We’ve heard it before, from agents or editors who’ve read our submissions. At least I have. “The content didn’t excite me very much.” Or, “This didn’t quite click with me.” And even, “I found it really difficult to connect to [insert character name here].”

Our initial reaction is usually along the lines of, “What?! My characters are fantastic. I wrote them to be relatable. And my story pops right off the page. What the hell are you talking about?”

But then I stop. And think. And realize that maybe—just maybe—I haven’t communicated my characters and story as well as I thought. A posting from WriterUnboxed, dated September 13 of last year, proves how common this is:

“…the Heath brothers point to a fascinating experiment done by Elizabeth Newton in 1990 at Stanford. She separated people into two groups: tappers and listeners. The tappers were asked to tap out simple songs, for instance, “Happy Birthday to You,” for the listeners. They were then asked to gauge how many of the songs they were tapping out the listeners would recognize. The tappers estimated that the listeners would get it half the time. In fact, out of 120 songs, listeners only got 3; in other words, they were right 2.5% of the time, instead of the 50% that the tappers estimated. Why the wide discrepancy? Since the tappers could “hear” the song in their head as they tapped it out, it didn’t occur to them that what the listeners heard sounded a lot like random tapping.”

Genres as gluttoned as YA fantasy or contemporary romance, where agents and editors see hundreds of similar stories, make for a lot of random tapping. This might explain the above reactions. What we’re really hearing is, “Oh. It’s another one of these.”

So, how do we make our books stand out? 

First, character. Take a look at the dialogue and mannerisms of your protagonist or heroine. Is she doing things that anyone else would do (Furrowing eyebrows? Gulping? Shaking her head?). Now change them to things that only she would do (Twining her unruly hair, scowling at her geometry homework). Do the same for your secondary characters (or your hero, if you’re writing romance).

Then, a compelling story. The challenge here is to rise above common tropes that have already been used. A romance in the Old West? Good. What makes it different? A girl who travels to another world? Fine. Why is her story important? Ask yourself: Is there anything that can be summarized instead of played out? Can you offer plot solutions that aren’t usually seen in stories similar to yours? Don’t think about howyour characters get to various places. Ask why.

Rejections will still come (unfortunately). But the more high impact we make our fiction, the more it’s likely to resonate with readers (and agents, and editors). And that’s what counts.

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