The winner for the VW#2 Left Behind Goody Bag is Amanda, who should e-mail me at LynnViehl@aol.com with your full name and ship-to address.
Virtual Workshop #3:
Writing to Concept
I. What is Concept Writing?
A concept is defined as an idea, thought, notion, scheme or plan. For writers, it's a bit like story shorthand. When we write, we have some concept of what we want to write before we start putting words on the page (extreme organic writers who write off the top of their heads and plan nothing in advance are exceptions.) That concept helps us create, develop and eventually transcribe the story onto paper, and the stronger and clearer they are, the easier it is to do our job.
"Big" or "high" concept books are what we often call fiction and nonfiction works that sell fabulously, or transcend genre, or that have wide-range appeal, or stay on the lists for years, or all of the above. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and Rev. Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life are regularly invoked as examples. I like how Paige Wheeler defines high concept, as "a premise that can be boiled down into one sentence and sets it apart from other stories by its unique hook or angle."
Thinking up a concept for a novel is easy. I have the power to make complete strangers do it spontaneously. All someone has to do is tell them I'm a published author, and like magic that stranger tells me about their own novel concept, usually in under a minute.
Writing a novel to concept is a bit harder. First there's all that dreary writing involved. Big hassle. Then you have to build a story around the concept, and that means expressing it through setting, plot, dialogue, characters, and all that miscellaneous stuff involved in book writing. So many details to keep track of; a real pain. But if you aren't satisfied with simply thinking about being a writer, and talking about being a writer, and planning to be a writer, then learn to write to concept may be the next step.
II. The Concept Game
You must first clearly define your novel concept before you can write to it. This is also good practice for pitching your novel, because you want to offer a novel concept line in your query and submission letters.
If you have trouble with this, trying practicing on other authors' works. One of my favorite teaching games is "Name that Concept." I name a well-known book and have my students put together a novel concept in fifteen words or less off the top of their heads. I give bonus M&Ms to anyone who uses a reference to another story, novel or myth upon which the book is based, i.e. Carrie by Stephen King: "Psychic Cinderella goes psycho at the School Prom."
Well-known novels have slamming concepts, startling concepts, concepts that grab the reader's imagination and won't let go. These are easy to put into words, so my students rarely have a problem playing the game. After we've tagged a dozen or so blockbuster books, I then challenge them to give me concept lines for their own work. Because they're already having fun thinking in concepts, they have an easier time putting theirs into words.
III. Centering the Concept
Very often writers create what seem like wonderful novel concepts, start writing, and end up with three chapters and no idea of what next to write. Here are some of the reasons that happens:
1. Weak concept: the idea doesn't support a novel-length story.
2. Supersize concept: the idea is too big for a single novel.
3. Lost concept: the concept falls by the wayside during the writing and is forgotten.
4. Tangent-squashed concept: the novel deviates from the concept too often to successfully support it.
5. Fuzzy concept: the concept is not defined clearly enough for the writer to translate into the story.
Your novel concept is the center of your book, the story glue, the thing that provides navigation through the plot, colors or touches every character in some way and brings all of the story elements together. If a book was a body, the concept would be the brain, because it runs everything.
One reason I think books like The Da Vinci Code become mega bestsellers is not only the high concept of the novel, but how closely the author sticks to it throughout the story. Everything in Dan Brown's story is tied tightly to the concept, serves it in every chapter, and never once strays from it.
When you outline your novel, the concept should help you make all of the story decisions. When you're writing the novel, the concept should always be in the back of your mind, ready to jumpstart things when you stall. If you find it difficult to keep the concept present in your head, type up the concept and tape it to the top of your monitor, typewriter or legal pad.
Some writers seem to take pride in claiming their novels are too complicated to be defined by a novel concept. I always wonder how they compose their query letters. "Dear Editor, I am pleased to offer you the opportunity to enrich your existence by reading my new novel, The Inexplicable Sorrow, Struggling Ovidicus and Cold French Fries in the Melting Wheel of Timex. I won't attempt to condense 250,000 words into a single, vulgar line, so let me merely assure you that it is magnificent, will take several weeks for you to read and adequately ponder, and will sell a ba-zillion copies, provided you offer me an appropriate advance, somewhere in the high six figures. Yours etc., Charle-Dante Wrytah the Third."
Editors simply don't have the time to read 250K word manuscripts to grasp their writers' concepts, or lack thereof. Not being able to relate the novel concept in concise terms implies that you don't know your own work; not the kind of thing you want an editor to think about you. Plus if you wrote the book and you don't know how to properly express the concept, how is the publisher supposed to market it? "Buy this book, we have no freaking clue how to describe it, but we promise it's terrific"?
If your concept isn't working, you don't have to toss it out the window immediately. Work it, hone it, sharpen it, twist it, stretch it, and you may find the changes help get your novel rolling. But if a concept proves completely unwritable, let it go and start over with something new. It's not a wasted effort. You'll find that you learn as much from your failed concepts as you do from the ones that end up in print.
Post your thoughts, comments and questions about writing to concept in comments to this post by midnight EST on Saturday, July 29, 2006, and you'll have a chance at winning today's Left Behind Goody Bag: signed copies of all three of my Darkyn novels If Angels Burn, Private Demon and Dark Need, and unsigned paperback copies of: Closer by Jo Leigh, Last Girl Dancing and I See You by Holly Lisle, Deep Breath by Alison Kent, The Writer's Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes, as well as unsigned hardcover copies of Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helene Fielding and Cover of Night by Linda Howard, all packed in a reversible multi-color tote bag. I'll draw one name from everyone who participates and send you the goodies; giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
PBW posts related to novel concepts: Pitch Tools, Wattage, Practice.