I hate to refer to the many unpublished, querying manuscripts out there as “slush” but, alas, that is the term used. No matter the terminology, the truth is that there are a lot of hurdles to getting published and having a story that stands out helps to get from one hurdle to the next.
How do you stand out then?
First and foremost, I do want to reiterate that traditional publishing is hard to break into and getting an agent and a book deal involves a good amount of luck and timing. (Sometimes the luck and timing are more important than anything else.)
I was very lucky to have been chosen for Pitch Wars (a mentorship program for unagented writers seeking to get traditionally published). While i didn't get an agent from my Pitch Wars manuscript, I did learn so much more about writing and editing. Because of those revisions skills, my next book idea I executed fairly well. So, step one in standing out of the slush pile --having a very polished manuscript.
Getting traditionally published also depends on what you're writing, specifically your genre and whether your book is commercial or literary. I can only speak to more commercial writing in the YA space. On top of my writing being commercial, my story is very high concept, which just means I can summarize the main concept very easily using other stories to give you an idea of the vibes. (My short pitch is: the Iditarod sled race meets Mad Max set on an ice planet like Hoth.) Being able to pitch your book in a high concept way also helps when it comes to getting noticed by agents and editors.
One of the biggest parts of standing out is putting new spins on old tropes. Everyone, everyone loves tropes but they want some new twist on them. Many popular tropes are romance based, like enemies to lovers, but not all have to be romance related. Some of my book's tropes include found family, an animal companion, and lots of high-octane survival situations.
One last thing that also helped my book stand out, is that while I'm writing sci-fi, my story is very accessible. This means it's not too dense with jargon and hard science concepts. Rather, it's easy for people to pick up and read without having to have any introduction to the world. The story is about a girl who has to learn to trust a wolf when they're thrust into this wild sled race across the wild tundra. It's more accessible than something like Dune, that's very heavy on politics and has lots of moving parts.
But truly, there's still so much luck and timing involved. My agent had just finished watching Game of Thrones and listening to an audiobook on wolves--so when she saw my query letter, the high concept pitch sparked her interest. My book and strong story are what held her attention and kept her reading.
The most important advice I can give is to focus on the parts of the publishing process you can control--the quality of your writing--and don't give up. That way when the timing and luck turns your way, you have a story ready to hook readers!
A version of this story appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.