This is the kind of advice that is neither simple nor easy.
If I were to sum up the resource I'm about to share, it could be done like this: if you want to write a great book, then you have to just, well, do EVERYTHING.
The first time I read this advice, I threw my hands in the air and thought, "Yeah, right". I think on some level I recognized that it would be a world of work to do all of THAT to my book.
Much later, after being rejected repeatedly, I came across this advice again and decided to implement it all. I'm not saying I've necessarily done it successfully (some bits came easier than others), but it was a helpful guide for me.
I cannot take credit for compiling this advice, as it originates with Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency, but it was so helpful that I had to share it. Here are her tips for writing "the breakout novel". I'll list the titles here and redirect you to her website for the details.
Sarah recommends the following:
1. Start with an inspired concept
She uses Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher as an example of taking an idea that's been done before, and doing something different and riveting with it (both in structure and plot).
2. Include larger than life characters
Among other things, she describes how characters can reveal themselves through whispers. A MUST READ. I'm reading Ransom Riggs' Ms. Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children right now, and I'm struck by how these characters-- even people in Florida, not just the peculiar children from the home in Wales-- jump from the page.
3. Have a high-stakes plot
She especially emphasizes that novels are not like real life. Well, you're thinking, "duh", but it's worth saying (and me repeating) because it's natural to tell a story in real-life terms. We feel a natural desire to protect our characters, but those extremes are what make a story riveting. I'm also reading Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone this week, and boy howdy, does she weave a high stakes plot. Just when you've got a firm stance on the rug of her world, she rips it from beneath you, again... but I should save my talk of DOSAB for Friday's book club.
4. Incorporate a deeply felt theme.
This is one of my favorite bits of Sarah's list, because it was something I wasn't thinking of AT ALL. She says, "THE BEST BOOKS TEACH US MORE ABOUT OURSELVES THAN ABOUT THE CHARACTERS". She cautions about overwriting or preaching, but charges us to find "A NEWLY PERCEIVED TRUTH ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN". *Gulp* Remember in Stephen King's On Writing when he describes in the first pass after writing he edits the book, and in the second pass he looks for a theme just below the surface and pulls it out? In my mind, they're talking about the same thing here. Maybe it's as simple as the concept of hope or instinct... but the idea is not to let it hide in the shadows, or worse, turn it into a morality lesson, but find that theme and emphasize it within the text.
5. A vivid setting
We hear this all the time, but I think we can stand to make it pop no matter whether the setting is meant to be a bland, suburban landscape or a magical mystical world.
6. The final mystery ingredient: Voice
A tall order, and universally acknowledged as hard to define, your character's voice sets your story apart.
So, see what I mean? Ms. Davies advice is simply: do everything, and do it well.
It's daunting, but this is a great resource for any writer.
(Note: she acknowledges that there is more than "one way" to do anything, this is just her advice.)