Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to Write a Book - Part 2: Considerations

As I write this, the thought that keeps spinning through my mind is, "there are thousands of blogs that give great advice on writing; why bother with another?"

The answer: mind your own business, brain!

Lesson 1 in writing: ignore your brain, especially when it says stuff that makes sense.

Lesson 2 in writing: this is not a blog on the craft of writing, even though I may occasionally post on the subject. This is less of a writing lesson and more of a moronic statement about my blog.

Lesson 3 in writing: eat Pop Tarts. I say this only because I'm hoping that someone who works for Pop Tart Industries will read this blog and send me Pop Tarts. Also, it's a little known fact, but Pop Tart Industries controls 99% of the world's book blogs, and by mentioning them, you can ensure your book receives only positive reviews. It's true. Look it up.

Okay. Now I've forgotten what my point was.

According to the title of this post, I'm supposed to discuss "considerations"whatever that means. It sounds like something I just made up. Hm.

Well, until I remember, let's pick up where I left off on the last "How to Write a Book" post: with the masons.

I had a concept: in a dystopian future where games turn deadly, masons hide secret symbols in the crumbling ruins of the United States Capitol—secrets that could stop the games forever and save us all.

Let's call our protagonist "Dogniss Nevergreen" for simplicity, and let's name the story "The Lost Hunger Symbol." 

If it wasn't obvious already, the pitch line is: The Hunger Games meets The Lost Symbol. The pitch line lets the reader (particularly, the agent and editor) know how to categorize your story. It's like saying, "if you liked these two books, you might also like mine." 

Next, I need to identify how my story is unique. 

The great paradox of publishing is that publishers want an easily categorized story, so they can predict sales, and, at the same time, they want a story that's unlike anything else on the planet. In other words, they want something that's the same in a unique way.

My story is the same in that... 
It's YA. There is a game. A secret group has hidden symbols.

My story is different in that...
The game takes place underwater. The symbols are hidden in electronic transmissions. Dogniss must reach the surface before he can interpret electronic symbols. At the end of the game, the winner gets a lifetime supply of scrumptious Pop Tarts.

The things I choose to focus on within the story can also help me tell a different story. Is Dogniss trying to escape or is he trying to change the game from within? Does the secret group appear in the story or do they just leave clues behind that allow Dogniss to escape? There are literally thousands of questions I could ask, and I could easily get bogged down. This is bad. Don't do this. If you get bogged down in questions, take a break, eat a Pop Tart, and try writing something.

Before I start writing, I don't need to answer all of these questions--many of these questions don't even occur to me until I start writing--but I like to answer the big ones. 
  1. What is it about my story that I believe will appeal most to my chosen audience? This is my focus point, the thing I organize around, and the place where I should start the book.
    1. In The Lost Hunger Symbol, I might focus on the death of the secret group, or the horrible conditions in which Dogniss lives. Do I want to explore who Dogness is as a person and how he reacts to events, or do I believe that my readers will be more interested in the puzzles, or in the mystery of the secret order? Each of these things can feed into the story, but if I try to balance all of these elements equally, I won't do justice to any of them, my story will lose focus, and my readers will get bored. I need ONE focus point, and that's where I start.
  2. How is my story different from other stories, particularly popular stories, and are those differences substantial enough that it's worth writing the book?
To help me focus, I'll usually do a sort of "brand design schematic" in my head. This is basically where I take words, images, ideas, music, bits of dialoganything that I want associated with my storyand I lay them out on a grid. This grid comes to represent the space I want to "own"the areas where my story is entirely unique.

Harry Potter "owns" several things now because of the books: lightning bolt scars and the phrases "the boy who lived" and "he-who-must-not-be-named," to give but a few examples. Identifying these things beforehand helps me further refine and target the story. It helps me generate mood and focus on things that, I believe, matter to my readers.

Alright. Enough for now. If others out there in the blog-o-sphere-o-verse have tips for picking and refining the right concept for a story, please make a comment. And, if Pop Tart Industries is watching (I know you are), I like the blueberry ones.


Dave Butler said...

Based on the Google+ dialog I am seeing, Harry Potter may now also own TENTS.

Dave Butler said...

