As a writer of speculative fiction and science fiction writings, I have immersed myself in a project. This is Lorenzo Samuel's Advice Blog, which I'm sharing with you. I'm reading debut novels of any genre that have been written in the last 20 years and that broke out (that is, they became best sellers). Now, why would an author like me do this?
Well, let's examine this question for a bit. Almost by definition, "debut" implies previously unknown. Consider this analogy: a daughter of a high-society couple has reached the age of 18. Her parents are "in" society, but she is not. These parents are invited to society parties, balls, receptions, etc. She is not.
The parents want her to be included in this broad world as they know that will open many opportunities to her. Thus, they sponsor a "coming out" ball to which their society friends and their teenage children are invited. The daughter is the featured attraction. Afterwards, the attendees talk about the event, the daughter, which boy would fit with her, and her other prospects. She becomes well known. This is word of mouth.
Now, compare that with the new author: A debut author tries to break into the select group of recognized authors. She or he writes a noteworthy book. The characters, theme, plot, and setting are stellar. A few people read it. They tell their friends, "You ought to read this one." People do. They tell their friends. And on and on it goes, word of mouth leading to a best seller. The author is now known. People look for her next book to come out.
Here is a list of the debut books I've read which broke out: Fight Club, Trainspotting (I didn't like this one, so stopped reading it about 1/3 through), Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Updraft, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, White Teeth, The Secret Life of Bees, Before I Go to Sleep, The Book Thief, Before I Die, The Outcast, Children of the Bone, The Help, and The Devil Wears Prada.
Five more to read before the project is complete: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Brick Lane, After You'd Gone, The Tiger's Wife, and The Virgin Suicides. Although I will read these, my project could end right now; I have learned enough about what these books have that enhances their break-out potential:
Characters - the main character in the book (protagonist) is unusual in some way, interesting, and merits the reader's empathy. We root for this protagonist.
Theme - also could be called the controlling idea of the story; it is pertinent to the reader's life in some way.
Plot - the story moves along at the proper pace and has enough twists and reversals to keep readers wanting to know what happens next.
Setting - readers can see the characters, theme, and plot happening in this situation, place, and time; it likely enhances the impact of the story.
What is your favorite book of fiction? Which one fascinated you? Did one of them open up new vistas? As a child my first one was called Lazy Liza Lizard. Later in childhood, the book was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. When a teenager, the book was a humorous tale of science fiction (I don't recall the title). As an adult, the trilogy Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation captivated me.
Each of these books layered in characters, theme, plot, and setting in a way that matched my interests and inclinations. Chances are overwhelming that your favorite fiction book grabbed you in the same way. Why don't you see if the four criteria listed above are in your most memorable fiction read?
Readers and writers can benefit by this simple exercise. For writers, the reason is obvious. You want your story read. For readers, the reasons are a bit obscure. Some times a reader can choose to read a book with just a little research on the Internet. Often the jacket of a book will contain the information. What is said or written about the book's characters, theme, plot, and setting. Do they grab you? That's the book for you.
I recommend a non-fiction book named Story by Robert Mckee. It is useful to authors of novels, stage plays, short stories, and movie scripts. In it you will find many tips writers can and should use. Readers and movie-goers can learn how to determine which book to read or which movie to see. Good luck!