A Saleable Premise

Over the summer, while completing revisions on two WIPs (one YA, one MG) I took a quick step back to read a book focusing on story craft entitled ‘The Magic Words, Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults’ by Cheryl B. Klein (a book, by the way, that I highly recommend). Most of the advice is just as relevant to adult and genre fiction and I thought I’d share some of her initial advice/comments around constructing a ‘saleable premise’ for your book.

A ‘saleable premise’ is basically a one sentence description of your book that defines the protagonist as well as the overarching action and conflict. Although constructing a saleable premise seems on its face to be fairly easy or obvious, it can be more challenging than it first appears. Embedded within this description is not only the basis of the story but also a promise to the reader that the book will live up to the expectations the premise demands.

Cheryl Klein notes that a premise can be ‘unsaleable’ if it is too dense, quiet or nebulous, or if the concept has been overdone, or the publisher can’t envision it reaching an audience. Some of the ways a premise could appeal is if the book puts a new spin on already successful material, fills a hole in the market, or when it plays to a publishing house’s particular strengths. Of course, the best way to sell your work is to make it great and compelling – but this assumes you can get someone to read it, which is why that initial description can be so important. A strong story concept is critical. It’s how readers decide to purchase your book over another one. It’s also how agents and editors decide to take the time to read your story amongst the hundreds of manuscripts they receive each week.

A ‘saleable premise’ is what you would articulate in a query letter or elevator speech to an intended agent or editor. It is also a way of getting a publisher’s attention and yet, I wonder how many writers necessarily think of a ‘saleable premise’ when they begin a writing project (?). In her book, Cheryl Klein identifies three exercises which I thought were useful for any writer when thinking about their WIP in terms of ‘saleable premise’. I’ve added some of my own thoughts when it comes to these exercises as well.

  1. Write down the promises of the novel. I think detailing the emotions promised to a reader can help a writer focus on reader expectations – what emotions do you want the reader to experience while reading the novel? Does the concept for the story reflect that?
  2. Write the premise of the novel in one sentence. I find summarizing any WIP in one sentence a challenge, but it does help focus my mind on what exactly the core/essence of my WIP is really about. As Cheryl Klein points out, you might be able to create several premises for your novel, each highlighting a different aspect or storyline in the book, but the exercise of creating each of these premises can help a writer focus on the most compelling/freshest and (dare I say it) most ‘saleable’ aspect of the book.
  3. Identify three comparison titles for the book. This is an exercise most writers undertake when composing a query letter or pitch to an agent or editor, but it’s also a useful process when composing a ‘saleable premise’ as it helps describe and position your novel in the marketplace and also point out how to frame your concept/story in contrast to other comparable books.

So TKZers, do you consider or compose a ‘saleable premise’ for your books? If so, at what stage of the writing process do you do this – before the first draft or only when it is ready to be submitted or published? Or is a ‘saleable premise’ something you don’t even worry about?

 

 

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From Idea to Novel

Starting a new project is always nerve wracking – there’s the empty page for starters but then there’s also making sure that the idea is sufficient to form the foundation for a complete novel. Generating ideas has never been my problem – a number pop into my head each day and some are sufficiently intriguing that I jot them down in my ‘ideas book’ to see if they will gradually begin to take shape in my mind to form the foundation for a story. Many ideas fall by the wayside at this point – because while they interest me, they never really coalesce into a premise that can sustain a novel. Even after that, I’m consumed with doubts…although I’ve really only had one story die after I’d finished the first draft because I realized the premise was too convoluted and confused (the idea, though still holds promise!).

I’m about to embark on a new WIP and I’m at the doubt-filled stage of wrestling with a new idea. Since I have other projects in various stages of the submission process, it’s definitely time to knuckle down to a new manuscript but in this early stage of the creative process I have to grapple with how to formulate an idea into (hopefully!) a great story.

My process (such that it is) usually goes something like this:

  • Light-bulb moment – new idea starts to whip round in the brain and, of course, I think it’s awesome.
  • Write down idea in vague terms – lots of questions and possibilities…
  • Start research (almost always involving some historical period/event)
  • First doubts – which way to proceed? More questions than answers? Do I have enough for a novel??
  • Begin to outline a proposal to help shape the idea into a real concept and (ultimately, I hope) the premise for a novel. This is usually when the second round of doubts start to hit… Sometimes I end up with multiple proposals revolving around the same initial idea as I fumble around trying to decide if this project really is ready to get off the ground.
  • More research = more procrastination and sometimes panic that whole idea really sucks…
  • Send outline to beta readers for feedback – see if it’s intriguing and clear enough (my issue is always one of complicating rather than simplifying a story!)
  • After feedback – sometimes involving a choice between proposals – I send to my agent for her initial read/buy in. This is where I have to formulate the log-line/blurb so I can succinctly describe it to her and others.
  • Once I have agent buy-in I start on an outline and the first chapters to establish the POV/Voice for the book (I spend a long time on the first chapters feeling my way into the book as well as drafting an outline of where I’m headed with the plot/characters)
  • More research (I like to hide between the pages of history books!) = procrastination
  • Finally begin draft!

