Friday, December 09, 2016

How to Be Your Own Book Doctor

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you Google “book doctor” you’ll get pages of folks willing to analyze your book and tell you what’s wrong with it. While this might be a helpful option for some, not everyone can afford to pay for this type of advice. But never fear, because with a little objectivity (and a plan), you can give your novel a checkup all on your own.

One of the reasons a good book doctor is so successful, is that they look at a story without all the emotional baggage us authors bring to our own work, and can analyze the critical elements of good storytelling. (We love our words. Our words are perfect, aren't they?)

The first step is to look at your manuscript as if you've never read it before. This is hard because you do know your story, so let it sit for a month or two before taking a hard look at it. That will give you some distance so it's not fresh in your mind. And be ruthless. Pretend you paid good money for this book, and you want it to be worth every penny. What's not working?

Ask yourself:

Is the Tone Consistent?

Tone helps hold a novel together, like a soundtrack playing in the background. It tweaks the emotion at the right moment and nudges the reader toward what you want them to feel. If you’re writing a light and funny romance, your book had better be light and funny. Long, angst-ridden passages probably aren’t hitting the right vibe and might need to go. In horror novels, scary scenes played for laughs can leave your reader feeling like you're making fun of them and not taking your own work seriously. Consider:
  • Does the opening scene convey the tone of the novel?
  • Is that tone consistent throughout the book?
  • Does the imagery and word choice reflect this tone?
  • Does the tone change over the course of the novel? Should it?
  • Does the tone enhance individual scenes to bring about the desired impact on the reader?
(Here's more on using tone to enhance a novel)

Is the Theme Clear?

Theme is the unifying force in a novel. It's what the book is about, and without it, a story can feel shallow at best, pointless at worst. Themes are what keeps a reader thinking about the book long after they've put it down. Consider:
  • What is the theme (or themes)?
  • Are there examples of this theme throughout the novel?
  • How does the theme deepen the character arcs?
  • Is the theme stated clearly in the opening chapters of the novel?
  • Does the theme tie into the resolution of the novel?
(Here's more on developing your theme)

Is Your Plot and Structure Solid?

Structure holds a novel together. Each scene should move the story and plot forward, building to form a cohesive novel. It's not just a series of dramatized moments from someone's life, but characters making choices that affect them and others. Consider:
  • Does every scene have a goal, and consequences if that goal isn't met?
  • Is there an inciting event within the first 30 pages (or 50 for longer books) that puts the protagonist on the path to the rest of the novel?
  • Is there a moment around the 25% mark where the protagonist makes the choice to pursue the story problem?
  • Does something happen in the middle of the book that changes how the story problem is viewed?
  • Is there a dark moment or set back around the 75% mark that sends the protagonist into the climax?
  • Is there a clear "win" for the protagonist at the climax? Something they have to do in order to succeed?
(Here's more on plot and structure)

Are Your Stakes High Enough?

Stakes makes or break a story, because if the reader doesn't care if the protagonist wins, they won't keep reading. Low stakes is a common problem with stories that aren't quite making it but the author isn't sure why. If your protagonist can walk away from the problem and nothing in their life changes for the worse, then your stakes aren't high enough. Consider:
  • Will the protagonist's life change for the worse if they fail to achieve their goals?
  • Are the stakes big enough to be worth the reader's time?
  • Do the stakes affect the protagonist personally?
  • Do the stakes escalate as the novel progresses?
  • Are the stakes clear from the beginning of the story?
  • Are their stakes in every scene? (doesn't have to be the same stake)
(Here's more on developing your stakes)

Is There Enough Conflict?

Conflict is an often misunderstood word. It's easy to assume it means fighting, but conflict is just two sides opposed to the same goal. It can be adversarial (bad guy wants to nuke the city, good guy wants to stop him) or friendly (sister wants to win the race, brother wants to win the race). It can be different approaches to the same goal between friends, or even conflict within yourself. Consider:
  • Is someone or something opposing the protagonist in every scene?
  • Is the bad guy working against the protagonist?
  • Are there personal beliefs in conflict?
  • Are there philosophical differences that cause the protagonist trouble?
  • Is it ever too easy for the protagonist to achieve their goal?
  • Do coincidences work to aid the protagonist instead of hindering them?
(Here's more on creating conflict)

Is There a Strong Narrative Drive?

Narrative drive is the force that moves the story along. It's the reason the characters do what they do and makes the story feel as though it's going somewhere and not just wandering aimlessly. Consider:
  • Does the protagonist have a plan of action?
  • Is the motivation for that action clear?
  • Is there a story point to every scene?
  • Is that point clear from the start of the scene?
  • Is the protagonist making decisions that change how the story unfolds?
  • Are there story questions dropped throughout the story that readers want answers to?
  • If you took the scene out, would the plot change?
(Here's more on narrative drive)

Is There Tension?

