As I get through another couple of weeks' worth of submissions, I think: Someone needs to tell these writers what they are doing wrong as they seek commercial publication on the road to popular success. Here's a list of the mistakes you may be making: I've been seeing them a lot lately.
1. You can't describe your book in two provocative sentences. You have limited time to grab a reader's (editor's, agent's) attention. If I can't get excited about reading your book from your brief description of it, you're sunk.
Bad: The Feverel Inheritance is a story of family betrayal, revenge, and the country estate that people are willing to kill for.
Better: The Feverel Inheritance, a story of family betrayal and revenge, is told by identical twin narrators with very different personalities, each putting her own spin on the story.
Best: The Feveral Inheritance, set in the incestuous, material world of the Hamptons, features identical twin narrators engaging in a game of psychological warfare in their quest to grab hold of the family estate - and each other's husbands.
See what I mean?
2. You're not considering a national readership. Certainly there is a market for regional books: city-type books for urban women, for example. But most publishers are looking for books that can hit everywhere. I'm finding that a lot of manuscripts have a polarizing element to them that will limit acceptance. A good example: the demonization of city living or country living. I can't tell you how many times I see this phenomenon: Urban writer presents the city as the bastion of culture and diversity, while presenting the country or the suburbs as lifeless, dead places populated by idiots and inbred wackos. There are lots of readers in this country who don't live in cities, and they don't want to be insulted by a novelist. The same holds true in reverse: Country-based writers portray the country as a haven of fresh air and morals, while presenting the city as a filthy, immoral place. Again, do city readers really want to have their lifestyle choice insulted?
3. You're not balancing plot and character. I say it all the time: Genre fiction is the intersection of plot and character. These should be in 50-50 equilibrium, though I'd say you can get away with 60-40 on one side or the other. But if you're not telling a good story, and if you don't have at least a few likable characters, you've sunk your manuscript.
4. You haven't thought through readers' reactions to what your characters do and the choices they make. Readers can and do have visceral reactions to characters' actions and choices, and they can be really unforgiving. Suppose, for example, you have your male protagonist cheat on his wife early in the book. That is going to be a very, very hard thing for many people to get past. And yet I see this type of mistake all the time.
Another good example comes from one of the worst books I've ever read - a book I love to hate and gleefully place in my "Ten Worst Mysteries Ever Published" list. This particular book had a pregnant protagonist who constantly put herself in danger. As I read, I kept thinking, "Does this woman care not one ounce for unborn child?" Then I went to look up the reviews and saw this same reaction throughout the many, many 1-star reviews. Readers didn't see the protagonist as brave or intrepid - they saw her as hateful and self-absorbed. Not exactly a prescription for a best-seller.