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Getting Published: The Genre-Concept Connection

by Larry Brooks on October 15, 2014

Somewhere deep within the genealogical family tree that illuminates the origins of the word genre, we find another word that confuses the whole issue: generic.

And that’s the problem. Your genre-based story can easily become generic – it simply becomes another face is a crowded sea of stories – rather than standing out.

This very thing, stated that way, explains a vast percentage of why stories within any given genre are rejected. They are simply good… when they need to be great. And greatness relies on a powerful concept driving the whole thing.

What will make it stand out is your concept.

Which is nothing other than the presence of something CONCEPTUAL about the story landscape and framework upon which — and within which – you define and execute your premise.

Example: “The Help,” the novel (and subsequent film) by Katherine Stockett. The premise (young woman tries to launch her journalism career by writing a book about the experiences of the domestic workers in her community) isn’t all that fresh and compelling until you place it within a conceptual framework: the whole thing goes down in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, where racial bias defines the cultural values of the era and place.

(Click HERE to learn more about the critical differences between concept and premise.)

Most workshops, even when they are genre-specific, show us what to do, how to do it, and why. Few show us what can go wrong.

And yet, it is precisely that – what goes wrong – that derails stories and keeps budding careers locked in a holding pen.

I have read over 600 story plans in the past three years, including some from published writers.

The verdict is in: something usually goes wrong.

There is a reason that perfectly good, solidly executed stories get rejected. That reason often has a lot to do with the lack of something conceptual being offered at the heart of the story.

This is even more true, more often, when the genre itself – romance and mystery in particular – seem to defy the application of what might be construed as “high concept.”

Using that reading experience as a database – meaning, I’ve discovered this for myself, rather than read about it elsewhere — I’ve come to some empowering conclusion.

I’m quite clear on what actually does go wrong.

It’s an equal opportunity story killer, and because it has to do with our creative sensibilities, rather than our technical skills, it’s tough to teach, tougher to learn, and always a moving target.

When was the last time you went to a writing workshop or conference and came away with the realization that your story idea (concept, premise, plot, exposition) just isn’t good enough. Nobody tells you that. They leave it up to you to decide what works and what doesn’t.  As if… anything can be made to work.

It can’t.  Not when it is void, at its very core, of something compelling.

And so, a throng of writers go away and write the hell out of a perfectly mediocre or lame story idea. Because nobody told them to look right there – at the concept and the premise that springs from it – for the broken parts.

Right there is where many stories go wrong.

Apropos to today’s title… more than half the time it has to do with the writer’s choice of concept. Or worse, the complete lack of one.

And/or, the concept or lack thereof doesn’t match up with the conceptual demands of the genre.

A thriller must have thrills.  Periods.  The tragic childhood of the hero you are asking to thwart a threat… that’s not thrilling.  If you put your eggs in that basket — if you try to write a “literary novel” within a genre that requires the presence of something conceptual, then you are in for a dark surprise down the road.

That hardly ever works.  Your best shot in this case may be complete mediocrity.

What does work:

Mediocrity arises from one of two arenas (yes, sometimes both… that’s an even darker picture; that said, when the first goes south, odds are the other is at risk, as well):

- The nature of the concept and premise itself;

- The technical, structural expositional skill with which that concept/premise is rendered.

You can write the hell out of a vanilla idea… and it is still vanilla.

What makes an idea triple chocolate thunder is the concept underlying your dramatic premise.

In other words, the empowering context of something conceptual.

Enlightenment awaits at the intersection of concept and genre.

This perspective dawned on me this past weekend as I conducted a workshop with a roomful of eager-to-learn, highly educated and skilled romance authors. I’ve discovered that romance writers are a unique lot… they actually understand more about “story” than a lot of other genre-specific authors, perhaps because there are so many sub-genres within the romance paradigm.

Here, in a nutshell, is what became crystal clear:

Concept, and the way it is applied and becomes empowering, is different from genre to genre.  Especially when it comes to romance.

