When Simon Cowell – he of the insensitive feedback and lousy metaphors from American Idol – evaluates an unknown singer, he says he is looking for the “it factor.” So are publishers where writers are concerned. (Cowell is also looking for sex appeal. Sexiness in a writer is pure coincidence; sexiness in writing, however, is pure bliss.)
In any avocation, especially the arts and athletics, there are two dimensions of performance. Both rely on a complete mastery of the basic mechanics of the craft – in our case, conceptualization (killer ideas leading to killer stories), character, theme, story structure, scene construction (narrative skill) and writing voice. (Virtually anything you can identify about writing can be put into one of these six buckets. I call them The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.)
But there is something else. Something that defies description and explanation. Something over and above the crowd.
It is Simon Cowell’s it factor. Stephen King has it. Dennis Lehane has it. Michael Connelly has it. In fact, a lot of the names you recognize from the bookstores have it, in spades.
In sports, they say you can’t coach speed. With writing, you can’t coach the it factor.
It cannot be taught. It must be discovered, cultivated and evolved. Only you can make it happen for you, somehow summoning it from within, or evolving it through years of literary — and literally — sweat. And it will only happen after you master the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling, however you prefer to break them down and define them.
What is it? It’s what makes a writer a delight to read. It’s what sets that writer apart from a sea of generic prose and storytelling (many of whom, we must acknowledge, have successful careers; you don’t have to be John Updike to sell a book).
How do you find the it factor in you? Especially when it can’t be taught? I have only two recommendations in that regard:
– first, you have to find your natural writing voice. How you do that remains a mystery, but you won’t have a shot at it unless you play with different styles and allow yourself to evolve. If you’re lucky, you may click into a mode that just soars and imbues your work with, well… it.
– and, you can study writers you admire, those with a definite it factor, and try to get your head around what makes their work so fascinating and gratifying. It’s a personal thing, an aesthetic, but if you can begin to notice it, then perhaps you can begin to, if not emulate it, then compete with it in terms of quality and uniqueness.
The it factor is rare, so don’t set yourself up for disappointment if the publishing community doesn’t validate your suspicion that it’s you. Superstars in writing, as in other arts, are few and far between. But you can seek greatness as a storyteller who brings solid style and aesthetics to your work, and when you do, you’ll find yourself in the hunt for an agent, a publisher and an audience.