Monday, July 13, 2009
VW#1: Conceptual Planning, Construction and Development
(click on image to see larger version)
I. The House of Story
Writers wear a lot of different hats whenever we work in FictionLand. We're the architects of story, and whether we formally outline or briefly summarize or scribble something in eyeliner pencil on the back of a cocktail napkin at 2 a.m., we draw up plans to make something out of nothing. As contractors we have to get our plans out there and secure the financing needed for the project, and as site managers we have to make sure the construction goes according to spec. The bulk of the time we spend writing is as construction workers, showing up at the site every day to lay the foundation, install the supports and build the story construct one segment at a time.
All of this time, thought and effort should result in a complete house of story; one that is unique, attractive and finished. A house that hopefully will tempt many people into pre-ordering and purchasing a copy for themselves.
The constructs are all different -- the house of story can be anything the writer desires to build: a huge, ornate showplace, cozy lover's cottage, quiet church, dude ranch, gadget-filled technotower, haunted castle or even a BDSM play pad. Because some constructs sell better than others, the demand changes -- right now a vampire's lair is hot, next year the self-help gymnasium may be all the rage.
Because the house of story only exists on paper and in the minds of the writer and reader, the construct has to be vivid, intriguing and convincing -- a castle in the air people can really live in for a few hours. If it's going to move once it's put up for sale, it should offer something new and exciting to a person who has spent many hours in and has intimate knowledge of thousands of other houses. The house of story should also be polished and finished to the point of perfection. But the most important work for the writer begins in the planning stages, when design decisions are made, and the concept of the construct is determined.
II. Building Versus Selling
You have a great idea for a house of story. It's going to be amazing; you can see it in your head. It came to you in the shower, or woke you up at three a.m., or just appeared out of nowhere. Now it's in your head, and it's demanding to be built. For most writers, this is all the design work we need to start a new project. We want to build it because it already exists for us, so we have to build it in order to show it to others. This is what drives us to build, because we want very badly to get the house of story out of our head and onto the page before it sinks into the bog of forgetfulness and vanishes forever.
This is also the point in almost every writer's work when things go wrong with the house of story. In the beginning we're so focused on the idea for the construct that nothing else matters. It's an occupational hazard; it's how writers are designed to function. If we weren't this intense we'd never build anything. It's also why almost every writer has a closet or file filled with unfinished plans, partial constructs or other projects that didn't work out. Sometimes our brightest ideas just don't work out once we start building; for whatever reason we lose interest or hit a impassible wall and the house of story collapses in mid-construction.
You can build anything based on any idea. You don't even have to have an idea to build; you can just start construction and make it up as you go along (and sometimes this even works.) You can construct an entire neighborhood of story houses based solely on your desire to build. Let's be straight about this, too -- I'm not telling you that you can't build. That's the one thing you never tell another writer.
What I am asking is, can you sell it? Because no matter how hard you work, how well you build and how completely you finish the house of story, if you can't sell it you're basically building it for yourself, and it will end up piled in the closet along with all the other houses no one will ever see or share.
III. Concept Planning
If you're going to be an architect of fiction, you need to think a little like the designers and builders of real houses. Here are some of the things you might want to nail down before you break ground:
A. Neighborhood Zoning (Determining the story's genre/category): What sort of story house are you building, and how should it be sold? And before anyone protests the need for categorization, remember the industry we're working in and how they market our houses -- primarily by the type of construct we build and how well it fits into a certain neighborhood. You need to classify your design before you try to build it because it's unlikely that you will sell a dude ranch to a guy looking to spend time in a haunted castle. You have to accept in advance that if you're building a dude ranch, you're probably not going to sell it to haunted castle fans.
Figure out first where your house of story belongs, or if it utterly defies categorization, the neighborhood where it will best fit in. If you're not sure, talk to other writers, your agent or your editor and run the idea past them. Be aware that some story houses do fit into more than one neighborhood and can be marketed as cross-genre or slipstream. Don't be ashamed of asking for input, either -- often writers are too close to an idea or too wrapped up in its possibilities to clearly see what Publishing zone it belongs in.
B. Design Appeal (Creating the story's main selling point, aka the hook): During the concept planning stage, this is probably the most important (and most frequently ignored) question to answer: What is going to attract publishers and readers to buy this house? You can be the most magnificent builder who ever picked up a brick, but if you can't tempt publishers and readers to even look at your house, odds are it will never sell.
