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If "Perfect" Didn't Sell My Book, Then What Did?

What a relief to know our books don't need to be perfect to sell, right?

So, if perfect writing doesn't sell a book, what does?

We all want an easy answer to that question. We search the far reaches of the Internet for tips, read agent blogs, study published books--all with the hope of finding an answer to the question: What will help me sell my book? We think if so many others can reach publication, then we can too--if only we could discover how they did it.

The truth is, there is NO ONE formula that sells books. What works for one writer is not a sure-fire way to land an agent or book contract for another. So, I hesitate to share a few of the things I think may have helped me, because what worked for me will likely be different for others.

However, with that said, I will attempt to break down some of the possible reasons my book sold. (These points are taken directly from the email notes my editor gave me when she sent me the rewrites I moaned about last week.)

1. Overall excellent writing. (Notice they didn't say perfect!) There's no doubt we must have a grasp on the craft of writing and the myriad of "rules" that make books appealing to the modern reader. I recently read Little Women. And while this book is a classic, the style, pace, and craft techniques would not appeal to most of today's readers. We can't hope to sell if we don't know how to craft page turners.

2. Gifted story-telling ability. Let's be brutally honest. Everyone might have a story to tell. But not everyone can tell it well. We're not all gifted in the same way. I'd never attempt to try out for American Idol--not even with voice lessons and years of practice. I don't set dogs howling when I sing--at least not yet. But I can easily accept I'll never be the next American Idol. Not all of us are equally gifted story-tellers either. In fact, I'm quite sure there are plenty more gifted than me!

3. Draw the reader in right away. We all know how important the first page and chapter are. With each of my books, I almost always have to rewrite chapter one. In other words, none of my first scenes survive my personal edits. Once I get into the depths of my book, I have more fuel and a better feel for how to open the book, and invariably I rewrite it.

4. Portray action scenes well and weave tension throughout. Since we're a movie generation, I'm convinced we have to view our books in terms of scenes, similar to the construction of movies. Most of my book cuts from one scene to the next. I have narration to show the transition of time in some places, but even now during the rewrites, I'm analyzing the few spots of narration and trying to trim them more.

5. Create a cast of interesting and unique characters. While Bethany House didn't like the arc I'd developed for my hero, I guess he was still interesting and unique. Even though I need to go back through and make changes to his character development, this isn't quite as daunting as it first seemed. I can tone back his original "flaw" and make one of his other weaknesses bigger instead. In other words, his character is already defined but I just need to change the emphasis.

I'm sure my book sold for many other reasons that I don't even know and can't even begin to fathom. But I DO know "perfect" didn't land me a contract. Instead, "perfect" was the harsh task master that pushed me to do the absolute best I could. It forced me to put in many years of learning and writing; it demanded that I hone the craft and my storytelling, until finally, it was. . .Good Enough.

What do you think of my editor's list of positives? Are there any other things you think help sell a book?

52 comments:

  1. Jody, you've given me some things to think about with this post. I love how you outlined what you think made your book great. Maybe not perfect according to you, but I'm willing to bet great. I, for one, cannot wait for your publication date!

    Thanks for the birthday wishes! Have a fantastic Wednesday!

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  2. There's a lot of buzz lately about 'hooks'--things that set your book apart from others in the slush pile and on the bookshelves. That seems to be something I'm hearing more and more about.

    Jody, you got some awesome feedback! It sounds like your book is going to be wonderful.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  3. I had to retweet this one. This is such an informative, honest post. What it comes down to: honing our craft, spending our time, striving for perfection, but realizing on this side of heaven, it's not attainable, and letting ourselves be okay with that. I can't wait to read your book!

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  4. Great post, Jody!!! I think your lists of positives are right on! Can't wait to read your book!!!

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  5. I think characters make a big difference. It's who the reader wants to spend time with.

    Also, I think another biggie is making the reader "feel" something. Whether you laugh, smile, cry, etc.. If you can make your reader feel something, that's HUGE.

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  6. This is such a good post, Jody. I think the storytelling part is the scariest thing. I've known plenty of people who wanted to sing so badly, and just couldn't quite get their voice to gorgeous. Not only that, but I've heard some amazing singers at church and they're like writers who don't have a contract but still use their gift for God. It's scary to think I want to write and be published so bad, but might not have the talent. We can only hone so much.
    These are all great points and I'm thankful you shared them. :-)
    I'm with Katie, I can't wait to read your book!

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  7. Thanks for an informative post! The points the editor took the time to emphasize are a relatable picture for me.

