Recently a literary agent (not mine) commented on an essay I wrote that is part of a book proposal. “This isn’t a book,” she said, “but a magazine article.” I disagree and so does my literary agent, but the comment reminded me of a dilemma many writers face: how to tell if your idea is book-worthy or if it would be better served as a shorter piece.
Writing Tip for Today: We writers often automatically envision our stories or nonfiction ideas as books. How can you tell if your story or idea is best suited for a book-length project? Here are three ideas to help you decide:
Do Due Diligence
When a fiction or nonfiction idea first pops into your mind, it’s exciting to imagine holding a book in your hands and, if you’re like me, picturing it on the NYT bestseller list or winning awards. Sometimes the story or theme is book-worthy, but other times the content is simply too narrow to fill a book. The first thing I recommend is searching out book titles with similar slants or topics. This way, you can determine where on the bookshelf your idea will fit and who your readers may be. Be sure to gather contemporary titles—what was in demand fifty years ago might not be so hot today, and try (especially for nonfiction) to find titles that agree and disagree with your position. If you do a book proposal you’ll need this info for the Complementary Books section (comparing and contrasting published titles with your book idea). Next, research your topic thoroughly–f you can’t find much info, it may be difficult to gather enough pertinent material. For fiction, research may or may not be important, but the last part of this step matters to all genres: Outline. Make a general outline of chapters or major scenes to see whether you have a meaty enough story or topic. Again, you’ll find an outline helpful for your proposal.
Test the Waters
What if you complete the above steps and discover that you’ll have trouble getting your idea to fill a book? We’ve all read books that feel padded with “fluff” or which are repetitive—and it’s not a pleasant experience. If your content is “thin,” don’t panic. Perhaps your idea just needs to slow down and flesh out. Instead of rushing to write a book, spend more time interviewing experts, observing and/or learning about your topic. I can say from experience that it’s better to allow a story or nonfiction idea to mature before you show it around. Give your fictional characters more personality, better obstacles, more passion for a goal. For nonfiction, if you aren’t an expert, find as many as you can and interview/read their work. Put your idea into practice, and you just might become an expert. I know, all this takes time. How can you get some satisfaction as you mature your story idea?
Unpack your Russian Dolls
I’ve written before on the idea of Russian Dolls, the kind that nest inside one another. As you work toward making your idea book-worthy, be willing to unpack different lengths and varieties of your thesis/story. Think of the innermost doll as your one-sentence tag-line and the largest, outer doll as the book version. In between, different-sized dolls can be everything from a long essay/short story/article for a periodical, shorter versions of magazine articles or flash fiction, and even brief “helpful hints,” poems, memes or blog entries. And don’t forget about public speaking opportunities to talk about your ideas! By learning to write different length versions of the same story, you’ll not only become more proficient at writing to a word count, you’ll understand your subject matter much more thoroughly and be able to give that elevator pitch with ease. And in the end, you’re much more likely to come up with a product that really is book-worthy.