Where other genres thrive on big loud conceptual elements, romance thrives on nuance and ambiance.

The optimal target and criteria for concept – the essence of it – is uniquely constrained for romance authors who are writing clean, traditional, classic two-people-meet-and-fall-in-love-after-jumping-through-hoops romance. The Debbie Macomber flavor of real-people-in-real-life-situations romance.

Soft fuzzy warm stories of love.

One of those writers nailed me on this.  While sub-genres or romance are indeed subject to a higher conceptual bar as much their non-romance counterparts – thriller, mystery, paranormal, historical, speculative, time travel, etc.  Those genres and romantic sub-genres do fall in line with the more-is-better essence of the highest/best form of concept…  and thus, the water muddies for the traditional romance writer.

Here, paraphrased, is what she said:

“What if I don’t want a superhero, or the world isn’t ending.  What if nobody in my novel reads minds and nobody gets killed and there are no cops and no one is investigating anything at all? That’s the romance I read, real people in real life, that’s the romance I write. So what about that? How do I make THAT more conceptual, which is what I hear you trying to sell us?”

A good point, that.

And yet, there is an answer. That real-life-real-people novel she’s writing… it’ll likely tank – disappear into the crowd – if there isn’t something conceptual, even in the most subtle way, something appropriate to her genre, at work behind the premise itself.

A love story… standing alone as a concept, that’s not highly conceptual.  It needs… something.

A love story between people who work in the The White House, or who are being audited by the IRS, or who bring different and conflicting religions to the deal, or who are actually cousins… where one party is dealing with amnesia or a disease (i.e., “The Fault in Our Stars”)… something… any love story will be fresher and more compelling when there is something conceptual about the story arena/landscape.

When asked what was conceptual in her story, there was no answer.  And thus, the opportunity is exposed.

You could frame the challenge this way: what about your romance novel is fresh and original, will make it stand out in a crowd, will get the attention of an agent… apart from your stellar writing voice and structural execution?

If you can’t answer that, then opportunity awaits in the conceptual realm.

Concept applies to all genres… just not equally so.

Here’s the truth that sets both ends of that spectrum free: your concept needs to align with and then optimize the conceptual demands of your chosen genre.

Different genres require different levels of, of forms of, something conceptual. The more genre-specific it is — thriller, suspense, paranormal, etc. — the more effective a higher concept will be.

Understanding this implies you know a lot about a lot of things. So lets look at some quick examples.

- In the mystery genre, you need to solve a crime that has something conceptual about it. Not just a generic murder, a generic detective, in a non-descript setting. A higher concept will make your story stand out and fuel a higher level of story physics across the entire narrative arc. Like, the victim was a hooker with a client list that includes powerful politicians. Like, the detective has been barred from the case because the victim was his ex-wife. Like, the murder happened in November of 1963 in Dallas, when everyone was looking elsewhere. Something that is conceptual.

Not just who killed your uncle?

- In the thriller genre, you need something conceptual that poses a threat that delivers the thrills. A massive, unprecedented tsunami. A pandemic disease. A terrorist with a new angle. An extortionist targeting her own wealthy family. Something that is conceptual.

Not just will the team win the game?

- In the suspense genre, including romantic suspense (which tends to mash mystery and thriller together within the tropes of romance) the suspense needs to be mysterious and thrilling. A lover with a secret life, or a game changing past.  A hitwoman falling for her mark.  A woman who bets everything on a man who isn’t what he seems. Something that is conceptual.

Not just will they end up together after all?

- In the paranormal genre… well, this one is obvious. Vampires, with a twist. Ghosts, with a twist. Mind readers and shape shifters, with a twist. Both are conceptual – the paranormal thing, and the twist you put on it. No twist, no real concept in play.  Something that is conceptual.

Not just a look at the childhood of a girl who can read minds.

