Four Keys To Writing A Publishable Novel

By Mark Alpert


My sixth novel, The Orion Plan, went on sale this week, and this made me very happy, of course. I loved visiting my local Barnes & Noble and seeing the book on the New Fiction shelf (see above).

For many years I wrote novels that weren’t publishable. They weren’t bad books. Some were actually pretty good. But no publisher was interested in them. They weren’t going to sell, no matter what. It took me a long time to figure out why.

I finally realized that you have to follow certain rules to maximize your chances of getting a book published. Here are four of those rules:

1) Choose a Category. What kind of novel do you want to write? A literary book? A mystery? A romance? I think it’s important to choose a category before you start to write, because readers have different expectations for different kinds of books.

My first unpublishable novel was about a Southern governor who was very similar to George Wallace. I wrote newspaper stories about Wallace in the 1980s when he was still governor of Alabama and I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. I saw this wreck of a man at press conferences in the Statehouse, spouting incoherent rants from his wheelchair because he was high on painkillers, and it was hard to believe this was the same guy who became the symbol of racial hatred in the Sixties with his “segregation forever” diatribes.

I sensed that Wallace’s twisted story would make a good novel, but I wasn’t sure how to write it. I loved All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s amazing novel about another Southern governor, and that inspired me to write a literary book. But I also loved political thrillers, so I gave the novel a thriller-like plot. The result was a strange, hybrid mish-mash. It’s probably the best book I’ve ever written, but it wasn’t going to sell. Publishers didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t elegant enough to be a literary novel, and it wasn’t exciting enough to be a thriller.

A better writer could’ve made it work, I suppose. But unless you’re a mash-up genius, I advise you to pick a category for your novel and keep your readers’ expectations in mind. A thriller needs to move fast, a romance needs lovers, etc. etc.

2) Some Categories Are More Popular Than Others. I love literary novels, but I don’t read a lot of new ones. Last fall I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but that book is thirty years old. I also reread Nabokov’s Lolita, published in the 1950s. And last summer I tackled Little Dorrit, the Dickens classic from the 1850s. I’ve read only a handful of literary novels written in the 21st century — Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Everything is Illuminated, Empire Falls, The Fortress of Solitude, and a few others. That’s probably because these contemporary books are competing for my attention with three hundred years’ worth of literary masterpieces.

In contrast, I read every novel by Lee Child very soon after it comes out. Same thing with Stephen King and George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman. And I’m not the only reader with this kind of proclivity. Avid readers get hooked on genres. Mystery fans devour mystery after mystery. Romance fans can’t get enough romance. And publishers respond to this demand by publishing a greater number of books in these categories. So, all other things being equal, an aspiring writer of genre books has a better chance of getting published than a writer of literary novels.

If your burning desire is to write a literary book, you shouldn’t let the marketplace stop you. But if your overriding goal is to get published, you should be strategic about your choices. Your odds are better in the categories where the market is bigger.

3) Create sympathetic characters. My second unpublishable novel was titled The Church of the Jolly Farmer. That book was just plain weird. The hero was a New Hampshire farmer who has a mystical revelation. According to this farmer’s new religion, when someone dies, his or her soul is reincarnated in someone else, but the soul doesn’t necessarily move forward in time, into a baby who’s just about to be born; the soul can also move backward in time, into a baby born hundreds or thousands of years ago. In fact, a single soul can hop backward and forward in time over and over again, until it’s occupied the body of every human who ever lived in the past, present and future. So, in essence, everyone in the human race shares the same soul. This seemed like a cool idea for a religion because it gives people a strong motivation to treat their fellow humans more kindly. You won’t want to hurt a person if he or she is really a reincarnated version of yourself.

The big problem with this novel was that all the characters were unsympathetic. The mystical farmer was simply crazy, and his followers weren’t too bright. He had a mute wife and an evil daughter who could read minds. There was no one you could identify with. And readers want to identify with the heroes and heroines of your novels. So give your readers someone to root for, someone with understandable flaws and at least a few admirable virtues and abilities.

4) Write New Novels Instead of Flogging the Old Ones to Death. Once you’ve finished your novel, try as hard as you can to sell it. Rework and revise the book until it seems absolutely perfect, and then try to grab the interest of as many agents and editors and readers as possible. What’s more, it’s never too late to revise the manuscript again if you see a way to significantly improve the book. But if, after all this effort, the novel isn’t selling and you can’t make it much better, you should move on to writing your next book. We learn more from our failures than from our successes. And a true writer never stops writing.


I recently shared some more thoughts about writing and storytelling with awesome novelist Steven James on his radio show, The Story Blender. You can follow the conversation here. And if you want to pick up a copy of The Orion Plan, which has received some great reviews this week, you can go to the convenient list of buy links on my website here.


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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

6 thoughts on “Four Keys To Writing A Publishable Novel

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Mark — and on recognizing your early mistakes. Too many writers get caught in an endless loop, trying to make their hopeless failures succeed. You moved on — to the featured shelves at Barnes & Noble. See you on the bestseller lists.

  2. These are terrific pointers, Mark, thanks much. I appreciate the breadth of these insightful truths, as you can break them down (if one wants such a deep dive) and discover a wealth of insights and little hidden (seemingly) keys that empower a novel to soar. Stuff that professionals (like you) fully understand, stuff that resides at the far end of the learning curve.

    I wish you great success with The Orion Plan, am picking it up today.

  3. Congratulations!
    Thank you for sharing your experience with un-publishable novels.
    I’ve written some novels that would never and should never be published.
    In elementary school I wrote AMEN, LETTY. A novel about a housewife who gets in so much trouble that I didn’t know how to get her out of so I turned it into a bad dream.
    Later I wrote MURDER AT BOISE HIGH, which was too much like Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
    Next, I wrote THE LOCKE. This one was supposed to be literary. It was a mix of Issac Dennison and Mary Shelley styles. It was rambling…
    Now, after years of studying the craft and the market, and reading posts like yours, I know better.

  4. Congratulations with your latest novel, and thanks for this article. Having just finished my first book this is very relatable…and in all honesty it does make me doubt my own efforts: This post is definitely part of my learning curve!

  5. Important advice. I identify with your early self, and I’m waiting for my development reader to tell me if I should hold or fold. If the later, I not cry but rather take inspiration from your experience and move faster on my second novel.

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