Editors and agents - like everyone else - have their likes and dislikes, their enthusiasms and their prejudices. Some of these are longstanding, whilst some are fads. MiseryLit, for example. Or in the chicklit genre, any recent novel with the word ‘Wedding’ or ‘Shop’ in the title.

Apparently editors Don’t Like Books About The Media right now. Which is a bit of a bummer, since that’s my background and the background against which my novel is set. I’d read that so-called ‘glamorous’ settings appealed to readers. Only, it seems, if you’re writing about those who appear in front of the camera rather than working behind it. Same with the music business. Which is another bummer, as two of my characters are a musician and his manager. Oh, and writing. Yes - you guessed it: I have two writers in my book!

So, dear readers, I have compiled a list of ten Forbidden Subjects which I’ve heard, from various sources, it’s best to Avoid Writing About if you want to get an agent/be published. Please add a pinch - or a cellarful - of salt as required.

Thou Shalt Not:-

Write exclusively about older women
About 70% of the bookbuying public are middle aged women. Yet Transita – a publishing house set up to cater specifically for this age-group – aren’t accepting submissions any more, which doesn’t bode well. The received wisdom is that if you are going to have a middle-aged or older woman in your book, make sure there are a range of other-aged women in it as well.

Write about people who moan or are depressed
Characters must be interesting, feisty, spirited. Or, if they must moan, they should be funny about it. Think Bridget Jones. Readers don’t want to hear about people like themselves.

Write about what you know
This is a tricky one. Apparently if you write about what you know, it’s all too easy to be
self-indulgent and give the reader info-overload.

Write about what you don’t know
Also tricky. If you write about what you don’t know, you may risk doing too much research and, er, give the reader info-overload.

Write about disability
Interesting one. A participant on an MA course was recently told that people didn’t want to read about disability (he was blind).

Include a lot of internal processing or reflection
Thinking is OK in literary fiction, but not in commercial fiction.

Include Prologues
Or, if you do, best not to actually call it a Prologue.

Write accents
Tiring for the reader to try to decode – best to just hint at an accent in the rhythm of the speech.

Include song lyrics
Song lyrics cost money to clear – if they can be cleared at all – hence it’s better not to use them.

Write in present tense
There’s a divergence of opinion on this one – some editors apparently hate it. So is it worth risking their ire and rejection over a simple matter of tense?

I’ve done every single one of the above in my last novel. My characters are in their fifties, and one is mildly depressed. I’ve written about what I know (television and therapy) and about what I don’t (plastic surgery). One of my characters is blind. My characters tend to reflect on their lives. I have a prologue, a Scottish character, song lyrics (though I wrote them myself) and the novel is written in the present tense.


On the upside, it’s strangely liberating to have unknowingly committed so many crimes against fiction. On the downside, I wonder whether the themes of my new one – painting, magic and rebirth – will, by the time I complete it, be on that list of Things To Be Avoided…

Anyone want to add to the list?


Anonymous said...

I bet letters come into it somewhere!

Oh gawd, Susie, but- hey - well done for covering so many 'forbiddens' in one book! It's odd, because as a mid-40s female reader, I'd love to read about all those things.

Painting, rebirth and magic sound brilliant!!


graywave said...

Thou shalt not write science fiction. It doesn't matter how intelligent, sensitive or literate it might be, most agents and publishers won't touch it with a ten foot pole. You might as well be writing poetry.

Bernadette said...

What a list!

Can you add banking (and, presumably, anything else involving maths or science)?

Apparently, women won't even pick up a book like that as they will assume it will be too complicated for them. (Don't all shout at once - that's not my opinion!)

I thought I'd write my new book about pink fluffy kittens. What do you think?

Caroline Green said...

Susie, I think your book is going to be the one that shows 'em once and for all! I've got one to add - having a Uk character in a US setting. My last children's story had an English MC on holiday in a creepy part of upstate NY. I've been told repeatedly now that this is a huge no no.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Heh, heh. So we have letters (potentially), science fiction, banking, english characters in the US. Any more?
Bernadette, I'm sure that pink fluffy kittens are the antidote to everything.
By the way, if I don't reply it's not because I'm being rude - am away for the next week with limited internet access.

Roderic Vincent said...

