I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a wonderfully written novel or work of non-fiction that I know for a fact that no one, and I mean no one, will ever want to read. It’s very disheartening to see such good writing go nowhere. So I want to share a sage bit of advice (mmmmm . . . sage): before you begin writing, make sure someone—besides you, your mother, and your significant other—gives a rat’s patootie about your subject matter. This includes the old “hook” dilemma for fiction. How is your novel different from what else is out there? Why would someone want to spend their hard-earned $24.95 on your lil old book?
I was recently contacted by a lovely woman who was in the middle of writing a memoir about the fight to save her family land from her “evil” brother. Let’s call him Evil Earl. This sounds like a very fitting name based on her description and the fact that apparently most of his teeth are missing. Now, I’m thinking, okay, perhaps Evil Earl is a colorful character and this will become a grand, sweeping epic of a poor, put-upon woman who will stop at nothing to save her legacy! Steinbeck would be proud! The saga, the characters, the bleak exploitation! Nope. Turns out it was all about the details of the legal fight itself—case filings, depositions, mind-numbing property rights jargon. In other words, she had glossed over the entire part of her story that would be compelling to anyone who, well, wasn’t her. The interesting family characters (how did Earl lose his teeth after all?), the emotions involved in this fight to save her inheritance, the fact that despite the cancer raging through her body, she’ll never, ever give up this battle until she reclaims the land Grandma promised on her deathbed. I mean, that’s a story! But I just couldn’t convince her to throw away four hundred pages of dry, point-by-point documentation of the legal maneuvering. It’s a shame, too, because there’s a compelling story in there that will never see the light of day.
If you’re writing a memoir, remember to craft the story in a way that will appeal to people you aren’t married to or birthed from. Remember that your life story isn’t automatically interesting to readers. You must present it in a way that is extraordinary. What makes your story different? Quirky? Poignant? Compelling? If the answer is, “Nothing, but I want to tell it,” then save yourself some time and find another hobby—backgammon? Whittling?
When writing a novel, you must remember that just because you want to tell a story doesn’t mean that other people will want to read it. Give a lot of thought as to what it is that makes your main character truly unique. What plot point makes your novel truly stand out from the pack, when thousands are published every year? Is your setting compelling and different? Why would this book grab the attention of a reader who has thousands of other books to choose from at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon? If you can’t answer these questions and figure out what makes your novel unusual, then you need to smash your laptop and drain your pens of ink. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but you get the idea. It’s simply a waste of good writing (and certainly bad writing!) to tell a story that no one will care about.
This reminds me of perfectly well written novels that come across my desk several times a year. In each, the main character is a recovering alcoholic detective who is investigating a murder. But it turns out that the main suspect isn’t the murderer after all! Shocking, huh? First, the plot itself has been written about two million times, so it at least needs a big twist or a kick arse setting or a character that is new and improved. The lead P.I. who is a drunk has been done (very well!) by such luminaries as Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, and James Crumley. And most first-timers really don’t want to try and go up against these guys. So if you can’t or won’t find a unique angle, but still feel the need to purge that life story or write that chick lit novel about four best friends in New York who gab about their troubles, then self-publish that bad boy, draw a purdy picture for the cover, and give it to your family and friends.
The best idea is to think of a unique story or angle before you begin the book. Don’t write just to write. Give it some thought and flesh it out. Why would the average reader and the average agent and, let me hear it, the average editor, want to drop everything to read your book? Use that question as your goal and I can guarantee that your work will be a hundred times more interesting. The ultimate litmus test: put yourself in the shoes of an editor. If you could only buy one book a month out of the hundreds that cross your desk in the same time period, would you pay (at least) tens of thousands of dollars for yours? Be honest with yourself. If you would, then get that manuscript out there! If not, put on your creative cap and start anew. I don’t want to have to send Evil Earl after you.