In my book Million Dollar Outlines I discuss some of the markers that can help me discover if a book is a potential hit. I look at whether it was written to a wide audience or a narrow one, whether it transports the reader to another world, and how well it arouses powerful, desirable emotions for its intended audience.
To a certain degree, I give recipes for how to hit a wide audience. But great writing isn’t a matter of just following a recipe. I think of it this way: Imagine that I tell you how to make a stew. I might suggest that you put in lamb, parsnips, onions, carrots—and your own spices. In short, I can show you many of the basics, but what you do to create your own stew, to season it to your tastes, is unique.
I’ve eaten lamb stew like this in many countries, created by chefs from Tibet, China, Japan, America, England, and France—and believe me, each chef does things a little differently. Each uses his own tastes to try to make the dish special.
The same must be true with novels. Years ago I was asked by the president of Scholastic to help select a novel to push big for the coming year. I chose the novel Harry Potter. Now, I was well aware that many other authors had written about young wizards going to a school. Heck, when I was young, one of my first novels, A Wizard in Half-Light, dealt with a boy going to a high school for wizards. (Don’t worry, I won’t foist it on you. I never did finish it.) I’m just pointing out that Rowling was working in a subgenre that many others had worked in.
But as I read Harry Potter, I became convinced that it was a potential mega-hit. Rowling brought some unique sensibilities to her story. Have you listened to the voice of her narrative? It’s very funny, like listening to a Monty Python recording, with humor that is rich and subtle throughout. Then of course there is a certain British flavor to her whole boarding school. She lifted her tale from the ordinary and well into the level of being extraordinary.
Now, you might not like stories about young wizards going to school. That’s okay. You don’t have to read them. But if you’re interested in that kind of thing, I personally think that Harry Potter is the best of its kind.
My worry of course is that when a student writes a novel, they’ll work very hard at putting in all of the parts—the lamb, the parsnips, the carrots, and onions—but then not add any spices. In other words, I worry that they’ll neglect to make it their own. If you were cooking a stew and didn’t add any spices, you’d end up with a watery-tasting mess.
In the same way, I see “watery” novels from time to time, where the author got the basics in, but not much more. They didn’t invest much of themselves into the product. They didn’t season the novel with their own thoughts and experiences. They didn’t add their own quirky way of describing things, or seek to invest it with artistic sensibilities that are uniquely their own.
When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, was anyone else writing fantasy? Of course. Had anyone written about magicians and elves? Of course, there were a number of fantasy writers. But Tolkien struggled to create something that resonated so deeply, that his story stood out from all others.
One author I know, Shannon Hale, sat next to me on a panel a few years ago. She seemed quiet and nervous, and confided in me that she had never spoken on a panel before and felt a bit like a pretender. I told her that when we are new, all of us worry that we will be seen as pretenders. I then opened her book, read several pages, and noticed a couple of jaw-droppingly good metaphors. I assured her, “Don’t worry, you’re a real writer,” and of course she has gone on to a marvelous career. What’s in her secret sauce? Well among other delightful things, there’s those beautiful metaphors.
The question becomes, what do you do well? When you write, are you aware of your own unique strengths? Do you see things that you could do to make a novel better than others who are writing in the same vein? Is there something in the story that whispers to your soul, “Do it this way. Take it in directions that no one has ever seen before!”
The artistry in creating a great lamb stew doesn’t come from chopping up parsnips, it comes in developing your own secret sauce, in thoughtfully considering how you want it to taste, in selecting the freshest herbs and spices and special ingredients and then mixing them to your tastes.