11 Important Elements in a Novel or Memoir

A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila.

–Mitch Ratliffe

Your computer ends the physical drudgery of writing. But it can’t prevent you from making mistakes or ensure that what you write is salable. You may have only seconds to seize the interest of agents and editors who are swamped with submissions. In descending order of importance, here are the eleven most important elements in a novel or memoir:

  • The idea: Will it excite editors because it’s new or a fresh take on an old idea?
  • The first page: Do the first sentence, paragraph, and page compel readers to keep going? (For more about this, please see my earlier post on The S Theory.)
  • The story: Do your conflicts, story twists, and subplots make readers want to know what  comes next?
  • The people: Will your readers connect with your characters and care what happens to them?
  • Page-turnability: Does the pace vary and does the tension or suspense keep your readers turning the pages?
  • The dialogue: Is it varied and distinctive enough and to portray the characters through  tone, emotion, and the way they speak?
  • The writing: Is it good enough for the kind of book you’re writing?
  • The setting/s: Does it reflect, enhance, or drive your story?
  • The structure:  Is how you constructed your story the most effective way to build tension until the climax?
  • The ending: Is it the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal?
  • Your future books: Do you have a synopsis or proposal for a follow-up book?

 Also Worth Noting

The synopsis: Does it tell the whole story in a way that will make agents and editors who read part of the manuscript eager to read the rest of it?

Rising Fast in Importance

  • Your promotion plan: Will it help get enough books to the cash register?
  • Your platform: Do you have continuing visibility, online and off?

You need knowledgeable readers to help you answer these questions. Ask them to use this list when you share your work. My partner Elizabeth Pomada, who handles the fiction and memoirs in our agency, and our assistant, Claire Cavanaugh, helped with this list, which doesn’t claim to be definitive. These elements may vary in importance.

Two suggestions to help you:

  • Make your models first resource: the books you love that inspire you to write yours.
  • As in all things, trust your instincts and common sense.

The 10 Most Important Parts of a Proposal

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

            The psychiatrist says: “Next.”

You may only have seconds to seize the interest of agents and editors before they say to themselves: “Next.” In descending order of importance to agents and editors, the ten most important elements in proposals for promotion-driven books aimed at big and midsize houses are:

  • The idea: Is it fresh and exciting?
  • The promotion plan: Will it get enough books to the cash register?
  • The author’s platform:  Does the author have continuing visibility online and off?
  • Markets for the book: Will enough readers buy it?
  • Competing books: Will it stand up to past, present, and future competitors?
  • The title: Does it tell and sell—say what the book is and have a compelling reason to buy it?
  • The writing: Is it a pleasure to read?
  • The sample chapter: Does it prove the author can write the book?
  • The outline: Does it prove there’s a book’s worth of information in the subject?
  • The author’s future books: Does the author have the potential to grow?

The relative importance of these elements depends on the book and the author. For a memoir, the writing might be the most important element, and the platform, promotion plan, and competing books will be less important. If your proposal or manuscript has these elements, editors will be eager to insist to their editorial boards: “This is the book we have to buy next!”

Next up: the fiction list.

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.