What Makes a Novel Stand Out on Submission?

Susan DeFCreative Writing, ReadingLeave a Comment

There’s a lot of excellent advice on this blog for getting over the finish line with publishing a novel (and a lot of less excellent advice on the same subject elsewhere!).

But to my mind, there’s something critical to that conversation that rarely gets discussed.

I think because it’s so hard to actually talk about.

A solid story, compelling characters, and strong writing are a great start (especially when you combine that with an accurate understanding of the business of publishing).

But if you want your novel to stand out from the competition, in my experience, it has to have something extra.

It has to have a sense of meaning.

Meaning is subjective, of course. But even so, there are story elements that intersect directly with issues that we as human beings tend to find important, moving, and compelling: Moral questions, and the way they stir strong emotion. Characterization, and what it reveals about human nature. The way the story reflects the truths of our own reality—and the sense that this story actually has something to say.

This is not to say that superficial stories don’t get published all the time, especially in genres that privilege plot over character—and there will always be stories that fit this mold that get published, simply because their “something extra” is something else: a sparkly new speculative conceit, or a mind-blowing plot twist that’s going to get everyone talking.

But debut novels like that are the exception. And as I see it, increasingly endangered—not only because readers are hungry for meaning, but because superficial stories are the type that are most amenable to reproduction by AI.

And in fact I see this as one of the great challenges of our day, as writers: To write at a level of depth that only a real human being can. To write the type of stories that another human being will immediately recognize as one that could only have been written by another real human.

Not only are these the sort of stories that stand out in the slush pile, I think these are the types of stories that make for a better world, period.

To read my full blog post on the four things that I believe distinguish stories that have a real sense of meaning from those that don’t, you can read it on Jane Friedman’s site, here.

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