So TKZers how do you go from idea to first draft? Do you spend time, like me, formulating the premise and making sure your idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Or do you just set off writing from the get go with the confidence that it will all come together and work out in the end? What’s your process?

 

 

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5 Key Steps to Develop a Story from Scratch

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Purchased from Shutterstock by Jordan Dane

Purchased from Shutterstock by Jordan Dane

 

A story has been niggling my brain for the past week. It tickles, in a good way. It started out as a vague melange of unconnected notions (like walking down a dark tunnel) until I started to define a premise and narrow the focus as if I had a light to guide me. Through online research of headline type tragedies, I searched for something with punch that would push me into the almost uncomfortable zone. I developed a loose character profile, playing with gender for the main character, but I needed more.

Over the last two days, I’ve refined my ideas about the story and “fleshed it out” in a way that excites me the most. I can’t share my book idea yet, but I’ve made notes of my process to share here at TKZ. Here are my steps going forward.

1.) Imagine basic ‘what ifs” about a potential character (a storyteller) and a problem–an unfathomable tragedy, an emotionally charged story concept, or a compelling situation–to create a list of “what if” scenarios. One story idea can have many “what ifs.” In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, another “what if” could center on Hannibal or Crawford who risks his career and reputation on an FBI trainee. Brainstorm a list before you narrow it down to the one you want to develop as the foundation starting point to your story.

2.) Next, whose story will it be? Let’s talk character. Who has the most to lose? Pick the best character(s) to tell the story. Then decide how you want to “punish” them to test their worthiness for a starring role in your book.

3.) What is the external conflict between the main players (villain or adversary included)? But a good story is not only about the obvious conflict. Flawed characters have double the challenges. How will their internal crutches (their inherent weaknesses) keep them from getting what they want & add to the stress of the conflict? Make the story a personal and intimate journey.

4.) What’s at stake & how will the stakes escalate and play out? Maximize the emotional impact by ramping up the conflict between two main players at odds with each other. Yes, they could be on the same side, but pit them against each other to make things progressively worse and see how they’ll make it through.

5.) Now draft your “pitch” or a premise. You have your basic story ideas – your cast of characters, the conflict, the escalating stakes and a general sense of how things will play out, so you’re ready to draft a “pitch” or develop a premise that best fits your story. Something that would make an agent, editor, or reader say, “Wow, I have to read that.”

Here’s a basic premise example for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS:

A young female FBI trainee must barter her intimate secrets with an infamous psychopath held in solitary confinement to gain his help in catching a serial killer who’s killing women for their skins.

Notice there’s a well-defined protagonist, a formidable antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a notion of how the action will play out. The protagonist is up against forces that seem much bigger than she is. The stakes are high. If she fails, more women die. A premise works best when it’s about a vulnerable character with a formidable problem that would seem compelling to the reader.

A good premise should:

  • Be concise
  • Be evocative
  • Be framed from a “what if” question
  • Be written in present tense with an easily understood sentence structure that makes the story seem familiar yet with a hook or difference to stand out from other books.
  • It should contain a character, a conflict, and a hook.
  • It should have universal appeal
  • Be limited in word count (maybe up to 35 words or less, or 2-3 concise sentences)
  • The core story should be centered on an idea that jumps out at anyone.

A word of caution:
Do not overload the story with too many focal points or subplots that take away or distract from the main character(s) plight. Keep a laser focus. If the premise is compelling enough, the story won’t need embellishment.

From this point forward: Now that I’ve developed a more focused idea for a new book, I will draft a general plot using a method that’s worked for me and one that I’ve blogged about before at TKZ: The Author’s Bucket List on Plotting Structure. Using the shape of a “W” to remind me, I’ll create the inciting incident, the point of no return, turning points, the black moment, and the twisty wrap up in 7 points that will get me started. A high level outline. Since I’m an impatient writer, I usually start to write the beginning to play with what will work best. If I’m writing on proposal, I will draft a 5-7 page synopsis to go along with the writing sample to a publisher. I like having a fuller synopsis, than merely my 7 point “W’ outline, to develop the story line in a way that guides me as I write. I can incorporate character motivation and ramp up the conflict in such a synopsis so I don’t forget any necessary plot points. At this point, I am on my way and writing in the zone.

Here is a visual idea of the “W” plotting I use: It a visual summary of my blog post.

SAWG YA Presentation - 3-Act Screenplay Structure Diagram 091612

 

DISCUSSION EXERCISE: Write a brief yet effective premise for any of these 5 well- known movies:
1.) Silence of the Lambs (Can you do one from Hannibal’s perspective?}
2.) Jaws
3.) It’s a Wonderful Life
4.) Hunger Games
5.) Wizard of Oz

tmp_4087-TheLastVictim_highres-1601584079The Last Victim coming Oct 30, 2015 in print and ebook. Available for ebook preorder through Amazon Kindle at a discounted price.

Enter Goodreads GIVEAWAY at this LINK. Win one of 15 signed print copies See rules and enter.

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