Tension works on micro and macro levels. It's the big face-off between hero and villain, and it's the small nail-biting moment waiting to see if one character notices something. It's what makes a reader stay glued to the page to see what happens next. Consider:
  • Is there tension on every page? (A reason the reader keeps reading)
  • Is there tension between characters? (good and bad)
  • Is there tension between characters and the setting?
  • Are there moments when the protagonist is relaxed? (If so, how can you shake them up?)
  • Is there an unanswered question in every scene?
  • When one question is answered, does another take its place?
(Here's more on raising the tension)

Are There Character Arcs?

Like plot moves the story, character arcs move the theme. Characters typically grow and learn something over the course of the novel and are changed forever by this experience. No character growth can leave a story feeling flat. Consider:
  • What does the protagonist learn over the course of the novel?
  • What lie are they telling themselves/do they believe at the start of the novel?
  • When do they realize it isn't true?
  • What do they want most of all as a person?
  • Does the external plot facilitate them achieving this personal desire?
  • What are they most afraid of?
  • When do they face this fear?
(Here's more on creating strong character arcs)

Are the Characters Fully Formed?

Characters are the souls of your story, and the more developed and real they are, the more drawn in to the story the reader will be. People are flawed and wonderful at the same time, with layers and complexities that often contradict each other. Consider:
  • Are the characters flawed in ways that affect their decisions in the story?
  • Do they have virtues that affect their decisions in the story?
  • Do they have contradictory beliefs?
  • Do they have backstories that have shaped the person they are now?
  • Are those backstories relevant?
  • Are their motivations plausible?
  • Are the characters fully formed people or clich├ęs and stereotypes?
  • Do the characters have different approaches toward problem solving?
  • Are your supporting characters as developed as your main characters?
(Here's more on developing characters)

Does the Dialogue Sound Natural?

Stilted dialogue can stop a story cold or make it feel melodramatic and cheesy. Good dialogue captures the essence of real life conversations without the awkward pauses and interruptions that actually happen. Consider:
  • Do the characters sound like real people?
  • Does each character have their own voice and style of speaking?
  • Is there any "As you know Bob" dialogue that infodumps or tells that should be cut?
  • Do characters use language suitable to their status, age, or cultural situation? (For example, five year olds don't typically sound like college professors unless there's a reason)
  • Is the dialogue actual conversations or just two people stating information at one another for the readers' benefit?
  • Are they telling each other things they already know?
  • Are there empty dialogue phrases slowing the pacing down? (pointless small talk)
(Here's more on crafting dialogue)

Is the Setting Developed?

A well-develop setting and world helps draw the reader in and immerses them in the story. A badly developed setting or world leaves them confused and frequently jarred out of the story. Consider:
  • Does every scene start by grounding the reader where they are? (where applicable)
  • Is the setting clear from the start of the book?
  • Are there enough specific details that show the setting, or is it too general for a clear picture?
  • Does the point-of-view-character share their thoughts and views on the world around them?
  • Does the setting or world make sense?
  • Are their people interacting with the world or is it just a backdrop?
  • Is too much focus spent on the setting descriptions?
(Here's more on describing the setting)

Is the Pacing Working?

Pacing is the speed at which the reader learns information. Longer sentences slow the pace down, shorter sentences pick the pace up. Dialogue (internal and external) typically reads quicker than description and stage direction. Too fast can be exhausting, while too slow can be boring. Consider:
  • Is the pacing consistent with the genre?
  • Does the pacing speed up during major plot moments?
  • Are there waves of fast and slow pacing throughout the novel?
  • Is the pace quick enough to keep readers reading?
  • Are there any slow spots?
  • Are there any spots that are too fast and the reader has trouble absorbing the information?
  • Are there any spots that encourage reading skimming that should be revised?
(Here's more on controlling your pace)

This is only a small sampling of possible things to analyze, but they should give you a solid plan for examining your novel for trouble spots.

Do you have a favorite piece of advice you always follow (or give to other writers)? What things do you look for when you're critiquing or revising a novel? 

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

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With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. These are such great questions to ask yourself. Even if I step away from my manuscript for awhile, I have a problem being completely objective about it. That's why it's good to have good CP's who can look at your manuscript for you and ask these questions.

    I wish I could stuff all your knowledge and have it stick there. You have an amazing grasp of this all.

