We are all working on our craft and learning at our own pace, so often we might not honestly be at the stage where we can objectively look at what's on the shelves now, and what about it appealed to our Top Ten agents/editors. And, before I get too far, let me just say that Susan Meier does a great series of blogposts on this very subject, so I suggest you check them out at http://susanmeierworkshops.blogspot.com/2010/10/how-to-analyze-books-you-read.html
She has terrific ideas for how to analyze the books you read. But there are other aspects that she doesn't really get into when it comes to analyzing a book of a particular line. The truth is, different lines publish different kinds of books. Sure two different houses might both publish vampire stories, but as Scott Eagan said, "the vampire from one line wouldn't hang out with the vampire from the other line." There are differences, and if you want to work with a particular agent or editor, you need to identify those differences.
So, what do we need to look at? I am targeting a particular line myself and have known I would like to write for them for a while, but I haven't submitted to them yet because my story just didn't seem right for them, even to me, but I wasn't sure why until I started analyzing some of the published books from that line. These are the things I looked hard and nit-picky at:
- Hook--Not just what it is, but how is it different from others before it.
- Beginnings--I have heard not to start with dialogue, and I've also heard a great way to start is with dialogue. So, which is it? It probably depends on which line you want to write for. Once you've studied a few published books, you'll have an idea.
- Dialogue vs. Narrative--I literally pulled out a highlighter and marked all the dialogue in the first chapter of each of my test books. What did I notice? Most of the first chapter was narrative in which the internal and external conflict of at least one of the main characters was revealed interspersed with meaningful dialogue.
- Sexual tension--How much, how is it revealed, are the stages of intimacy obvious? Everyone knows you can't submit erotica to Love Inspired, but even an inspy line will have some romantic tension. If you are targeting that line, you need to know how published authors were able to work that out.
- Character description--Some publishing lines are okay with a quick stats rundown of hair color, eye color, height, etc. Others call for subtlety. Read some published books and note in the margin when you get a visual of the character. How was it revealed?
- Backstory--Once again, people get anxious that they have too much backstory or not enough backstory. How do you know? There's no definitive answer. This is one where, once again, you have to consult those that made it to the shelves.
- Gender--For me, it's important to see what kind of heroes and heroines the line looks for and how he or she handles the dialogue, narrative, and description from each point of view. Certain lines have only the Alphaist of Alphas, some allow Betas, and some have a hybrid that I have heard called a Balpha. It's important to study and figure out whether the line you want to write for has the same kind of heroes and heroines that star in your book.
Can you think of characteristics that stand out in the books from the authors or publishing houses you love? This is the key to getting noticed and hopefully published.