One of the biggest challenges in creating a new work is making it original. There will always be a market for romances, thrillers, a good cozy mystery, and a road trip novel, but what makes yours stand out? Agents and publishers want to see that spark of something they haven't seen before, so how do you catch their eye when everything has been done before? Living proof of that is the plethora of novels out there right now on zombies, vampires, angels and mermaids. Not to say they aren't good - many of them absolutely are - but isn't one zombie or vampire the same as the next? It absolutely can be, and can ensure your book stays in the proverbial drawer, unless you do the work to make sure it has that extra somethin' somethin'.
When I am writing something new, i.e. a road trip novel, for example, the first thing I do is try and read every novel I can get my hands on that falls in that vein. I also watch any movie I can that fits that subject too. I do this first for inspiration, that it may spark some ideas of my own. I do it second because I want to make sure I don't duplicate what someone else has already successfully done. However, here's the reality: We know in every good road trip novel, there are a series of mishaps that keep the pacing going and keep the reader turning the page. Will our MC get from point A to point B? What obstacles will she encounter along the way that keep him/her from getting there? Will he/she find romance along the way? The answer is: Most likely, yes. This is what is known as a formulaic plot. (Think of the movie "The Sure Thing" with John Cusack). However, let's give that a spike. Yes, it's a road trip of sorts, but so much more: Think "Thelma and Louise" with Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis and a young, shirtless Brad Pitt. They face a lot of choices that determine what happens next and an unexpected twist at the end. THAT'S what you want to aim for. Another great example is the recent YA novel "Au Revoir Crazy European Chick" by Jon Schreiber, which is best described as Ferris Bueller meets La Femme Nikita. Perry, the main character, is forced to take his European exchange student to the prom, which ends up to be a night on the run through the underbelly of New York City when she actually turns out to be an assassin. The twists are surprising, and the author successfully manages to have the reader suspend their disbelief and take the wild ride along with the MC. Just driving from point A to point B, running out of gas and falling in love is not enough to engage the sophisticated teen literary tastes of today. Think out of the box.
Here's an exercise to make yourself feel better when you feel like your writing feels "un-sparkly": Pull out 20 of your favorite books and see if you can break them down into a simple formula. You can bet each one has one. Then try and discover what gives each one their "spark." If you need a little extra help in coming up with some great plot ideas, check out Martha Alderson's new book "The Plot Whisperer" and watch her video series on Yahoo.
Most of all, if it doesn't come to you all initially, don't despair. That's what revisions are for. Additionally, sometimes real life will surprise you and throw an idea in your path. For example, just the other night I went to a writing workshop and found myself lost in downtown Los Angeles at 11 p.m. with some pretty interesting peple on every corner. Though I was not quite so into it at the time, that's the kind of stuff you want to save up and channel for later, and you can write it honestly because you've experienced it. You know what it felt like to have that adrenaline pumping through your body, the panic setting in as eyes are on you alone at a stop light, praying for it to change so you can peel out of there and find that freeway on-ramp. Don't worry about getting it all in in that first draft. Think sparkly!