Your Unique Writer Proposition

by James Scott Bell

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” That old chestnut is usually attributed to Emerson, who actually put it this way:

“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house.”

We would all like to believe that readers will beat a path to Amazon—or a local bookstore—to read “better books.” It’s true that doesn’t always happen; or, at least, as often as it should. But the odds are better with “better.” We can always improve our writing, which is one of the things I love about the craft. And that’s what we talk about most here at TKZ. Today I want to talk about what you as a human author (as opposed to AI!) bring to the table. It springs from the concept of what businesses call a Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

The USP is that factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason their product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.

With so many products out there in every category, consumers are looking for the best bang for their buck, and the best (e.g., most efficient, most convenient, most entertaining, etc.) product available.

Someone bringing a new product to market has to find a way to make it stand out from other products in its category.

But if I try to sell a mousetrap that’s just like all the others, how can I expect to win over new customers?

Or readers, who have an overwhelming amount of content to choose from. You as an author need to give them a reason to choose you.

Every author needs a Unique Writer Proposition––UWP.

Think of it this way. Say you’re a reader who loves detective novels and your favorite writer is Michael Connelly. You don’t really analyze why you dig Connelly, you just know that at the end of one of his books you’ve had an experience you want to repeat.

Now here comes Benny Wannabe, a new author, who is putting up his own detective novels for sale. When you read one, nothing about it really stands out. You finish it, and it’s okay, but you are not left with the feeling you have when you read Connelly.

How likely are you to go seeking out Wannabe’s other books?

Thus, I propose that you become more purposeful about developing a UWP.

  1. Look Within

When I started out in traditional publishing, the buzzword brand was just coming into fashion. Every author was supposed to have one, because that’s how publishers sold them to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

My brand at the beginning was as a lawyer writing legal thrillers. There were only about nine million other authors with the same profile. At a brainstorming session with some other writers, where we came up with taglines for our brand, I took the title of F. Lee Bailey’s autobiography, The Defense Never Rests, and changed it to, The Suspense Never Rests. That would be my goal: total, page-turning suspense.

Next, I asked what I burned with. What is that fuels my inner fire? The answer came: injustice. I hate it, I loathe those who traffic in it, and ache for the victims of it. So the quest for justice was an obvious add-on to my UWP.

Try this: Ask yourself what type of fiction you most like to read. What is it about those books that attracts you? Is it fast-moving plots? Colorful characters? Lean prose, or beautiful style? Then ask what gets your blood pumping. How will you integrate that into your fiction?

  1. Added Value

Now look at your work and ask yourself three questions:

  1. What do I do well?
  2. What can I do better?
  3. What are my unique “add ons”?

I did this twenty years ago. I decided what I did pretty well was plot and dialogue. What I needed to do better was character and scenes. So I instituted a self-study program in both areas.

What were some of the things I brought to my fiction that were particular to me? I found:

  • A bit of humor mixed in with the suspense (a la my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock).
  • Entertaining minor characters.

Ask this: What do you bring to your writing that is a distinctive? What is your “personality on the page”?

  1. Deliver the Goods

Once you have determined your own UWP (and it’s good to write it down in 100 words or less, and tweak it from time to time), you have a model to shoot for. You write your book and revise the draft, keeping these things in mind.

Look at the seven critical success factors of fiction—plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning (or theme). Make it your goal to improve in each of these areas in a year’s time. It’s not a daunting task to spend a few weeks of self study in each area.

Picture this: As you write, keep a picture in your mind of a tired mother or father, a busy professional, an overextended student. They have a small window of time for reading pleasure and they’ve picked up your book.

Be unique. For them.

What is something about your writing that is unique or personal to you?

[This post is adapted from The Mental Game of Writing.]

What is Your Unique Selling Proposition?

by James Scott Bell

Steven Wright (Wikimedia Commons)

If I had to name my favorite comedian, the one I’d most like to see in concert, it would be Steven Wright.

Because he’s a true original, not your typical “Hey, what’s the deal with airline peanuts?” standup guy. He has a hangdog look and deadpan delivery. He specializes in one- or two-liners that are language-bending riffs that twist reality into an existential pretzel. He says things like:

I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn’t park anywhere near the place.

I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.

I went to a restaurant that says they serve breakfast at any time. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.

There have been many one-liner comedians, like Henny Youngman (“A doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.”) and Rodney Dangerfield (“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I told him I wanted a second opinion. He said, Okay, you’re ugly, too.”), but Steven Wright has carved out a unique niche and loyal following.

He knows his unique selling proposition (USP). He probably wouldn’t use that term, which comes from the world of marketing. But the concept is the same.

In brief, the USP is that special something that sets your product apart from the competition. It’s a market differentiation strategy. And it’s necessary because we have markets stuffed with similar products vying for attention.

There were several delivery services available when Federal Express came along. What did FedEx offer that was different? Overnight delivery. It became the center of all their advertising: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

In the 1990s a fellow named Bezos thought this internet thingy was going to be important someday. He also knew people liked reading. What if he could create a way for readers to browse for books online, order the ones they wanted, and have them delivered right to their door?

Amazon went live in 1995. In 1999, Barron’s Magazine wrote a cover story called “Amazon.Bomb” predicting the company couldn’t possibly sustain itself.

I wonder whatever happened to Amazon? I’ll have to look it up.

The point is, Jeff Bezos is a true visionary, and the first thing a visionary does is develop a USP.

You should too, writer. What is it you bring to the table that a reader can’t just as easily get from some other scribe?

Part of this calculus is voice. But beyond that, it’s what you care about most in your writing. What do you want readers to feel, to know, to awaken to? What themes do you find yourself gripped by?

Write out a mission statement. A mission statement is a one- or two-line encapsulation of what you do, why you do it, and why the market should take notice. For example, here’s Amazon’s current version: “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.”

What’s yours?

Now take USP to each book you write. Look at your plot and characters and ask, How can I do something different? Even a little difference can make … a difference.

When I started thinking about my series character Mike Romeo, I knew I wanted him to be a “down these mean streets” character. We’ve had a lot of those. So I asked myself how I could set him apart. After considering several options, I landed on one of my own special interests, philosophy. I made Mike a genius kid who went to Yale at age fourteen and received specialized training in both the Eastern and Western intellectual traditions—before circumstances sent him on the off-the-grid trajectory. He’s still a seeker of wisdom, but wrapped inside a fighter’s skin. He will try to reason with you, but if you insist on being mean will employ more gladiatorial methods of persuasion. That was enough to get me excited about launching the series.

Another area where authors can strike rich veins of uniqueness is the supporting cast. Don’t ever write “throw away” secondary or minor characters! Use them to add spice to the plot. This is one of the things that makes Janet Evanvoich’s Stephanie Plum series so popular. For my Ty Buchanan legal thriller series I concocted a cast that includes a basketball playing nun (who is not shy about using her elbows), and a former college professor who went nuts for awhile and now runs a coffee house and raises butterflies for funeral ceremonies.

In short, friends, you are the CEO of a company trying to compete in a crowded market. The company is you. Your product is books. So do what all successful companies do—develop that USP. Set yourself apart. Strive to become an original.

Like Mr. Steven Wright:

I’m traveling today, so may not be able to drop by much. Talk amongst yourselves:

  1. Do you have a unique spin as an author?
  2. How is your WIP a little different than what’s been done before?
  3. What authors do you admire who bring a unique quality to their work?