue. It can answer questions readers might have, such as “What happened to so-and-so?”
  • Return to real life after a difficult journey. The epilogue can serve as a breather after an action-filled story. It’s where characters recover from injuries, reunite with loved ones and resolve outstanding problems.
  • Create a cliffhanger. If the book is part of a series, the epilogue can provide a cliffhanger for the next book in the series, including a hint at a possible future conflict. In this case, the epilogue will whet the reader’s appetite for the rest of the story.

When contemplating whether to use an epilogue to conclude your novel, ask yourself “What do readers need to know to feel satisfied about the outcome?”

When used judiciously, prologues and epilogues can work like bookends, giving your novel a structural boost that can be carried throughout your novel 

Novel Beginnings: Eight Tips for Writing a More Compelling Opening Chapter

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If you have ever read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, you probably remember this opening line:

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love, we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are.”

I’d be hard pressed to find any opening more poignant than this one. From the very start, readers are taken on an emotional journey that doesn’t end until the final sentence.

Writers are tasked with the challenge to create a similar experience with their readers. The start of any  novel should accomplish several things: create the tone of the story, provide the point of view, reveal character, and show tension and conflict, among other things. Certainly, the opening line from The Nightingale accomplishes most of these objectives. Does your story do the same?

Why is the opening so critical? Because if it doesn’t grab the reader’s interest and keep it for the first few pages, the reader will likely close the book and set it aside, never getting to the end of it. Ask any published author, editor or agent what makes a strong opening, and you’ll hear a number of answers, which are summarized below. And these suggestions don’t just pertain to fiction, but to short stories, memoir and non-fiction works too. Without a compelling start, readers will dismiss your effort.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it might be helpful to keep the following suggestions in mind as you write the opening of your novel.

1. Skip the prologue. There is ongoing debate about the merits of a prologue. Many editors and agents feel they aren’t necessary. I tend to agree with them. I’ve rarely read a prologue that made a difference in my understanding of the plot. The one exception is Caught by Harlan Coben, which provided sufficient background on one of the main characters to make you second guess the outcome. But if you plan your story well and write the opening pages right, there shouldn’t be a need for a prologue.

2. Create a protagonist that readers will care about. The opening is your opportunity to reveal your protagonist’s character. Is he/she rebellious, angry, ambitious or curious? In the above opening from The Nightingale, the character speaking is introspective and perhaps has gained wisdom from life experience. It makes me care about who she is and what else she (and it is a she, btw) might have to say.

3. Ground your reader in the story’s setting. According to the Write Practice blog, let readers see where the story takes place. Establish early on what the setting is for the story – the time period, the location, the season of the year, etc. When the reader feels grounded in the setting, they feel mentally prepared to experience the events as the characters do.

4. Create conflict and tension. Identify what the inciting incident is – that starting point to your story that changes the status quo. Where is the conflict? Is that conflict with another character, with a situation or within themselves? That conflict is needed to create tension, which helps draw readers in and keep them reading to see how the conflict is resolved.  

5. Don’t frontload with dialogue or action. According to Fuse Literary, too much action or dialogue can confuse readers. Sure, you want to start with some sort of action, but an opening chapter heavy on action and dialogue and not enough narrative or backstory can be confusing to readers who may need a point of reference to understand what is happening on the page. You need some action, of course, but balance it with some narrative so you don’t lose readers’ interest.

6. Don’t overload the opening with backstory either. According to recent Reedsy webinar, Crafting a Novel Opening, writers should focus on what the reader needs to know at that moment. There’s plenty of time to reveal backstory and world building as the story progresses, says Shaelin Bishop who led the discussion. Weave in backstory throughout the length of the manuscript, and allow details to breathe between scenes. This approach will help with the pacing too. If readers are overloaded with details up front, they may feel overwhelmed.

7. Hook the reader with an interesting twist. Start where the story gets interesting, which is usually at the point where there’s a change in the status quo. For example, the protagonist gets a letter with good news or bad news, a new person enters the protagonist’s life, or they get into an accident that alters the course of their life.  “Show what is interesting rather than focusing on the mundane. It’s okay to show less of the status quo than you think you need to,” says Shaelin Bishop with Reedsy. This approach avoids overloading your opening chapter with too many details that can bore your reader.

8. Every scene should serve several purposes. For example, one scene can establish the tone of the story, reveal something about the character and hint at future conflict. This sounds complex, but it’s necessary to keep the story moving forward and keep readers interested. Don’t waste your first sentence, or any sentence for that matter. Write every scene with a purpose in mind. If it doesn’t serve  purpose, and if a character doesn’t serve a purpose, cut them out.

To get into the habit of writing stronger openings, try these two exercises.

Exercise 1: Take 10 minutes and create as many opening sentences as you can think of. It could be for a current work in progress or any other story. Experiment with different perspectives. Here are a couple of examples of intriguing openings that made me keep reading:

“You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous. I can tell you with certainty that such things exists ….”
The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

Exercise 2: Select five novels from your collection that you enjoyed reading. Go back and read the first page from each one. What made you turn the page? Why did it grab your interest? Did it reveal anything about the setting, tone or character? Did it create tension and conflict? What can you learn from these first pages that you can adapt to your own work?

Hope you find these tips and exercises helpful.