Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What is a High Concept Pitch and How Do You Write One?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

What is high concept?
In Hollywood (for the movies) and in New York (for publishing houses), concept is king. If you can come up with a high concept idea, you increase your chances of success.

What is a high concept? It's an idea that appeals to the masses. It's that book or movie that you hear about and think, "Yes! I want to watch that!" or "Why didn't I think of that?"

Here are some examples:
What if a boy found out he was a demigod?---The Lightning Thief
Fairy tale characters trapped in our world---Once Upon a Time
Revenge through literature---The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet
A lawyer who cannot tell a lie---Liar Liar
What if Peter Pan grew up?---Hook
Horror film in the ocean---Jaws
Dinosaur theme park---Jurassic Park
Fight to the death on national television---The Hunger Games
Love story between two terminal teens---The Fault in Our Stars
The story of those left behind after the rapture happens---Left Behind
A blonde goes to Harvard Law School---Legally Blonde
He’s having the day of his life, over and over again---Groundhog's Day
What if a girl and a vampire fell in love?---Twilight

One thing to keep in mind: once a high concept hits big, it's over. So if you're trying to pitch a vampire/human love story or a fight to the death dystopian novel right now, you won't get very far. Look for a twist that makes it original again. Or look for an entirely new idea. People always say, "There are no new ideas!" Yet brilliant books and movies continue to be made every year. So never give up. You could find the next big thing.

Why Try for a High Concept Idea?
1. It can open a lot of doors. As a new writer… and even as a multi-published writer… having a high concept increases the chances of publication. Anything that appeals to the masses and is easy for an agent or editor to communicate, can open a lot of doors.

2. It helps you find what the story is really about, which will help you stay on track as you write.

3. It helps you communicate your idea. Every new author has those times where they can’t explain their story in a sentence or two. But if the idea sounds so complicated that the listener can't understand, you will probably get rejected. When I first pitched The New Recruit at a conference in 2008, I had memorized my back cover copy. I met an agent and rambled out the paragraph, messed up twice, and she kindly asked me to start over. I don't recommend this strategy! Later at dinner, I sat beside another agent. I didn’t ask to pitch. (I was still recovering from the first attempt!) Finally, she asked me what my story was about. And I said: “It’s for teens. It’s kind of a Christian Agent Cody Banks.” She instantly perked up. Why? Because I locked onto the hint of high concept and made my story premise easy for her to categorize. I said nothing more about the book, and she asked for my first three chapters.

4. It makes marketing easier. Once your story is published, people will still communicate your story, and a high concept makes that simple. Word of mouth is the number one way books sell, so you want to make it easy for readers to tell others about your book.

"Great!" you say. "How do I write a high concept?"
Start with these three tips. A High Concept . . .
1. Is universal. A high concept must resonate with everyone. Either we know what the experience feels like, or it's an experience we've all thought about or could relate to.

2. Is unique or has a fresh twist on a familiar idea. Find something that hasn’t been done before. A good concept should be both unique and universal. If the idea is unique, but no one can relate to it, then it is not a high concept idea. It the idea is universal, but we have seen it again and again and again, it is not a high concept idea.

3. Involves a hero we can relate to who is dealing with a big problem. When you're thinking about the hero and his big problem, consider upping the stakes and adding a time limit. What will happen if your hero fails? Blake Snyder says these stakes must be primal. That means survival, love, life or death, protecting loved ones. The higher the stakes, the better. And if you can add a time limit, a ticking time bomb of sorts, that makes everything more intense.

4. Can be summed up in a few words that give a good picture of the entire story. Make your high concept as short and simple as possible. The goal is to to hook the listener so that he will say, “I’d read that” without any more explanation.

