When writers are writing—our early manuscripts at least—I think we have this voice in our head that says, “People are going to go mad over this book! Agents and editors will fight to get it! And it’s going to be a best-seller and inspire nightmares and create world peace!” Then you write a query and send it out, and the rejections roll in. And by you, I mean me, of course. It makes me scratch my head. Lots of people who read my book really like it, and I’m not talking only friends and family. But what agents say is: “Wren has a great voice, but… ” “If you rewrite to make it not a monster story, we’d love to take another look.” “This is really good but the genre’s not selling.” “Send me your next work please.”
And for real, I love this MS. It’s trumps like sliced cinnamon bread, you know? But I also kind of want to put it on a ship, set it on fire and shove it far, far away. So I don’t have to deal with the fact that these 63,000 words I crafted are likely not going to find a home outside my hard drive. People aren’t going to get to read Wren and struggle with her and figure out her world. And I feel bad for them—and bad for me.
And it’s worse because when you (I) start getting out in the writing community and reading what other people have, I see how parts of my story don’t stand out. I see how if you turn it to a 145-degree angle, wrench it in half and scrub off the skin, people can get vampire redux—even though I NEVER conceived of that as I created. (And even though there’s no blood or traditional vampire anything.) I thought I had something unique, but maybe what I really have is a mythology that’s shades of different but not really different enough. That’s hard to recognize and ridiculously difficult to own up to.
So what I want to talk about today is concept. Specifically the kind of concept that goes in the hook of a query. And not just the hook that’s a catchy intro to your book, but a hook that tells agents why your book isn’t what they’ve seen before. Concept, the kind with a capital C.Why concept is important
My query has gone through several iterations. The first version I thought was good enough to send out started like this: “Seventeen-year-old foster kid Wren Buttles has to decide if it’s better to live as a fiend or die as a human.”
So okay, interesting enough on its own, but how many queries are sent out every year that say the same thing? Not exactly the same thing, mind you, but essentially pose the same dilemma. If you spend time on websites like Agent Query Connect, where aspiring authors post their queries for feedback, you start to see themes. For an even starker look at how many books people are pitching in your (my) genre take a spin through a #pitmad contest on Twitter. (They’re generally held quarterly.)
Participating in that real pitch madness was an eye-opening experience. If I was feeling motivated, I’d comb through the last go-round and count up the percentage of YA paranormal. (But it’s not one of those kinds of days.) Suffice to say, the majority. YA of all kinds, the VAST majority. The pitches that stand out are not the best YA paranormal. No matter how well executed, it’s hard to poke your head up above the flood.
By the time I did #pitmad, I had already gotten enough rejections to know my query needed a new angle. The new hook I went with: “Lots of leading ladies swoon for an alpha male who’s dangerous and sexy, especially when he covets her and he’s more than human. But in my YA novel LITTLE BIRD, BROKEN MONSTER, the girl doesn’t fall in love back.” That’s Concept, and I got multiple requests from agents to see the full manuscript.
And then I got rejections of those fulls—many very nicely stated. There’s just no getting around the fact that this book—no matter how many interesting elements or Wren and her cool voice or the sympathetic evil monster girl or the plot twists and nuanced side characters or the unique story structure, ahem, shutting up now—this book is still a YA paranormal in a saturated market. And for an agent who’s looking to sign the very best thing she sees this year, my book is not going to be it. Because even though I can say it has “Concept”—I might be able to come up with more than one Concept because it’s a multi-layered story—it’s still a classic teenage horror story built around monsters.
On one hand, people say there are no new story ideas. On the other, I say that’s bullshit. People come up with new stuff all the time, especially in YA, and you know it as well as I do because you know their names. J.K. Rowling. Suzanne Collins. Veronica Roth. Holly Black. Stephen King’s done it a bunch of times. You (I) don’t have to be them, but I do have to aim for something more with my next story. Something that makes that hook practically irresistible. Because sometimes it’s not enough to write a good character with honest emotions and an interesting story arc.How to find a unique concept
It takes work, and it’s very likely not your first idea.First,
do research to see what’s out there.
• Surf query-feedback websites to learn what people are writing. Agent Query Connect isn’t the only one, but as it’s awesome and the people are typically respectful, smart and fun, I’ve never looked beyond it.
• Pitch contests on Twitter show you what people with completed manuscripts wrote about. The contests include PitMad and QueryKombat.
• Check out Publisher’s Weekly, which lists books that editors have purchased for future release. It also reviews upcoming or new releases. I plan to subscribe as soon as I can spare $50.
• Look at best-seller and new-releases lists to see what’s happening in your genre—but know, if those books are from traditional publishing houses, those are the manuscripts that sold about two years ago. (That $50 for PW isn’t sounding so bad now, huh?)
But keep in mind that you’re not looking to get inspired by other people’s ideas via this research. This is so you know what not to write, especially which tropes to avoid. As you become more and more familiar with this, you’ll start to be able to pick out the stories that have promise, and the ones that will catch an agent’s eye. Think of it as studying a slush pile.Second
, brainstorm—a lot. What ideas move you? What kinds of characters fascinate you? The breadth of potential plots mean you can fall in love with a character idea and still find a way to apply that to something you didn’t see in step No. 1. For example, capital punishment is an issue I feel strongly about. So if that’s the large idea I’m considering, my next question is how do I funnel that broad concept down to a single story idea that:
a.) means something
b.) makes me excited to write it
c.) has a plot that hasn’t been in a book or movie already
d.) changes the main character’s life.
Maybe I answer all these questions and find this isn’t the topic for me, in which case I start over. This will take time. It should take time. I’ll be honest, many of the books I've written were the result of an idea lightning-bolting me at some random time. Sometimes I went home and started writing right then, spending months working this single idea that came to me in one second and finishing with something that wouldn't stand out. You can see the imbalance. If you’re going to dedicate your precious time and brain power to a whole book, make sure the concept is worth all that effort. Maybe you get lucky and your lightning-struck concept rocks. I’ve heard that Suzanne Collins was watching TV, switching between a history-of-war show and a reality-TV kid pageant show or something when she got the idea for The Hunger Games. That’s awesome. That’s also not how things work for me.Third,
I say write some sample queries. For you pantsters, this doesn’t mean you have to decide the entire plot before you begin. What it will do is help you try out different angles to see what’s striking and attention catching, and what starts to sound like some of those other queries you read in step No. 1.But it all boils down to love
I had a lot of fun writing my novel, and I’m ridiculously proud of it, even if it never sells. (I still think book-buyers would gobble it up, and maybe I’ll try to sell it again when the publishing world has circled back to the genre.) But I know I can be just as proud and just as intensely satisfied by my next novel. That's what writing is to me. I write because I need to create characters and craft stories, and each novel I invent has to be something that fires my imagination and excitement. I don't want to create and slave over a story I'm not in love with, and I wouldn't write one solely because I thought it would sell. But I'll tell you what, it's a whole lot nicer when you finish something that you think rocks and everyone else thinks it does, too.
Each of the manuscripts I’ve written has been a huge step up from the previous one, and I'm sure that's true for you as well. So I know my next (and your next) will be even better than Little Bird, Broken Monster (insert the title of your last work here). But you can bet my new one has a “Concept” no one's read before. Now I just have to get it done before someone else thinks of it…www.selene-bell.com