Here is what I learned:
- Subject Matter Expertise and Authenticity: Readers responded to novels set in far-flung geographical or historical locations if the author "did her research" and "got the details right". Readers like this both because it makes the novel informative if the subject matter is slightly familiar, and because it "rings true" for those who know the subject matter intimately.
- Vivid Depictions of Emotion: Readers often describe a bestselling novel with phrases like "it was a moving experience", "made me feel like I was actually involved", "a whirlwind of emotions", and "it will make your heart break".
- Easy to Follow Storyline: Readers don't want to deal with a book where it's difficult to figure out who is doing what, why they are doing it, or who the key players are.
- Solid Descriptions of Setting: Readers praise "vivid, graphic depictions of everything" because it helps them to experience the story.
- Believable Characters: Readers want characters who have good and bad points, and behave in a realistic way given their personalities, skills, and resources. Readers need to empathize with the characters, and understand (from the characters' perspectives) why they do what they do.
- Surprises: Between television, movies, and books, most readers have seen a lot "unexpected" plot twists and often try to anticipate where the author is headed. If you deliver what they expect, they feel cheated. If you show them something they never saw coming (but fits with the characters and story), they'll love you. But remember that the surprise must be believable. Having a character who is afraid of water suddenly become a championship swimmer without at least having swimming lessons is going to cost your story credibility.
- Character Growth: Readers enjoying following a character through an experience and seeing them emerge as a changed person in the end. That doesn't mean it has to be a happy ending. The change can also be completely internal to the character, such as overcoming a self-destructive tendency.
- Realistic Dialogue: Your characters should speak not only like real people, but like real people with the education, background, and intelligence that character should have. We don't expect a cowboy from Texas to utter a line like "Excuse me, dear fellow, but could you please un-holster your revolver now? I'd like to engage in a bit of gunplay with you." On the other hand, if you established that he was born in Texas but spent most of his life in London, it might work.
- Fast Pacing: A book which lumbers along will cause many readers to put it down before finishing it. But a book that is paced quickly, with hooks to keep the reader turning to the next chapter, can become a page-turner that readers don't want to put down.
- Actively Involved Main Character: If the main character shows no backbone throughout the story, and lets events happen to them without responding, readers feel cheated. They want to see the characters have goals, struggle to achieve them, and come out changed (not necessarily for the better) in the end.
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