Know Thyself- or at least thy concept

This is probably all a bit ironic, in that Alanis Morissette, situational irony kind of way.

One of the things I harped on with myself when deciding what kind of a writing project I wanted to commit to was getting into something different. Something that wasn’t what it seemed like everyone else was doing. In my head there’s this voice that sounds a lot like Iago, the parrot from Aladdin. It says, “If I have to choke down one on one more of those moldy, disgusting crackers vampires, I’m gonna…”

So that’s when I decided to embrace my superhero thing, my Buffy leads the X-Men in Smallvillian high school drama thing. It was something that I had wanted for some time, but was afraid to tackle, both because the series thing seems so big to me, and because it was something that I just wasn’t seeing out there in books. Maybe no one wanted it.

It is, apparently, not nearly as different as I think it is, because the most consistent feedback I got from NY on the series, as most of you know by now, was that the concept was too familiar.

So let’s just sit with that for a moment, without any judgement about the publishing industry, because that doesn’t help us. For those reading this who are indie, rejoice, because we can have concepts that are maybe not the most original ever, and still get readers for them. For those who are planning to pursue traditional publication, realize how very original your concept needs to be.

Now, what is the deal with this pitch having to be soooo original? The answer has to do with marketing. We often hear that NY turns down books, even books editors want, because the marketing department doesn’t know what to do with them. And then we wail and moan and gnash our teeth.

But what I’m thinking lately is, you know what? As an indie, it would certainly behoove me to think a bit more about marketing on the front end. Because if marketing is all up to me, why on EARTH would I want to make my job harder?

I need to be able to answer the question, “What makes this book different?” Anyone who’s got a book out there and who’s done a few interviews knows that those bloggers ask the darndest things. And they’re things we should know.

I know so many writers who flip out over synopses, blurbs, pitches, who don’t believe they can boil down their 100k words of awesome into anything less than 7 pages. What? Then I may as well read the book! Tell me what it’s about in three sentences, 100 words, 500 characters.

What I believe, without judgement because I know it’s hard, is that if you can’t boil it down to the barest essentials, then you might not have a very tight book.

But this whole idea of boiling it down is kind of backward. You may get to run on pure inspiration and take 5 years to write the first novel, but once you’re doing this professionally, that’s probably not going to work anymore.

If you start with an idea that’s kind of played, but what you do with it, around it, is what makes it different, great. But if you can’t express that succinctly, how are you going to get other people to understand why it’s uniquely awesome and something they should read (m-a-r-k-e-t-i-n-g)?

That’s probably my big issue with the Talent Chronicles right now. I’ve got industry people telling me it’s not original enough, and readers telling me it’s like nothing else they’ve read. And I’ve got no idea what to pull from the latter group’s responses to use in my marketing, to say –>This is why!!<–

A novel takes a damned long time, and freakin’ lot of work to make happen. Once it does happen, it would be swell if someone else would read it. What I’m coming around to these days is that we’ll have an easier time with the marketing if we start there, with a very clear idea what the story is about and what makes it different–right from page 1.

That’s why NY keeps demanding high-concept pitches. Because books written to a high-concept idea have that answer to “What makes this different?” automatically. No boiling it down to figure out if you managed to hit uniqueness at some point in the writing. You know because you did it on purpose.

Now, here was my bit of fail: “High concept” basically has to do with genre expectations. So I’m putting two things together that don’t normally go– superheroes + relationships that work out. Within the superhero genre, if such a thing exists, such might qualify as high concept because it is not a genre norm. BUT, turns out, I’m not in the superhero genre! I marketed myself at YA paranormal romance. And guess what: Relationships that work out? Not so unusual there. And people with supernatural abilities? Um…not so unusual there.

So, what is your genre? What is it about your story that is super-original within your genre? What are you writing into your novel, that you’ll easily be able to tell the masses to make them snatch that sucker up and read it?

And, by the way, if you happen to be able to articulate why everyone should read my series, feel free to leave a quotable in the comments. 🙂

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Know Thyself- or at least thy concept

  1. I jumped on the vampire bandwagon originally because I knew that’s what was selling right then, and since I’ve always liked vampires (since Dark Shadows), I thought it would be fun. My biggest paranormal love is ghosts, but they were harder to sell. However, right now, my favorite ghost story I’ve written is outselling everything else. It’s hard to find a happy medium between being true to yourself and writing something that will sell. It seems if you write something that’s popular, then the readers will pick up something else you’ve written and it may be that other story that you love. Then it starts selling. And, you know, those weren’t really exactly answers to the questions you asked, were they? Just my rambling.

