Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Review: Story Fix

I have been pursuing a goal for several years now. At first that goal was simply to complete a first draft of a novel. When I discovered Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), it freed the inner editor that had long plagued me and, with diligent effort back in November of 2009, I reached that initial goal. Every November since then, I have dedicated the month of November (and sometimes into December) to completing another rough draft. I spend the rest of the months in the year refining the manuscripts and shopping them out to various agents, editors, and publishers.

While I've had nibbles (agents requesting manuscripts, editors reviewing manuscripts, and a publishing house actually requesting two book proposals), I haven't achieved success in finding a place for my manuscripts. Many people urge me to self-publish, but I feel deeply committed to the process of seeking a traditional publisher. Perhaps I will feel differently in a few years, but for now, I continue to look to the loftier goal of finding an agent or a publisher for one of my seven manuscripts.

Enter this life-changing book by Larry Brooks. Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant was a fantastic guidebook to turn to as I begin the process of refining and editing my most recent manuscript. It is one of the best books on novel writing I have ever read. I took six pages of notes and feel like I learned a treasure trove of information about how to milk the most success out of my rewriting efforts. While I hadn't really viewed my manuscript as "broken" prior to reading this book, I have certainly come to see many of its flaws and weaknesses more clearly. I think this book will really benefit my coming efforts for this particular manuscript.

How discouraging to read at the outset of the odds against me. Brooks cited that 990 out of every 1000 manuscripts are rejected. Yikes! Brings to mind The Hunger Games and the image of the woman at the reaping calling out to Katniss and others, "May the odds be ever in your favor." How lame a sentiment in the face of such challenging opposition.

Still, I was hungry to learn. Brooks breaks down the problems into two categories: 1) story strength (is the story proposition strong enough?) and 2) craft execution (is the execution of the tale effective enough to carry the strong story idea?). He then offered up 12 story elements to evaluate when judging your manuscript (concept, dramatic premise, dramatic tension, vicarious reader experience, compelling characterization, reader empathy, thematic weight, structure, pacing, scene execution, writing voice, and narrative strategy).

Brooks sets out to teach his readers what sorts of things kill a story. He encourages the writer to approach their manuscript with honest evaluation and see if it is really a manuscript worth spending time refining. As he so eloquently articulates, "The author's primary job [is] to suck readers into the hero's quest on multiple levels, make them live and feel the journey itself, make them fear or respect the consequences (stakes) that drive it all, make them fear and loathe the villain, and make them hang on every scene ... so they can see how it turns out."

I think I learned the most from the section on structure. It was sobering to read that an author should always know the end before beginning to write. If I am honest, I have always been a "pantser" and have started most of the time without a clear view of how the story ends. Still, I do not despair because now that the end is in sight, I can and will go back and refurbish the story with that knowledge. Perhaps in the future, I will approach my November efforts with more organizational intention (then again, maybe I won't be able to muster the organizational intention I desire). No matter what, I will have a clearer view of how my stories should be structured in order to reach the reader's three main goals - 1) intrigue, 2) emotional resonance, and 3) vicarious experience.

If you are hoping to beat the odds and write a novel that will be accepted by agents and publishers, you should definitely take time to read this book. The wisdom in these pages is presented in a clear-cut fashion and will change the way you view your efforts as a writer. It may cause you to see that your manuscript simply isn't worth refining or it may help you to give your very best effort in altering what you have into something someone else will want to read. I will begin my novel revision on February 1st. Now that I have read this book, I believe I stand a much better chance of whittling it into something of lasting value.

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