Notice how all of these examples, when they work, are not about otherwise unremarkable people involved with unremarkable real life romantic aspirations. Which begs the question: what IS remarkable about your story, on a conceptual level?

These genres demand something fresh, edgy and compelling, a notion or proposition or arena/landscape that frames a story with whatever the genre itself demands: mystery, thrills, eroticism, adventure, a massively urgent problem, etc. None of it can be simply a take on real life… at least if you want it to rise above the crowd.

You could say that the genre itself defines the bar for its concept. Something thrilling, suspense, supernatural, historical, enticing… or romantic.

This is EXACTLY what the classic romance genre demands: a fresh take on real life romantic experience. Even without those higher concept tropes of the other genres.

If you want it to fly…

… you absolutely DO need something conceptual in the mix. In this case (general romance), give your characters a career that presents an arena within which the story might unfold (they work in the White House… they are in the funeral business… one is a sex therapist and the other a priest… something).

It doesn’t matter that your favorite romance author doesn’t seem to do this. That’s a trap, don’t fall for it. Branded bestselling authors play by a different set of rules… their name IS their concept. When you accept that, then you must see that they DO, in fact, have something conceptual in play. (This one, by the way, is true for any and all genres… don’t look to John Grisham or Nora Roberts Debbie Macomber or Nicolas Sparks to understand where the bar is; they’re great, but they could publish the New Orleans phone book and it would sell.)

In any genre, including classic romance, the compelling nature – something conceptual – of the story landscape and the narrative hooks and opportunities that come with it become the keys to elevating your story.

Do this, and chances are you won’t fall victim to one of the two ways your story will disappoint.  One of which is being conceptually flat, predictable and too familiar. Such stories — even when the author is famous — rely entirely on character and execution to work.  Which means, you are taking some of the most powerful tools in your bag of tricks off the table… namely, the presence of something conceptual.

The other realm of failure — execution — remains at risk, concept or no concept.  All genres require stellar execution to gain attention, that much doesn’t differ genre to genre. But if you’re writing romance, or other “mainstream contemporary” fiction that seems to defy quick genre categorization, don’t think for a moment that concept – the presence of something conceptual at the framework/story landscape level – won’t help you.

It might just save you.

Because the mission of concept is to infuse your premise with a compelling ambiance and energy, by presenting a dramatic framework that is anything but generic.

*****

Click HERE to see if your concept is indeed conceptual, or if it is simply another take on your premise.

 

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The Seductive Trap of the Historical Novel

by Larry Brooks on October 6, 2014

Or, how to kill off your historical novel before you write a word.

I’m working with two writers on their historical novels, and both — at this stage of their development — are hobbled by a classic (common) flaw in the design of the story.

That is: they have history in play, but they have no compelling CORE DRAMATIC STORY SPINE in play.

Both stories are “about” the history itself — setting, politics, social dynamics — rather than the requisite story arc of a hero with a problem/need, mounting a quest (mission) to solve that problem or meet that need, with something/someone opposing them, with something at stake, showing us the  hero DOING SOMETHING to resolve it all.

With this missing, what remains is, ironically, the very thing that draws the writer to this tapestry in the first place: historical and social and political ambiance.  A tour of the history.  A chronicle of a character’s experience within that history… but without it meaning much of anything.

Which isn’t enough.

Go to Amazon and read the editorial description of The Great Gatsby.

Notice how this focuses and raves about the lavish parties, the backstory, the social strata, the hubris of wealth, the utter greatness of it all… all of which is merely ambiance.

But when you read the book or watch the film, look more closely. 

There is a story framed by all that… a PLOT.  One with a hero and a villain and stakes (Daisy’s love), all converging with dramatic escalation and emotional resonance.

Those last things are what these two novels — and so many historical stories written by authors who are seduced and misled by reviews just like the one on Amazon — are lacking.

As writers, we need to understand more about storytelling than readers ever will. 

