“Why won’t my novel sell? My friends/family/critique group/editor all love it!”
Oh yes, the most common novel issue. I’ve been fielding that question in one form or another for over thirty years, and, sadly, I can usually answer it after reading the first few pages of a novel — sometimes just the first few paragraphs. I can always answer it before I’ve finished the first three chapters. So let me share the four most common reasons why agents, publishers, and cold readers pass on otherwise strong, well-written stories.
“The Reader Needs to Know…”
No, they don’t.
I don’t know why this is still an issue in the twenty-first century, but I promise from the bottom of my heart that the reader does not need to know the main character’s (MC) backstory to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing or are about to do.
They don’t need you to explain how the character got into the tight spot they’re in, the heartbreak that came before, or even what’s going on in their life right now — certainly not up front, certainly not in omnipotent narrative or an info dump disguised as dialogue.
They also don’t need you, the author, to explain the MC’s lifestyle or favorite activities or lousy childhood or secret longings before you let the characters begin playing out the story line. And since this is 2021, not 1951, they really don’t need two pages of the intricate details about the countryside, the manor, the house, the apartment, or the hovel where the MC lives.
What they do need is to watch the MC react to the inciting incident that made everything in their life suddenly change.
The reader wants to spot the clues you leave along the story’s journey so they can later have an “oh!” or “aha” moment that lets them figure out why the MC reacted that way. “Oh, I should have realized she was up to no good when she showed up with that plate of cookies!”
Which brings up another reality that may disrupt your author comfort: sometimes the reader will draw a conclusion other than the one you intended.
Please let them.
Rather than go the extra mile to make sure every reader goes exactly where you want them to go and experiences the exact emotion or insight you want them to get, remember that reading is — and has always been — an interactive form of entertainment. You, the author, share your imagination through how your story impacts your characters and the characters impact the story. Let your readers use their imagination to fill in the blanks. That’s the essence of reader engagement.
After all, novels are not movies or TV shows. Even the most lighthearted story needs conflict, complications, and at least a bit of mystery. Ergo, the reader really, really does not need to know upfront who the antagonist is, or why they’re doing whatever they’re doing to challenge, complicate, or confuse the MC. Uncovering that secret is part of the fun, no matter what the genre: Romance, mystery, Sci-Fi, historical drama, fantasy, action adventure, humor, sports, politics, westerns, etcetera and so on and scooby-dooby do.
When you eliminate all the “but the reader needs to know” (also known as author intrusion), you’ll likely find your characters jump into the story more quickly, thereby rectifying one of the biggest reasons novels don’t sell: they don’t get into the story fast enough!
“That’s How I Would Have Done It…”
Yeah, okay, maybe, but — alas — you’re not a fictional character.
You, as the MC of your own life, may naturally and logically farm out some of the more mundane, tedious, or dangerous pieces of your job to underlings or more-qualified professionals. In an office or other real-life situation, we applaud that kind of delegation or project management.
But when a novel’s main character delegates or project manages their way through the story, the reader feels cheated. Suddenly, the main character isn’t the main character anymore; they’re just one in a cast or ensemble of characters.
I don’t care how you try to disguise it, protagonist hand off can stop even the most devoted reader from turning the page. It not only disrupts the story’s forward drive, it thwarts the very concept of character journey.
Novels, after all, are stories of people reacting to life-altering encounters, trials, or quandaries, be they physical, medical, emotional, psychological, spiritual or any combination thereof.
Except for romantic sagas and epic sci-fi tales, novels are a slice of time, a snapshot of “that moment,” a start-middle-end tale, ala:
The MC was there, then XXX happened, and the MC had to do this, that, and the other thing. Things came to a head when xxx occurred, just before it all ended happily/tragically/intriguingly here.
I don’t care how many twists and turns you use to keep the reader engaged, reality is (and can never be) that simple or direct. Save your own everyday life reactions and decisions for your memoir or nonfiction.
Along those same lines, you, as the MC of your own life, may pull off a questionable act and never face any repercussions. A lot of people “get away with” mischief and misconduct all the time, and those exploits make for great nonfiction exposés. But, as Twain put it, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
So when an MC takes a risk, the reader will spend the rest of the book looking for them to face the music. If that never happens — if they’re never confronted with any consequences or guilt — the reader will, once again, feel cheated.
And cheating the reader is an almost sure-fire way to not sell a manuscript.
“I’ve Seen It Happen…”
Ah, accuracy, the set-up for implausibility. Crucial in a courtroom, police report, or insurance claim. Deadly to an otherwise good story.
Novels need to be plausible, not documentable. Your characters need to make sense with motives and agendas that resonate with someone who doesn’t know or has never even heard of you and cannot therefore simply “know” what you mean or intend.
Case in point: it’s implausible for a character who has been frightened and withdrawn throughout the entire tale to suddenly save the day through a heroic act they’ve never before shown the knowledge, ability, or strength to perform —
…even if you know a guy who did exactly that because he’d been privately working up to it all his life and when the right set of circumstances came together at the right moment, wham! He stepped up to the plate and astonished everyone.
Yes, it could happen. But in a novel, it’s implausible — unless you have dropped hints and left “aha!” clues about his private inner efforts.
It’s equally implausible that a loving, dedicated parent would simply leave their toddler in a dangerous situation while they go for help. No reader who has ever had or been a child will accept that situation, even though, yes, parents are sometimes forced to do just that in real life.
But since fiction needs to be credible and protagonists need to be sympathetic, expand that necessary-desertion scene by showing the protagonist parent’s angst and inner turmoil — unless the child is the protagonist, and their inculcated sense of abandonment and rejection is an aspect of their later character perspective, motivation, and agenda.
Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction, and too much of it can kill a good story.
“It Could Happen…”
I cannot emphasize this enough: no matter how luscious, rich, poetic, hard-hitting, dynamic, or enticing the prose, if a novel’s basic premise doesn’t captivate or even make sense — if it’s so convoluted or far-fetched that the author needs to explain or justify it — the book will likely not sell.
And by “not sell” I mean not only will it not appeal to literary agents or traditional publishers, but it has little chance of generating enough positive word-of-mouth to sell even self-published copies.
So: just because an author has seen young girls stand up to vigorous martial-arts training does not mean a small, blind protagonist could plausibly withstand repeated beatings and brutal rapes at the hands of her large, malevolent husband.
Five or six apparently missing people would not plausibly create panic in a town of 40,000 people.
Even though it may be theoretically conceivable for one man to raise fifteen children on his own in an isolated, hostile environment, it’s not plausible for all of them to not only survive but to all develop such mild-mannered personalities no one ever argues or competes with each other.
When a kidnapper taunts a father with, “It doesn’t matter how much you search, you won’t see her again for nine months!” only an implausibly stupid character would not realize the kidnapper has already gotten the daughter pregnant.
So there they are, four common reasons why otherwise good novels don’t sell: Author intrusion. Protagonist hand off. Cheating the reader. Implausibilities.
Some are easily fixed. Others may require significant and, yes, painful, rewrite. But the secret to good writing is rewriting.
You can do this.
The Ghostwriting Expert