I used to preach the One Sentence Idea as a mantra for writers. Much like the character Tim Robbins plays in Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER, I would tell writers they had to be able to say what their book was about in 25 words or less. Not only that, but it better be a sentence that sends a ‘shiver’ down the spine of the person who hears it.
Do I still believe that?
Yes and no. Argh, you’re already pounding your head on your desk as you read that answer. But get used to it. There are no hard and fast rules.
I think genre makes a difference. Thrillers, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, suspense: those type of books usually require a very strong plot. Literary writing and romance are much more focused on character. So I think the one sentence is more important for the former and not so much for the latter.
Regardless, it’s important to remember where you started. Every book starts with one idea—what I call the Original Idea. While it’s your original idea, every idea has been done in one form or another.
It’s critical to remember that first idea that sparked you to write an entire novel. I can remember the ‘moment of conception’ of every novel I’ve written an co-written. For AGNES AND THE HITMAN (August 2007) we started with: A book about a food critic and a hitman. Not exactly the most thrilling idea, but it’s romantic adventure and the key to it are the characters and the voice.
Which leads me to something that took me 15 years to learn: While you can have a great idea and pitch it, you still need great writing and, more importantly, great characters.
Your original idea can be anything: character; a situation; a setting; a premise; a theme; a ‘what if?’. When you write out your idea (and you MUST write it out because we’re writers and what’s in your head doesn’t count, only what you’ve written) you will see very quickly what kind of idea you have and the focus. Note the subjects of the sentences. The verb and what action it means. Is it a positive or negative verb? We spend the entire first day writing this single sentence at my writers’ retreat.
Character idea: A woman must save her sister and niece, both physically and emotionally: DON’T LOOK DOWN.
Situation: What if a federal agent investigating a murder finds out it’s connected to an illegal CIA undercover operation? CHASING THE GHOST
Setting: An international treaty bans weapons in Antarctica: What if the US put nuclear weapons there and lost track of them? THE CITADEL
A premise: Who polices the world of covert operations? BODYGUARD OF LIES; LOST GIRLS
What if: What if the people going into the Witness Protection Program really disappear? CUT OUT.
Your original idea is the foundation of your story, but it is not story. We’ll get to story later on when we discuss plot. You have a lot of story possibilities off every idea.
One question we constantly hear is: “What’s hot?” or the variation: “What’s selling?” And my reply is “Who cares?”
You’ve got to write the book you have to write, not a book you think will sell even if you don’t care about the idea and story. And it’s three years from idea to bookstore so what’s hot now won’t be what’s hot then.
Write YOUR book.
WHAT TO WRITE:
Mark Twain said, “Write what you know.” I would have four addendums to that: 1. I would rephrase it to: “Write what you know and feel something about.” 2. You will most likely write something in the same area you like to read in. 3. Understand that some of what you know and feel something about, other people might not be particularly interested in, especially if they know the same thing. Unless, of course, it is written in a superlative manner. 3. You can also write about what you want to know. I’ve written about myths and legends because they interest me and I’m willing to do the research to learn more. I believe that if I can find material that interests me, it will interest readers.
Usually your background will dictate what your story is about. That’s not to say that since you haven’t ever gone into space that you can’t write science fiction, but it does mean that you know something about the physics of space flight if that is going to be in your manuscript. I’ve been abducted by aliens six times, so when I wrote about the mothership in my AREA 51 series, I knew exactly what I was talking about.
That’s a joke, by the way.
And now some further words of caution. I’ve said you should write what you know and you should keep it as simple as possible, but be careful. A common problem with new writers is the misguided belief that their life story will be extremely interesting to the reading world– the fictional memoir. This is my third addition to Mark Twain’s saying. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing about yourself, but be realistic about the possibilities of someone else wanting to read it.
A critical question I often ask writers at conferences and workshops is: Why did you write this book? Writers tend to get lost among the trees once they enter the forest that is a novel. They forget why they started the journey in the first place. Something excited you at the very beginning, enough that you ended up sitting down and writing thousands upon thousands of words. What was it?
Another way to try to figure out what the core of your novel is this: What is the climactic scene? This is when the protagonist and antagonist meet to resolve the primary problem that is the crux of the novel. We’re going to beat the climactic scene to death when we discuss plot. But it the scene the entire book is driving toward.
Instead of the word theme, I like to use a term I’ve stolen from screenwriters and that is INTENT. It took me almost ten years of writing and fifteen manuscripts to realize the critical importance of having an intent to my stories, beyond the one I used to hold onto of simply being entertaining. And having that intent in my conscious mind. Someone in the screenwriting business once said you should be able to state your intent in three words. For example: Love conquers all. Honesty defeats greed. There are others who say you need to be able to state it in one word: Relationships. Honesty. Faith. Fathers.
Think about what you want readers to feel when they’ve finished you book. Filmmakers have to think about what they want the viewer to feel when they walk out of the theater. This is one reason there are so few negative endings in films. That’s not to say you can’t have a dark ending. It’s more to point out that you need to be aware of the effect of a dark ending.
The more negative the intent, the better you have to be as a writer to keep the reader involved. To take readers on a dark and relatively unhappy journey, you have to be very good to keep them in the boat.
This is a business based more on emotion than on logic. The more a reader feels about a book, the more he will get into it. Feeling comes out of the three aspects of a novel: 1. Idea. 2. Intent. 3. Characters. Most particularly the third factor. If you know and, more importantly, have a good “feel” for each of these three before you begin writing, you increase the quality of your work.