Back when I first started getting a local small-town paper, I'd read the whole thing because, well, it was a small town. After the heart-stopping excitement of an apple-pie contest, they wrote an article about it, with the recipe and an interview with the winner.
Scanning the recipe, you'd find all the usual suspects: flour, water, salt, shortening, apples....vanilla extract?
The winning contestant explained in the article that she didn't normally make an apple pie this way. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, the vanilla extract stayed in the bottle. But with a contest (and this is a rough paraphrase, but we'll pretend it's a quote,) "I know the judges are tasting dozens of apple pies, so in order to win, I need to add something to make mine taste just a little different. Just different enough that they remember, and that's why my pies win."
Now, how would our winning baker write a novel? She'd think to herself, "This is a fine story just as it is. But the agents and editors of the world are looking at a hundred manuscripts a week, so I need to make mine taste just a little bit different."
This is especially true for writing contests, but it's also true for querying. Your piece sits alongside ninety-nine others. Where's your vanilla?
I'm not talking about adding a dragon, of course. (Nor gimmickry either; imagine using green food coloring on the crust. Yuck.) And although it's tempting to douse one's manuscript pages in vanilla extract for a little aroma-therapy, as a professional I have to recommend against it.
These are the elements of a good apple pie query: Professional presentation. A query that tells the agent what the story is about. A brief bio. Your writing sample.
Now for the vanilla: Your voice. Your details. A take on the story that only you could have written. A character you understand inside and out. If there are only twelve plots in the world, you'll have to infuse your apple pie novel with your heart and your perspective. Your vulnerability. Your humanity. The love you have for your own story.
(By the way, I make my own vanilla extract. Shove a bunch of vanilla beans into a bottle of vodka and steep it five months. The alcohol draws all that yummy vanilla into the tasteless vodka. Think about it.)
We're not writing only for ourselves. We're also writing for our readers.
In the end, your readers will walk away from their slice of apple pie enjoying that lingering taste of vanilla, a subtle question mark bringing them back to the story again and again, and leading them to tell others about something they just can't get out of their minds.
Isn't that what we all want as writers? So go. Go deep and find your vanilla.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the amazing Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.