Does your story have something new under the hood?

April 10, 2012

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.

Same, same, SAME

July 1, 2010

I don’t know what it is about summer, but it seems to bring out the same-ness in writers, and everyone’s stories seem to blend into white noise. The beagle thinks it’s the heat and recommends that everyone stop for a margarita break.  I’m good with that. But if you’re going to be walking around like the goolies from Night of the Living Dead, then don’t query. Save it for a time when your brain is firmly entrenched in your cranial cavity.

What is this same-ness I’m jabbering about? Standing out. This isn’t the time when you want to blend in by wearing the same bathing suit as everyone else. You want to stand out in that fuchsia and lime green suit that screams, “Lookie at me! I’m HOT, HOT, HOT!”

Instead, I’m seeing bland one-piece bathing suits that are as exciting as the beagle in Birkenstocks. These are the weakest efforts – stories written in heavily impacted categories – bipolar, death, divorce, alcoholism, cancer, blah, blah, blah – books that are fighting each other on the bookshelves already. So why on earth would I want your book? What makes you unique compared to what’s already in the marketplace?

Yes, my heart bleeds to hear that you lost your precious son at the tender age of four due to cancer. When I look at my strapping boys, I can’t imagine that kind of pain and the sheer guts and will required to care about even getting out of bed in the morning. But as sad as it is, there are already a ton of these kinds of books on the bookstore shelves, and the question becomes – how do I sell yours?

For crying out loud, toss me a bone!

What drove you to write the book?

Oftentimes, memoirs spring up because writers feel they have something to say. They experienced something they feel is fantastic/sad/inspirational/educational and decide to write about it. What happens is they look no further than their own experience and never check their competition to see if this is an issue that’s already been written about to ad nauseum. That’s why we have crowded categories such as divorce, cancer, etc. Many of them were unique at the time, but with the flood of samey books, the message is no longer unique. So ask yourself two questions:

Why did I write this book?
What am I saying that’s different from what’s already out there?

I’m not a fan of unnecessarily adding to the crowd unless that book has something new to say.


And speaking of something new, you have to tell me the unique qualities of YOUR book. This means you need to well read in the category in which you write. Know your competition because someone is going to ask you about it at some point in your career. I’ve had a few writers who, when they went back and actually checked out their competition, realized they didn’t have a unique product after all. Le ouch.

Convince me

Why would someone want to read your book over the other books that cover the same topic? This is a question I ask all the time, and I’m amazed at how this stumps authors. Writers need to be analytical and objective about their writing if they are going to convince an editor to ask for pages.

Something that still stands out in my mind is when Kate McLaughlin queried me about her fabulous book Mommy, I’m Still In Here. It was if she knew I was going to roll my eyes at the beagle and say, “Bipolar? Yikes, been done and done and done,” so she tossed me all the best nuclear arsenal – she convinced me why her book was different from all the other bipolar books out there. And she was dead right because I researched it like a frog on crack.

Because she convinced me, I snapped it up. Because she knew her competition and her book’s uniqueness, it remains a solid seller.

So change your bathing suit style, kiddies. Get something that expresses your unique qualities and marketability. And don’t forget to tell me what they are. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to take the beagle’s advice and have a margarita break.

Those pesky three questions that can stop your heart

November 17, 2009

My thanks to Gutsywriter for sharing her experience at a writer’s conference. Now it’s my turn to share with you. The whole weekend Gutsy heard the three questions that stop the hearts of most writers because they haven’t given it any thought:

1. “Why is your book unique?
2. “Why would anyone want to read it?”
3. “Who is your target audience?”

I ask these questions all the time when I’m doing advanced submissions because I can see authors are stumbling with their pitch.

“Why is your book unique?

When we ask this question, we’re not looking for a completely new story that no one has ever written before because, face it, it’s been done before in some fashion. We’re asking for the unique elements to your fantasy/memoir/biography/romance/mystery that hasn’t been done before.

