When you ask an editor what they want in submissions from writers, the usual answer is they want something “fresh and original”. Publishers of category romances such as Harlequin Mills & Boon say the same. The other perennial answer is “a good book”. Problem is they can never define what they mean by a good book that is fresh and original; only that they’ll know it when they see it.
The deal is a lot like the reality shows such as X-Factor and Wherever’s Got Talent. Being able to get up and sing, juggle or play an instrument, however skilfully, is not guaranteed to make you a winner. You might hit all the right notes, look fabulous on camera, and have nearly every attribute the judges are seeking. But unless you possess one other magic ingredient – the X-Factor, for want of a better term, you won’t reach the top of the tree. This X-Factor is sometimes called star quality, and the truth is we DO know it when we see it. One performer will come out on stage with a voice less special than the previous contenders, may be less well presented and not all that physically attractive, and yet…and yet…we can’t take our eyes off them.
IMO this elusive X-Factor can’t be taught, and the lucky few who possess it are born with it. Most of them would deny they are anything special. They do what they do for love, because they don’t feel complete unless they are practicing their art. Is that you? I don’t know. But if your work is placed in front of me, I’ll know it in an instant, as would any editor or publisher. The words may be raw and unpolished, the grammar wobbly at best, but if you possess that quality your story will be so compelling that I need to read on and on to find out what happens next. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to polish your writing and master the principles of grammar and spelling. Publishing is such a competitive industry that you need to do everything you can to make your work stand out. But above all, write a story that grabs YOU and won’t let you alone until you tell it. You’ll know it’s the one because you’ll be smiling as you read it back, which you have to do because you were spilling words out so fast your fingers could hardly keep up.
This is the story editors will see as fresh and original, because it felt that way to you. You couldn’t wait to get to know these characters and share their story. You won’t have to turn handsprings to come up with something no other writer in your genre has done, because the characters will take care of that for you. They may be perfectly ordinary people in a perfectly ordinary setting, but you’ll be so in love with them you’ll take us along for the ride. No need for an invisible heroine or a defrocked nun, though I suppose they too have their stories.
Every year I have the privilege of judging the final entries in the Valerie Parv Award organised by Romance Writers of Australia. And almost every time, there will be one book that jumps out at me because it has that elusive star quality. I almost always know it the moment I start reading, and I suspect most editors would too. To be fair I’ll read every other entry with the same care but once that X-Factor entry has grabbed me, it rarely lets me go. Doesn’t matter if it’s a genre I personally enjoy reading or not, it’s the one and that’s that.
Can you spot the X-Factor in the work of others? What about in your own? I’d love to hear your experiences.
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