I remember when one of my brothers brought home a new car. OK, it was a used new car. He’d traded in his battering ram for some hot rod thing that smoked and sounded like an air raid. He proudly flipped up the hood and stretched his hand out dramatically and launched into a frenzied diatribe about all the bitchen things it had. I believe the words HEMI and horsepower were involved.
Got it, bro. It’s a really cool car that has new, groovy stuff that does things your old car could only dream about.
And this is what can happen with writing. Does your story have new stuff under the engine, or does it have the same horsepower and engine toys that all the other books have?
Case in point, I rejected a query the other day. I went against my usual rule of only sending form rejection letters because I’m tired of being invited to make merry with the barnyard animals by those who can’t handle rejection. Instead, I offered some reasons why the book didn’t work for me.
The author wrote back to thank me for my comments (which was very sweet), but then went on to explain herself and asked if I wouldn’t please reconsider reading her pages (which bothered me because a no is a no, right?). I could have deleted the email, but I chose to give her my feedback because she was very lovely.
The book was basically a parenting book with a small twist. Problem is, there are a million parenting books already on the market, written by people with lovely platforms and lots of alphabets after their names – which defines them as an “expert.” Frankly, anyone who is a parent is an expert by the merits of trial by fire, but I digress.
Her story has a unique perspective of being an older parent who has an “oops” baby, so the story is what she learned along the way of being given a second chance at parenting. On the face of it, it’s an interesting story, but less so when I put on my marketing hat because I know there are a huge number of parenting books already crowding the shelves. Absent a platform, this is a case of nothing new under the hood.
Think Like a Business Person
And this is something I see a lot. A LOT. Everyone has a story burning inside them, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, and I would never advocate NOT writing it because, hey, it feels good to write. However, whether it’s a marketable story is something else. This is where authors must begin thinking like a business person, not an artist.
Verbs and nouns, voice and pace all take a back seat to the business of writing in much the same way as it does in car design. Those engines have to be stronger, get better gas mileage, work more efficiently than their predecessors, or they’ll be passed over. So does your book. If you’re going to write about parenting, or anything, you need to be very aware of your competition. You think Infinity doesn’t check out to see wazzup with BMW? You bet they do because they’re going after the same market.
Identify What’s New Under Your Hood
And so are you, as writers. And just like the car biz, you need to be able to attract readers by offering something unique to an already-established category. Otherwise, they won’t bite.
It bugs me when car dealers say, “This Swagholler is just like the BMW, only better!” Oh really? In what way? I’m not swayed because the leather is softer and the seats are cushier. BMW has a standing reputation of being one of the best performance cars, so there has to be some serious engine features that would convince me to buy a Swaghollow.
This is exactly what happened when Lexus came out. Oh, how people sneered. And now look at them. Those are folks who knew how to create something new and unique AND that would attract the BMW crowd.
So how does your book stand up to the established competition? Are you a Swaghollow or a Lexus? If we’re talking about different colors and softer seats, then it’s going to be a rough road. If we’re talking better handling, tighter suspension, more horsepower, and better gas mileage, then this is something worth taking another look at.
The biggest problem I see is that many authors lack objectivity. They’re too close to their stories to see what’s under the hood. You can try to convince me your story is new, but I’m like the person whose sights are set on buying a BMW. If you can’t see your manuscript objectively, then you can’t argue the unique points of your literary car, which is what happened with the author of the parenting book…and so many others.
The reasons may be a lack of platform (in the case of nonfiction), or a case of “Already Been Done to Ad Nauseum.” I often think of how Twilight spawned a whole new sub-genre, and how many authors seized upon the “BMW” concept and created a Lexus and, therefore, became just as appreciated/popular/successful as Stephanie Meyer.
I also think of a few of our own books; Jan’s Story instantly comes to mind because there are a million Alzheimer’s stories out there, but very few that focus on Early Onset Alzheimer’s. And because of that, Jan’s Story has sold very, very well. Barry Petersen has something new under the hood, and his platform ensures this is a book that will remain viable for many, many years. Same goes for Kate McClaughlin with her book, Mommy I’m Still In Here. Kate’s book is the only one that puts a completely new face on bipolar disorder.
