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Fay Weldon on how not to write a novel

Your goodies are too old. Your baddies are too non-PC. You failed the Alan Sugar test. Erotica is now 50 shades of dull. That, says the She Devil author, is why no one will publish your book…

1. Your novel is too boring

That’s the most common complaint. It sounds pretty rude and final, but it’s not. All it means is that you haven’t revealed enough of your own personality in the novel. You’ve kept yourself out of it in case loved (or unloved) ones recognise you – so in the end it could have been written by a robot. Characters have to come to life: but so does the writer. Know yourself. Reveal yourself. Re-write.

Agents and publishers think nothing of changing titles but use your original as an anchor that keeps you from floating away into irrelevancy. Above: Fay Weldon

2. The characters are too old

Readers come in all sizes, sexes, shapes and ages, but most prefer their novels to feature young women rather than old. It certainly makes for livelier reading. In my latest novel, Death Of A She Devil, I created the millennial character 25-year-old Valerie Valeria, who lives in skinny jeans and striped tops, and she is 60 years younger than the She Devil Ruth Patchett. As a rule, remember that 25 works better than 35, 35 better than 45. After 50, well, you’re pushing it.

3. The title is weak

Agents and publishers think nothing of changing titles but use your original as an anchor that keeps you from floating away into irrelevancy. Your title is what your novel is about. Think hard and decide before you begin. Life And Loves Of A She-Devil started as She Devil but I soon added ‘Life’ and ‘Loves’ in spite of my mother observing ‘call a novel that and no one will take you seriously ever again’.

4. Imagine you’re on The Apprentice

No one reads the full manuscript these days, so you’ve got to grab them immediately with your sell and a sparkling synopsis. Imagine you’re up against Lord Sugar (right) and under his forensic gaze – what’s your genre? Why did you write it? Who will buy it? Keep it brief, professional and businesslike. And always keep it to a page.

5. Is your character too controversial?

It’s easy enough for this to happen. The novel you started five years ago might seem rather unfashionable today. Perhaps you’re writing a thriller and have made all the baddies Muslim, when these days it seems mandatory to make them far right. The patterns of social disapproval change furiously and fast, and having to point it out to the writer can be embarrassing for all concerned. Easier for them to just say, ‘No, not for us’. If you suspect you’re too controversial, you have various options: seek out a brave publisher and approach them directly, bypassing the agent; wait for society to see it your way (could take 20 years); or play safe, adjust to contemporary requirements, and re-submit. It may be easier than you think.

6. You’re old-fashioned

Novels take a long time to write and your language hasn’t kept up with the times. You’re now in a world where social media rules and everyone has smartphones. Don’t pretend it hasn’t happened. Even grammatical usages have changed with the years: writing is slicker and sleeker than it used to be. Your remedy? Read what contemporary novelists write. See how they do it.

7. There’s no USP (Unique Selling Proposition)

What publishers crave is something that will attract a headline. At the very least, something set in a five-star hotel in a hot and steamy holiday resort popular with the royals. It’s all niche marketing nowadays. Don’t neglect the elderly. Simple romance is always fail-safe, but not too steamy. Propriety is in, erotica is out. Fifty Shades Of Grey somehow exhausted the market. Dystopias are all the rage but not if it’s too clever. No one wants satire, there’s no market for it. Readers have gone off smartness, so leave comedy for stand-up comics. Ghost stories: iffy. Paranormal – too niche-market for comfort.

8. You have nothing to say

That’s the other favourite complaint from publishers. The reader will close the book wondering what the hell was that all about. Why did they bother to read it, why did you bother to write it? Well, why did you? Think about it. You never told the reader loud and clear it was about something dear to your heart, with which they could identify. The heart of the book was missing. Find it, provide it, re-submit.

9. You haven’t really set free your imagination

Forget any delusion you’re a nice, good person. Don’t avoid the uncomfortable. You’re a writer with an imagination. It doesn’t matter if your family is shocked. Stephen King writes gripping stories about evil, but that doesn’t make him an evil person.

10. Don’t expect to get rich

The JK Rowlings of this world are a rarity, as the average income of the working writer is under £10,500 a year. Of course, you can dream, and you should, but in the meantime, do some work! e

‘Why Will No-One Publish My Novel? A Handbook For The Rejected Writer’ by Fay Weldon (Head of Zeus, £12) is out now