  2. Hi Janice, I totally agree with all that Natalie said.
    I'm adding this to my bulging writer's binder. :-)

  3. This is an amazing post! Like Natalie said, even if I step away, I have trouble being objective about my writing (one problem of having a photographic memory). :) So I like these cues I can use to look for specific issues.

  4. Natalie, thanks! It's the years and years of studying and talking about writing that's done it. Some days I think my brain is clogged with it all :)

    Tracy, glad it helps. It worked out to be a nice roundup.

    Jami, I can't always be objective either, though I do try. I think that's normal :) I use my own lists, too. Handy to have as reminders.

  5. Oooh, I'm revising right now, so I'll keep this page up. Thanks, Janice, as always!

  6. Such excellent advice. I will pass this post to my other writer friends. I need to reexamine my pacing and conflict as I revise.

  7. Whoa! I am overwhelmed by all this awesome information. I'm gonna have to book mark this and keep coming back to it!
    And I love that it is a "small sampling."

  8. Wow, these are some hard-hitting questions. This is great timing for me, as I'm about to dive into revising/rewriting. Definitely going to be using this blog post as I go over my manuscript!

  9. Excellent post and advice, and really timely for me as I'm revising. I realized I need higher stakes and tension! Argh! But good to realize it at this point rather than later.

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  11. Goodness - this post really covers it all. Thanks for the comprehensive list! I think tension and stakes in every scene that actually works is the most difficult.

    When revising or critiquing, I look for tension. I think it is one of the hardest to nail. I also look for internalization. I struggle to get enough in there, and I can see when it would strengthen and really change a story. Now just to get internalization in there the first time myself or even the second or third. Growth. All about the growth.

  12. Julie, glad to be of service :) Good luck with those revisions!

    LinWash, thanks so much!

    Emily, thanks! I do like to do sampling posts (love that phrase) from time to time. There's so much on the blog to sift through, and having a few posts that hit the major points are like cheat sheets :)

    Nilah, hope it helps, and best of luck with the rewrite!

    Carol, totally. Though sometimes you spot things after the first draft that make it easier to up the stakes and the tension. It's usually easier to make something worse that figure out something from whole cloth.

    Rubianna, I'd probably agree with the tension and stakes. Even when we KNOW why they matter, getting that across to the reader doesn't always work. And low stakes is a very common problem. Growth indeed :) Have you tried revising (or even writing) in layers? For example, I put very little description in on a first draft (just don't like it) so I always have to go back and add that. I'll read through a chapter specifically for that. I'll also do passes for stakes, tension, goals, internalization, etc. I've found it makes it a little easier to focus on one or two things at a time. Eventually you start doing adding all that in from the start since you're ore used to it now.

  13. These are wonderful questions. I do believe that no matter how hard you try to be your own editor, there is a part of you that has a huge investment in the book. I have read many self published books and most of them would have benefited from the outside critical editorial POV.
    The books I loved both had hired editors.

  14. Susan, I agree. I know how valuable my crit partners are, and my editor is wonderful. I couldn't imagine not having those outside eyes looking at my work. We can't catch everything.

  15. I agree with Susan and Janice on the benefit and necessity of outside eyes and input.

    That said, I still feel for authors who felt they HAD to forego the traditional route and self-publish, but couldn't AFFORD a freelance editor, and in order to break into the eBook-only market, you often have to write MORE than ONE book, and given how extensive editing can be, regardless if it's your first book or you hundredth, the cost of hiring editors adds up fast.

    I often wonder the validity of publishing ebooks at such a fast clip.

    When all of those ebooks need editing and covers, and covers by themselves can rival home mortgage payments, and I fear this alienates writers with limited incomes who can't even spend thousands on a HOUSE, never mind a cover for ONE book of many that writer can and wants to write.

    I wish there were more cost-effective ways to edit and revise since as Janice said, we can't catch everything, no matter how self-reliant and detached from our writing we are.

    While I'm not denying the quality of ebooks (or self-published books, in general) can be very dicey at best, I still wish more lay readers who don't write would just try to understand that most writers go this route for many complex reasons, only ONE of them being creative control.

    I'm not saying we should make excuses, but just TRY to understand it from the writer's perspective, too.

    Even if you wouldn't make the same choice as some writers, it doesn't mean you have to treat them like second-class losers, and I'm saying this in a GENERAL sense, not picking on anyone or even myself, in particular. Okay?

    Janice, when is "Good enough" REALLY good enough? After all, we want people to read the STORY, not stress over errors the do the story an injustice for the reader.

    How much can writers REALLY recapture the lay reader's experience.

    I just feel like I'm not the same reader I was since making the decision to write myself.

    Janice, while you expressed to me (In private) you don't have this problem, can you at least understand those of that do are not whiny brats for feeling torn on this issue?