5. Has a great title.

Ways to Come Up with Ideas
-Ask “What if…?” Asking the simple “what if” question can lead to a high concept idea.
What if your plane crashed on a deserted island and you were the only one left alive? (Cast Away).
What if a volcano erupted in the middle of Los Angeles? (Volcano)
What if there was a farm that grew people? (Replication)

-Opposites Attract. Take two character types who would normally never be together and put them together. You could do this with actors, like putting Benedict Cumberbatch in a movie with China Anne McClain. Try it with two character archetypes who don’t usually work together, like a bully and a teacher. Or meld two into one like a coward and a thief. You can do this with authors, books, or movies, as well. Or mix and match them. For example: Romeo and Juliet as written by Douglas Adams, The Doctor goes to Narnia, or Redeeming Love on a mission field. Or take the opposite of a stereotype like in Liar Liar: a lawyer who cannot tell a lie. Or in Hook: Peter Pan has finally grown up.

-Meld the Familiar with the Strange
Take a well-known concept and pair it with something weird. Think Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Cowboys & Aliens. High concept movies are simply taking an original idea and putting a twist on it. And as I've said before, Stephen King comes up with ideas by combining two unrelated things. Murder and mayhem + prom=Carrie. A criminal mastermind + fairies=Artemis Fowl. Another way to do this is to add a high concept phrase to your idea or familiar story type. This is the whole Die Hard on a … plane! (Passenger 57) method, which is another way of melding the familiar with the strange. Take a story that the audience understands and tell it in a new way. Ex: The Hunt For Red October … in space! Gone with the Wind … with an alien. Saving Private Ryan … with wizards.

Which leads to… weirdness.

Are These Ideas Too Weird?
Yep. And that’s the point. You are brainstorming. Turn off that critical voice and write down whatever comes to you. The weirder, the better.

Test Your Idea
1. Is your idea universal? Have you found something that all people can relate to?
2. Does your idea have a unique twist? Have you taken something familiar and added something strange?
3. Is your protagonist likeable or relatable? Can we identify with him? Learn from him? Follow him? Root for him?
4. Are the stakes big enough? Are they primal?
5. Can you summarize your concept in a few short words?
6. Does your title capture the spirit of your story?

Do you have a high concept idea? Care to share it in the comments? If you don't have one, don’t give up. Keep brainstorming until something clicks and you think “I’d read that!”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

There Are No Shortcuts To Any Place Worth Going

by Stephanie Morrill

I don't like waiting, and I'm guessing you don't either. Who does, really?

But as you likely know by now, you can't be a writer without waiting. And that's why I love this quote:

There are no shortcuts

"There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." - Beverly Sills, opera singer

You probably don't have to think very hard to come up with an example of this. I think of McKenna and Connor, of the nine months they spent growing inside me. Of the unreal pain I experienced bringing them into this world.

So. Worth. It.

I think of long hikes I've taken to gorgeous places. A long car ride when my kids were three and one so my kids could experience the ocean.

Becoming a published writerheck, just writing a first draft!is a long journey on which you can be tempted to take shortcuts. But once you get there, it's so worth it.

Write on, my friends!

Monday, August 18, 2014

10 Things I Did In My Teens That Helped Me Get Published

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

At age 24literally as I was changing my six-month-old daughter's diaperI got The Call from my agent. It was a multi-book deal with a well-respected publisher. After the diaper change, I headed out to meet my husband and brother-in-law for lunch, but I could barely eat a bite. I just kept thinking, "I'm a published author! It's happening!"

And I know that the reason The Call came in my early twenties rather than my thirties or forties is because of choices I made in my teen years. Here are ten things I did in my teens that made a difference in my writing journey:

1. I wrote. A lot.

Maybe you think this is a no-brainer, but I'm not so sure it is. Because I meet a decent amount of writers who love to talk about writing, read about writing, and plan time for writing ... but who fail to, you know, actually write. 

I wrote a lot in high school. Most of the reading I did was for school, and I regret not branching out more, but I wrote regularly. Often when I shouldn't have been. Like during geometry class. (Though I can't remember the last time I used geometry in my real life, so maybe my B in that class was just fine.)

2. I pushed myself to write a complete book.

The first full book that I wrote was my junior year of high school. With the exception of some short stories I had written in middle school, it was the first book that I'd ever tried to end. It's a horrendous book, but I learned a lot.