Just realized that my prior comment was nonresponsive to your request. Here's my thought, based on what I see in the stream of announced deals I've been watching for a year now, interaction with my own agent and the experiences of my writing group.


You don't have to be able to summarize your story in a few words, but you have to be able to say something vivid about it, something that catches the target's imagination, something that says "this is familiar and will therefore tap into existing business, but it is also new and will therefore be a big hit". No professional has time to listen to a long tortured pitch from you unless you're Neil Gaiman, and if you're Neil Gaiman, you're not reading this. But if you are, hey, Neil, call me.

"X meets Y" is a tried and true formula. My thought on that is: one of X or Y should be a big current or recent hit, and if the other one is not also a current or recent hit, it should be a classic. X and Y should both be books or movies that conceptually reach the same audience.

GOOD: Harry Potter meets Fablehaven.

GOOD: Percy Jackson meets the Hobbit.

BAD: Harry Potter meets my uncle's unpublished novel

Joe Lunievicz said...

I didn't think too much about elevator pitch until after my book was bought - now that's what it's all about - describing the story to people who might take a look at it for their bookstore, or review blog, or magazine, or radio show. I"ve been amazed at the power of the good pitch and the turn-off of a bad one (having provided both in almost equal measure). One reviewer said my book was part Dickens and part Captain Blood (I Liked that) and another said it's part Book Thief and part Gangs of New York (I liked that too). But I didn't come up with them - I just used them now.

But in writing (I'm playing it straight here just for the sake of anti-cynicism devil's advocate) I've found I write from character first. Its led me to some good writing but not very marketable work (agent say, "rugby? what's rugby? can't he play baseball?" and "if you could only make that character straight instead of gay I might be able to sell it."). I get hooked on a character that I want to write about and usually all the rest kind of falls in line. If I can't find the character I'm kind of lost, pitch or no pitch.

I'm curious how you came up with Phineas character and whether he or Sky appeared to you first. I know you had concept pretty strongly set but when did character come in for you?

EJ Patten said...

Character is where I go after concept. Concept tells me whether or not I can sell the story. Character tells me whether or not I can write it. For me, every character is as detailed and real as my main character, and each one has their own story that is every bit as interesting. These stories weave together and create plots which I then have to weed through, simplify, and/or throw away (something I'm not always the best at).

Sky definitely came to me first. He's been floating around in my head for years. Phineas was harder to come by. In the first draft, Phineas only appeared in the prologue. Below, I've included a bit from that first draft, nearly all of which was cut when I rewrote the story from the ground up for the second draft.

"I don’t know about you, but when Phineas ran for his life—which he did far more frequently than you might suspect—he ran with style. He picked only the darkest of graveyards, the spookiest of houses, and the corniest of cornfields to flee in.

He also liked to carry old books with him, or scrolls, or possibly maps that led to unknown and exotic places, like The-Twelve-Levels-of-Hidden-Terrors, or Wyoming.

He would occasionally drop said books or maps, leading to countless misadventures for unsuspecting children with too much time and not enough sense, many of whom were, it had to be admitted, living in forgotten closets or under darkened stairs, and, in extreme cases, living in both of these places simultaneously, without adult supervision, or under limited supervision from a wicked step aunt or poor shoemaking single father.

That’s what makes this story different. Our main character, who’s not, in fact, Phineas, didn’t live in a closet or under the stairs, as surprising as that may be. His parents took their responsibilities seriously and were not wicked in any way, making it unlikely that Sky, our main character, would be in a place he shouldn’t be to find a dropped book or map that would inevitably lead to misadventures. But even the best of families can have problems.

But I get ahead of myself. Sky has a whole book about him, while Phineas has but this pitiful prologue, so without further injustice, let’s return to Phineas and enter, as it were, a more action-packed sequence."

As you can see, I had a very different concept of Phineas initially, but the seeds were there. I took this quirky old man from a pitiful prologue and I made him wise and human. In each revision (and there were many) I formed him and reformed him until he became who he is now.

Joe Lunievicz said...

This is great stuff - to see how it changed from one version to the next - really interesting. PHineas has this air of Solomon Kane to him from Robert E. Howard that I think is wonderful, dark, and dangerous. And the monocle is perfect. I can't say more about him because I don't want to give things away but you know what I mean. Thanks for the peek at where he came from.

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