Perhaps it would be safest not to write anything.

Fionnuala said...

I did laugh out loud when I got to the para about what's actually in your novel! Ditto for my first book, alas consigned to its casing of tissue and sitting in a pretty box. Its middle aged MC, a songwriter, written in first person present tense. It's life sentence stuff. Get thee behind bars! Do not pass go!
Great post Susie.

Gillian McDade said...

Great post, Susie! I totally disagree about the disability issue - wasn't Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-time quite a successful novel, and it's about autism?
Better to stay silent? ;) me thinks....

sarah fox said...

Susie - that made me more feel more upbeat than down - it made me laugh in places. I think all these rules can be broken, are are, all the time. You show them!

Anne Brooke said...

Thou shalt not be a straight woman writing about gay men. Under any circumstances. Ever.

Sigh ...



Administrator said...

But, ultimately, any agent is interested in a well-construed, well-written story.

I've heard several of these no-nos mentioned and it can be depressing - it's a fine balance between writing what you want and writing to give yourself a chance in this ever-challenging market.

I think you stand a great chance, Susie!

Crafty Green Poet said...

I think if you break so many rules you may well end up doing well!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Great post, Susie! You show 'em girl!

Derek Thompson said...

Well Susie, you've broken so many rules that your work is clearly distinctive - maybe you should market it that way to agents and publishers? Taboo subjects with intellgent writing? You left out the most important part, which is that you book is well-written and engaging. Even for blokes like me. And I think people actually DO want to read about someone like themselves; we want to believe an alternate us can make interesting choices and overcome interesting challenges. And finally, for Anne Brooke's comment - it worked in reverse for Sex & the City!

Jacqueline Christodoulou-Ward said...

Great post Susie!

But oh dear, I seem to have written about most of those things in all three novels!

I suppose I just wrote about what I wanted to in the end in the hope that someone will eventually want to read it :-)

Deb said...

I agree with Derek, Susie, why not use this as a marketing tool to get you noticed by an agent? Another, no, no, at least in film and television is, don't write strong female characters who wish to rob a bank. I thought it worked quite well in Widows, but according to a producer I know, it's now considered a no, no.

Rosy T said...

Damn. Only just caught up with this, Susie. But my recently completed and submitted novel involves a central love affair between a couple in their late 40s/early 50s (is that 'middle-aged'?) and the one I'm just starting centres on a woman of 73.

I'm also a straight women who has written about gay men, and have every single time committed another cardinal sin - including pets among your characters.

Who cares about these rules, I say!

Nicola Slade said...

Because I wrote for Transita it was all right for me to write about older women! However, Transita are now 'dormant (I think that's the description) and hoping to weather the recession, perk up their non-fiction How To books, and maybe get back to fiction.

Since then I've abandoned the 'write about what you know' because I've launched myself into historical crime fiction. OK I may very well be an old biddy, but my heroine is 24 - sadly a Victorian Miss Marple just didn't seem to hack it. I am also not familiar with interesting ways of killing people but it can be very therapeutic to have someone you really don't like much, disguise them even to the extent of altering their gender, then murdering them. With gusto.

In my Victorian series (ha! one published, one coming out Dec 2009, one on the drawing board, but that constitutes a series as far as I'm concerned - borrow it from your library, folks)I've got old ladies, gay men, pets, snobbery, religion, and - to quote one rejection - 'they eat the most disgusting food.'
However, undaunted and determined, the 'series' marches on and in the new one I include interesting methods of electrical medication, Jane Austen, a famous literary figure (unnamed) and a famous fictional character (also unnamed but the clues are there..)(If I think of it, it gets bunged in...)

What publishers want is in the lap of the gods and the gods seem to be too busy watching telly to explain what they want so the best plan is to keep soldiering on and hope for the best.

Debs Riccio said...

Vampires must be a no-no by now, surely?

Sheila Norton said...

I've come a bit late to this, but found it very interesting and amusing. I agree with Samantha that several of the 'no-nos' on your list do make it into publication so there's no hard and fast rule. Even if there is - the rules change so quickly, we can't keep up! What's unfashionable and undesirable when you start writing a book could well be just what everyone's looking for when you finish. At the end of the day, it all comes down to somebody liking what you've written enough to take a chance on it. Good luck!