Cuckoo’s Calling, the debut novel by Robert Galbraith, failed to sell until someone* leaked that JK Rowling was writing under a pseudonym. The book didn’t need to fail. It’s filled with incredibly deep characters and great writing.
So why did it fail?
If you break a story down into its three major ingredients: concept, story, and writing, The Cuckoo’s Calling is average on the first, below average on the second, and world-class in the third. But it failed to sell for a two technical reasons: 1) Debut authors have to follow certain rules of brevity; 2) a giant plot hole prevented readers from recommending it to others.
The rules are different for debut authors. I’m not complaining, and I’m not suggesting you change your reading habits. I’m stating a fact. Here are the deficits in “Cuckoo” that a reader will tolerate from a known author like Ms. Rowling but not from an unknown Robert Galbraith:
- Waaaay too long. At 455 pages, or roughly 150,000 words, it’s three times longer than Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, and The Old Man and the Sea combined. Cuckoo is more than twice as long as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book #1). You might invest 5-8 hours for a new author, but risk 12-16 on someone you’ve never heard of? Not happening.
- Overwritten. Ms. Rowling is a great writer. But readers want more than just great writing. They want a great story. Cuckoo’s story begins on page 86. She spent the first twenty-five thousand words on character building. It’s as if she took one of those MFA classes where they steer writers wrong by teaching, people won’t read your story unless they believe in the character. True enough, but there has to be a story. Had she condensed the opening to three pages and parsed the character nuances throughout the book, she would have had better success.
- A PLOT HOLE as big as Raiders of the Lost Ark. I won’t ruin it for you, but if/when you read the story, ask yourself why the key event triggering the story happened. It was completely irrelevant. The blackmailer did not have any evidence; therefore the murderer did not need to set things in motion. When early readers reached the end, they thought, huh?, and didn’t recommend it to others. Later readers, who knew Ms. Rowling wrote it, wouldn’t dare question The Great Author’s plot twist. Frankly, it’s ludicrous.
- Static descriptions. Great writers use active descriptions of characters that flow with the action. Here is V.S. Prichette’s teenage femme fatale in The Rescue: “And when I went out with them, my golden hair seemed to flow from shop window to shop window as we walked by.” Contrast Ms. Rowling’s description of a secondary character: In his late fifties, with a full head of hair, a firm jaw and pronounced cheekbones, he looked like an almost-famous actor hired to play a rich businessman in a miniseries. A fine, well written picture, but static. Worse, it refers to a character whose appearance and physical attributes are irrelevant.
- Excess. What do I mean? Robin’s senses were unusually receptive on this enchanted morning; the split-second view of that white face made such an impression on her that she thought, moments later, when they had managed to dodge each other, missing contact by a centimeter, after the dark woman had hurried off down the street, around the corner and out of sight, that she could have drawn her perfectly from memory. A sixty-six word sentence that is beautifully written, but plays no part in the story. Robin is not an artist, nor does her eidetic memory play a role. The woman in question never resurfaces in person. But, hey, it’s a damn well written sentence.
- Editor? Editing is like coaching. You wouldn’t dare make an Olympic or a World Cup or Superbowl or Grand Slam attempt without an honest, in-your-face coach. Nor should you put a book on a world stage without an editor to criticize the very things I’ve laid out above. You could easily imagine Ms. Rowling’s status intimidating any and all editors, but it is incumbent on Ms. Rowling to find a high-caliber editor if she wants you to buy her book.
All the books by established authors like Lee Child, Zoë Sharp, and John Sandford have better constructed stories. Brand new indie authors like Lance Charnes, William G. Davis, and A.G. Riddle have better debut novels on the shelves.
Bottom line: the writing is great, but there’s no excuse for an author of Ms. Rowling’s caliber to appear on the world stage with an over-indulgent book lacking story and pace.
* A cynical person might posit that the “leak” was arranged to boost sales, but I would never cast such dispersions.