    In answer to your question, why would people want to read your series? That’s tough to articulate because just saying “awesome” doesn’t really say why. The thing for me is that I can really get into the heads of the characters and I feel like I’m right there. But that doesn’t say why it’s different. I did immediately think of X-Men when I read your first book. But your characters are more, I don’t know….streetwise? With X-Men, there’s all this elaborate using of the powers. Your characters use their powers in more believable situations. I still can’t really say what I mean. Isn’t it funny how authors have a harder time expressing themselves in real life than in fiction?

    • LL- Thanks for that complete lack of help, LOL. Yeah, I’m not ragging on anyone who wants to write vampires. I’ve liked plenty of vampire fic, though strangely it’s not something I’ve ever wanted to write. But what I was getting at was that I went out of my way to say look, if you want to stand out you need to do something that’s different. And then I didn’t think about that difference in an effective way. Oops.

      I think it’s awesome that you manage to be so eclectic in the kinds of things you can write. You’re like Nora Roberts that way, fusing what you do to what interests you at the moment. My one-track, obsessive brain doesn’t really work that way.

      And yeah, people seems to like the WAY I write as much as what I write, but that’s not something strangers would take my word for, so I can’t market that way. I then have to rely on other people to spread the word about that. I’ll keep thinking about what you said about the believable situations thing and maybe something will spark. Thanks!

  2. I can tell you straight off that there’s a flip side to this. Being too original is just as bad as not being original enough. And then there’s getting the story into the right person’s hands. Some editors want original, some want what’s known and safe, and some seem to want their cake and eat it, too. I couldn’t get anywhere in New York with my boy book set against a stock car racing background. You’d think that would be original, fresh, and have huge market potential, considering the popularity of NASCAR, but I kept hitting brick walls, in spite of winning awards with excerpts of the book. Now, as an indie, I’m having some trouble piggybacking off the success of other indies because my book isn’t like the stuff out there, so I can’t exchange chapters with other authors. Your audience, interested in paranormal romance, is not going to transfer over to a contemporary realistic boy book that would be popular with fans of Chris Crutcher.

    I think as an indie you’re in the best possible position having the type of book that you do. From what I’ve seen, YA paranormal romance is what’s selling. If you want to go traditional, it’s all a toss-up. You can’t bank on what editors and agents say they want. I’ve heard that they’re looking for boy books, then a week later find out that Publisher X has already filled their “boy book slot” for the season. Yeah, one book per season. Go figure. You can’t trust the traditional industry to accurately tell you what they want because they don’t know and can’t agree, no matter what rumors might be circulating on the internet and at conferences. All this is just to say that the grass isn’t really greener over there. The only thing that makes sense to me is to write the stuff you want to write. Writing is hard work, and trends are too hard to predict (especially two years in advance) so you might as well do what you enjoy.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Lisa. And I’m not suggesting that we entirely write to a market we don’t even really understand and can’t predict. I’m more saying that I think I understand this part of what we get from NY: that they want that one line about why everyone’s going to want this book that they can run with. And if you can get that one line in your head when you start and make your story come out that way in the end, you’ll be that much farther ahead in the marketing department which ever path you choose (or whichever chooses you).

      Why NY doesn’t see an explosion of superheroes as the next big thing I don’t know. Why one publisher says my mutantly supernatural kids are too close to their series ____ that actually deals with witchcraft supernatural and they can’t take on another one even though those supernatural kids are selling…I don’t know. Why every time you turn around people are wringing their hands over whether boys have things to read that interest them and then they don’t jump for a book on freakin’ NASCAR I’m SURE I don’t know. Maybe they need to spend a week down here and understand the important of NASCAR to the rest of the country?

  3. You might have an untapped resource in the comic book world.

    There’s a feature at the end of Image comics where they ask comic biz dudes a lunch time poll question and this month’s was “What would you like to see in comics you’re not seeing now?” Two answers were romance and at least one other was along the lines of something fresh, so clearly there’s a hole your series could fill.

    Superheroes getting happy endings is what you do and that’s great for romance fans. I think you just need put yourself in front of more fans of genre type stuff, especially TV, because it all has romance too. Between all the TV and comics I consume, there isn’t a mainstream version of what you’ve got. The closest is Alphas, but not really.

