How to S.W.O.T. Your Story Over the Fence

Those among us who have spent any time in a cubicle in a Groundhog’s Day-like corporate existence know what this means. 

At least the first part, the S.W.O.T. part.  One has to be even just a little acquainted with the game of baseball to wrap your head around the latter colloquial analogy.

Assuming the second but not taking the first for granted, allow me to define what this means. 

S.W.O.T. is an acronym for a process of looking at a project from all angles to make sure it’ll work the best that it can possibly work.  Which is a good idea when a significant investment is at stake.

It’s a little like story planning, but more along the lines of story evaluating.

Which often leads to further story planning.  Especially when it works.

S.W.O.T means: Strengths… Weaknesses… Opportunities… Threats.

All four of which are viable and powerful facets of your story that you cannot take for granted.  They’re easy to overlook as criteria as you work, because by definition you are making the right choices in each category as you go along.

But, as you go along, you probably aren’t seeing it the way others will.  Or as you will when you’re done.

Taking one or more of them for granted – which the overwhelming majority of writers do when it comes to their own stories – is precisely the great risk in any creative enterprise. 

Why?  Because something about your story makes you love it.  Or at least made you love it at some point.

It’s sort of like falling in love.  Something about the other person makes that happen.  Causes something deep within you to swell up and dance and secrete hormones and send embarrassing texts.

Then, later in that particular love story, reality sets in.  That certain something may or may not be enough to save the day and infuse the relationship with a future.

Your story is no different.

You love it.  But will someone else love it?  Will you love it when it’s done?

Conduct your own private S.W.O.T. evaluation and find out.

You just might stumble on something that will make it even better.

Strengths

Ever been to a neighborhood in which all the houses look the same?  The only difference being the landscaping and the color of the trim? 

Whatever the differences are – the relative strengths, they are subtle.  Location.  The direction they face.  Proximity to a busy street or the park.  Something about the neighbors, who look different than you do.  That tree in the front yard.

If you looked at any one of those houses, would sameness be a strength or a weakness?  Could go either way, especially if price is a key factor in what you buy.  Chances are, looking exactly like the Joneses next door isn’t what compels you to offer up some earnest money.  But chances are just as good that you’ll find something about the house that makes it stand out in your mind.

What will stand out in an agent’s or editor’s mind when they read your story?

Is your core idea fresh and original, or just a new spin on a proven genre?

Are you simply imitating the run of the mill grocery story paperback in your niche, trying to be the next Sandra Brown by writing like Sandra Brown?

Is your hero cut from the cloth of someone already played by Leonardo Dicaprio, or will this be someone that an agent or editor hasn’t met before?

If you’re thinking that it’s the strength of your writing, your eloquent, poetic prose, or perhaps your edgy take on noir… it’s reality check time.  Because here’s the hard truth: if you’re unpublished, agents and editors are all about story.

It’s story, story and more story.  How well you write is just the ante in.  And beyond a certain entry-level degree of professionalism… all that matters is story, story, story.

An unpublished Hemingway with a crappy story will get rejected as quickly as you will.  In fact, some college lit classes have proven just that.

So… what about your story is strong enough to turn the head of a tired, cynical, megalomaniacal, over-worked and therefore grouchy agent or editor?

If you draw a blank, see the “O.” in S.W.O.T.  It may be time to re-think some things.

Weaknesses

Sometimes the search for strength will turn up evidence of weakness.  The goal isn’t always turn a weakness into a strength, but rather, to fix what’s broken so that it doesn’t end up being a distraction.

The player who drops the ball with two outs doesn’t have to be the player who hits a homerun later in the game.  Just holding down your end of things can be enough to keep you in the game.

There are six core competencies for a successfully-told story: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and your writing voice.  There are multiple criteria for each. 

If you are weak in any single one of the six core competencies, it’ll kill your submission to an agent or a publisher.  Just one. 

They’ll never admit, but with so many competent stories flooding their in-box, they’re looking for two things: the next Big Thing (they aren’t intending to take on another also-ran in a crowded commodity niche), and… a reason to reject you.

It’s like dating.  You aren’t hoping the girl belches after slamming her third shot of Jager (this before you take her home to meet your parents) or talks incessantly about the sexual prowess of her last boyfriend, in fact you’re not looking for stuff like that at all.

But you do have your antennae out.

The moment you hear it or see it, she’s history.  No matter what else is working.

Agents and editors are like that, too. 

Opportunities

Allow me to state the obvious: if you have no real strengths, try to think of something that will make your story stronger. 

