I recently led a workshop at the New York Pitch Conference, an event dedicated to helping writers perfect their pitches—and in the process, discover what might be keeping them from selling their work in an increasingly unforgiving marketplace. Often it’s the fact that there’s nothing unique enough about the project to persuade agents and editors and ultimately publishers to take a chance and champion the work.

In a publishing landscape that’s more difficult than ever, thanks to the pandemic and other factors affecting retail businesses right now, it’s more important than ever that you are able to differentiate your story, positioning it against all of the bestselling titles by brand-name writers. While it’s true that  book sales are up, they are up for backlist, that is, books that have already been published, mostly by authors who have already found an audience. For new titles, especially those being published by debut authors and midlist authors trying to build a readership, breaking out is tougher than ever.

That’s why it’s imperative that you be able to differentiate yours from all those other bestselling books out there. We talked a lot about this at the conference and we’ve talked a lot here at Career Authors but the confusion about how to differentiate your work remains.

Are you being told that your story is “too quiet“ or “not compelling enough” to compete successfully in your category? Or that the editor or agent didn’t “fall in love with your protagonist” or “feel strongly enough” about your project to take it on? Or that they’re looking for more “high-concept” stories—and yours doesn’t hit that bar?

Here are six ways to make sure your story stands out—in a good way. Ways that can help get you past the gatekeepers and into the bookstores.

1) Go Big or Go Home: Story Idea

The idea of the story/series itself needs to be different from the competition. And you need to be able to articulate that difference. As in Jaws, Jurassic Park, Wicked, Moneyball, The Martian, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, even Snakes on a Plane. Or these two recent New York Times bestsellers:

The Maid, by Nita Prose

A maid with autism and a love of Columbo finds herself involved in a murder at the luxury London hotel where she works.

Razorblade Tears, by S. A. Cosby

A Black father and a white father team up to avenge the murder of their gay married sons—sons neither fully accepted while they were alive.

Just from these short elevator pitches, you can see why these stories are finding an audience.

2) Go Big or Go Home: Plot Points

It’s not enough that the story idea is big. Your plot points have to be big, too. Make sure that each of your plot points—the big scenes of your novel, from inciting incident to climax—are worthy of the name. Milk the drama, the conflict, the setting at every significant step on your protagonist’s journey.

3) Beef Up the Sex Appeal.

And I’m not talking sex scenes here. I’m talking the sexy, publicity-worthy stuff of your story. Can you weave in:

  • Dramatic settings—ask yourself if a location scout would get paid to find the locales where your scenes are set
  • Real-life people—as Jess Walter did with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Beautiful Ruins
  • Over-the-top plot elements ripped from the headlines—think Jodi Picoult

4) Name Your Protagonist’s Superpower.

The best protagonists have superpowers, that is, something that sets them apart from your run-of-the-mill characters. They don’t have to fly faster than a speeding bullet, but they should have some quality, ability, or talent that makes them smarter, braver, wiser, something more than the rest of us.

In my Mercy Carr series, Mercy has the ability to see what others miss. But she’s not alone; even the dogs have superpowers in my books. Bomb-sniffing Malinois Elvis has a great nose but it’s his fierceness that sets him apart, while Newfoundland/retriever mix Susie Bear pairs her superior scent work with a congeniality that helps her draw out the lost and frightened children and elderly folks she finds hiding in the woods.

5) Emote! Emote! Emote!

Readers read to feel something. So start evoking emotion right there on the first page, and keep the drama going. I got the best reviews of my career in The Hiding Place, thanks to the fact that it was my most emotional story so far in the series. Think of the last story that made you laugh out loud, cry ugly tears, sleep with the lights on. Do that.

6) Go for Broke.

As an agent, I find the hardest thing to sell is a story that’s a little of this and a little of that. If you’re writing a thriller, make it the mother of all thrillers. If you’re writing fantasy, give us a world we’ve never seen before and a hero who must find his way through that world with his heart, mind, body, and soul somehow intact. If you’re writing romance, make us fall in love right along your heroine, break our hearts and piece them back together and break them all over again before that happy ending. If you’re writing literary fiction, make your prose sing and your characters suffer and your plot soar.

Whatever your genre, embrace it entirely—and go for broke!

This post originally appeared at Career Authors.

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