That Je Ne Sais Quoi: How to Set Your Novel Apart from the Crowd
You’ve probably heard this before: if you’ve truly mastered your craft, you can write about almost anything and make it work. Yet even the most accomplished novelists have trouble convincing their agent to champion a story that revolves around familiar tropes. Whether you’re writing in contemporary romance, epic fantasy, YA historical, or another genre, how can you be sure your book is fresh enough to get attention?
While there is no magic formula, if we look at the latest award-winners and bestsellers, it’s clear there are some ingredients that make the difference between a ho-hum novel and a hit. Here are three things you can do to give your story that edge. (FYI, the advice here will be most useful when you’re in the planning stages of a new story, or when you’re taking stock for your next rewrite.)
(1) Vamp up your voice.
This is one of the key elements that can set a breakout novel apart from a hundred others with similar themes and topics. Whether you are using first person, close third person, or omniscient, the magic happens when your narrative shows the world through a lens that could only belong to your main character or narrator. What would he see around him that most others would miss? Consider how different the same crime novel plot would be when told in each of these character voices: (A) an ex-cop with a photographic memory and an obsession with classic literature; (B) an exonerated death row inmate turned amateur sleuth; or (C) an artist who paints visions of a serial killer’s next victims. Ask yourself what makes your protagonist’s perspective different from any other person in the world. Then channel that perspective into the vocabulary, images, and details that add up to the voice of your novel.
The challenge: how will an agent know your voice is strong if all she sees is your query letter? I would never suggest that you copy and paste a couple of paragraphs from your novel and call it a query (trust me, that never works). But a good query letter will contain echoes of that same writing voice. Here is one of my favorite examples, the query for Jana DeLeon’s romantic suspense novel Rumble on the Bayou. In it, you can hear both Jana’s voice (I used to work with her and she’s a hoot!) and that of the novel itself. If you guessed that Rumble’s tone is sassy, fast-paced, and funny, you can see why this query got Jana her agent.
(2) Try a new angle or context.
In Certain Dark Things, author Sylvia Moreno-Garcia drew inspiration from her grandmother’s stories of the Mexican Revolution, as well as Aztec mythology, to breathe fresh life into one of the most saturated genres in recent memory: the vampire novel. NPR called it a “compelling new take on vampires” and chose it as a best novel of 2016.
Another example is Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters; it’s an alternate history novel that frees the Underground Railroad from its pre-Civil War context; it still exists in modern times because slavery was never abolished. Coleson Whitehead took the same topic, kept it in its historical era, and stirred in some magical realism; in his National Book Award winner The Underground Railroad, the symbolic turns literal as characters ride an actual subterranean railroad to freedom.
Some genres have constraints you must follow; contemporary love stories obviously can’t fiddle a lot with the time setting. But what if, instead of meeting in Paris, your lovers meet while working in Saudi Arabia, where dating or displaying romantic affection in public is forbidden?
(3) Turn a tired trope on its head. (Have it do a cartwheel?)
Some authors take the fresh angle idea a step further in a zany gamble to break free from the pack. Remember the first time you saw Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in a bookstore? Who could resist picking that up? And yes, there was that vampire one, too. Parodies are a riot if you can pull them off, but there are other ways to subvert the cliché. What if you wrote your middle grade “bully book” from the perspective of the bully? Now that’s some room for character growth. Or, maybe he’s not the monster we’ve made him out to be; what if he’s been framed by those sweet, unassuming “good kids”?
If you’re having trouble getting your critique group excited about your latest chapters, or you’ve been hearing crickets in the slush pile, it might be time to consider rewriting your story from an angle you hadn’t thought of before.
- Try writing a scene in the POV of one of the three characters mentioned in the “voice” section above. With that as your warm-up, go back and rewrite one of the scenes in your novel, focusing on what your main character would notice or think about the world around her.
- Rewrite the opening scene of your novel from a different angle. For example, swap out the hero for your favorite minor character and see where the narrative takes you. Could it be that you were telling the wrong person’s story? Or, change your current setting for a different decade or century, on a different continent (or planet). If the new scene excites you, run with it. At the very least, your creative juices will be flowing and it will help you approach your next draft with fresh eyes.