Most people dream of writing a book at some point in their lives, but very few sit down and complete the task. Out of those, even fewer get to see their book published and made available for readers.
That being said, you can take pride in publishing your first book. It’s an accomplishment and a rewarding experience on top of that.
Unfortunately, it’s also true that debut books usually don’t sell well. This isn’t simply a matter of not having a backlist or reputation as an author (though that’s part of it). Learning to prime your ideas to resonate in the heart of another person is an art all of its own—and many first-time authors overlook some key steps that could help you make that link.
Here are the five core sins that keep debut authors from capturing the hearts and souls of their readers:
1. An Inconsistent Tone
Your novel might have all the emotion in the world packed into it. Your highs are skyrocketing, your lows are dizzying, and everything in between is just as vivid as the scenes that play out in your own life.
For many authors, this means shifting a writing tone. You might write a scene portraying a powerful figure that is written in an epic grand style and then feature a couple servants flirting with contemporary slang on the next page. While each scene might work on an individual basis, the reading experience is exhausting and hard to follow for readers attempting an entire book.
In this case, it’s typically best to go with a natural and conversational tone that you can count on maintaining for the entire book. While you might think your natural tone is nothing special, other readers will find it distinctive and strong.
2. Lack of Hooks, or Bad Hooks
Cliffhangers work for action-driven books, but a cliffhanger won’t determine whether anyone will flip from page one to page two or keep moving in the middle of an intense scene.
A good hook will tease (gently, even) whatever is going to happen next or offer a satisfying and tantalizing conclusion to an event or question in the past. You’ll want to place at least two hooks in each chapter—one in the beginning and one in the end—but they look good anywhere you can throw them in.
The trick here is not to come off as gimmicky. Don’t tease anything more dramatic than your book delivers, and be as organic as possible when following your story’s train of thought. Characters should act and think like themselves, and readers should come to crave what happens on the next page.
3. A Weak Structure
Pantsers, this one’s for you. Some people were meant to discover books during the process of drafting. Others find exploratory writing fun and invigorating—but that doesn’t mean it will translate into a good book.
There are plenty of plotting conventions and formulas available for anyone interested, but you don’t need to follow them if you don’t want. All you do need is a coherent plot with intentional action and pacing, something readers can follow without getting tangled or lost that will build in momentum until the end.
The important thing to remember here is that self-publishing is a two-way street. If your readers can’t get engaged in the story you have to tell, your book will go nowhere and land worse reviews than it likely deserves. You don’t have to create your story to formula, but you do need to understand the expectations that readers will be walking in with.
4. Weak Theming
When I talk about theme, I mean the single word or phrase that encapsulates the message of your book. Loneliness, courage, self-sufficiency, etc. Theme isn’t something many people think of when they publish their debuts, but it makes a difference.
Your theme will give your book a compass and attract a huge number of readers who want to explore that theme especially. That’s true with literary memoirs—but also with quick romances written over the course of a week.
If you don’t know what your theme is, take a moment to brainstorm and work it out. Your focus on the theme while planning and writing will ensure a deeper and more consistent message throughout.
5. A Broad Scope (Or, Trying to Please Everyone at Once)
It’s natural to want everyone to like your book, but not everyone will. When you publish, you need to understand who your audience is and what those readers want.
This might mean ignoring your best friend’s feedback or cutting out on those scenes that you found cute at the time. A good way to learn what belongs and what doesn’t is to read reviews of other books in the genre and see what the fans rave about. You can also put together a beta reading team of people who like your genre and get a broader idea of what doesn’t work.
Writing a book is hard enough, and don’t get discouraged if one or more of these points means you’ll have more work cut out for you in the future. You’ll get better with future books, especially when you begin to grow an audience and learn what your readers like in particular that you can deliver better than anyone else.
What did you learn from publishing your first book? Please sign up to leave a response in the comments. You can also tip me by giving me a virtual coffee at the button below.