The story hook is generally comprised of a concept (just like the idea you have in your head for the story) that is worded in such a way as to encapsulate it and make it attractive and appealing to others. It doesn't have to relay the entire idea -- that's what the story house is for -- but it needs to present a major enticement that will interest people into taking the full tour. The bigger and more exciting the enticement, the easier it will be to sell your story house.
A hook needs to be a lot of things, but primarily it should be brief, simply-worded, and contain the real power and conflict of the story:
1. A vampire hunter discovers her dream lover is a captive, tortured, blind vampire.
2. The secret lovechild of a powerful politician is the only witness to her father's murder.
3. A half-alien athlete trains as an assassin to kill her rapist father.
4. An outcast prostitute must save her friends and former family by harboring two spies intent on destroying them and their city.
5. A mystery writer haunted by the ghost of her worst critic tries to solve his murder.
Look at the juxtaposition of the concepts contained in the above hooks. The more conflict potential they have, the more powerful they are:
vampire hunter - blind vampire
secret lovechild - powerful politician
half-alien assassin - rapist father
outcast prostitute - enemy spies
mystery writer -- ghost critic
The situation as presented also plays a major part in the impact of the concept. For PBW's neighborhood, it has to be an almost impossible situation; what I think of as the worst possible situation for the protagonist to find themselves in. But whatever your situational preference is, the elements in the predicate you use in the hook (verbs, adjectives, objects of verbs) need to provoke a strong emotional response:
--a vampire hunter loving the a helpless vampire.
--a lovechild witnessing the murder of her powerful father.
--a half-alien assassin training to kill the rapist who created her.
--a prostitute protecting enemy spies to save those who cast her out.
--a mystery writer solving the murder of her worst critic.
IV. Concept Construction
Now that you have your concept, you have to decide how you're going to realize it in the construct of your house of story. It's all well and good to say "A vampire hunter discovers her dream lover is a captive, tortured, blind vampire" but how are you going to build that for your reader? Cross your fingers, hope for the best? You may end up wasting a brilliant hook by not delivering on the promise it makes.
Building means you answer the questions raised by the hook for the reader, or:
A vampire hunter (why is she a vampire hunter?) discovers (how?) her dream lover (who is this?) is a captive, tortured, blind vampire (how does she react to this discovery? What happens after this?)
Answer those questions, and you create plot, backstory, characterizations, motivations, and more:
A vampire hunter (looking for the vampire who murdered her parents) discovers (while searching throughout Europe for the artifact that the vampire stole from her parents in order to identify the vampire) her dream lover (literally, the man with whom she falls in love while she sleeps and dreams) is a captive, tortured, blind vampire (whom she finds, releases and escorts home while protecting him from an enemy who is hunting both of them while she continues her search for the killer.)
Even if you prefer not to outline, I firmly believe you still need some basic schematic (either on paper or in your head) of how to proceed. I also think you need to think about the major plot twist or revelation that is going to stun the reader once you've moved them into your story house. What is inside the construct waiting for them to discover? A secret room? A hidden passage? What if everything they see is not what it appears to be at first glance?
In the above example of the vampire hunter who falls for the blind vampire, there is a huge revelation at the end of the novel that changes everything about the story once the reader discovers it (which I'm not going to tell you; to find out what it is you'll have to read my book Night Lost.) I planned the twist before I ever wrote a single word of the story, and by doing so it guided me through the story and how to present every element in order to build up to the climatic point when everything the reader assumes is basically turned upside-down and inside-out.
V. Concept Development
Once you've worked out the planning and construction of your house of story's concept, there's one more thing you need to think about: how you might develop it beyond the first novel. Can your concept be developed into a sequel, a trilogy, a series, a spin-off, prequel, or some other continuation of the story?
Before every standalone writer out there slaps me in the head, hear me out on this. Suppose you came up with a brilliant concept, say a misfit girl who moves to a new town, meets a beautiful but grouchy and standoffish guy who turns out to be a vampire who cannot resist misfit girl. You write and sell that novel, which becomes an international bestseller that brings in millions of dollars for your publisher and you. Now, guess what they're going to want for the next book? Something brand new that has absolutely nothing to do with the first book? I don't think so.