So it is very possible to be the Lexus in a marketplace where everyone is looking for a BMW, but you have to focus on the importance of what unique elements are under your hood.
Characters: Are your characters unique (fiction)? Are they the same vampires that populate other vamp romances? Or does your vamp have a penchant for garlic and women with red hair? Characters are the vehicle that move your plot, so are they distinct and memorable? Some of the biggest problems I see are ill-defined and under developed characters. If they’re too flat, there’s little reason to continue reading.
Plot: Is your plot predictable? It’s hard to think of something new under the sun because there are only so many different kinds of plots. Boy Meets Girl, Saving the World, you get the idea. It’s what you do with that main plot that makes the difference. If the plot is follows a paint-by-the-numbers path, there’s a good chance your story won’t see the light of day. The proof is in how you twist the plot, how you make it unique, that makes the difference. This is why it’s so important to know your competition.
For nonfiction, those cancer and addiction stories almost make my eyes glaze before I’ve even finished reading the query because there are so many of these on the marketplace. How can you retool an overdone plot of “I got cancer, here’s what I did”? It’s cold and heartless, but publishing is about selling lots of books, and we can’t sell lots of books on cancer or addiction unless your story involves some extremely unique twists.
Ability: It may be that you have a fantastic plot/story but lack the chops to write it. It’s frustrating to me because there’s nothing quite like feeling you’re on the cusp of something fantastic, only to see the author is struggling with basic writing skills.
The problem is, there is no magic pill that guarantees fabulous writing. It comes from within. I’ve seen many unschooled writers who have a natural gift that blows my doors off. Okay, so they don’t understand the finer nuances of transitional sentences between scenes or paragraphs, or overuse of dialog tags…the guts of their writing is so fantastic that I just know I have a winner.
That said, there’s nothing like taking some writing classes in order to learn the structure of writing. The thing to ask yourself is whether your engine has the ability to run the course in 10 .5 seconds. If not, then you may need to go back to the garage for more work on the engine.
Platform: This mostly pertains to nonfiction, though not exclusively. The more entrenched you are in, say, social media, the bigger your footprint and the more people you’ll have who want to buy your book. This takes time to establish yourself, so if you tell an editor that “I’m planning on getting involved in social media,” it’s already too late.
I’ve seen lots of blogs that were akin to the Edsel…a good idea, but no one wanted to buy it. Conversely, I see lots of BMW blogs that I look forward to reading every morning because they hit a nerve with me. And many times, I’ve bought their books, even if I don’t read their genre. But I liked them that much.
For nonfiction, that platform is all the more important because your publisher needs to sell you as an expert. If your book is about how you found solace from your mate’s death through gardening, then you really should develop a platform within the gardening community because they are an identifiable audience who would gravitate toward your book, along with admiring your award-winning petunias.
Is there a story?: This is the hardest thing of all…nothing new under the hood. If your story is about having another child after your kids are all grown, then your story has to be more than, “Hey, here’s what happened to me.” It has to be of interest. I rejected this manuscript because I questioned whether there was enough meat and potatoes to excite an audience. These older parents of “oops” babies have already been parents, so they don’t exactly need a guide on doing things a second time around. They’ll figure it out. So there shoots that audience.
I didn’t believe first-time-around parents would find this of interest because, well, they aren’t in those shoes. If they’re in need of parenting advice, they’ll gravitate toward books whose authors have some authority. It’s sad to say, but sometimes there simply isn’t a story. sometimes a story is so personal that the reader almost feels like they’re intruding…or there are no readers because there’s no interest.
Again, knowing your competition and having the ability to analyze your story are two of the bestest friends any writer can have. It’s the difference between knowing that what’s under your literary hood has gozonga horsepower or is little more than a putt-putt.
As for my brother, if memory serves, his car blew up a couple weeks later, and Dad had to go rescue him off the freeway.