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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.


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