The X Talk

…wherein Nancy Martin graciously discusses the special something that separates one piece of work from all the others.

The French (of course) have a phrase to describe the intangible whatever that makes a thing special or appealing or distinctive. To be told you have an air of je ne sais quoi is a lovely compliment. The indefinable but unmistakable allure may be difficult to articulate, but to possess it is a good thing.

I don’t usually take issue with the French in matters of allure and appeal, but for a writer speaking about a novel, je ne sais quoi is not the way to go. If you are writing a query or planning a pitch, clearly understanding what makes your book stand out from every other is a must. Being able to express that with ease and finesse is an art.

Nancy Martin calls that special something the X-Factor. She has graciously agreed to a Q&A on how to banish the je ne sais from a story description.

Ramona:  What is your concept of the X-factor?

Nancy: I think an X-factor is some special element that sets one piece of work above the rest. It’s the thing that turns an ordinary story into an extraordinary book. It may not appeal to everyone, but it does have appeal for a specific audience. Yes, the concept is hard to express, but what’s the old definition of pornography?  You know it when you see it. A unique setting might be a book’s X-factor.  (Donna Leon’s wonderful Venice mysteries.  Cara Black’s Paris setting. Alexander McCall Smith’s Africa.) Or a special “world” for the story—such as the world of vampires.  Or a terrific story element.  (THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett.) Or a truly fresh and exciting writerly voice. (Janet Evanovich.) An often overlooked X-factor is simply beautiful writing.  But I’ll be interested in hearing what your readers think might be other categories of X-factors. I bet they recognize it when they see it.

Ramona: Can you give us some examples of X in your work?

Nancy: What set my romances apart from the many that were published every month was that mine were funny.  Wit is also prized in murder mysteries, and I think that’s the part of my reputation as a writer that made me appealing to mystery editors.  My Blackbird books were set in the world of Philadelphia high society—and that’s what the marketing department focused on.  The Blackbirds were also more romantic than most mysteries—a quality that wasn’t around much when the books were first published. All those things might be considered X-factors.

I think every writer needs to think about her best writing skills or her background (do you live in Bermuda?) or her unique line of work (do you tame lions? Perform autopsies?) and translate that into an X-factor.  For me, I combined my ability to write in an amusing way with my background in romance to create Roxy Abruzzo—a tough, sexy, smart-mouthed Pittsburgh girl.  Roxy became my X-factor—a character like none other in the mystery world right now. She’s compared to Stephanie Plum a lot, but Roxy is very different—much darker than Stephanie, and she really kicks butt.

Ramona: Why is X important, to editors/agents and to readers?

Nancy: Some agents notice read  fifty email queries every morning.  What a tiresome chore, right?  Of course they’re looking for something that makes one query more exciting than the next.

An editor, though, is going to take the X-factor and transform it into a marketing hook.  She’ll use it when talking to the art department about the cover art and to the sales department so they can succinctly and effectively explain the book to distributors and booksellers. And booksellers will use the X-factor to sell your book to readers.  Reviewers will choose a book to review based upon its X-factor and will no doubt use that component when explaining the story in a review. With all that riding on the X-factor, coming up with such an important element must surely be at the top of the writer’s to-do list.

Q. How does a writer use the X-factor to pitch a story?

Nancy: Well, don’t bury your lead.  Skip the long explanation of your plot in favor of: “My book is a story about alien clone paratroopers, who drop into Nazi Germany in 1941.”  If the editor isn’t interested in clone stories, she’ll pass.  But if you’ve done all the right research and know clones are exactly what your editor is looking for—bingo!

Ramona: How would a writer use X to market/promote book?

Nancy: If you’re an author sitting at a card table in  your local Barnes & Noble trying to sell your mystery  about, say, knitting, chances are the customers are avoiding you because they’re afraid you’re going to urge them to buy a boring book.  So hit ‘em where it makes the most sense. Say, on Mother’s Day weekend:  “Does your mom read murder mysteries?  Do you think she’d like one about knitting?” (Or raising cobras? NASCAR?)  Use the X-factor in the design of your website and all promotional materials you send to booksellers or readers.  If you write about knitting, it makes sense to contact stores that sell wool and knitting supplies to do events.  Contact knitting list-serves.  Use your X-factor any way you can.

Ramona: How much (if at all) does a book’s X-factor tie it to branding?

Nancy: I think it definitely ties in.  When I wrote about the Blackbird sisters, I wore pearls and sweaters that matched the book covers.  My website featured Main Line mansions and polo ponies. I spoke at elegant lunches and teas. Now that I’m writing about Roxy, I’ve put all my pastel sweaters in a drawer, and I wear black leather.  My website features rock & roll, and we’re soon going to run photos of pit bulls that their owners send in. If you can make your X-factor work in many ways—all the better.

Ramona: New writers are often stumped by “What’s your story about?”  Advice?

Nancy: You know what?  I think less is more.  Talk about the high points. If you start rambling about the plot points of your story, though, you’re in the weeds.  When I talk about OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION, I don’t talk about missing statues or describe a lot of the secondary characters. I say: Roxy Abruzzo is a tough Pittsburgh girl with sticky fingers and a heart of gold. I might say she’s a fixer for her mobbed-up uncle Carmine. But Roxy’s the thing that either turns readers on or off. She’s the X-factor.

Nancy Martin is the author of nearly fifty popular fiction novels in three genres—romance, historical and mystery.  She received the 2009 Romantic Times award for career achievement in mystery writing.  Her current release is OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION, a mystery published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. Visit her website:

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