Recently, someone asked me:
What is required to make a book saleable?
That is a rather large-in-scope question, and as such, I’m afraid my answer will be kinda vague. All the same, I thought it was worth taking the time to answer for everyone.
My super broad response is the:
The most important thing in writing a saleable book is writing a good book.
I am 100% convinced that if you have a well-written, compelling story, your novel will eventually find an agent/editor. Period.
That said, there are a few critical things that define a “good book”. Again, these answers are vague, and I’d be more than happy to get specific for anyone with questions (ask in the comments, please!).
Parts of a Good Book
1. First and foremost, the story absolutely most flow. Stilted dialogue, poor pacing, or unreadable grammar/syntax will kill a manuscript. A reader can put up with slow scenes if it all flows beautifully, and a reader can put up with a less-than-compelling plot if it’s smooth.
The way to ensure your novel flows is to revise-revise-revise. Learning to master the written word is absolutely critical. Few people write stunning first drafts, but give them a red pen, and they can line-edit their words into perfect prose.
2. Secondly, a book needs a compelling plot with tension on every page. The story builds, the tension builds, and everything ends in an explosive climax (and this applies to any genre—by explosive I simply mean all aspects of the story finally come together).
This is something you can learn by reading about writing, taking workshops, or simply reading heavily in the genre you write. There are structure to stories (three-act is the most common), and your job is to practice until these are second nature when you write/revise.
Again, my first drafts are rarely good examples of compelling plot, but I can revise them until they shine and all the subplots weave into the main plot.
3. Third, a book needs a cast of characters that readers care about. The best way to achieve this is to ensure the MC has a desperate need—secondary characters too. This is also something you have to learn by doing/practicing.
4. Fourth, the book must have high stakes. “High stakes” simply means we are invested in whether or not the MC achieves his/her goal. What will she lose if she fails to reach her goal? And why does that matter? A common reason a book fails to compel readers is low stakes—if we don’t care about the MC’s failure, we don’t care about reading the book.
My biggest suggestion in terms of how to address these 4 components is to start critiquing and getting your work critiqued. Either find a critique partner, join a critique group, or stay active in a critiquing community. This is no doubt something everyone here already knows, but it’s so important (in my opinion) that I just have to emphasize it!
When you see others make mistakes, you learn to spot them in your own writing. Additionally, we, the writers, are often too close to our novels to see them “as a whole”. CPs and betas have the needed distance to spot problems
When I got an agent, Something Strange and Deadly had been through 4 crit partners and 2 betas. Did I always listen to my CPs’/betas’ comments? No—you must decide and filter feedback—but it was thanks to my CPs/betas that I caught some of my biggest mistakes (character inconsistencies, flat climax, plot holes, etc.).
What do you think? Are there any other components you think a saleable book needs? And how do you feel about critique partners or beta readers?
Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.