I write memoirs and fiction in all genres. My characters have secrets, tell lies and find themselves in trouble all the time. The challenge is figuring out how to rescue them. Best of all, they live much more interesting lives than I do, so I live vicariously.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Before Submitting to an Agent, Make Sure Your Book Has These Ten Things
This post is not about making sure your book has the obvious like a catchy
title, professional formatting, editing and cover design. In this post I’m going to discuss the things
that are beneath the surface, and only visible once the reader begins diving
into a story.
1. Gripping first chapter
In today’s literary world, the first chapter is so
critical. Not only must you capture your
reader’s attention (sometimes on the first page), but you also have to nearly
synopsise your entire novel here; without giving away too much. The
first chapter needs to give a real feel for what’s going to happen throughout
the entire story.
(The best example of a remarkable first chapter is Sandra
Brown’s Best Kept Secrets-her first
chapter encompasses all the elements discussed in this post).
Tip: Sometimes it's best to add your first chapter after all other chapters are
Whether or not the story is told in an important place, the
reader needs to feel like they’re there geographically. If you cannot actually visit the place where
the plot occurs, then research it. Read
books that take place where your story will, even read maps or picture books
that show and tell about the area. The
reader needs to use all five senses to get a feel for where the characters are.
This is not the same thing as the geographic setting. The setting can be chronological (past,
present or future), it can also be demographic (on a farm in Connecticut
with an Hamish family, or in the year 3000 on Mars with a bunch of aliens),
make the reader see where they are and feel as though they are a fly on the
wall, witnessing all the scenes.
4. Chapter Conclusion
Each chapter needs to give the reader a reason to keep
reading; and I don’t mean this to sound patronizing. All chapters should have
enthralling content, but at the end of the chapter, in order to keep the reader
from putting down the book, you need to give them a strong reason not to.
There are several techniques to do this:
a) Cliff hanger (most
b) An open-ended
c) A questionable
look, scene or character being introduced
d) Leave the reader
hanging; end the scene in the middle of the next chapter (the best example of
this is E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey).
I’ll use E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey in this
example again. If Ana had discovered
Christian’s fondness for S & M long after she learned of his painful
childhood, the sexual tension and the love story would have unravelled all at
the wrong pace. She gradually fell in
love with him as she learned more and more about his childhood.
All stories must have proper pacing. You can’t have Peter falling in love with
Paula before your climax occurs, unless of course, that is your climax. Readers want to be challenged and
surprised. Keep them guessing; give them
plenty of breadcrumbs along the way, but ultimately keep them turning the pages
and nail your climax at the correct time.
6. No Strings Attached
Once you’ve reached the point in your novel where the climax
is about to happen, make sure all the subplots and mystery are going to tie up
in the end. Don’t leave your reader
hanging on until your next book is released to find out what’s going to happen. To most readers that is a turn-off (unless
you’re J.K. Rowling or E.L. James and can get away with that). Bring all the elements and characters
together in the end. Let your reader walk away with a contented smile on their
7. Teach Them
Any New York Times bestselling book I’ve ever read has
taught me something. Whether it was a
moral or literal lesson, I’ve walked away having gained some knowledge. This is especially true for historical
novels. For example, Philippa Gregory’s
entire Tudor novel line is chocked full of in-depth historical facts interlaced
within the fictitious portions of the books.
She explains everything in detail in the beginning and end and she
includes diagrams of family trees when needed to illustrate what happened
within the story. All her books are
fictitious, but you take away some true knowledge of history.
Another example is a recent book I read: Jodi Picoult’s House Rules. In this novel, the main character suffers
from Asperger’s Syndrome. The author
deeply educates the reader in regards to what the condition is, what it’s like
to have it and what it looks and feels like to the victim’s loved ones and others around him.
There are hundreds of other examples of this that I can
think of, but the point is that the reader should feel like you had first-hand
knowledge of the main theme of the book.
If you don’t have first-hand knowledge; get it. Whether it’s through researching books,
interviewing people, visiting places, whatever it is, make your reader believe
you know your stuff, and care that they know it too.
8. Use Words That Fit
I’m not talking about grammar or repetition here; we all
know well enough that you need to have your manuscript properly edited. What I am talking about is the proper use of words. There is nothing more boring than reading a
book that either has too many fancy words, or nothing but plain language. My personal rule of thumb is to make sure
each page has at least two uncommon words, but make sure the sentence correctly
reflects the word, so the reader doesn’t have to bring out the dictionary and
If you’re a seasoned reader this process will come out
naturally. As Stephen King states in his
book On Writing, your writer’s
toolbox should continue to be packed daily with new words you’ve learned from
reading good books. If you’re not a
seasoned reader, trying to stick in fancy words here and there will be obvious.
So what’s the solution?
Read. Read. Read.
9. Make Them Laugh
Part of being human is to have emotion. If you can make your reader laugh out loud,
you’re golden. I don’t mean telling a
joke, but that is acceptable if it fits, I mean give them a funny situation and
help them feel it. Bring sunshine to
their day. If nothing else, a reader
will tell at least a few people the funny part of your story. It could be one
of the most memorable parts of your book so don’t gloss over it.
10. Make Them Feel
It’s not enough to describe a scene and all that encompasses
it. It isn’t enough to tell the story
and what happens within it. If you want
a reader to remember your book, they have to feel it. Tear their heart out with a tragic ending,
make them want to run for the little girl who’s about to cross the busy road
unattended. It’s not enough for the
reader to feel like they’re there, make them feel what the characters feel
emotionally, physically, environmentally and psychologically.
You can do this by making them committed to your story. By committed I mean that they don’t want to
put the book down; they have made a commitment to themselves to read it until
it’s finished. Don’t disappoint them by
giving them a shallow, underdeveloped plot or character. If you use all ten elements discussed above,
you have at least a decent chance you’ll have a happy reader, perhaps even a
I am by no means a New York Times bestselling author, but I
aspire to be. Every day I read
bestselling novels, and all these points are what I’ve derived from the books
I’ve read. I do implement all elements
into my writing, and I certainly hope to one day be a memorable writer.
Do you have any points to add? Have I missed anything? If you can think of any tips that I’ve
missed, please feel free to add them into the comments. I’m happy to hear any additions!