It’s finally Friday! Today we have a great post from New York Times Bestselling author Shirley Jump on taking your book from “good” to sold!
Thank you for having me on the blog! I wrote ten books in 8 years before I finally sold. I had a long, frustrating journey, because it was like I was missing something small—turns out it was a few small things 😉 What takes a book from just “good” to sold? Ah, that’s the magic answer everyone wants! In my opinion, it’s all those things that new writers see as intangible — tight, strong writing, a well-developed plot and strong, living characters. If you’re like me, you saw many of those words in your rejection letters and puzzled over them, trying to figure out exactly how you were supposed to make your writing stronger or how to make those characters come alive.
It can be done. My January 2003 release, THE VIRGIN’S PROPOSAL, was a contest winner and finalist (I won the TARA contest in 2000) but I just couldn’t sell it. I revised it a couple of times, sent it off to Silhouette, and was lucky enough to get a detailed revision letter from Mary Theresa Hussey. She had a lot of issues with the plot and wanted me to dump and rewrite about 2/3s of the book.
I knew this was my golden opportunity; the kind of chance all writers dream of. I had an interested editor, it was up to me to either rise to the challenge or choke at the starting gate. Besides looking at the plot issues, I took a serious look at the book itself, comparing it to the books I admired. On every page, I asked myself “How can I make this better?” And once I improved that page, I’d go back and improve it again. It’s possible to take a book from Good Enough to Win a Contest to Wonderful Enough to Sell – here’s how I did it.
That book sold, went on to win the Booksellers Best contest, and is the first of 50 books for me. My latest, THE SWEETHEART BARGAIN, came out September 3 with Berkley, part of a brand new series that I sold last year by using these same techniques.
TAKE A BOOK FROM GOOD TO SOLD IN 10 STEPS
By Shirley Jump
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. It’s about taking the book one step further and making them not just winning, but salable:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 holds together naturally. If necessary, act it out to really see the places where your narrative is too long.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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…
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Shirley Jump has written more than 50 novels for Berkley, Harlequin, Entangled and Kensington books. She has won numerous awards, including the HOLT Medallion, the Booksellers Best Award and Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence. She’s been nominated multiple times for the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice award, most recently for THE RETURN OF BRODY MCKENNA, the last book in her McKenna Brothers series for Harlequin. The first book in her upcoming series with Berkley, THE SWEETHEART BARGAIN, has received a multitude of pre-publication praise from authors such as Jayne Ann Krentz, who called the book “real romance,” Virginia Kantra, who said, “Shirley Jump packs lots of sweet and plenty of heat in this heartwarming first book of her promising new series,” and Jill Shalvis, who called it “a fun, heartwarming small town romance that you’ll fall in love with.”
Visit her website at www.shirleyjump.com
Cindy here again!
Wow, great information Shirley. Thanks so much for being here! I need to keep this list handy when I do revisions.
September 6, 2013 at 6:37 pm
Excellent tips. Thanks for sharing.
September 7, 2013 at 2:47 pm
Thank you, Shelley! Glad you enjoyed them!
September 6, 2013 at 6:45 pm
Nice article! I just published my first fiction novel, but my second book. The first one was a memoir/nonfiction. It’s not doing as I had hoped it would, but some of it may be marketing.
September 7, 2013 at 2:47 pm
It’s a crowded marketplace, for all authors, so sometimes it is hard to get one book noticed among thousands and thousands.