    The narrative as a means to transition time, is a great point. I know it should be limited, it's just good to know some of the areas that it can be used well.

    The reminder that you invested years into learning and working was really what I needed to hear this morning. Really.

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  8. #4 really stuck with me here. You're absolutely right, people want instant gratification and entertainment these days. Writing like you would see it in a movie makes perfect sense.

    Lots of great points here. Thanks for sharing, Jody!

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  9. I think that list of positives would be enough to keep my fire lit. That's all great news! Keep up the great work, Jody.

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  10. What an impressive list of positives! Well done.
    ~ Wendy

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  11. Great insights, Jody, into some of the possibilities of what makes it all come together. It's obvious you've spent years on your craft and took yourself seriously, even if many others in your life didn't (or didn't know about this aspect of you). We're all heartened to know that hard work does bear fruit. I'm also glad to know the rewrites are starting to feel less daunting!

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  12. I love your blog, Jody. This post is great!

    Getting published is a combination of natural talent, hard work and learning all you can.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  13. I dunno, Jody, you come darn near close to perfect on the writing front. ;-)

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  14. Great post! I think one thing that gets a contract is a tremendous grasp of the market and the job that needs to be done. It's clear from your posts that you have both.

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  15. Wow, you have a great list of positives to build on here. How about platform in addition to the writing? Do you think that plays a significant part?

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  16. Good list! There is no magical "it". Sounds like a good combination was thrown into the pot and yummy stew came out. :O)

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  17. Joanne:

    Thanks for your question: How about platform in addition to the writing? Do you think that plays a significant part?

    Honestly for fiction writers, no, I don't think platform plays that significant of a part. I don't have a platform yet. I think my web presence is growing, but still has a long way to go.

    I think Bethany House looked at my book and made their decision on my writing and my book. Platform is good, but it can't sell a book.

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  18. I love it Jody! I think the key is that the editor must connect with most of the book. It sounds like your editor loved almost everything about your work.

    Thank goodness we don't have to be perfect! I would never sell a book if that was a prerequisite. :)

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  19. This is wonderful, Jody. I know the book has to be well-written, have a hook, and tell a good story. But to get an agent to even consider it, you have to query first, yes? Could you share a bit about that part of the process for you?
    karen

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  20. Great list. Now that I've found my voice, I'm a lot more confident I'll get there... some day. Now, if only I could convince the twins to let me write more often. ;)

    Lynnette Labelle
    http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

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  21. In a world where perfection is the highest (and unattainable) goal, it's nice to know it doesn't have to be so in the writing arena. Got enough other stuff to grapple with there as it is. :)

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  22. Great point about the opening of a novel. Even after a writer gets an agent, the first thing an editor sees is still only the first few chapters attached to the proposal. No matter how good the rest of the novel is, the opening has to be striking enough to get that full manuscript request from an editor.

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  23. Thanks for this post of really good points! I particularly liked #4, a reminder to create scenes worthy of a movie. You are doing a great job on this blog. I hope your revisions go well for you.

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  24. Excellent thoughts/points. I "see" my stories as movies in my head, so that's the way I try to write them. It really does seem like people don't want the flowery, descriptive language anymore - they just want the framework, and can run with that in their own minds.

    Sounds like your editor really connected with your writing style and characters, even though she did ask for major changes. It seems like one of the most important points you touch on is being aware of what readers want now, and giving it to them. And your editor obviously believes you can do that. :-)

    Based on your blog voice, I dare say your book will be quite a treat...

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  25. I love how you turned a "negative" blow into a positive charge.

    The only other thing I can think of is if God wants to sell a book, it WILL sell--in His way and in His time.

    You inspire and encourage me.

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  26. Some great things to think about. I find Chapter 1 the hardest to write.

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  27. Thanks for the list, Jody. Very timely since I'm preparing to begin a new manuscript. I think my biggest challenge is going to be with the first chapter and writing it so it draws in readers. I'm trying to get past the whole backstory thing, though there is much the reader will need to know about my MC to really get who she is.

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  28. Jody, I couldn't help but notice how much longer the list of "likes" was than the the few "dislikes" they wanted to change. You are doing something right and teaching us all in the process. Thank you.

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  29. That is a great list! I think those things are most important. Thanks for sharing your editor's feedback.

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  30. What a great list. There is a lot to writing isn't there? I am so loving that you are walking us through this process. I know that all of us hope to be where you are, sooner, rather than later.
    Diane

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  31. I think your list is right on! So funny about Little Women-- I tried rereading it a few months ago and it drove me nuts! I gave up! It was written in so many ways we are told not to!

