Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

Why will no-one publish my novel?

Why have agents and publishers shaken their heads and said ‘not for me’, given you at best a rave rejection – ‘We found the novel imaginative and touching, etc, etc, but not for us. Sorry.’ Or a straight ‘No thanks, not for us’ or worst of all, kept you waiting month after month and still said nothing, not bothering to reply. There are various reasons. Be brave and consider the possibilities.

  1. Perhaps it’s too boring.
  2. Perhaps you have nothing to say
  3. Perhaps it’s too old fashioned, you’re out of touch.
  4. Perhaps there’s no USP – unique selling proposition – and though editors like it, marketing don’t think they can sell it.
  5. Perhaps it’s going to upset too many people.
  6. Perhaps your synopsis failed to explain your novel as well as it could.
  7. Perhaps it’s too good for them: too much fine writing, too little plot.

Anyway, the novel’s been rejected. Let’s take these possibilities one at a time. Be brave. Learn from it.

1. Too boring? This is not an insult. It doesn’t mean you are a boring person (no-one who undertakes and manages a whole novel is boring), just that you have failed to put into the novel the spark that makes you what you are, and why you chose to write it in the first place. You have probably written the novel from off the top of your head, relied on plot alone to keep the attention of your reader and been altogether too determined to keep yourself out of it at all costs. And the costs have been too high.

A novel should not be wholly autobiographical – it needs to be written by a human not a reporting robot. It’s an act of communication between writer and reader. If you try and hide yourself, your personality, your enthusiasms, pains and rages, the readers shut off  because you have failed to engage them.

2. Nothing to say? A novel is about more than its plot. It’s also about your motivation in writing it. It needs a hypothesis: what you’re setting out to prove. It can be simple – in a romantic novel; true love always finds a way and the writer provides characters and events to prove it, and gets to the Q.E.D. after a straight run through. Or better still gets the hypothesis it into their first line (very clever) and tells the world. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man…’ (Austen), or, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ (Dickens).

You need to have something to say, even if you only discover it when you’re a third of the way through, and having discovered it, you stick to the point. Don’t go wandering off and lose sight of your plot in so doing. You can only deal properly with one human problem at a time in one novel. One novel, one problem – with any luck you have a lifetime of novels ahead of you – spread your material thin.

3. You’re too old fashioned, too last century? Writing styles have changed since you were a child. Since the advent of the computer sentences are shorter, verbs are quieter, adjectives and adverbs, especially the latter, are used sparsely. Adjectival and adverbial clauses take their place. Meaning must be immediate; clarity is important. Look inside any Angela Brazil (1846-1947) book on Amazon to see what I mean by old-fashioned? Tremendously popular in her day, and rightly so, but terrified of the useful word ‘said’. So everyone has to gasp, expostulate, demand, complain, or protest. The contemporary writer uses the word said, and then, if it’s important, and having taken time (well, a second or two) to think about it, tells the reader exactly how it was said.

4. There’s no USP – Unique Selling Proposition? It’s too like to many other novels. Okay but fails to enthuse. Well, go on sending it out, you might be lucky and start the next one. Write the same story from the man’s view not the woman’s, the villain’s view not the victim’s. The abandoning man not the abandoned woman. You might surprise yourself.

5. You’ll upset too many people?. It does happen. A novel you started years ago on a quite inoffensive subject can become contentious on the way. Publishers are very nervous of controversy. Seek out brave publishers and approach them, or wait five years until you are proved right – then publish.

6. Perhaps your synopsis failed to convince, being just a convoluted and hard to follow account of the plot? Martha did this and William did that, and then this, that and the other happened. Not enough. Your synopsis, plus your letter of introduction, needs to give an overview of your novel – the genre, why you think readers will be interested, perhaps what compelled you to write, what you see as your potential market, and any other special thing you want to say in your novel’s favour. Keep it brief, professional and business-like. Be positive about what you’ve written but avoid boasting. (Agents and publishers are no different from you; they can tell blarney when they see it. They’re the ones to decide whether it will profit them to publish.)

With this guidance from you at her fingertips (usually, these days, a ‘her’) the agent will pitch the substance of your novel to the commissioning editor at the publisher, and the editor, once persuaded to read, will use the same material to pitch it to her bosses. If it’s a large publishing house there may be as many as 40 editors, all pushing their own favourites – and marketing, alas, these days usually rules the roost. Not so much is this a good novel, as who is likely to buy? So make it easy for everyone. (Should it occur to you to change the title, the names, your introductory letter and then re-submit, don’t say I told you to. But all is fair in love and war, and if you’ve been rejected you may well feel it’s war and you’re on the losing side.)

7. Your novel is too good for them? It can happen. Fine writing does not necessarily make a fine novel; you have concentrated so much on your undoubted skill at manipulating the English language you have forgotten the need for a developing story, a satisfactory beginning, middle and end. You have lost your reader in a welter of remarkable similes and striking metaphors. Lose the reader and lose the publisher. Readers are quick to pick up whether you are trying to communicate with them to the best of your skill and ability, or just showing off. The very density of fine writing can be off putting – it’s exhausting. If you’re going to do it at least put in lots of paragraphs.

8. And before you begin your next novel – or have already begun it: which I hope you have: if you have completed one novel you can find the hope and strength to write another – realise what a lot you’ll have learnt on the way.

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