If you have a weakness, fix it.

But beyond that, other opportunities abound.

Look two years down the road, when the book or film you are writing will be coming out.  Are you writing about something that will as timely then as it is now?  Is there an opportunity to seize that other writers aren’t noticing in terms of the world, a specific arena, or a social trend?

Have you taken the opportunity to be fresh and original, yet still within the box of anticipated narrative principles and form?

And speaking of arenas… does your story have one?  Is your hero doing something cool in her day job?  Are you delivering a vicarious thrill ride to the reader, a peek into a forbidden place, a guilty pleasure?

These are all opportunities.  Sometimes you don’t have to overhaul your story to seize them.

And sometimes it’s worth it.

Threats

You think you are alone in that room as you attack the keyboard.  You think you have left this world behind as you disappear into your story.

Think again.  Threats from this world are all around you, waiting to swallow your manuscript and your writing dream in one quick, insensitive gulp.

Is there a major bestseller or hit film out there on the same topic as yours?  If so, you’re toast.  You may think you’re working in a hot field, but trust me, so do the other 125,000 writers about to submit a story on the same thing.

Is your novel too short?  Too long?  Both are a threat to your success.

I recently spent some time with a science fiction writer at a conference who had absolutely no idea that his 175,000 word manuscript was too long.  When I told him it was, he looked at me like I’d just said his wife was too ugly (an analogy, folks, I never saw the guy’s wife, I’m sure she’s a knock out).  Then one of the agents in attendance at this conference walked by, so we asked him.

I love it when that happens.

That agent wasn’t quite as kid gloves as I was.  He said that not only was the story too long, but that nobody would even read the thing when they saw the page count.

Writing a series?  That’s a threat.  You need to write and sell the first book in what you very quietly intend to become a series, without having to add that “it’s a series” to justify a hanging, less than satisfying ending.  Publishers rarely buy a series from a new author, but they may buy a single story if it’s good enough (even if a two book contract is offered, which it often is… that doesn’t imply they want the sequel; the success of the first book totally determines if a sequel will be published, or not).

Your weaknesses are all threats.  Screw up one of the six core competencies – just one – and you’re doomed.  Even if the other five are stellar.

But wait… you already write better than a lot of the so-called A-list authors, right?  Of course you do.  But that won’t get you published.

Why?  Because writers under contract get edited.  They get a second chance.  And a third.  And a stand-in ghost writer if the original author can’t get it done.

New submissions… not so much.  They just get rejected.

The biggest threat of all?  Settling. 

Right behind not understanding where the bar is in general (one word: high), and what the criteria are for each of the six core competencies.

So give it good S.W.OT.

Step outside yourself and crawl into the skin of your worst nightmare of an agent or editor.  Or better yet, book or film reviewer.  Someone who has seen it all, hated it all and is ready for a vacation.

Objectivity, honesty, vulnerability and the willingness to do more work are key to making your project better.

And it can always be better.  No matter how much you tell yourself that it’s done.

*****

Need to see the criteria for story structure?  Click here.

Characterization?  Click here.

Want more on what agents and editors are looking for?  Click here.

6 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

6 Responses to How to S.W.O.T. Your Story Over the Fence

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    It’s funny, I work in a cube farm yet somehow I have never run into SWOT. Maybe it’s only the manager level or something along those lines. It totally sounds like manager speak, that’s for certain *hears synergistic paradigm shift and screams*

    I actually did a quick pass of this (will have to do a more thorough one later) and the horrifying part is I’m thinking voice is my weak point, yet at least IMO it’s in a way the most important, because what better differentiater is there, since that’s the one place that no one can ever truly copy you.

    I guess that’s why I need to pound out a couple more novels before I go after my big idea (including my NaNovel). I’ll need my voice fully in place before I tackle that one. Fortunately other fun ideas are easy to come by when writing genre fiction 😉

  2. Very nice. It’s a good way to do an objective validation of all your planning.

    Now, we(writers) can also use S.W.O.T with our characters, too. Or to a specific scene. Or to pretty much any part of our stories.

    Here is another very good tool in our arsenal. It’s a jungle out there, folks, and only the tigers survive. And even they have a hard time of it.

    We need all the tools available without burying ourselves in endless analysis, planning, 20 revisions, etc.

    The Core Competencies are vital. Even more vital, as Lary points out, is our creativity. These are excellent What to do tools. Creativity is the How we do it. One without the other will fail.

    Now, go write something.

  3. Gina

    Larry, I love your posts. Love them. You kick it over the fence and out of the ballpark every time. Thank you.

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