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  32. This is one of your best posts! Your list is "perfect"! I think excellent writing is expected, but plot and characters push it over the edge. Thanks for such a great list!

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  33. I think your editor gave you a pretty good list. I've often said it's not the story you tell but the way you tell it. A publishable writer needs to have talent, but they also need to learn some actual skills and realize they don't know everything.

    I imagine the editing phase must be quite humbling for some writers.

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  34. Thanks for the list. That's a great bunch of positives, you should be proud your book hit all of those. :) I'm focused on the chapter one issue right now as I begin a new WIP. I probably need to just turn the internal editor off and write, knowing that like you, I'll rewrite it later.

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  35. Patrice KavanaughOctober 28, 2009 3:48 PM

    I especially like your idea about moving quickly from scene to scene...and cutting out "time transitions." I'm looking through my draft with this foremost in mind. Great list. Thanks again for making this aspect of "writing"--the getting published part--so transparent. And not shortchanging it as is often done in the demanding space constraints of magazine interviews. You know..."I wrote the first draft in six months, then spent another two revising, sent out a few queries, found an agent, got a deal...and the rest is history!" So easy, right? Wrong. The truth is both daunting and comforting. Patrice

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  36. Being a visual writer is more important than ever, for exactly the reason you stated, people are movie-oriented nowadays and expect to move quickly from one vivid scene to another.

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  37. You know, not one of my first chapters have survived either. I know the characters and the cadence of the novel much better after those initial first few scenes. It does hurt to cut them out though.

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  38. I like fiction that makes me think. This is related to Jennifer's comment about feeling something. I want to reconsider the world, to look at something I believe through a different prism or open up a new prism to a world unfamiliar to me.

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  39. Definitely--I think all of these are important. How about one more thing to add to the list? Confidence. I didn't have that when I queried last time and it showed in my letter. Some people can go too far overboard with confidence, but I don't think not having much is attractive either.

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  40. Great post! I'm looking forward to seeing your book on the shelves! :)

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  41. Thank goodness our manuscripts don't need to be perfect in order to be published! Great points to ponder here, Jody. Thanks for this post. Anticipating your book!:)

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  42. Many of us probably don't know whether talent or ability is our greater strength, but we love to write and we do our best to make our stories as close to perfect as we can. I recently used a quote that I think is important: “Without work, talent is only talent, promise, not product.” A successful novel doesn't just happen. It is a collaboration of several different people who are all focused on achieving the same end. You obviously had a good story with recognizable potential and now others are working with you to help it reach that potential. The finished product will be worth all this extra work on your part and I can't wait to see it!

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  43. Excellent post. Love that you take time to share all of this with wanna-be published writers.

    Your list a good one and looks like your in good hands for the edits.

    I'm thinking about the manuscript I wrote and comparing its qualities to your list, very helpful to me.

    THANK YOU!

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  44. Thanks for these posts Jody. If you read enough writing books you begin to think that perfection is the goal. It is nice to hear that so many other things that add up to a great book :)

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  45. As always, you're awesome. Thank you for sharing your notes with us - it is such a blessing!

    For me I think #'s 4 and 5 hit home the most. I think of my novel in terms of scenes, and if my characters aren't unique and relatable then I don't think anyone would want to read about them!

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  46. Hi Jody -

    I read somewhere that a story must have passion. (Maybe I read it here.) If readers don't root for your protagonist and your villains garner a yawn, it's time to re-write.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  47. Hi Karen (Walker):

    You asked: "But to get an agent to even consider it, you have to query first, yes? Could you share a bit about that part of the process for you?"

    Karen, those are great questions! I will have to do a blog post about my querying process! Thanks for that idea!!

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  48. Those are great compliments. I love how you're so willing to share things about the process you've gone through. You're teaching everyone.

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  49. Hey, Jody! I found you via Rachelle Gardener's blog. Congratulations on your book deal. I am looking forward to reading "The Preacher's Bride".

    This post is very helpful. It's great that you're sharing your writing journey with us!

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  50. I love reading your blog because you make me feel motivated and hopeful. Thank you so much for sharing your journey...it is helping me stay focused on mine.

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  51. This is one of the most encouraging posts I have read for a long time.
    I plucked up the courage to share some of my book on my author blog. Having read this, I think I can breath a little better and find the courage to finish it.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.
    Good luck with everything.

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