One of my writing mentors was always suggesting that my book
ideas might really be articles. I was always indignant until I discovered how
to be flexible. Today, let’s talk about some ways we can all be more flexible
in our writing with the Russian Dolls method.
Writing Tip for Today: If you’ve been working on a book for
a while, yet it doesn’t come together, and agents and editors aren’t biting, don’t
despair. Let’s see how Russian Dolls can help:
A recent blog post by literary agent Steve Laube asks writers, Do you have a book or an article? He goes on to talk about books that feel “thin” or stuffed with “fluff”—material that really doesn’t expand the theme or topic but seems to march in place. This can happen with nonfiction and fiction alike.
If you find yourself writing scenes or chapters which attack
the same material or that don’t add to the story question or theme, you may be
better off condensing your work into a saleable article. While we all want to
be bestselling authors (at least I do!), Laube points out that often an article
can reach a wider audience than can a book, especially if the subject is niche
or a small market.
Don’t forget that a well-placed article can be sold (first
rights) and then resold (reprint rights) many times. I have sold the same
article, with a few changes, to several denominational magazines whose markets
do not overlap. And writers can keep selling the same article as holidays or
events such as the Olympics roll around. As one writer has said, “I sold 3,000
articles. I didn’t say I wrote 3,000 articles.”
Boil it Down
So how do you get from a book-length manuscript to a saleable article or story? Before you can become flexible, Russian Doll -style, you’ll need to winnow down your theme or story to about a twenty-five-word summary. You may already do this for elevator pitches, back cover blurbs, queries and synopses.
I like to start with a query formula I learned from Nathan Bransford. It has helped many of my students distill their stories to a one-sentence pitch or tag line that can be embellished for different purposes. The formula is simple: [protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [action] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].
Fill in these blanks for fiction, and you’ll discover what your story is really about. For non-fiction, try a topic sentence of the same twenty-fiveish-words that tells what your reader will gain from your material. Here’s an example I did for Prayers for Parents of Prodigals: Through simple short prayers, parents will find comfort, hope and new strength in dealing with their prodigals. Try it for your project.
One Idea, Many Versions
Once you isolate your core story or theme, the Russian Dolls idea comes into focus. Your book idea is still going to be the largest or outermost doll. Each smaller doll inside trims your idea into shorter pieces, from a longish article or story (say 1500+ words) to a one-pager (about 800 words) to smaller and shorter pieces that might be suitable for a particular magazine or fiction contest.
You keep editing down the text by looking for key sentences
that keep the reader moving forward, and by eliminating anecdotes and descriptions.
Next you chop modifiers, prepositional phrases and create contractions. It
takes practice, yes, but after a while your mind will automatically look for
Finally, you have several different versions of the same idea. Hit the market books and online listings to find places to submit your work. Make a list of your top three markets (with the biggest circulation) and about seven lesser (smaller or niche or regional publications) targets. If the top one rejects your piece, prepare and send to the next on your list. If your book idea seems stalled, try the Russian Dolls method. You’ll be a more flexible writer and you may even earn some good credits.