3. I never said "if I get published."

I should have doubted. As a girl who lived in Kansas, knew no other writers, and who had never really achieved anything in writing (aside from the occasional "A" on an five-paragraph essay), I really should have doubted that I would get published.

But I didn't. I sometimes feared it would take a long time or that I might not get published in high school, but in my head it was always "when I get published." And I think that kept me inching toward my goal.

4. I went to a writers conference.

My mom was the one who found out about a writing conference happening in Kansas City. (This was in a time long ago before loads of blogs. I don't think Google was a verb yet.) The conference was hosted by a community college here in town, and it was mostly local-ish people with a few agents flown in from New York. I took the day off school, asked my dad to come with me, and didn't even do my normal lurking thing. I asked questions during classes. I shared when instructors asked for volunteers. I approached an editor after class to ask a submissions question.

Did anything lasting come out of that conference? While I didn't form any crucial relationships, I did walk away feeling like this literary world wasn't so impenetrable as it seemed at first glance.

5. I took every English elective my school had.

I went to a small high school, which meant limited class options. But during my junior and senior years when my schedule opened up, I took all the English electives I couldShakespeare, Lit into Film, Creative Writing, and possibly one more that I've spaced. Any class that has you studying stories is a good thing.

6. I listened to people who knew more than me.

I really want to pull out a soap box and get my preach on, but I'm going to limit myself to one very long sentence: I cannot tell you how many times budding writers ask me questions about how to become an author or how to get an agent ... and then completely ignore what I say or just bemoan that it sounds really hard and they're probably better off self-publishing. (Side note: I'm not knocking self-publishing. I've self-published books, and I think it's wise move for many writers. I do, however, disagree with doing it out of fear.)

When I went to my writing conference, I listened and took extensive notes. I studied Bird by Bird in English class and read Stephen King's On Writing multiple times. When an author was at my high school for career day, I kinda sorta took over the Q&A time.

And it's never been easier than it is now to be in touch with published authors, agents, and editors. Stalk industry people on Twitter. Read blogs and comment. Learn from those who know more than you. And don't be ashamed that you're just starting out. That's where we all began.

7. I focused on the next step.

I really wanted to be a bestselling author. (I still would like that, actually.) But a person doesn't go from writing a book to being a bestselling author in a snap. What's the next step for you? Is it writing a full book? Is it editing a full book? Is it saving up money for a conference? Whatever your next step is, focus on it, not the others.

8. I learned from the (many) mistakes that I made.

And, oh boy, did I make mistakes. Like sending my complete manuscript instead of a query letter. Like writing query letters when I couldn't have even told you my genre. Like assuming that I was the only person writing young adult fiction. (I wish I were joking. Again, barely existed at this point in time...) 

You will make mistakes. Sometimes someone will tell you kindly. Sometimes someone will tell you not-kindly. Learn from them and they won't be wasted experiences.

9. I learned how to write for an audience.

Shortly after high school, I took up fan fiction. This is seriously one of the best things I ever did for myself as a writer, so don't let anyone tell you it's a waste of your time. I wrote Gilmore Girls fan fiction, and I learned so much about how to end scenes and how to wait until I had done my best before I clicked publish. I even learned how to deal with someone who accused me of stealing her idea. (Really. On a fan fiction site.) I don't write fan fiction any more, but it was excellent training.

10. I discovered the value of shutting my door.

Once upon a time, I used to share every chapter I wrote with my friends. Whether they wanted to read them or not, honestly. And when a friend deeply hurt my feelings with a thoughtless comment, I instantly stopped.

I stopped because I was afraid and hurt. It hurt to receive criticism. I showed people chapters because I wanted them to tell me how brilliant I was, not because I wanted honest feedback.

I kept my door shut for years. And you know what happened? My writing voice flourished. I learned how to write without need for instant gratification or without the voices of others in my head.

