What a Concept

If you had to blurb your novel in progress, what would you say?

Go ahead, I’m all ears.

Not the plot, we don’t have time for that. Not the theme–nobody needs to know that except you. We’re talking about the concept, the premise. They say that we should be able to state our concept in a few sentences. For really high-concept stories, a phrase. (Dinosaurs reanimated from DNA preserved in amber.)

If you are struggling with this, I don’t blame you. Your novel is complicated and rich. How can you sum it up in even a longish sentence?

Thing is, you really need to.

The concept is the basis upon which a publisher will buy your novel. It will also be their hook for selling it. Your premise will appear in some form on the cover art and on the jacket copy. (Look at Prince of Storms. What is this book about? (If you haven’t read it, send me your guess.) My next post will expound on this cover. (Lucky you.)

Go Power

The concept tells you if you have a story with energy, with go-power.

Therefore the concept question goes beyond  marketing issues to something even more profound: What do you want to spend the next few months of your life writing? Will it be a story with the power to light up your characters, your theme, your pages? If not, you’re stuck with slogging through each page trying to force meaning and drama into it. And each page will be differently powered.

Because you don’t have a premise.

Working Your Premise

It’s best to work on premise early in your novel planning. You might start with character, that’s OK. Or like me, with setting–always critical in science fiction. But don’t delay too long before you search for a dramatic concept.

And hey, it’s not unusual to have a weak premise at first. Great concepts don’t come all at once, gift-wrapped. Successful writers work at them. They develop them with the care you show in making the perfect pie crust or planning your dream vacation.

If your concept way back when was dinosaurs from amber, at that point you were done with premise. But if your premise is not high-concept, I suggest taking premise a little further. Make sure it is emotionally gripping. The concept should be a frame within which you can develop meaningful action. These actions will have consequences with which we can empathize.

The Stories You Love

Think of your favorite novels in the world. Tell yourself the premise of each one. Did you love The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick? Shogun, by James Clavell? In a sentence, what are the concepts of your favorite all-time novels?

This is not only great practice, it teaches us something crucial:

Lasting stories have gripping premises. They can be told in a sentence.

9 Responses

  1. JRVogt says:

    A society of permanent insomniacs form a border patrol between the waking and dreaming realms.

  2. JRVogt says:

    Oh, and excellent post, as always.

  3. Kay says:

    That is indeed an interesting premise. If you are writing to it, how excellent. It really pricks my curiosity! Well done.

  4. Thanks for this marvelous post, Kay. I just got back from Orycon, where I was a panelist and had back-to-back panels on synopses/queries/pitches, so it was particularly helpful.

    Although we tend to think of pitches in shorthand references (“Jane Austen With Vampires,” “The Napoleonic Wars With Dragons”), not all editors appreciate this approach. I love your example because it =doesn’t= compare itself to other works.

    Mary Robinette Kowal, who was on the “Pitch It To Me” panel along with me and Sharyn November, pointed out that if you ever get a chance to pitch your project face-to-face, it’s important to know when to wrap it up. She calls it “the dismount.” Assuming you have your pitch line polished (and rehearsed), that gleam of interest in your editor’s eye may incite you to babble on too long. An editor’s (or agent’s) time is precious. Saying, “Thank you for your time; I know you have other people to meet,” conveys both professionalism and that you are an easy person to work with — always a good impression!

  5. Kay says:

    Thanks Deborah! I have to say, though, that “Jane Austen with vampires” is not a concept. It’s a hook, a handle, but it remains just an idea. I like Larry Brooks’s idea of stating a concept as “What if…” setting up the conflict and premise at once.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I have a few questions about stating the concept of my novel. The story spans the entire life (from birth to resurrection. We are talking centuries here) of my Protagonist. I know what the entire story is about but, putting it in a simple statement seems to elude me.

  7. Kay says:

    Maybe do an internet search for books that share your religious theme and see how published authors have framed their concepts. That way you not only get ideas of how to simplify your statement but can see if you are offering something fresh enough.

  8. Stephanie says:

    I’m sorry, I think the word “resurrection” is the wrong word to use. It’s not about religion per se, more like “the power of belief”, but not in the traditional religious sense. And, I have yet to find any books that spans centuries of one persons (o.k. this character is mythical but was not considered mythical in his/her time) life told from beginning to end. You can say that this is an “origins” story leading up to finally finding peace.

    BTW, I’ve mentioned it before and I have to mention it again because of recent research…..Your site has helped me lots and I just can’t give enough kudos to you :). My blog was paintinganovel.blogspot.com but I shut it down because it was starting to become distracting. If I was blogging on subjects that were helpful, such as yours, I would have kept it going.

  9. Kay says:

    Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated.
    As for your premise,I would step back from this. Start with what your idea is. The general idea for the Type of book you are writing. Then start an internet search for that type of book. I’m not sure from how you describe it, but if I had to guess, I would say “books on spirituality” is one way of narrowing your search. Then spend some hours looking at what has been published in this vein. Know your genre. If you have a fresh framing device, such as following a person thru the centuries, don’t get fixated on that. Just look at what else is out there, and how they describe their books in a few sentences. Spend the time. This is critical.

    It is very unlikely that you have come up with an idea that hasn’t been done before (altho your Premise may be unique.) And this is a good thing, because a publisher wants a type of book they’ve seen before so they can Shelve it at B&N appropriately and have a cover that signals to likely readers what the flavor of the book is.

    Good luck !

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