Monday, October 19, 2009

Analyzing Books

When an agent is considering an author's work is a check list used to help clarify the content of the manuscript submitted, or does the agent rely on an overall feeling from having read it? I ask because in doing title research I recently came across a book evaluation that was helpful in analyzing my own work. It was a simple bullet list of points (for a romance) under the headings of Plot, Main Male Character, Main Female Character, Setting, Style.

Interesting question. At first I thought that a checklist would be counterproductive since writing is not scientific and I would hate to make it so, and then I thought a little more and realized that in some ways I do have a checklist, just nothing I’ve ever put down on paper.

First things first, when I read an author’s work, and this is whether or not I’m considering it for representation or reading a new proposal/manuscript by a client, is gut. If I lose all perspective of time and place, my heart starts to beat faster and I can’t put the book down, I know the book has real potential. Once I’m lost in the book I start to read with a more technical eye. I think about plotting and characters and how it’s all working or not working.

While I don’t have a specific checklist and don’t plan to put one together, I do have a list of questions that I’ve asked my readers to consider when writing a reader’s report for me. These are hopefully general enough that it won’t make my interns think publishing is about writing to a formula, yet specific enough to give me and my readers something to really think about when evaluating a manuscript or proposal.

  • What was it about?
  • Did the overall idea seem different and unique?
  • Was it a common theme, but executed in a unique way?
  • What did you think of the author’s voice?
  • Did the characters seem real and likeable?
  • Was the plot seamless and did it make sense or were there a lot of holes?
  • Were you able to easily figure out what happened or did the author keep you guessing?
  • Is this a book that would seem to have viability in the market?
  • Are there other popular books you could relate this to?
  • Are there too many similar books to make this stand out?
  • What is the author’s platform? If nonfiction, is this an author with a great deal of visibility in the market (TV, radio, speaking engagements, etc.)?
  • Has the author been previously published? With whom?

Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer to these questions, it’s just a starting off point for my evaluation of the material. I would also add that I’d like you to be cautious of writing checklists. I think they can be helpful, but I also fear that they make writing stiff and prevent the author from really letting her creative juices flow. And that’s what we want, we want those juices to flow.



Kimber Li said...

That's what I figured. You do it so many times. I do the same thing in book reviewing. Of course, I don't worry about platform or anything though. I read and love everything from self-pubbed to NY bestsellers. If I forget all about the mechanical parts and dinner on the stove, I know I've got a book-of-the-hear in my hand!

Paul Greci said...

I agree that writers need to be cautious when considering using check lists. You want your book to be unique. Follow the voice. Let it bend some rules and break others. It's your story. I think that know-it-in-your-gut feeling applies to writers and their own stories, too.

However,I do think that specific revision check lists can be helpful for fine tuning an already developed manuscript.

Betsy Ashton said...

Jeepers. The closest thing I use to a checklist is a blueprint before I start writing. Oh, and I do have a chart of all characters, their relationships, all names used (even for minor characters) and locations. A glance at the character chart will indicate where "I'm stuck in the alphabet" and need to find other names.

Kate Douglas said...

I like this post a lot--I realized that those are many of the same questions I ask myself when I'm writing. Generally I don't begin to question my own stories until I'm about half way into the manuscript. At that point I usually sit down and read everything I've written with most of those points in mind. Another thing I look at is the story arc--am I going to be able to tie this sucker up within the contracted length? There's nothing I hate worse than getting to the end of a story and realizing I'm out of room but not yet out of plot!

Robena Grant said...

Thanks for answering my question, Jessica. I like your evaluation and your comments. What I found may have been a book reviewer's book analysis. It was helpful though, it made me think about what I'd written, but of course would work only for a completed manuscript.

This past week one of my stories placed in a contest and two of the four judges said that ms. would have been good as a paranormal. It has a paranormal thread but I'd entered it as romantic suspense.
Wish I'd found the book analysis before entering. : )

By answering the plot and style questions, I gained a more objective view of my work. And, at least for me, that's a hard thing to obtain.

Marsha Sigman said...

This is actually very helpful. Even a general guideline of what you look for in a manuscript is a valuable piece of information and it helps to keep that in mind when we are revising.

Thank you!