Guest Post: What Publishers Want

This is a guest post by Melodie Campbell.

I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College. Mike has asked me to write about my class one, lesson one advice to new writers, with some sort of guarantee that I will be straight about it, and not muck about with comedy, like I usually do. This is hard. Trust me, writing is harder.   

After 28 years of teaching writing, having evaluated over a 1,000 manuscripts, and having had 16 myself published by traditional publishers, I have found that ‘what you need’ can be distilled down to four main points.

This assumes you already know how long a novel should be: publishers today are looking for 70,000-80,000 words, according to my agent. 60,000 is an absolute minimum. If you are less than that, your book is unlikely to get a look-see. If you are more than 80,000, they may dismiss it out of hand, or at best, try to edit it down. But for the love of God, don’t send a manuscript of 150,000 words to a publisher. Those kinds of numbers are only reserved for bestselling authors.

So hold on, here we go with the must haves! (and yes, there are always exceptions)

  1.  A character with a problem or goal, and obstacles to that goal.
    Yes, this is key. You just don’t sit down and start writing 80,000 words about someone’s life, meandering along without a plot. That’s not a novel.

    A novel demands a single story-line.  It needs a plot. Plots include conflict. There must be obstacles. There must be a risk. Your protagonist must stand to lose a lot if the story doesn’t turn well out for him. Yes, you can have subplots, but all bunny trails must link back to the main story by the end.

    Got it? A novel is a character with a problem or goal, and obstacles to that goal, which are resolved by the end! 
  1.  A protagonist we can care about.
    You may want to write from the point of view of a really nasty person. Indeed, it might be fun writing that. But publishers tell us most readers don’t want to read that. If they don’t care about the character, they will likely stop reading.

    At the same time, don’t make your main character someone who is too perfect. Nothing is more boring than perfection. We should like your main character, but they should have some faults so that we can relate to them and also have sympathy for them.  
  1.  A plot we haven’t seen before.
    Many authorities have written that there are only 7 basic plots, or 12 basic plots, or 36 basic plots – choose the number you like. Fact is, thousands of books get published every year, and they aren’t all the same. When we say a plot we haven’t seen before, we mean something that is fresh – a new spin, perhaps, on Romeo and Juliette. But some subgenres are really worn out, and some plot ideas have been done to death; for instance, I have read numerous student manuscripts that are really clones on the Hunger Games with nothing new in them. That’s not going to get published. You are going to have to dig deep to write a YA dystopian fantasy that seems fresh. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write one, if that’s what inspires you. It’s just you’re going to have to be very well-read in the genre to come up with something that hasn’t already been done in the last ten year.
  1.  An ending that satisfies the reader.
    George R. R. Martin threw the fantasy world on its head when he killed off Ned in Game of Thrones. Fantasy readers expect that their heroes will live, and if they do die, will do so heroically. And that leads me to this point: reader expectation. When we plunk down bucks for a novel, we expect certain things. If it’s a romance, we expect that the sparring couple will come together for a HEA (happy ever after) in the end. If we read fantasy, we expect that the current battle will be won, our beloved characters will have a little time to celebrate their victories, but the war may still carry on for a few more books. And if we read mystery, we expect to learn who-dun-it by the end of the book. If you mess with these expectations, then you may not satisfy your reader. In effect, you’ve broken your ‘Promise to the Reader’.  Hardly anyone wants to read for four hours and discover that their beloved protagonist has kicked the bucket, lost everything they loved, or failed in misery. And when readers aren’t happy?  They don’t buy your next book!

If you want to be an author who gathers fans and continues to get book contracts, then you must satisfy readers so they keep coming back for more. We are entertainers, after all. We write about people who don’t exist, and things that never happen.  

And what a gas it is! Welcome to my wild and wonderful world.

Melodie Campbell for Writers First

Called the “Queen of Comedy” by the Toronto Sun, Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup.  Her humorous fantasy trilogy Rowena Through the Wall was featured on USA Today, and soon after she was seen lurking on the Amazon Top 50 Bestseller list between Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts.  Melodie has shared a literary shortlist with Margaret Atwood, and has won ten awards for fiction. Her publications include 100 comedy credits, 16 novels and over 50 short stories, but she’s best known for The Goddaughter mob caper series. 

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