All of us – whether readers or writers, artists or fans, chefs or diners, producers or consumers or critics – have asked ourselves the question of what divides the good from the great.
What divides that novel you trunked at 18 from the one that got you an agent? What’s so different between your favorite fan artist and the animators who gave us Young Justice? (May it rest in peace.) What’s the difference between the Royal Red Robin burger and the Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern?
I would argue very, very little.
But it’s that “very, very little” that’s the most important of all.
(Note: this post is not taking personal choices – such as self-publishing or unwillingness to work for a corporation as an animator – into account. I am speaking purely in general terms. No need for outrage.)
For the purposes of this examination, I’ll just be looking at books and manuscripts. (Alas, food and art must wait!) I spend a lot of time around books and manuscripts. I read hundreds of queries every month for DMLA. I read amazing books for pleasure. I beta read and CP for friends. I read and edit my own manuscripts as well as my less-serious fanfics. The question of what divides the good – solid, enjoyable, nothing technically wrong with it – from the great – OMG, I WOULD LITERALLY FOLLOW THIS AUTHOR INTO HELL TO GET THE NEXT BOOK – is always on my mind.
It all starts with the first draft. For me, first drafts are skeletons that I gradually add more and more to, so I’ll use the metaphor of the human body throughout.
If I want to build a novel the same way I would a human, I’ll start with the skeleton. I’ll make sure all of the bones are present before I add the muscles, internal organs, skin, and hair. For modesty’s sake, I might even add some clothes.
Voila. I have what most people would consider to be a complete human being.
That’s not enough.
And yet this step is where so many people stop. The “good enough” stage. The “I followed the directions and checked all the boxes and made it look exactly how the manual said it should look” stage.
Query letters, synopses, pitches, and oftentimes even my own brain – so many say, “My novel is complete, follows your MSWL perfectly, and checks the following boxes: [insert list here].” And then they (or “we”, let’s be honest) get upset when the novel isn’t picked up for representation or publication.
Completing a novel is amazing, but it’s only the beginning.
Think for a moment if you want to be a movie star. Or a model. Or a CEO. Or an artist. Or a chef. Or anything really. Would you present your credentials as “I am a human being with skin over my muscles and bones and clothes to cover some of my skin”?
Gods, I hope not.
Taking things from good to great is not merely a matter of following the diagram exactly.
What makes people or a manuscript interesting? Above average?
This answer will be different for everyone, but in almost every case, it will be a tiny thing that makes a HUGE difference.
Let’s go back to our “build a human” metaphor. Personally, I find flawed humans to be the most compelling. Some of the most interesting and above average people I know don’t fit the “perfect human” model at all. They don’t have all of their limbs – or the ones they do have don’t work quite right. Or their minds don’t work the way the majority of people’s minds do. Some of them have that gleam in their eyes that tells you they know something you just have to know too. Others have a magnetic pull to them, an invisible aura that draws you in.
In all cases, there is an X factor, if you will. A spark that cannot easily be replicated or manufactured or described. Something beyond a mere checklist.
A cross-dressing thief pickpockets a world-jumping magician, not realizing the item she steals could destroy worlds.
A girl out for vengeance – armed with only a story and an iron will to protect her – marries a man who kills his brides every sunrise .
A princess discovers she is more than what she seems when Death himself chooses her for a bride.
A group of (cinnamon roll) teenage thieves team up for an impossible heist that will most likely get them all killed. (Please, gods, Leigh, have mercy.)
“HOLY SHIT, RAE, THOSE ARE THE MOST EPIC SYNOPSES EVER; HERE’S ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD,” said no one ever.
If I tried to write any of these books, no matter how EXACTLY I followed the plots and checklists, I would never come close to writing anything as good or as right. Each of these books has an X factor that makes all the difference.
I might – MIGHT – be able to reproduce their skeletons. But could I ever reproduce the feeling of “outsider”, of “not belonging”, and the razor-sharp observations V.E. Schwab makes about humans?
With the table, Kell could show him. Let Rhy see the other Londons as he saw them. A selfish part of Kell wanted to share them with his brother, so that he wouldn’t feel so alone, so that someone else would see, would know. But the thing about people, Kell had discovered, is that they didn’t really want to know. They thought they did, but knowing only made them miserable. ( A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC)
Or the simmering tension that ripples and burns beneath every word Renee Ahdieh writes?
“What are you doing to me, you plague of a girl?” he whispered.
“If I’m a plague, then you should keep your distance, unless you plan on being destroyed.” The weapons still in her grasp, she shoved against his chest.
“No.” His hands dropped to her waist. “Destroy me.” (THE WRATH AND THE DAWN)
What about Roshani Chokshi‘s prose that Laini Taylor deemed as being “like a plate of jewels that you can eat”?
I wanted a love thick with time, as inscrutable as if a lathe had carved it from night and as familiar as the marrow in my bones. I wanted the impossible, which made it that much easier to push out of my mind. (THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN)
Or the unmistakable voices Leigh Bardugo gives to each of her precious cinnamon roll murderers and thieves?
Kaz leaned back. “What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?”
“Knife to the throat?” asked Inej.
“Gun to the back?” said Jesper.
“Poison in his cup?” suggested Nina.
“You’re all horrible,” said Matthias.
Jesper knocked his head against the hull and cast his eyes heavenward. “Fine. But if Pekka Rollins kills us all, I’m going to get Wylan’s ghost to teach my ghost how to play the flute just so that I can annoy the hell out of your ghost.”
Brekker’s lips quirked. “I’ll just hire Matthias’ ghost to kick your ghost’s ass.”
“My ghost won’t associate with your ghost,” Matthias said primly, and then wondered if the sea air was rotting his brain. (SIX OF CROWS)
What’s the point of all of this?
You tell me.
For me, it was the realization that I needed to find my X factor and not simply think a book was done or publishable simply because it had a skeleton and skin and muscles and internal organs and all of the other checklist items.
It’s not enough in this industry to be average. Something must set you apart. And only you can discover what that is.
Tl;dr: It’s not enough to merely have a completed manuscript with no mistakes. The best books always have something MORE that only they can give. Find yours, and get to work.