Agent Questions Volume Twenty-Seven: How do I get started on a bestseller? (Twitter Series #7)

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You don’t want to write any old book. You want to pour yourself into writing a bestseller. So, where do you start? You can have the best writing and balance between dialogue and narrative, but without a killer concept, your story has no bones. It’s a slug. It’s (gasp!) boring. Your concept can make or break your novel. It needs to be as unique as you can make it, while still exciting you enough to push through and write the whole story, even when you feel tapped out.

The thing I want to stress here is: have a kick-butt concept. It is the foundation of your story. It is where your plot and characters are generated. With a great concept, your story will have a better chance of being published. It will come across in your query letter and will excite your potential agent. If you look online, there are formulas for coming up with lucrative plots.

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Is it hard to think of a unique concept?

For some authors, it’s like trying to sell lemonade in the middle of the desert. Dry, dry, dry. But other authors seem to be coming up with more ideas than they can use. Some websites even have lists of story ideas, if you google “story ideas” you should find some suggestions. You can look up some prompts and run with one. Or try to add a twist to an old favorite. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story-ideas/

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*You will need a protagonist, and your protagonist needs to have a problem and/or an antagonist. There needs to be a decision inside the character to make a change, or take a journey, or to fight. And the stakes, which is what will happen if your hero fails at their mission, even though they probably won’t, need to be high.*

For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss takes her sister’s place in a lottery that dooms her to kill or be killed. She decides not to let the contest take away her choices or her inner strength. President Snow is the antagonist and the one who runs the Hunger Games. If Katniss fails in the task he’s given her after the games, he will kill her family. That is a loose interpretation of the whole story, but I want you to see the concept.

Where did the idea come from? Suzanne Collins had been channel surfing. On one channel she saw people competing to win on a reality show and on another channel, she saw coverage on the invasion of Iraq. These two ideas couldn’t seem further apart from each other, but it worked to make a bestselling story.

In Harry Potter, Harry is an adopted boy from two powerful wizards (character), who is sent off to wizarding school (place), but he has a hidden enemy (antagonist). Harry must dig to solve the mystery of who wants him dead (problem), but if he fails, he might unleash a great evil on the world (the stakes).

Do you see how that works? Still stumped? Read on.

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Try one of the following to generate your concept:

Give side-kicks new life: Maybe take a side character from one of your favorite books and make them an adventure of their own. Or think of two movies that you might be able to combine for a dramatic effect. What about The Princess Bride in space? Or put vampires in High School Musical. Oh wait, that’s almost Twilight. Can you tell I write for young adults?

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Make lists: Allow yourself to brainstorm a list of things that excite you. Subjects that you find fascinating, conversations you overheard at Starbucks, your hobbies, minor characters that you love, bits of news, or interesting destinations all go on the list. Then take your lists of ideas, chunks of story, characters, places and problems, and strip them down to a concept. How you get from A to B to C in the story is up to you. Throw a bus at your characters, drag them through the mud. It makes for higher stakes and a better story.

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Jobs: Think of the job that you do every day. What could happen? What would you never expect to happen in a million years?  What if you had a different profession? What if you were a doctor and a patient came in with a stab wound but was to afraid to tell you what happened? Who stabbed them? Why? Are they important? Is it a mob hit? What did the patient do to get stabbed? Use an every-day situation to explore options for adding excitement and intrigue.

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People watching: Make up stories about the people you pass on the street. That woman with the bright hair and eclectic headband, may be an eccentric aunt who is secretly a mermaid and lives in a small town on the East coast? She is being hunted by both her underwater enemies as well as the government. If she doesn’t get to the mortality stone at the bottom of the ocean, her descendants won’t have the ability to change their form. It’s not terribly exciting, but I’m making this up as I go. Maybe it’s a mysterious old man with a magic pocket watch?

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Try making a story map: Take something that interests you, a location, character sketch, or some dialogue and put it in the middle of the page. Branching out, write every topic you can think of. It doesn’t have to match, you just have to jot down the thought. When you write the next idea, branch out from there. Fill your page with ideas that can be made relatable in a story, then choose who your protagonist is, their problem, the antagonist, and the stakes.

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Ask yourself, “what if…” What if all humans were living real lives in our brains, but were in reality being used as food for machines?  =THE MATRIX. Or what if the world made one last colony to save humanity and divided them into factions so they’d never have rebellion again? =DIVERGENT What if a prima ballerina found out she had terminal cancer and moved into a facility where her roommate existed to make her miserable? =SILENCE LIKE GLASS What if during World War II, a man purchased a mail-order bride to help run his farm, but she turned out to be a German? =SWEET LAND You can ask “what if,” and put any random ideas together. Think BIG…

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Your idea could come in a dream: My first book came to me in one scene in a dream I had. When I opened my eyes, I saw credits scroll. I thought, “This is a book!” So, I wrote out the entire scene and any of the backstory that I “understood” from that scene. It took me thirteen straight hours. I had the names of my main characters and a big scene that was easy to write from and develop a plot from that seed. I couldn’t write fast enough as the ideas came to me.

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It’s YOUR story now: You can start with the ending, the beginning, or the middle. It doesn’t matter. It is said, there are no new ideas under the sun. So, take the bones of another story and apply your own spin to it. Your story will be unique in the details, in the way you write it. No two authors are going to write the exact same story, even if given the same premise.

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Hot topics: Strong female characters, own voices (books about minority populations and subjects, written by marginalized people), and LGBTQIA+ are all themes that are currently sought after by agents and publishers. Go take a peek at what publishers are looking for on their websites, as well as agents’ wishlists (www.manuscriptwishlist.com), to get ideas of what popular subjects are being asked for. Subscribe to www.publishersmarketplace.com to see what subjects are getting published. Take one of these ideas and run with it. Maybe take two or three ideas from agents or publishers and try mixing them together.

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Once you have your characters, plan, time, and location, decide the order of events. It’s okay if you don’t know it yet. Write out each scene description on individual note cards. Sometimes as simple as: The girl crashes her car. And other cards may have a few lines of dialogue or detail a whole event. You can shuffle them around and add or subtract cards. You can buy them from an office supply store with a hole punched in the corner and a ring that holds them together. When you’ve got the story ordered the way you want it, flip to the first card and write that scene. Then flip to the next card and write that scene… etc. etc.

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This does involve panning, but it allows your creative brain to easily design each scene. Using this technique, three of my books were written in two and a half weeks each. When you know what’s coming, you can get excited about your story and feel relaxed not having to decide what to write next and if that will work, and it allows you to plant foreshadowing hints. Conversely, if you want to change things, you can; but if you spent the time on your story arc beforehand, your changes will be mostly minor to the plot.

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Write your best plot/concept. It is said that 90% of a book is formed during the editing process, but the bones will stay the same. Configure your novel with a complete story arc, no plot holes, no spelling/grammar issues. Have it read by beta readers, and if you are planning to publish traditionally, make sure to highlight that awesome concept in your query letter.

Do you have more ideas for getting a great concept? How do you find your ideas? Comment below.

Keep writing,

~Jenn

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P.S.  So, you’ve got your concept and written your book. Now what? If you are aiming for traditional publishing and you’d like to have personal help with your query, you can purchase a Query Revamp for $25. *You must have a book written.* I will look at it from an agent’s perspective and be completely honest with you. See www.frontpagelit.com for more information, or simply email your current query letter to: consulting.haskin@gmail.com. I take payment through Paypal at: www.paypal.me/JenniferHaskin. I will correspond with you through email as many times as it takes for us to be happy with your query, and ready to send to potential agents. Good luck!

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