Sometimes it quacks like a duck but isn't one
That’s usually the way the email begins.
It then goes on to describe something the author is calling a novel. In this so-called novel, fictional characters “based on” people the author knows or has known or is related to play out the drama that has been tormenting the author, probably festering for years. The story chronicles thinly disguised real events or it assassinates the characters of thinly disguised real people. Or it explicates some complex theory the author cherishes. Or it shows us how we can save the world if we only just believe.
What’s missing from all of these scenarios is anything that would interest a reader. And that’s a problem, isn’t it?
When you pick up a book that is labeled as a novel, you expect to read a story. The story may be set in a real or imagined past, in a real or parallel present, in a plausible or implausible future, on Earth or elsewhere, with characters human or otherwise. But it is a story. It is in some way the product of the author’s imagination. Yes, the characters may share traits with real people the author has encountered—novelists freely steal details from the lives of people they have met, and the better they are at doing that the greater the verisimilitude of their characters. But a novel is not a biography of the people the author has known or an exposé of their lives or a lecture on how we can become better as individuals; it is a story in which characters do imagined things that, in the best instances, reveal deep truths about us all.
I understand the confusion that can arise. After all, there is such a thing as the roman à clef, in which the characters do represent real people and the novelist purports to tell us true anecdotes about them, from behind the legal scrim that this is fiction and author doesn’t have to prove the stories are true. But this only works if the (wink, wink) characters are celebrities or politicos whose faces show up in People on a regular basis. Unless your obnoxious neighbors happen also to be on the Billboard charts or the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, it’s unlikely you’re going to find a wide audience interested in a book about them—even if you regularly regale the gals at the kaffee klatch with stories.
I am not saying there is no way you can tell your story—and by that I mean the true story about your life that you want to share with the world. You can write an inspirational book, a self-help book, a how-to book. Perhaps, under extraordinary circumstances, there might be a market for a memoir (but probably not). You can write magazine articles. You can lecture to sympathetic groups. You can write a learned dissertation on your favorite subject and illustrate it with anecdotes drawn from your experience. And I’m sure there are many other ways to translate your experiences, theories, observations, and personal angst into words on paper. And if you really are a novelist, then drawing on your experiences in and observations about the world is completely normal. But if you are not a novelist and have decided to present your story in the form of a novel anyway, it’s time to revisit that decision.
If this news comes to you after you’ve struggled for four years to craft your masterpiece, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Think of the act of writing it down as your therapy, if that helps you justify the time you spent; but now it’s time to start over, using a more appropriate form. Or it’s time to conclude that you are healed through that therapy and you can let the project go, burn the manuscript, reformat your hard drive, and start living again. But don’t embarrass yourself by persisting in the delusion that calling it a novel makes it one.