Schooled! Grading Your Manuscript To Target Revisions

As an author, I’ve often wanted to go back to middle school.

Okay, not really. But when reading a draft of my work-in-progress, I long for something as clear-cut as the rubric my husband uses to evaluate his seventh-grade students’ essays.

Story coach Larry Brooks’ 2015 book Story Fix contains a grown-up version of that middle school grading scale. His 12 criteria combine his six Core Competencies, and six Realms of Story Physics. Together, they cover the major components of fiction.

Concept: The big idea behind your story, concept can take the form of a situation (California sorority princess at an Ivy League law school), proposition (what if teenagers fought to the death on live TV?), arena (a parallel society of magical beings exists alongside our own), or historical setting (Jewish family hides from Nazis in an attic). Is your concept compelling?

Dramatic Premise/Arc: your protagonist’s quest/goal. Solve the mystery, save the world, or in the case of my story, win the gold. The premise should be clear and definable, not soft and nebulous. As Brooks explains, happiness and fulfillment are the result of the character reaching her goal, not the goal itself.

Dramatic Tension: what’s standing in the protagonist’s way of reaching their goal? It can be a villain, natural disaster, an evil corporation, government or an entity, such as age, illness or time running out.

Vicarious Reader Experience: the sensory details and world building that put the reader in the story. This is where I include my story’s accuracy. Even though it’s fiction, I want to get the details right!

Compelling Characterization: does the character develop within the story, or is backstory info-dumped so it detracts from the flow? Do the characters behave in ways that make sense within the story?

Reader Empathy: Can the reader relate to the protagonist’s quest, feel her pain, her fear, her joy? Do we understand why she wants what she wants?

Thematic Weight: How the story connects to the real world, or illustrates a truth — love conquers all, crime doesn’t pay, or makes a larger point about a controversial issue. Preferably without preaching.

Effective Story Structure: The beats. The acts. Plot points. Pinch points. Though there are many systems to identify parts of a story, they work much the same way. Does the story unfold logically, and do key events take place where readers expect them to?

Optimal Pacing: Related to structure, do events escalate the conflict, or does the story meander from one episode to the next?

Scene Execution: This relates to pacing. There are many types of scenes, and each functions differently, but do the scenes build story tension? Do chapters break in logical places?

Writing Voice: Ask Dean Koontz and Stephen King to write a novel about a small town terrorized by evil, and you will get two very different stories. That’s voice. Is your voice as an author reflected in the story you tell?

Narrative Strategy: What’s the best point of view to tell your story? First-person, third-person, or a combination? Something else? Which characters’ points of view are needed?

I used Brooks’ 12-point scale to create a revision plan for my recently-completed contemporary romance, which will allow me to identify and fix problems, while not wasting time and effort on components that work.

My grades?

I gave myself an A on concept, (Dirty Dancing with figure skaters), narrative strategy (dual third-person, deep POV), thematic weight (we’re more than what we seem on the outside) and vicarious reader experience (I love details). Except for a few minor fact-checks, these are good to go!

On to the Bs. My dramatic premise waded into happiness/fulfillment squishiness, so I tightened it to: “In her final competitive season, an American figure skater, taking her last shot at Olympic gold, finds new passion for her sport and life with a bad-boy Russian figure skater she fears will break her heart.”

Scene execution was good, though a few could be consolidated to improve pace early in the book. An easy fix. As for voice? The writing sounded like mine, but a young cast of characters brought a New Adult-ish vibe that was different from other books in the series.

Which leads me to the Cs, and where I’ll focus my revision.

Brooks talks about dozens of ways a story can go off track, and my biggest problem was not having dramatic tension sufficiently nailed down. Conflict ping-ponged from my heroine’s crazy family, to the sexy distraction of the bad boy, her age, and her rivalry with a younger skater. All drive the story, but the fact that my skater heroine is aging out of her sport ramps up the tension of everything else. With that, external conflict coalesced around the ticking clock. Her internal conflict was equally fragmented, but since this is a romance, the obvious choice was her fear of falling for a bad boy, after seeing her mom and sister hurt by the same type of guy.

Compelling Characterization/Reader Empathy- Muddy motivation and a heroine who came off much too young due to her romantic inexperience, made it hard for me to connect with her. Placing greater emphasis on her last chance, her love for her family, and making her closest confidante — her sister — a little older, will create a more mature and relatable heroine. Fortunately, my bad boy hero’s character arc is solid and believable, so I don’t need to do as much to him.

Effective Structure/Pacing- Too much emphasis on family and skating rivalries took focus off the romance, where it needs to be in a romance novel. Reworking the chapters to tighten the story time-line, and shifting crucial family and skating scenes to later in the book, will put the love story front and center.

Revisions aren’t easy. That’s a fact. But I hope that using Brooks’ system will help me streamline the process. Wish me luck.

Now, back to work!