  16. Taurean, right now, there are multiple options for writers to choose to publish their work. More than ever. No one HAS to forgo anything, it's a choice. (Even if it might not feel that way sometimes) Self publishing has the most respect and acceptance its ever had. It's a legitimate route now. There's still stigmas, but the more quality work gets self pub'd the more that will fade.

    I don't know of any writer who wants to publish just one book, so no matter what route you choose, you'll be publishing more than one book. The frequency is up to you. Just because the current thought is "get as many out there as you can" is the most popular, it doesn't mean that's the only way to go.

    If someone is a fast writer and can produce quality books quickly, good for them and they publish at the rate that makes them happy.

    If someone is a slow writer and wants to put out a book every few years, good for them and they should do that.

    IGNORE THE HYPE. Just because technology exists to do something doesn't mean everyone should do it that way.

    You can design covers for minimal amounts. I'm a professional designer in my day job, so I know this. All it takes is legwork to find someone within your budget.

    Critique partners are a free way to catch what you can't. There are editors out there who work within budgets. You just have to find them.

    Good enough is when you decide it is. Others will also decide that, so if a reader expects more and an author didn't provide it, it won't be good enough for them. But that's true of every book.

    Readers are less picky than other writers. If the story rocks, they overlook errors. But errors DO stand out to readers as well as writers. Would you buy a CD that skipped words or had bad sound? Would you continue to buy that artist if they continually put out a shoddy product?

    Readers are under no obligation to understand what a writer goes through to produce a book. They're buying a product for their own personal use. If you buy a product at the store and are unhappy about it, you don't say "well, the manufacturer must have had a bad day, and he had so much going on, so I guess I'll cut him some slack." Writing might be an art, but books are products.

    If someone wants to SELL BOOKS they have to treat them as a product that's competing in a crowded market. If all a writer cares about it putting their work out there and whoever reads it reads it, they can do whatever they want. That's a viable option as well.

    I'm not sure writers can ever capture the lay reader's experience, but they can try. I known I don't. I might have been able to at one time, but certainly not after four years of doing this blog. What I can do, however, is look at my work as objectively as possible. And reading other books vs your own is a different thing.

    I don't think anyone who is torn about this issue is a whiny brat. (after all this time I thought you knew me better than that) There's a lot for writers to understand and consider these days. I write this blog and offer this advice exactly for those who are torn in an effort to help them figure it all out.

    A writer needs to pick the best route and options for them. If one doesn't work, try another. Keep trying until one does work. That could take weeks or years or even decades in some cases. Frustrations are normal and I have the same ones as everyone else, but if a writer lets it stop them, their odds of succeeding drop. If all a writer ever does is complain about it being too hard, then they'll never get anywhere.

  17. Okay, I really didn't make things as clear as I thought-

    Janice, you said-

    "I don't think anyone who is torn about this issue is a whiny brat. (after all this time I thought you knew me better than that) There's a lot for writers to understand and consider these days. I write this blog and offer this advice exactly for those who are torn in an effort to help them figure it all out."

    I do know YOU better than that, Janice, I wasn't singling YOU out specifically, really....

    I'm sorry if it read that way, but I was speaking in general terms, and I do feel there's more to this than simply

    Also, I was just letting off some steam with my current WIP being a real witch right now. I know lots of authors make a fuss over how much we can self-edit our writing, and I feel (Your blog being the exception) we overestimate how much we can put ourselves in the reader's shoes.

    As someone who's no stranger to revision, I just feel some writers Who frankly are more pragmatic than me) are deaf to the reality that we can only "Be our own best editor" to a certain point.

    Especially with the changes that have transpired in publishing in the last decade, I feel some authors take their exceptional ability to self-edit themselves that for granted.

    Even if it's not any easier for them than newbies like me, they at times project themselves as more snobbish than they might really be, in the best case scenario.

    Yes, I know there are plenty of authors who only publish a book every few years, but semantics aside, there's a difference between CHOOSING to do that as a process and your unique journey "forced" that to be the case.

    That's the point I was trying to make, but I guess that came off mean and spiteful, and I'm sorry for that. Sometimes I come off more harsh than I mean to because my efforts to be neutral sound like I'm wishy washy about what I really mean.

    Even if modern readers love vague endings in novels and stories, they don't them in plain speaking, by which I mean taking a more neutral approach often gets read the opposite of what it intends, hence your reply to my initial reply to this blog post.

  18. Taurean, I did see that it was mostly a general sense, just that one bit felt personal since you addressed me by name.

    And we *can* only be our best editors to a certain point. That's why most advice says to find editors and crit partners. But there are ways to make the most of your own editing skills. You do what you can.