    Many popular shows and books are getting the comic treatment. TV examples include Warehouse 13, Charmed and Supernatural. In books, there’s Mercy Sparks, Anita Blake and recently P.C. Cast.

    In the past few years I’ve noticed an increased push for paranormal TV and books to get into comics. (And it’s totally due to the success of Buffy season eight. Even if it’s not, I’m giving Joss the trophy) Fans of those TV and books seek out the comics, so why can’t you work in reverse and draw fans of comics to your books?

    • Warehouse 13 has a comic? Really?

      Kim Harrison has a hard cover graphic novel out, featuring Rachel and Ivy, called Bloodwork. It’s pretty cool.

    • I would, of course, love to see TC as a comic series. If I were also an artist, that’s a project I probably would have started myself already. But…I’m not. It seems likely that everyone wants as much guarantee as they can get, that they want to capitalize on a brand, on an established franchise, so once I turned away from getting a big publisher to back the series, I probably gave up my best shot at getting someone interested making a comic. But it’s the kind of thing I’d even look into collaborating with an artist on and going indie with.

      Meanwhile. finding those fans of the comics and TV shows is on my to-do list, I’m just not sure where to go, what to do, and it means a lot of work and hanging out outside of my comfort zone. And once I do, how to get those who aren’t really readers to be willing to take a chance and spend 5-8 hours of whatever it is with a novel?

      But this is what must be done to make the breakout numbers.

    • It\’s much eaeisr to understand when you put it that way!

  4. Hi there! New to this whole blog thing… I’ve been working at it a bit and I think I am getting it. (Aha! Finally)

    So, Pitching eh? Time to break out the curve heh…
    As writers we are our own worst enemies. Its like our child, all that creation blood-sweat-tears (literally) If we do want that child to grow we have to have the confidence, No matter what. No backing down, No second guessing, No hesitation. Stand not in front, But behind It.
    And don’t sell out. I know you’re hurting, The money you are recieving and I can tell you now for what I’ve paid, cannot be very much indeed.
    I would target elder teens and early twenties in this more than teens, yep lost my knocker been trying for while to get that one out to the public for this very reason. We need a new age breech….. HEWwo anyone second me?? there is a big, no HUGE mental age gap in 18 and 25 and it needs its own book shelf you hears meh’?

    Okay now that I have rambled. As a reader (and yes I fall into that upper category so please, (sigh) hear my heart ache it would save trips back and forth from romance to youth,,, jeeze.)
    As a loving reader of the talent chronicles,(hope there’s a 3rd) (pls) I believe what is so compelling about your novels, is its real, in a way so many new paranormal novels are not. It reaches out to those who know love and heartache, just as we know the horrible things in the past that always shadow us in every thing we do. It is characterbuilding in both aspects in what you have created and what we as people are always trying to do. You have done what many others have not. That includes the drawn out money philanderers who make this industry so hard to compet in. You’ve said it. And now I will say it. the now 100$ plus drawn out (again) series “pc. cast house of the night” “vampires!” growl so not believable. and truly deprived. If you ask me. And we wonder why we have so many Marco’s on our hands.

    well 5 year old on a rampage here…. Bike time!. I believe you should hang in there. Don’t back down, and about the comfort zone, It just proves you’re a special, and even if you have to jump into a character its okay. Like they say, Some days you just got to pretend..
    And if you do go Cinema, Please don’t let them twist your book tooo far around.. Okay…. toodles.
    car

  5. ayaime7carlie, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think you’re spot-on about the gap there’s been in the market and that it’s into that gap that I need to focus my work. While I love young adult and that time in the character’s lives, I’m not comfortable with the range of reader ages that fall into the category because I want to write about life stuff and sometimes that’s messy, violent, sexy, and requires some potty mouth. These days I’m really wanting to work toward growing the characters up a bit and moving into “new adult” and that 18+ age you’re talking about.

    Thanks for all the compliments. It’s always good to hear what someone thinks I’m doing right.