For instance, there are a million Alzheimer’s books already on the market, so why did I want Barry Petersen’s Jan’s Story? I wanted it because this is about Early Onset Alzheimer’s, which is a whole different set of books – it’s more virulent, attacks far more quickly, and affects people at a much younger rate. Those books you can count on one hand. Talk about unique.

Same goes for Janice Eidus’ The War of the Rosens and Doug Light’s East Fifth Bliss. Each had unique elements that aren’t in the mainframe of fiction. They spoke to me, above the din of all the other novels that cross my desk. And this leads me to the second question:

“Why would anyone want to read it?”
These books kept me riveted in my chair. As I read, I could make a case for why readers would love these books. With Rosens, Emma grabbed my heart with her innocence. She was the white flower in amongst a family of weeds, and it was her brave little soul, her resilience that kept them together, even at the worst of times. I never saw this as a Jewish book, but a book about questioning beliefs in general. That’s a powerful message – to question, even if you’re attacked for it. I could say that I was a better person for having known Emma. She represents that large population who ask questions and wonder if anyone is listening. That has universal appeal.

Same thing for East Fifth Bliss. Poor, haphazard Morris…that man takes procrastination to the limit. And don’t we all? Aren’t each of us “fixin'” to do something? Lose weight, paint that fence, weed the garden, pay the bills? Bliss taps into that unspoken angst that, yah, we realize we need to take action but we keep sweeping it under the rug. Only Morris does it with hilarity and disastrous results because he’s strayed for far too long. I cannot WAIT to see how Michael C. Fox plays Morris in the movie. Again, this has universal appeal, and I have to say that I’m a better person for having met Morris.

Pulling out the elements that have universal appeal is a marvelous way to capture an agent’s or editor’s attention because it shows that you understand what makes the marketplace’s mind tick. Sure, many of us read for escapism, but deep down, are we always looking for some element that we can tap into? Don’t we hear that all the time? “Man, that book really spoke to me.”

“Who is your target audience?”

In 0rder for us to get readers to say “that book really spoke to me,” we need to define exactly who is most likely to say that. That’s why mainstream fiction is so tough to sell – it doesn’t speak to a definable audience. And that’s why it’s so important to go deeper. By pulling out those reasons why someone would want to read your book, you’re defining your audience. Some books are easy to define – Barry’s Jan’s Story, for instance, has a built-in audience.

But what about mainstream fiction? Sometimes it’s near impossible to define. That’s why pulling out the universally appealing elements is so important – it gives you something to build on.

Let’s say that East Fifth Bliss decides to play up the procrastination elements. Author extraordinaire Doug Light could develop a talk about procrastination and give it some silly title; “I’m Fixin’ To Jump Start My Life.” Maybe he would write about what he shares with Morris, what all of us share. Perhaps he could talk about what lit the fire under his own lack of inertia (provided he suffered from this!). He could write articles to magazines or give this talk at book events. It all leads back to his book.

His readings would start with, “hey, who among us isn’t sweeping a bunch of crap under our personal carpets?” And watch the hands go up in the air. What he’s doing is whetting people’s appetite by appealing to a common problem we all share. He would zing that with saying, “Well, Morris Bliss is a shining example of what can go wrong if you sweep under the carpet for too long.” Then he’d launch into one of the many cover-your-eyes scenes where poor, adorable Morris encounters yet another disaster.

What he’s doing is hitting on something we all share and before you know it, people want to read the book because we want to laugh at something that plagues our lives as well.

Smart stuff.

Authors who figure out these three questions are miles ahead of the game. Is it necessary? Well, how badly do you want to be represented or published? Publishing isn’t easy. No one ever said it was. There are no shortcuts. Sure, there are those Cinderella stories out there, but for every one of those, there are thousands who have to do it the old-fashioned way. My feeling is that authors who are willing to analyze their work this deeply are serious about their craft and are better able to promote their books because they understand the marketable factors.

I asked an author these same questions at a conference, and she really stumbled through. At the end of our time together, she looked at me and said, “You know? I don’t have a story here. I have no unique elements, no audience, and no reason why someone would want to read my book. I need to go home and write something better.” She wasn’t at all bitter; just enlightened.

Wow, what a rush!

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