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are there “It” Books? Can I write one?

by | Mar 4, 2024 | Writing Process | 0 comments

Last Saturday morning, I went to my niece’s show choir competition. My book had come out on Amazon two nights earlier, and I was spent from anticipation. As I drove to the performing arts high school in Placentia, California—the competition venue—I couldn’t keep my eyes on the freeway. I was worried about my novel. Would I get reviews? Would the reviews be positive? Would the book sell or get lost in the sea of Amazon titles on the internet? Beside me in the passenger seat, my adult son yawned. When he handed me my coffee, I smiled back at him.

I’m in that in-between phase. My millennial children are grown, but I don’t have grandchildren yet. Truth be told, I miss attending school plays, soccer games, and spelling bees. The choir competition was a welcome distraction from my book and all the marketing that lay ahead. However, when I pulled into the massive parking lot, already crowded with cars and SUVs, I sensed that this was going to be a new experience. Dare I say “next level.”

Hundreds of kids in glitzy costumes were lined up in front of the theater. After maneuvering through the parking lot, my son and I greeted my sister and her husband, and we followed the other attendees into a theater that rivaled most AMCs. There was an MC, judges with credentials, and actual paper programs. When the lights dimmed, a group of kids sang and performed choreographed dances on a stage that told a story. They used props and worked the unique stage sets. Images from the TV show Glee and the movie Pitch Perfect flickered in my mind. As I leaned forward in my cushy seat, I realized that I was drawn to one performer in particular… a girl who seemed to lose herself in her performance.  Simon Cowell, the OG American Idol judge, would say that she possessed the “It” factor. As my cell buzzed, announcing an email, my thoughts swung back to my book, and I wondered this: Are there “It” books just like there are “It” actresses and models? And if so, is the “It” factor something writers can obtain by working on their craft, or is it innate to the author’s talent, like top model and current “It” girl Bella Hadid’s beauty? 

As the performer with the “It” factor danced, moving with precision and grace, her face filled with emotion, my gut response to the questions was “Yes” to the first one and “both” to the second.  I do believe there are “It” books, though editors and agents don’t necessarily call them that. In my mind, an “It” book is the same thing as a breakout novel that readers gravitate to, a book that sells like hotcakes.

In 2002, Donald Maas published a book called Writing the Breakout Novel. In his ‘how to’ book, Maas lists the ingredients of a breakout novel. Some of these ingredients are plausibility, conflict, originality, and emotional appeal. If we follow Maas’s philosophy, it stands to reason that we as writers can make our novels more readable and publishable, but will they truly “break out” of the pack? It’s possible, but I believe in today’s complex world that, there are other factors involved.

When I first started writing, I attended a writing conference in San Diego annually. Each year, editors and agents would rave about a particular book that had exploded on the publishing scene. One year, they couldn’t stop talking about Lovely Bones. They loved the conflicting messages conveyed in the title. Another year, it was White Oleander, one of Oprah’s top picks. At some point, it was Gone Girl, and on another occasion, it was Precious. All of these popular books were made into films, and they shared the common element of conveying deep emotions—one of Maas’s key break-out ingredients.  But I believe these books also appealed to readers because each was original in its own way, and this made them relevant. The premise of Gone Girls hadn’t been done before—the victim fakes the crime. Lovely Bones was told from the POV of the dead victim, a young girl. When Precious came out, HIV was a hot topic and still somewhat taboo, and the severe dysfunction that occurred between mother and daughter in White Oleander hadn’t been regularly explored until Janet Fitch.

Based on my experiences at my writing conferences, it seems likely that in order to break out or be deemed an “It” novel, a book has to be unique in its structure or premise or be in synch with what current society considers important. That said, writing a novel is a tall task in and of itself. Writing a novel that is unique or in synch with what society believes feels impossible in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world. By the time you come up with a concept, another writer has beat you to the punch, or the topic is yesterday’s news.

So, what can we do as writers to grab even a little bit of the “It” girl’s sparkle? My eyes drift back to the stage, to the performer whose voice seems to flow out of her and whose movements felt more like ice skating than dance, and the answer comes to me. We can hone our craft and rewrite until our stories and prose feel effortless and natural. And we can write about topics that speak to us emotionally. Our book may not achieve the status of a breakout or “It” novel, but getting noticed seems more likely. As the music stopped and the “It” performer exited the stage, I found myself thinking that the girl was gorgeous. And I thought about the “It” girl and model Bella Hadid. A Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fan, I knew about Bella before she became a supermodel. Her mother, Yolanda Hadid, a former supermodel, was a reality star on the show. From time to time, Bella was in scenes with her mom, and they spoke about Bella working out, eating right, and having a good work ethic. Sure, Bella had amazing advantages. She has great bone structure; her mother was a former model, and her father is a multimillionaire. But the scenes on the show indicate that Bella worked hard to make her ascent to “It” girl seem effortless to those on the outside looking in—just something to think about when you’re writing and rewriting your next novel.

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