Both of these writers submitted their story plans to me for analysis.  After the process, both recognized the opportunity at hand.  So this is good, they get it now.

One, however, tried to explain the plan in response to my critical analysis, and in doing so focused once again on all those issues of ambiance, rather than the absence of a plot rendered compelling because of the stakes (both of which were largely MIA in her story).

A plot is the engine of story.  Her response was like explaining that, while there is no engine, the wheels and the upholstery are really, really cool.

Which misses the entire point.

So I thought I’d share my response to her relative to this follow- up/push-back document, which I have genericized here.

There are principles here to be absorbed.  I hope they help.

****

To the author:

This entire storytelling proposition consists of two realms of “raw material.” One is the actual story premise itself, the other is execution. In both realms, the “outcome” is always just someone’s opinion, though on the latter (execution) it is less negotiable and more easily predictable.

It is on the first point where the room divides. One person’s great story idea is another’s yawn.

That’s all over the place, some love literary novels, other can’t read them and prefer cozy mysteries or graphic horror stories or even erotica. Which of them is “wrong?” That’s not the proper question, of course, but it seems to be such when a writer pitches a story, something they think is absolutely fascinating and rich in potential, and the responder (agent, editor, story coach, and ultimate readers) go “not my cup of tea,” or “didn’t really grab me,” or whatever.

And thus, stories are accepted or rejected, successful or forgotten. Agents and editors “accept” stories all the time that they think will be appealing, and readers will stay away in droves, because they don’t agree. We haven’t broken that code.

In my case, in my role, I try not to gauge anything at all by “how I like it.” Rather, I evaluate more like an engineer assessing a blueprint or a worksite for the raw beams of a structure, and ultimately, the viability of a finished structure.

The engineer doesn’t have to “like” a house or a building to deem it finished, or worthy in terms of viability. That’s not the job. Not my job, either. I’m here to look INSIDE the story, at the core bones of it, and assess the nature of those building blocks (this is what I do in my less expensive story evaluations). But in doing so, I can look at the specific, separate items and assess their strength, both alone and in relation to the others (when they become a sum seeking to be a whole in excess of the parts.)

Your story obviously really appeals to you.

I’m betting you’ve told others about it – “I want to tell the story of my Hero and what happened to him during the war when the Russians took over his country,” and there are some cool elements there, a sailor picked up at sea, an affair, some nasty paranoid Russians…” and your listener goes, “wow, that sounds like a great story! It’d make a great novel!”

Thing is, a great novel requires MUCH more than a pile of cool elements.

From what I remember, it’s basically a true story… which immediately can become problematic. Because you feel the need to tell it “like it happened.” But… this is a competitive issue, as well.

Yes, you certainly can write “what happened.” And what happened is interesting, to some extent. But in a competitive market, other benchmarks and criteria apply. And that’s where your story, as conceived and assembled, becomes suspect.

In my opinion, the story lacks the “physics” required to compete for a publisher. Those physics include:

- a compelling premise that becomes a story landscape for a hero’s journey;
- an escalating sense of dramatic tension arising from conflict;
- strategic pacing;
- an empathetic journey for a hero/protagonist, that will cause the reader to ROOT FOR their desired outcome (or problem solving), with an antagonist (villain or negative force) blocking their path;
- delivering a vicarious journey to the reader (something they can’t experience for themselves, which all historical novels seek to create)
- an effective narrative strategy.

In other words… in summary… you lack a compelling PLOT.

Thing is, you can do ALL of these, and still come up short. But it is the SUM of these that matters, and even though the parts may look good at first, when they combine they are not as compelling as they need to be.

It would like someone writing a novel about the childhood of someone like, say, Cher. Cher is famous. Cher’s fans will care. Nobody else will. UNLESS and UNTIL that story leverages the above list to generate a story they respond to emotionally.

In your case, your story has basic flaws, even prior to Square 1.