  6. Amy

    Awesome post – I am in that hell myself now. While I have an agent that seems interested in my novel Angeli, I’m sure any day now she’s going to pass because even I can’t figure out where the book fits. My world is populated with what amounts to Guardian Angels (but they are not the religious sort – so X-out religious fiction), they are strong, immortal, can fly and live among us – but some go bad and drain people of energy (kind of vampire… but no.) So some PEOPLE are recruited as immortal “helpers” who rid the world of renegade angels, including my heroine, the pirate Anne Bonny, still alive and well in 2011. There is romantic intrigue – some sex, not enough to be trash-lit. Characters too adult to be YA. It’s like an adventure, but not SO mysterious it is a mystery. Fantasy, but so real world it isn’t really Scifi/Fantasy. Funny, but not so relentlessly that it is humor… It’s a fun romp – but how the hell do I market it? And why didn’t I think of this sooner??
    I am SO working on a classic mystery novel right now…
    I think your books sound just like the stuff I would have DEVOURED as a kid. I collected X-men comics for years, so I guess I would… I hope I’m not too old to buy a copy… 🙂

    • Never too old for my stuff, Amy. Sometimes my characters talk a little valley girl because, let’s face it, Imma be 40 this year. I write for me, the 80s girl, write the kind of thing I would have loved to read as I was entering high school, and just hope it’s still relate-able today.

      In a world where Angels go dark, where that presence at your shoulder isn’t there to guard, but to feed on a piece of your soul, it’s up to the Helpers, humans graced with power and immortality, to hunt the renegades through the ages. Join none other than Anne Bonny, ruthless pirate and swashbuckling heroine, on a fantastic journey to save the innocent from those who were meant to protect them. (397 characters)

      Or some shit like that. I don’t know, I think it sounds pretty exciting. There are definitely unique elements: the notion of Angels as vampiric creatures, a famous historical figure granted immortality…those things are bold, pique interest.

      • Amy

        Thank you so much for the feedback, just found it! (I sometimes don’t subscribe to comments because I end up getting EVERYONE’s answers and future postings on some blogs, which can get nutty.) Love your paragraph synopsis for me… Made me want to read it and I am SICK OF IT. 🙂

  7. Amber T

    As a reader, I think the fact that Joss is such a badass makes the book very original. How many teenaged badass girls are there in ya paranormal romance? I can’t think of many…or any really. I also think the balance between the action, mystery, and romance is unique. The romance is important and awesome, but there is major story and action along with it that stands on its own. To me, the book is a great story about super heroes coming into their own and then there happens to be a really great romance intertwined within (Bonus!). There are many other things I love about the series and the way it’s written, but those are the things that I pass along to friends when I describe your books. I just watched your book trailer and I think the pics and music you chose get at the action and mystery in the books as well as hint at the badass heroine. I also think the Joss/Dylan relationship is unique in this genre because they are actually written to be equals within their relationship —both in their awesomeness and dysfunction. 🙂

  8. I was thrilled when I found Hush Money, and I waited impatiently for Heroes ‘Til Curfew (and guess what I’m doing now after the Impulse Control teaser…) because there are simply not novels out there about ‘talent’ like this. The language is witty and current, the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional and it is completely believeable that this could be happening right now.

    I agree this can be targetted to the YA market with ease, but it is so much more than the typical YA stuff out there. It is intriguing and engaging and accessible for an older age range. I would definitely be looking at the 20-30 year old age group, who would eat this up!

    You could definitely go after the comic oriented market and that is worth a try. But the genre I love which you appealed to was urban fantasy. These are fabulous, slightly grungy and current stories with the possibilities of a world that houses the fantastic. Keep it coming!

    ‘In a world where talent is something to hide and the government is rounding up anyone with abilities, you quickly learn to keep your head down. But when your secret life is threatened you suddenly find there are more important things in life than staying invisible…

    This is a witty and engaging tale where the heroes are tough, talented and still finding their way.’ (My attempt at a quotable for you!)

    • Emily, awesome quotable, thank you! Actually, I’m so excited about everything you said because I love when what other people see in what I did is what I see. “Slightly grungy.” Yes! Where I come from is at least slightly grungy and a lot of that place went into Fairview. When I was messing around with the book trailer this week I was getting frustrated in my search for music and images until I realized that I was looking for the wrong thing. I like the theatrical feel of some trailers, the epic, dramatic music. But I realized that wasn’t right for my kids and I started adding words like “heavy metal” and “industrial” to my music search, converted my images to a bleak black and white, dug up some more bricks. (What is my obsession with brick? Is it some subconscious desire to be more urban fantastic?) That’s when it started to seem right.

      LOL, I have no idea why I just babbled all that. Maybe I’m not fully caffeinated. Anyway, I really enjoyed this comment. Thank you for helping me clarify my place in things.

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