Number 10 may seem to contradict the value I expressed in number 9, but I think an important skill for a new writer is learning when to keep their writing door closed and when to open it up.

One other reason I was published fairly early is that I really wanted it and went after it. Not like when I wanted a horse or wanted to live in New York City. Those were passing interests, not passions. When I wanted to write for television, all it took was hitting the first big obstaclemove to Los Angeles—to make my dream fizzle. But that didn't happen with novels. I really wanted it, and I kept after it.

You're probably already doing a number of things on this list. Way to go! Which ones?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Writer's Block Advice from Stephen Bly

Stephen Bly (1944-2011) wrote over one hundred books. But before he became a writer, he wore many hats (including his cowboy one). Some of his roles were farmer, city councilman, pastor, mayor, antique collector, author, speaker, writing mentor, husband, and father. Writing wise, he was known for his westerns. 

I (Jill) had the privileged of hearing Stephen Bly speak at a writer's conference in Oregon years ago. During his keynote address, he gave ten tips for writers who are stuck. I wrote them down because they were equally brilliant and hysterical. 

According to Mr. Bly, when he asked himself, “What am I gonna do now?” he considered this list of ten things:

1. Shoot somebody. This will catch the reader by total surprise.
2. Introduce an obnoxious new character who will really tick off your protagonist.
3. Go to the quirk, to the flaw, of your main character. Ex: Bad temper, someone asks about the scar on his face, his trick knee gives out, etc.
4. Lose something important. Adrenaline flows when you lose something.
5. Embarrass your protagonist.
6. Have the protagonist kiss the wrong girl. This annoys the reader.
7. Put the protagonist in a hopeless situation. Ex: A bomb. A deadly diagnosis.
8. Have a crucial side character disappear.
9. Start a rumor about your main character.
10. Go to the attic. Uncover something mysterious. A locked box. A letter from Matt Damon. A gun that’s the property of the LAPD. 

How do you deal with writer's block?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Joss Whedon: Why He Writes

Many people say to write what you know. And that's good advice. But part of the wonder and joy of writing is to ask questions, to come to know different types of people, to understand different ways of thinking, and to explore humanity and see what you find. So in that, I can't write simply what I know, because, really, I know nothing. I'm a caveman (woman). And there is much to discover as I battle that blank page.

Why do you write?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Creating Compelling Characters: Using Dialect

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

When writing characters and seeking to make each one a unique individual, take into account how each one speaks. This doesn't have to be something that is drastically different for every character. But it can be interesting to have one or two characters in your story that speak in a different dialect from everyone else. This could be a specific dialect for a place on earth, or a dialect you invent for your own mythical storyworld.

(Note: The following is pulled from a chapter on speech from my book Storyworld First, coming very soon.)

Dialect is the way a person speaks that is distinguished by his culture, social group, or the region in which he lives. His speech pattern is different from other varieties of the same language by vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

Authors change the way certain characters talk to set them apart from other characters. This is very important in historical genres, whether they be straight historical fiction or speculative varieties like historical fantasy or alternate history. Here are four examples of historical or regional dialect done well:

“. . . Don't let me hear no more of you, or you shall feel some more of me. D’ye hear?”
“I warn’t doing no harm,” Young Jerry protested, rubbing his cheek.
“Drop it then,” said Mr. Cruncher; “I won’t have none of your no harms. Get a top of that there seat, and look at the crowd.”
—From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, a novel drawn from historical events of the revolutionary period in France. Jerry Cruncher speaks with a common dialect, full of slang and satire.

“This is not to be borne! Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?”
“Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”
“It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in.”
“If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it.”
—From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Most of Austen’s main characters are English gentry during Regency England.

“I'm — er — not supposed ter do magic, strictly speakin’. I was allowed ter do a bit ter follow yeh an’ get yer letters to yeh an’ stuff — one o’ the reasons I was so keen ter take on the job.”
“Why aren't you supposed to do magic?” asked Harry.
“Oh, well — I was at Hogwarts meself but I — er — got expelled, ter tell yeh the truth. In me third year. They snapped me wand in half an’ everything.”
—From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling. Hagrid’s accent is a contemporary West-country English accent.

