Posted on June 11, 2014
Selling a novel is easy. Ha!
All you need to do is write something that's guaranteed to make money for the agent and the publisher and you're good to go.
With the current state of publishing being what it is – only three out of every ten books earning back their advance – it's no wonder editors are looking for a sure bet. So the question is, how do you deliver that? Simple, you need to write a novel with the ever-elusive, infuriating "hook" agents and editors are always talking about.
The last thing an agent or editor wants is another murder-mystery with a down-and-out, ex-cop/current cop/lawyer turned private detective or a paranormal romance involving vampires, werewolves, zombies, or aliens. Michael Connelly and Stephenie Meyer are alive and well...and, well...they are Michael Connelly and Stephenie Meyer. So save the paper because you're not them. And why would anyone want to buy a replica when the real thing is already on the shelf? These ideas are sinkers unless you figure out how to tell one of these well-worn storylines in a new way or with a twist so unique you can ride the wave of these blockbusters while still blazing your own trail.
Hush Little Baby is my fifth novel, but the first one to make it into the marketplace past all the hurdles of agents, editors, readers, senior editors, and the marketing department. And the reason I believe it was "the one" was because I stumbled on a concept that was already a proven winner but that had never been written before – my novel had a hook.
Hush Little Baby is a story of domestic violence, a battered woman who needs to escape from her abusive husband. The hook: the story is also about marital sabotage, how one spouse can destroy the other's reputation, setting them up to lose everything, including custody of the children. The idea was inspired by a couple I knew who were going through a horrible divorce. There was a lot of he said/she said and it was impossible to know who was telling the truth. The idea of the husband being abusive came after the initial idea of writing a story about a psychological war between a husband and wife going through a custody battle. And though the story is primarily about an abused woman fighting for survival (a story already told in dozens of other novels), it's the contemporary twist that made it unique enough to survive the labyrinth of obstacles to getting a first novel published.
Other great examples of debut novels with wonderful hooks are:
Water for Elephants – There are hundreds of books about the depression, but throw a circus into the mix and you've got a twist that makes me jealous of Sara Gruen's moment of inspiration.
Twilight – Bram Stoker's Dracula and Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles along with centuries of other bloodsucker novels preceded Stephenie Meyer's blockbuster success, but the reason hers made it beyond the slush pile is no one else ever wrote a story about "vegetarian" vampires who only drink the blood of animals, thereby allowing them to fall in love with a mortal. Brilliant!
The Lovely Bones – a murder mystery narrated through the eyes of the fourteen-year-old victim in heaven. Alice Sebold reinvented the first-person narrative with her unique perspective.
There are other ways to get a debut novel published. You can be so extraordinarily talented that even if you are telling a story that's already been told, you stand above the pack. You can write something so ground-breaking and revolutionary the world stops revolving when an editor reads it. You can be a celebrity or a kidnap victim or an ex-cult survivor. But if you are a mere mortal with no extraordinary credentials aside from a modicum of talent and a boatload of perseverance, the trick is to give agents and editors what they need – a story easy to define but unique enough to stand out.
Good luck and happy writing.