Let’s be frank: the real secrets of writing a good story and getting a publisher to pay at least some attention to it are contained in the forthcoming book How Stories Really Work. But in the meantime, there are still practical and constructive things you can do. Here are some suggestions:
1. Many writers receive their work back from the publisher with advice to help them specifically to improve -but they just look at the rejection letter they’ve been given and don’t even bother to read the advice! The publisher has possibly pinpointed exactly what they need to fix. More likely than not the advice was tailor-made to their situations, even if editors and publishers are not explicitly aware of the principles in the above book.
2. A publisher is more likely to lose interest if you have failed to frame your story in terms of something that they might be familiar with. That’s why movie pitches work (when they do work): they ‘sell’ an idea in the context of ideas with which the listener is familiar. Star Trek was originally pitched as ‘Wagon Train in space’ -i.e. a western, but set in outer space; Harry Potter was obviously sold as ‘school stories, but with magic’. The Twilight series is a ‘teen love story but with vampires’. And so on. What familiar elements could you mix to try to give a publisher the basic flavour of your tale? The trick here is to pick at least two genres that are incredibly popular -most publishers see things through pound and dollar symbols, at the end of the day. You don’t have to alter your writing -just try to couch it in terms that can be grasped easily.
3. Publishers unconsciously drop your work into the rejection pile if they see errors -typographical, spelling, grammatical or otherwise- mounting up. They are human beings and readers too. Error after error in a piece of work makes it difficult to see through the fog to give you a good response, and in the minds of many, perfect grammar makes for a smoother road towards finishing at least a couple of chapters of your story. It might seem unfair, but that’s the way the mind and the system works.
4. Writers can still make big mistakes when they try to appear clever, too original, and get too complicated. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to add to the work, trying to be smart, but ending up unnecessarily complicating the tale. Keep your writing on track by regularly stepping back and checking to ensure that everything is staying reasonably simple for a newcomer. Try, if you can, to find a reliable ‘test reader’ to act as an external check on this one.
5. Readers want to feel that they are in the hands of a master author who will bring them through successfully to a satisfying and perhaps even moving conclusion. Sloppiness confuses and annoys readers and leaves them unmoved. They want a genuine tone of authority and wisdom. Write powerfully, confidently, actively, but be aware that much of that power, confidence and action stems from a firm grasp of underlying principles.
6. If you have a few spare minutes, pick up a newspaper or magazine and read an article. Read a book to a child. Or read through a dusty poetry book from a rarely touched shelf. Read instructions or recipes. Read a chapter of a novel you wouldn’t normally touch. The more you read, the more variety of applications and styles you'll encounter. Soon, you'll start incorporating some of what you read into what you write. You'll find yourself mimicking the things in others that you admired or that had an effect on you, and using new vocabulary words that moved you.
7. Get out of your ‘comfort zone’ by writing something you're not used to tackling. Force your mind to think in new ways.
8. Edit a piece of work for someone else. You'll see habits that you also share when you objectively look over something someone else has written. Additionally, by editing someone else's writing, you'll be improving your skills as a self-editor. Then, the next time you read through your own work, you'll be able to do a better job.
9. Remember that your readers are looking to enjoy and appreciate what you’ve written. All the time readers are seeking very specific things -patterns, rhythms, well-constructed surprises and much more. They are very intent on finding these things, just as you are when you read. Supply them.
10. Never underestimate your readers. Be as professional as you can; employ these ideas and several more; give them what they want and make them happy -in ways they always suspected but never expected.
Clearly there is much more to each of these tips. Make a list of your own. What further actions can you take to guarantee that your readers will connect with your work and gain from it?
Here’s to better writing success for you!