Okay, everyone is not going the way of Stephenie Meyer. But she is a shining example of why you should at least think about concept development. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a standalone writer say, "I only wanted to write the one book, but now they want more; what'll I do?" It's happened to me; one of my trilogies ended, I was all finished, and then my editor said "Oh, no, we want more." That turned my trilogy into a six-book series (even with a pseudonym change in the very middle.)
Knowing your concept for the house intimately is important for possible further development of the idea. Let's go back to my design for my vampire hunter -- say Night Lost was the first and only Darkyn novel I had planned to write (it's actually the fourth in the series, but the storyline is the most isolated/standalone concept of the seven novels.) I have a vampire hunter, I have a blind vampire, and I have a vampire killer. All of their immediate situations are basically wrapped up and resolved by the end of the novel. End of story.
If I'd written it as a standalone but needed to develop it further, the first place I'd look to are the secondary characters in the story. Who besides the two protagonists were the most interesting? Who had a storyline that I could take a little further and develop? My pick would be Korvel, the vampire captain of the guard who was featured in a subplot of the story. Korvel has the ability to make any female want him, but then falls in love with the one woman he'll never have. The guy is a mess; he'd make a great protagonist.
Another option to consider is where the protagonists go or what they decide to do after the end of the story. Their continuing story could initiate the plot of the next book. Let's say my unlikely pair ride off into the night, but the first vampire they try to free turns out to be bait in a trap meant for them. Now the only hope they have is the bait, and one of their captor's guards, who was once kept prisoner by a vampire . . . and who has fallen in love with the bait.
Extending the development of a single story house into a series of them requires more forethought, more examination of the supporting characters and continuation options available in the first book. As the author of several series, I can assure you that it's not easy to extend a single-novel concept into three, five or even ten novels. For that kind of work, you need to develop a separate series concept that will fuel multiple novels as well as a standalone conflict for each installment.
VI. Concept Troubleshooting
There are an infinite number of problems that come up during the concept process; I could spend all week exploring maybe 10% of them. Over the years, however, I've noticed that three in particular bedevil writers on a frequent basis:
1. The concept is not strong enough to sell the book.
Playing it safe conceptually is a common habit among many writers; they believe it's easier to sell something that won't rock the boat, break any rules or offend the politically correct. The result is a concept that is just okay; a story that has a nice plot, the right sort of characters, an easily-resolved conflict and the requisite happily ever after. Yawn.
There are writers out there who have made careers out of playing it safe, so I won't lie to you -- you can sell books like this, and with some luck and the right conservative publisher, even make a modest living at it. You can also eat library paste. My question is, why would you want to do either?
If your concept lacks the ability to provoke an emotional response, it's weak, and no one wants to live in a house of story that can fall down around them at any moment. Look at each story element and see how you can power it up, invest it with more meaning and significance, and above all more conflict potential. Step outside your comfort zone and play with some new ideas. Be daring, too. The key here is not to hold yourself back (which is the primary cause of weak story houses) but to let yourself go.
2. The concept is too complicated to make clear the design to others.
If I ask you what your story concept is and it takes you half an hour to tell me, you either stutter very badly or your concept is too complicated. A concept that hasn't been distilled into a brief, clear design that can be related easily to others is going to get muddled or lost in translation.
Complicated concepts can have any number of causes, but they all share one thing in common: the writer has lost their grip on the house of story. An idea often grows so large and detailed in the mind of the wandering writer that they get sucked out of the construct and become lost in the Forest of Cool Story Stuff. Then there is the inexperienced/new writer who throws everything and the kitchen sink into their first novel, which results in them burying themselves alive in a towering heap of Earnest Story Stuff. Still another writer will try to relate every single detail possible via the concept, and end up choking it with Endless Story Stuff.
If your house of story concept is too complicated for someone else to understand, my advice is to do two things: a) stop thinking about all the cool stuff in the story and b) start whittling it down. Somewhere lost in or buried under or choked by all that stuff is a story concept; you just have to keep chopping away until you find and uncover it.
