12 Ways to Excite Pros About Your Novel

A novel has been called a piece of prose that has something wrong with it. Here’s how to ensure your novel has nothing wrong with it: twelve ways to get agents and editors excited about your work.

            1. Your idea: new, creative, timely, informative, entertaining, transformative, commercial, helpful, aimed at a large, proven market

            2. Your writing: style, tone, humor, drama, inspiration, insights, voice

            3. Your irresistible first page: compels editors to turn the page

            4. Your readers: the community of readers who give you feedback while you’re writing your book and when you’re done

            5. You: your passion, commitment, track record, credentials

            6. Your platform, visibility online and off: blog, short stories, teaching, speaking, a blog, social media, networks

            7. Your test-marketing: a blog, podcast, e-book, self-published edition, serialization, website

            8. Your promotion plan: a list of things you will do, online and off, and how many of them, a budget

            9. Your book’s promotion potential: online and off, reviews, media interviews,   endorsements

            10. The markets for your book: consumers, libraries, subsidiary rights, reading groups

            11. Your future books: your book’s series potential, the synopsis for your next book

            12. Your book’s spinoff potential: merchandising products, short stories, music

There’s a Sipress cartoon in the New Yorker showing a medieval torturer in a dungeon standing in front of a guy being stretched on a rack, and he’s saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.” Using these ideas will lessen your suffering on the road to publication.

I’m researching material for future blogs and looking forward to writing to you soon.

Making Your Book Unputdownable

A patient complains to his psychiatrist: “Nobody pays any attention to me.”

The psychiatrist says: “Next.”

The desire to hear, tell and read stories is part of what makes us human. Stories explain the inexplicable. They help us to learn, grow, come to terms with life and ourselves, and to escape from our problems by transporting us to places where only stories can take us.

A critic named Moses Hadas once said of a book: “Once you put it down, you can’t pick it up.” If you want agents and editors to pay attention to you, write a book they can’t put down (pun intended). They are perpetual optimists, always hoping that the next manuscript they pick up will be unputdownable.

What makes a novel or narrative nonfiction book impossible to put down?

  • A fast-paced plot that keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next
  • Characters you care about so much about that you have to find out what happens to them
  • Settings so inviting and vividly described you don’t want to leave them
  • An action-packed or life-changing opening that forces readers to keep reading by making them want to know what happens next
  • The use of telling details to make people, places and situations come alive
  • Interesting information about real events, people, places and cultures 
  • Surprises
  • An effective blend of people, setting and story
  • Each scene starting as late as possible
  • A literary or commercial style that is an irresistible pleasure to read
  • An ending that is like the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal

Do you know where you can always find authors who write books like this consistently? On bestseller lists! Ready to join them? Write a page-turner. If you can keep your readers turning the pages, it doesn’t make any difference what you write about.

Agents, editors and readers are always eager to discover new writers, and they will be delighted to help you attain the fame and fortune you want.

Go for it!

I’d be glad to add to the list if there is anything else that makes books unputdownable.

Writing for Yourself or the Marketplace?

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. –Elmore Leonard

Someone once indelicately said that if you don’t understand the obscurity in Eliot’s poetry, it’s TS. This reminds me of an article in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen, author of the bestseller The Corrections. He described two models for novelists that I think can apply to nonfiction writers as well: the status model and the contract model.

The Status Model

The status model is that of literary artist whose mission is to create the most artistic combination of characters, plot and setting that they can devise. How commercial their work is, or how well readers can understand it, is not their primary concern. If Umberto Eco wants to start Focault’s Pendulum with six lines of Hebrew, and you don’t know Hebrew, it’s tough, er, darts. But Eco’s The Name of the Rose does prove that literary writing can be entertaining as well as erudite and enlightening.

If University of California, Berkeley, lecturer Vikram Chandra uses so many Hindi words in his otherwise accessible bestseller, Sacred Games, that many of his sentences are unintelligible, it’s our problem, not his. But Chandra is a gifted storyteller, and it didn’t keep him from getting a million-dollar advance. And it made his use of Hindi Harpercollins’s problem.

Herman Melville may be the ultimate example of a status writer. He wanted to write books that are “said to fail,” and he succeeded. Moby Dick sold less than 500 copies during the forty years that Melville lived after writing it. (But as George Carlin once wondered: “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?”)

My bias: I can’t sustain the suspension of disbelief when I read something I don’t understand. It takes me out of being immersed in the story and annoys me that the author has interrupted my enjoyment. But if you were born to be a literary artist, you won’t let my bourgeois failing stop you. Nor should it.

For me, the status model for nonfiction writers is represented by those who feel liberated from the demands of the marketplace. Their mission is presenting their ideas or story however seems best to them, without using successful books like theirs as models. As agents, Elizabeth and I can sometimes tell from the first line of nonfiction submissions, sometimes even the cover letters, that the writers’ only concern is delivering their message, regardless of how well they do it or its salability. But thanks to technology, status nonfiction writers are always assured of getting their books published because print-on-demand and e-book publishers will do it for free.

The Contract Model

The premise of Franzen’s “contract model” is that when you buy a novel, you’re buying entertainment: the author has entered into a contract to entertain you. That becomes the criterion for everything in the book: Does it entertain? Does it, as Elmore Leonard advises, leave out the parts that people skip.

Since readers can’t be entertained by what they don’t understand, being incomprehensible isn’t an option. Most of the literary novelists you see on bestseller lists thrive on making their books understandable as well as entertaining.

For nonfiction, I think the contract is that the book will deliver the benefit that the title promises well enough to justify the time and money you spend on it. Reviews and sampling a book can usually lead you to the right decision about whether to buy it.

Since the fate of most books is uncertain, you’ve got to love writing them to produce your best work. Books you love to read will lead you to the books you were born to write. But no matter what you write, the challenge is to find the right place for your work on the spectrum between art and commerce, between writing for yourself and writing for the marketplace.

Happy trails!

Comments and questions welcome.