“Now, you vill come to verk for me here for eight months und zen you vill buy vone off my camelts, und I vill teach you to train zem and you vill get two vild vones und dat vill be dat. I haf just de animal for you. He hass only vone eye but, ha, dat does not matter—he is stronk and reliable enough for you, ya.”
—From Tracks by Robyn Davidson. The speaker, Kurt Posel, is a contemporary German Australian.

If you need to write a certain dialect, study it by reading works from that time period or by listening to people speak on YouTube or in movies and transcribing their words. 

If you are merely seeking to tweak a person's language, you might play with spelling, word choice, or syntax to create different dialects. Here are some that I’ve done or seen done in fiction:

•Stuttering by breaking up words with hyphens, and dragging out or repeating letters like Ts, Ps, Ss, or whichever letter(s) you choose to have your character stumble over. For example: P-pleassse p-passs the s-ssalt.
•Avoiding contractions to give a more formal tone to dialogue.
•Replacing the G from –ing endings with an apostrophe.
•Lisps shown by replacing all the Ss with a TH.
•The use of bad grammar like ain’t, gonna, and wanna.
•Word choice. I’m from Alaska, and we Alaskans refer to snow mobiles as “snow machines.” I’ve been mocked repeatedly for this. I also still refer to hair bands as “rubber bands” or “hair ties,” while teens call them “ponytails.” Word choice also differs between generations.
•Pronunciation. I always say the word elementary as “elemen-tair-ee,” whereas my husband says, “elemen-tree.”
•Foreign words. I have a Latina friend who, whenever she says a Spanish word, says that word in a thick accent. And she also uses some foreign words over the English ones, like when she refers to her brother as mi hermano.
•The syntax or word order when writing foreigners speaking English. Yoda also speaks with a rearranged word order.

When I worked on the Russian characters for my novel The New Recruit, I listened to many Russians speaking English, and I took notes, sometimes even transcribing their words so that I could see the word order they used. Here is an example of a Russian speaking English from The New Recruit:

“These three apartment are for you stay.” He motioned to the door behind him, then the ones on either side. “Boys will be taking first room, girls will be taking last. Between is kitchen, TV, and room for Stopplecamp family. When you are settled, come to kitchen. My wife is preparing dinner.”

The risk in writing dialects into your character’s voice is that some are so difficult to read that one must read them again and again to gain understanding. And that pulls readers out of the story.

We don’t want to do that to our readers. Fiction is about immersing them in our world. When we do that well, we get emails from readers who accuse us of keeping them up all night. And we want that. We want lots of it.

So take care and don’t overdo this. A little goes a long way. Don’t give a unique dialect to every character, but make sure that every word you allow your character to speak matches his or her voice. And also make sure you’re consistent with each character’s dialogue, because inconsistencies can also pull readers from your story.

Have you used dialect before? If so, what methods did you use to find the right words or syntax?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Emotional Jeopardy in Stories

by Stephanie Morrill

Today's dose of Tuesday inspiration is longer than normal, but I just couldn't resist. It comes from Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, a book that talks a lot about why people read and what makes a book powerful. He says:

"When we read, we buy into a shared dream, a shared fiction, and by doing so we put ourselves in emotional jeopardy. If the emotional jeopardy is too small, we get bored. If the emotional jeopardy is too great, we'll close the book. If the author abuses our trust ... we will no longer trust the author and we'll shun his fiction."
When he talks about "abusing trust" he means when authors do things like write an ending that's too ambiguous or if the story doesn't end in a way that rewards us.

As a reader, I've experienced the truth of this. I've read books that bore me because I just don't care enough. I've closed books because the content is completely different than was advertised. And I've sworn off authors because an ending irritatedor even angeredrather than satisfied.

I don't want us to engage in book bashing in the comments, but have you had a similar experience with books? How do you think you're doing on your own manuscript?