So, here’s an industry secret: Nobody knows.
All the writers and authors I’ve worked with are hooting right now! Because of course they know the rigorous tasks I put them through, the enormous elements of great fiction I make them learn, the bar that I set that is higher than Mt. Everest (or at least it seems that way at first J ).
Because so much goes into writing great fiction, my favorite way to open a speech at writer’s conferences is: “Writing well really IS rocket science.”
And it is.
But a winning novel? As in one that’s going to sell? One everybody is going to love (or love to hate)? That’s a different beast entirely.
However, all the editors and literary agents I know (some very well) say when asked the title question: “Who knows.”
What goes into a novel that sells well is sometimes great writing. And sometimes not. Sometimes a great plot, and sometimes great characters, but often not in the same book. Grisham is a great example—he writes page-turning plots with pedestrian prose and the characters are interchangeable from one story to another.
We can all gives lists of simply god-awful books that sold zillions of copies. And fabulous ones that didn’t sell at all.
My favorite example of the latter is A River Runs Through It. I found that book while perusing the book store (which tells you how long ago that was! LOL), loved the cover, and was tweaked by the inside-jacket blurb. So I bought it. Devoured it. It changed my life. It’s to this day the most beautiful piece of literature I’ve ever read.
Nobody had heard of it. It sold about 5 copies. And then Robert Redford made the film version starring Brad Pitt, and it became a household name. Every author’s dream! Although Norman Maclean didn’t much care about that—only that Redford did a nice job with his story.
Without the film though, still about 5 people would have read the book.
But what is a “winning” novel? If you come from my stable of writers, it means that it’s fabulously written. The prose just sings, the characters are vivid and unforgettable, and the storyline is tight, the plot holds together, and all of it works as one piece.
A no-brainer, right? Isn’t that what all great novels do?
So the litmus test as per all of those things: Who sez? Who says yours is all of the above? How do you tell?
Here are 3 questions to ask yourself:
- Have you been working on this a good while?
I can pretty much tell when a writer contacts me how serious he is about this business. If he says, “I’ve been writing this for three years,” my ears perk up. This is someone serious about learning the craft, has shown the fortitude to stick with it, and wants to make it the best book possible before publication.
On the other hand, those who say: “I’ve just finished my first novel and want to publish it next month,” well, that’s the direct opposite.
- Have you been studying your craft as you go?
Have you joined writers’ read & critique groups? Learned from them? Have you gone to writers’ conferences and learned from experts? Have you read how-to books (there are some good ones out there, and some really terrible ones as well)? All of these, while not the total picture, are pieces of it.
- Have you submitted to agents? Literary magazines (in whatever genre you’ve been writing)? Gotten professional feedback?
I’m not talking friends and family here—that is never a good indicator.
Sometimes Beta readers can give you a barometer of where you are, but can’t tell you the whys and hows, etc., of making it great.
I’m talking instead about professionals within the industry.
Did you take that feedback and learn from it? Have you applied it to this book, as well as the new one you’re working on?
If you’ve done these 3 things, then you’re well on your way. You’re serious. You have fortitude. And I firmly believe you’ll get there.
I have this theory—which has held out for lo-these-many years I’ve been doing this—that if you have an entrenched desire to write, then the talent is within you. I believe it. I’ve seen it. I know it. The rest is about skills, and skills can be learned. If you don’t give up.
So write that winning novel. You can do it. But, ask yourself this final question first, as the poet Rainer Marie Rilke did to that young poet:
“. . . ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity;”
How do you know when your book is good?