3. The concept is unoriginal.
Clones, cliches, knock-offs -- whatever you want to call them -- are concepts that are based on or lifted from another writer's published work. This type of emulation is done by writers at all stages of the game -- from rookies who want to knockoff an established writer's work in order to be read by the same fans (or be viewed in the same light) to veterans who have exhausted their own wells and are looking for concepts they can easily lift and alter just enough to keep them legal.
Unoriginal concepts do sell; we're just now seeing a small flood of Twilight knockoffs hit the market. By next year I expect that will grow to a tidal wave that will leave us up to our necks in angsty teen vampires and their high school hijinks. I kind of doubt that even collectively they'll make the millions that the original did, but Publishing is nothing if not hopeful of (yet another!) vampire trend.
While we're waiting for the YA tsunami to hit, here is my advice on how I think you should properly troubleshoot a concept that is recognizably unoriginal: take it to the nearest trash can, drop it inside, then start over from scratch. Don't waste your talent writing what amounts to a liftjob or fanfic. You're better than that. Tap your interests and your ideas. Building in a popular neighborhood doesn't mean you have to rip off other writers -- take the style and see what you can make of it. Above all, have faith in yourself and what you can do on your own.
Finally, here's one last thought before you head back to the drafting table. Arne Jacobsen said If architecture had nothing to do with art, it would be astonishingly easy to build houses, but the architect's task - his most difficult task - is always that of selecting.
So is yours. Choose wisely, always.
VII. Related Links
Conquering the High Concept by James Bonnet
See how a writer designs and builds the house of story (and why) by reading Dorian Scott Cole's Story development - planning phase for Wife For Sale.
If you want to write a novel but you don't know what to write about, give this workshop a try: Asking the Right Questions by Holly Lisle
Definitive design: High Concept Defined Once and For All by Steve Kaire.
Screewriters are especially well-versed in writing to concept, and Alexis Niki's article The Low-down on High Concept explains why.
QueryTracker.net Blog has an excellent post, Writing the High Concept Hook that includes some helpful links.
For fun: generate your own simple floor plans with smallblueprinter.com's online house plan generator.
Today's LB&LI giveaways are:
1) A brand-new AlphaSmart Neo smart keyboard
2) a goodie bag which will include unsigned new copies of:
Burn by Linda Howard (hardcover)
Writing the Life Poetic by Sage Cohen (trade pb)
The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square by Rosina Lippi (trade pb)
The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer (trade pb)
Animal Attraction by Charlene Teglia (trade pb)
Talyn and Hawkspar by Holly Lisle (paperbacks)
The Iron Hunt and Darkness Calls by Marjorie M. Liu
The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood (pocket pb)
plus signed paperback copies of my novels StarDoc, Night Lost and Evermore, as well as some other surprises.
If you'd like to win one of these two giveaways, comment on this workshop before midnight EST on Tuesday, July 14, 2009. I will draw two names from everyone who participates and send one winner the AlphaSmart Neo and the other the goodie bag.
Everyone who participates in the giveaways this week will also be automatically entered in my grand prize drawing on July 21st, 2009 for the winner's choice of either a ASUS Eee PC 1005HA-P 10.1" Seashell Netbook or a Sony PRS-700BC Digital Reader.
As always, all LB&LI giveaways are open to anyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
Other LB&LI Workshop Links -- new links are being added every day, so keep checking the list for new workshops (due to different time zones, some of these will go live later in the day):
E-publishing: From Query to Final Edits and Beyond -- Authors Madison Blake, Paris Brandon, Cerise Deland, Fran Lee, Afton Locke and Nina Pierce provide helpful insights and tips on e-publishing. Today's author: Cerise Deland
How-To Books that Saved My Life by Alison Kent -- a look at the three how-to books the author can't write without, and why.
Writing Prompt Series - Who? by Rosina Lippi -- Build a character on the basis of an image Rosina will provide.
From Pantser To Plotter: How I Joined The Dark Side by Kait Nolan -- Monday's topic: Why The Pantser Fears Plotting
About eBooks by Midnight Spencer –- A basic understanding of what eBooks are and what types of readers and formats.
Left Behind and Reading Joe Hill by Charlene Teglia -- Charlene explores what hooks a reader via her own experience with Joe Hill's debut novel.
Epubs-wondering where to start? by Shiloh Walker -- Info for those curious about epubs and where to start.
Killer Campaigns: Business Cards by Maria Zannini -- Design your own business cards