“What’s Special about It?”

It’s such a reasonable question. I can’t for the life of me tell why so many people have such a hard time answering.

Allow me to explain.

No Escaping It

I don’t mean to harp again on a subject I’ve touched on twice already, but I am haunted by the current state of the indie book market. Knowing that so many worthy books get multiple rejections from traditional publishing, I have to believe that the independent market is a secret haven for high-quality avant garde books. I want to believe that self-published works are going to disrupt and transform the industry, so I keep searching for diamonds in the rough. But I keep coming home disappointed.

And the biggest problem is that there isn’t just one problem. A plurality of indie authors are failing in multiple dimensions. Seems like every self-published book I sample has technical problems, linguistic problems, stylistic problems, and narrative problems. Apart from a near-universal disregard of craft, many independent authors can’t even manage to create an interesting story.

And one particular shortcoming gets repeated with disturbing regularity.

Reinventing the Wheel

It’s nice to know I am not the only one struggling with this problem. In a recent blog post, David Farland (a respected author, editor, writing teacher, and industry insider) lamented that a lot of book ideas he’s lately heard have been weak. Without naming specific examples, he talks about mundane and recycled ideas—stories that have already been told to death.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with rehashing an old story. Many authors do it even now with great success. But these authors don’t stop at rehashing. They experiment. They add zest and sizzle to an otherwise stale story. They might turn old tropes on their heads. Or they might add new dimensions to a formerly straightforward plot.

Yet, from the indie crowd, I see a lot of authors who can only describe their book in mundane terms.

“It’s about a girl who leads a band of freedom fighters to overthrow an evil empire!” one author enthusiastically shouts.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “How is that different from the millions of ‘evil empire’ stories we already have?”

In other words, I’m asking, “What’s special about it?”

And, sadly, when I investigate the book, looking for what’s special, I find nothing there.

And It’s Inexcusable

There honestly is no reason to write something lacking that extra spice. Even if you’re a young and unseasoned author, you have everything you need to pull off a story that breaks new ground and sets itself apart.

Don’t believe me? Let’s revisit the book about the freedom fighter girl. In a hot half-minute I can transform the story into something that stands out from other, similar stories. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.

How about…

The evil empire our heroine is fighting is actually a fast food empire, and the only way she can overthrow Darth McDonald is by creating her own billion-dollar drive-thru franchise and save the world from poor health.

Or maybe…

The freedom fighters are dogs, who have chosen the girl to rise up against humanity as their war-messiah and usher in 1000 years of canine dominance.

Or perhaps…

The girl is actually in a medically induced coma. The fantasy world is all in her head and the evil empire is actually a brain tumor that her immune system is fighting. If she wants to ever wake up, she has to lead a rag-tag group of positive thoughts and good vibes against the more self-destructive parts of her personality.

None of the above ideas took more than ten seconds to devise. Even a green author with no inkstains on his fingers could come up with these scenarios (or even better ones). Imagine what happens when you invest ten minutes into spicing up a story, rather than ten seconds.

And you end up with a product that no only benefits from a battle-tested plot, but also has that little something special to take it to the next level. You get the best of both novelty and tradition.

Time to Start Asking the Question

Previously, I tried using my social media platform as a way of discovering deserving indie books that weren’t getting attention and diverting readers to them.

But a more effective use of my time is to approach self-published authors and pose them the pivotal question: “What’s special about it?” This gives them a chance to answer, to market their own stuff to my followers, and succeed or fail on their own merits.

This practice might catch some indie authors off guard, but it should also hone their marketing skills to the point where they can whip out their prize-winning pitch at a moment’s notice. Honestly, it’s the most effective charity I can offer them, until I somehow unlock the universal quick-and-easy secret of all great writing that allows everyone to write at Shakespeare’s level.