Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How to Write a Book - Part 1: Approach

The first draft of The Hunter Chronicles Book 2 is finished and I sent it to my editor at Simon & Schuster yesterday. Huzzah!

Today, I’m starting on a new series. Nearly a year ago, I pitched several ideas to my agent, Steven Malk of Writer’s House (this is his informal title; his formal title is Steven of the Very Helpful Insights, though I usually just call him “Glorious One” to keep it simple (he prefers it that way, if you’re thinking of querying him. May your query letters abound o’ Glorious One! *Note: the Glorious One is not accepting query letters at the moment, as far as I know. **Note: referring to your agent as “the Glorious One” is not recommended)).

Steve has an amazing eye for market and story. He knows what publishers will buy and what readers will read, and where the two occasionally meet. From the half dozen or so ideas I sent him, he picked one he thought had real potential and we’ve been going back and forth on it ever since.

Finding a good idea, especially one that hasn’t been done before, is very difficult. In children’s lit, if I write a book involving children and magic, I will get compared to Harry Potter, and if I write a book that touches on mythology, I will get compared to Percy Jackson. J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan weren’t the first to write on these subjects, but they did it best, and became the standard. They own the space, at least for the next decade or two.

That doesn’t mean I can’t write a book about a demigod that goes off to school and learns he’s a wizard; it just means that if I do, I need to write it in an entirely different way. I need a different approach, and defining the approach begins when I move from idea to concept.

Example idea: boy discovers he’s a demigod and goes to school to become a wizard.

Derivative, right? Now for the concept… 

Example concept: an orphaned boy discovers he’s a demigod after his goddess mother appears to him in a bowl of egg whites. Upset that he’s been orphaned, the boy rejects his heritage and attends a school for outcasts, where he learns to become a wizard, and finds out his father is a god-wizard hybrid named Kronos-Voldemort.

Okay, wow… I actually like that concept now that I’ve written it. But the point is, approach matters more than the idea. Don’t get me wrong—a bad idea will kill a book—but the right approach can save many bad ideas, whereas not even the greatest writing can save a bad approach. Great writing and a bad approach is called “literature” and nobody wants to read it.

The approach is my jumping off point. An approach includes my choices for milieu, plot, character, prose style — everything I will need before I write a single line of the actual book. Only when I’ve finished the book will I have a “story.”

That’s all for now. Next time, I’ll either forget to follow up on this, or I’ll write something about a dystopian future where games turn deadly, and masons hide secret symbols in the crumbling ruins of the United States Capitol — secrets that could stop the games forever and save us all... (:$@$:)

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