Your title features the words girl, wife, or daughter; ironic adjectives like luminous, beautiful, good, or lovely; some combination of the aforementioned; or simply The + [an adjective].
Your characters are almost all white.
Your protagonist is the woman men find irresistible. She is beautiful and intelligent; perhaps also raunchy and slightly unbalanced. Her coolness always seems effortless, but is the product of extreme behind-the-scenes machinations.
Your protagonist isn’t really a protagonist, but a kind of antihero; readers will be gripped by your story because they are hoping this character will get their comeuppance. They will be pissed when it does not happen. This will cause a lot of turmoil on GoodReads.
Your main male character is an Everyman. Handsome but going slightly to seed, his belly is softening, but his hair is still thick and dark. He wears a baseball cap for his hometown team, drinks whisky, and doesn’t shave on the weekends. Something about him seems sinister, but this is a red herring.
Your pop culture references are all carefully chosen so that they’re well-known, but not trendy; cerebral, but not too highbrow. If your characters watch TV, it’s always the news, or Mad Men-style dramas. If they read, it’s Gatsby or Capote.
You use settings that immediately convey a certain tone: a nondescript town in the Midwest’s Rust Belt, a prestigious prep school or Ivy League university, a seedy motel room, a Maine island cottage, the Gothic South, a London suburb, or Brooklyn.
You’re writing your manuscript with Jennifer Lawrence in mind to speed up the book optioning process.
You mine your own life for humor or tragedy or drama. Readers and reviewers will enjoy speculating over which details are autobiographical. If your life is too boring for this, you can always claim interesting stories your dear friends told you in confidence. (Who needs friends when you’re on the bestseller list?)
Your characters are either extremely wealthy or on the brink of total financial ruin, so that middle-class book-club participants can escape from their own problems when reading your book.
Your character drives all night to her hometown, where she encounters her high school sweetheart and/or her childhood nemesis, gains closure on her adolescent experiences, and has a revelation about her current circumstance.
There will be at least one unconventional sex scene that some readers will find disturbing.
Your main character is estranged from her parents — either because they are brittle intellectuals who raised her with detached affection and tempered praise, or because they are kind yet dull rubes who can’t relate to her new persona.
A handwritten note or journal or a printed photograph inexplicably plays an important role in the plot, even though your setting is entirely contemporary and nothing has happened to modern-day communication tools so far as anyone knows.
All law enforcement professionals are completely inept. A journalist or blogger covering the story central to your plot inserts themselves into the action and, of course, figures out the truth.
A wedding scene introduces conflict — family drama, a love triangle, class struggles. It’s also a great way to work in some conspicuous consumption. Needing still more conflict, you introduce a baby – and its inherent life-exploding capabilities – to the plot.
A pivotal scene in your novel eerily evokes something that’s happening in the real news! (Please note: in the event that another similar tragedy happens, publication date may be delayed in order to maintain a respectful distance.)
You know someone who knows someone who knows Gillian Flynn and are already working on getting a blurb.
Everyone is an unreliable narrator.
Aleksandra Walker is a former corporate editor-turned-freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Booklist. She is a Northwestern University graduate and lives back in her college town with her husband and two sons.
Marissa Maciel is a writer and illustrator.