    Everything has to be taken with a grain of salt. No post or article or talk can address all the variances of a situation. Advice is usually general.

    You should never feel forced into anything. It's your work, do what you want. It's normal to feel *pressured* to do more, but try your best to take a step back and re-evaluate. There's nothing wrong with saying "I can't do that, but I can do this."

    Unless you're given a contract to publish quickly (and even then you have the right to say no or negotiate the time frame) no one is forcing you to publish quickly.

  19. Finally, I get what you're saying here-

    "Readers are under no obligation to understand what a writer goes through to produce a book. They're buying a product for their own personal use. If you buy a product at the store and are unhappy about it, you don't say "well, the manufacturer must have had a bad day, and he had so much going on, so I guess I'll cut him some slack." Writing might be an art, but books are products.

    If someone wants to SELL BOOKS they have to treat them as a product that's competing in a crowded market. If all a writer cares about it putting their work out there and whoever reads it reads it, they can do whatever they want. That's a viable option as well. "

    I think that's just as narrow minded as I get accused of about certain aspects of writing.

    But I just don't see books as a product the way CDs and toothpaste are. I just don't.

    But hear me out, I'm also NOT saying "Books aren't products."

    They're just NOT products the way toothpaste or makeup are, badly written books can't get people sick or cause fatal allergic reactions like makeup or hair care products can, is that so hard to understand, Janice?

    All I'm saying is that books are different from products we eat, clean, and sleep with. Okay? (Sigh...)

    Do you think I would've battled countless bouts of doubt, frustration, sleepless nights and tears if I didn't take my craft seriously? NO!

    But remember, I also said-

    "I'm not saying we should make excuses, but just TRY to understand it from the writer's perspective, too."

    You don't have to "Compromise" you ideas about either the business of publishing or the quality of storytelling/writing to see things from both sides.

    For example, I respect authors like Ellen Hopkins wo can write about things I'm not able or WANT to write myself, okay?

    I even respect books that while I may not personally like, technical issues or not, they get kids and teens reading who otherwise might not at all. So I do get that more than I admittedly come off at times.

    That's not me saying the opposite extreme you seem to feel I'm saying.

  20. Taurean, yes, we should all try to understand where a writer comes from.

  21. I guess the main thing I wanted to ask you specifically was-

    "Is there not a limit to being your own best editor?"

    You obviously agreed with me there. I've had so many experiences on my journey as a writer where I felt the odd one out in terms of how much I could edit my own work.

    I also know many writers who are more skilled in some ways than I am are grappling with this discprency between their ability to revise on their own versus help from those more skilled than they are.

    It's true that beta-readers are helpful, but I guess I've been reading so much about how beta-readers who aren't published authors themselves yet or work/worked in publishing can only help so much.

    I'm sorry if some aspects of what I said were overly harsh, but the fact is a lot of the major voices in the industry (From authors to agents, and certainly editors) do often state some variant of-

    "At a certain point, you need critiques that lay readers and writers who aren't published can't give."

    I think there is some truth to that. Otherwise, for lots of writers, beta-readers would be enough until we get further along in the process.

  22. Again, sorry for getting a bit too intense again, I'm certainly not depressed or anything, and I honestly believe I earned the strides I made, selling my first MG novel being only ONE of those strides.

    But as I work on my new novel, I've just had certain concerns about where the industry's going, beyond where I personally am as a writer.

    After all, if I didn't care, I wouldn't comment here or on other blogs, but you're right that writers can get in the habit of being overly pessimistic, and I'm the first to admit I've gone there at times. But I don't stay there.

    Some of us just recover faster than others.

    Sometimes when you care about something so much, you let your opinions get too far out of hand, and I do apologize if got too far in self-pity mode.

    But this time I really was just musing this from both sides, which is why I didn't comment right when this was first posted, I gave myself time to form my comment, which would've been more harsh than I think was today.

  23. "At a certain point, you need critiques that lay readers and writers who aren't published can't give."

    Yes, I'd have to agree with that to a point. I don't think being published is a requirement if the person critiquing you is knowledgeable. I have several crit partners who are fantastic and unpublished.

    But I also have published friends who have one reader look at their stuff before it goes to their editor, so it does vary.

    In general, I think finding folks you trust to help you make the work the best it can be is the best a writer can do. But it's just one opinion. That's why writing is so frustrating. For every "fact" and "rule" there are dozens of exceptions.

  24. Can't get enough help on revisions. Thanks for another winner.

    You have a "day job"!!!!! I've always wondered how you do all you do already (bows deeply).

  25. Thanks Janice for putting all this information in one post.