Wednesday, August 1, 2012

NOVEL SKOOL: Finding a Premise . . . or, If you can’t pitch it you can’t sell it.

Writers are always being encouraged to “write what you love,” or “write what you’re passionate about.” Following a close second is the admonitory, “Don’t write for the market.”
This sage advice is regularly doled out by Agents and Editors at writing conferences and in breathless articles featured in the kind of glossy writing magazines with Cosmo-style teasers on their covers such as, “Earn $150,000 a year Writing Greeting Card Verse.”
            When I hear this “good advice” repeated ad nauseum, my eyes glaze over like Krispy-Crèmes. “The write your passion” advice is given by industry professionals who are well-meaning but who have nothing invested in the three years (on average) it takes a writer to complete a novel. The reality is that you must have a novel that’s marketable, and so it needs to have some kind of commercial “hook.” I sincerely believe that great writing alone is not enough to sell a book in today’s tough market. As proof of this I offer up all the many mega-blockbuster novels of recent times that have a great commercial hook, but feature the prose style of a twelve year-old scribbling in crayon.
My point is that this “good advice” is a relic from the Golden Age of Publishing that grows increasingly irrelevant in the of modern world of trend-driven publishing.
So for the rest of us, a more pragmatic approach is necessary. I’m not advocating that you bang out a zombie novel simply because zombie novels are currently hot (and a little gangrenous), but you always have to keep in mind the commercial appeal of your work, and that has never been easy to guess at.  
The history of publishing is replete with tragic stories of writers whose books went onto success only after the despairing novelist killed him/herself following years of rejection. The flip side of that analogy is the example of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book rejected by every major publisher before being picked up by a small press. As the near-legendary story goes (cue the inspiring music), it then went on to become a best seller with zillions of copies sold worldwide. (I’m still waiting for the movie version and hoping that Stephen Colbert is cast as the motorcycle.)
            Time is a writer’s most precious resource and must be spent with much forethought. I believe that it’s no accident that many best-selling books reflect (and sometimes anticipate) the latest trends in popular culture.
For years, the publishing industry has been quick to hop on the latest trend du jour and ride that hobbyhorse until it dies under them. Publishers then look around for a bright, shiny, new hobbyhorse, and it’s off to the races again. When I graduated from college with a Master’s Degree in English (yes, what was I thinking?) I worked a full-time job (with overtime) and taught two English classes at a community college, scrimping and saving so I could one day quit my day job(s) to write the novel I had always wanted to write.
The novel was finished and after years of fruitless querying, eventually piqued the interest of an agent I met at a conference. She loved my writing style and loved the book but said, “I don’t how I’d begin to sell this.” Today, that novel would be described as a paranormal thriller. Unfortunately, this was twenty years before The X Files. No one knew what a “paranormal thriller” was. At that time Stephen King was—uh, well, king—and horror was huge.
            And then Robert Clancy crashed a giant submarine through everything with his scrupulously researched Techno-Thrillers, torpedoing the Horror renaissance.  
The Next Big Trend had arrived and publishers rummaged the slush piles for anything high-tech: high tech stealth planes, high tech satellites, high tech warships, high tech underpants—you name it. The trickle of high tech clones thickened to a glut and the trend eventually choked on itself (as all trends do) leaving Clancy (the genre’s indisputable master), still crouched at the Techno-thriller control panel while most of the Clancy wannabes flamed-out and burned up on re-entry. (Bar tender, mix me another metaphor.)
            Over the years, the Publishing Industry has come to closely mirror the Hollywood Screenplay mill. Today’s wannabe Novelist must draft a pitch letter which, much like the High Concept logline of Hollywood Movies, distills the essence of an entire novel down to one or two sentences, an idea most famously parodied in Robert Altman’s movie, The Player: “It’s like Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.”
If you ever do get a chance to attend a writer’s conference and pitch to an agent (which I highly recommend), you will instantly realize the necessity of a penning a book premise that can be recited by heart in under a minute.
And it helps if it’s a zinger.
I remember pitching my 500-page suspense novel at my first writer’s conference. Most agents understand that we introvert writers are nervous and do their best to put us at ease. However, I was pitching to a Big Hollywood Mover & Shaker who was trolling for books that would make good movies. He was a short, bald man who did not flicker a smile when he shook my hand. Introductions over, he lounged back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest, and skewered me with a paint-peeling stare. “Okay,” he grunted. “Pitch me whatcha got.”
So I started reading from my pitch, which was a full page long. Now and then he’d interrupt with brusque, cutting questions that had me backpedalling to stammer out an explanation. I’m articulate and pretty good at thinking on my feet, but I remember hearing—from somewhere a hundred miles away—the idiot in charge of my mouth blathering on with increasingly lame explanations about what happened at the end of the first act and why the ending made sense.
Sadly for me, Mr. Hollywood knew story craft inside and out, and his questions were like scalpel cuts severing tendons until the meat puppet of my novel collapsed to the floor. At that moment I realized that my novel was a tangled yarn ball of ideas five-hundred pages long. I didn’t have one premise. I had four or five premises struggling to operate in one story. Amazingly, when my ramble stuttered to a halt, Mr. Hollywood chewed his lower lip for a silent moment, pondering, and grunted, “Send it to me.”
Convinced of my storytelling genius, I did . . . and of course, it was rejected.
Like all rejections, it was crushing, but the sane part of me realized I’d just been taught a valuable lesson: begin a novel only after you’ve nailed down a one to three sentence premise.
From that experience I realized the importance of crafting a premise that focuses the story like a laser beam. I also understood other sage pieces of advice I have since encountered, my favorite of which is: “Simple stories, complex characters.”
If you’ve ever read a novel or watched a movie that you finally gave up because you had no idea where the story was going on, or no longer cared about the characters and their problems, chances are it broke that rule.
Thank you, Mister Hollywood. Lesson burned . . . I mean, learned.
Of necessity, movies are structurally simpler than most novels, and perhaps trying to reduce a novel premise to one sentence is a bit reductive. But a premise of one, two, or three sentences should be sufficient.
            So here is my checklist for five essential elements contained in the premise of your novel:
1. A great idea that is uniquely familiar
2. An idea that promises conflict
3. An idea that clearly fits an established genre
4. An idea with mass appeal
5. An idea with a sympathetic main character(s)
            Yes, I have broken one or all of these rules in some of the novels I have written . . . and have the bruises to show for it. Nowadays, I not only begin with a premise, I write the pitch letter first—draft after draft—until I’ve crafted a premise and pitch letter that is totally irresistible. Only then, once I know what my novel is about, do I start plotting.
            More next time on the Premise, the Pitch, and The Plot.

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