You lack a compelling hero. Hero isn’t heroic (and even if he is heroic in the past, that doesn’t matter, not a bit, in the foreground story). In fact, he’s by nature not someone we root for, or even like (not a necessity by any means, but it can help if called for). Because… you don’t give him a QUEST with a specific goal, something that has stakes.

He’s trying to find the guy… but why ? Toward what end?  You never tell us.

“But,” you might say, “he does have a goal, he’s trying to find McGuffin (a character who becomes “the prize” and the source of STAKES in the story; in “The Davinci Code” the McGuffin was the Holy Grail, which turned out to be… well, you already know that surprise ending)!”

Sure… but who is McGuffin? We don’t know. He’s just a guy he picks up at sea. Then he disappears.

Bottom line: nothing is RIDING ON Hero finding him.

What if he does find him, what then? Nothing. Hero isn’t going to save him, Hero isn’t going to change everything. So there are no stakes attached to Hero finding McGuffin.

Which leaves your story as simply this: a guy finds a guy, and then loses the guy… we watch all that happen, without ever really knowing or, more importantly, FEELING what this means, and thus, why we should care.

Everything depends on stakes.

Without them, a story becomes a “chronicle” or a documentary of a character’s journey within the historical framework.  It becomes a frame without a picture. Which is the case here: this story is about “the stuff that happens to Hero and Hero’s wife,” set on a tapestry of this political stage at that point in history.

But… nothing happens that compels the reader to root or care. Because they aren’t known figures from history.  They aren’t player, they have no role in that history. And frankly, they aren’t sympathetic in any way. So, if what they’re doing isn’t important, and who they are doesn’t touch our hearts… why will we care?

Part of the problem, as I said, is how the book is written, as it sits how.

Your Part 1 needs a complete redesign, because you aren’t setting up a compelling CORE STORY that launches at the First Plot Point.

You may argue with that. You may say you ARE setting up a core story, and that it is compelling. But we disagree on that point. It’s not compelling because Hero has no skin in the McGuffin game, and then when the Russians suspect he’s somehow a spy, that’s thin, hard to see or believe, and becomes a chase without a prize.

Because Hero isn’t a spy.  And the Russians suspicion that he is has no merit other than paranoia.

In your synopsis you describe an ending in which neither Hero or Hero’s wife is actively, heroically involved. Hero never solves his problem, and the problem he has is, again, without depth or real meaning. The political stage becomes scenery, it is never “about” Hero seeking save someone, or change something, or improve anything at all.

It’s like a diary come to life. But the diary isn’t dramatic enough, and has no substantive stakes, to become a novel that works.

Let me put it this way: the story of “a” guy who saves “a” guy, neither of whom made a lick of difference in the war… that’s not enough of a story. Thus, whatever happens to them (affairs, unfair pursuit, etc.) doesn’t matter… enough.

If, however, Hero is “a” guy who saves “THE” guy – someone who ends up making a meaningful difference, or plays a key role, in the OUTCOME of what happened in those days in that place, then that IS a story worth telling, from a commercial outcome.

You never position either player in the story relative to STAKES. That’s a deal killer.

Even then, though, the story is still about the hero’s quest and heroism, not about his wife’s affair and his abusive nature and his alcoholism, and his blind quest to find a guy about whom he knows nothing, with no noble intentions or vision for an outcome that will change anything, and then, doesn’t end up achieving any of it, or anything at all.

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong at the STORY PREMISE level.

There is a long list of things that are wrong at the EXECUTION level, to the extent I think you need to come at this story – a better story – from a completely new and fresh narrative strategy. Resulting a much richer, faster, compelling Part 1 that is not driven by backstory and meaningless character chit-chat and descriptions of setting and random memories and such.

All this despite your significant prose skills. You do write very well.

That said, and on the latter count, you need a lot of work and practice on scene writing.

Which begins with a clear mission for each scene that connects to a compelling core story arc. If I’m correct when I suggest that the core story arc (what your Part 1 scenes seek to set up) is, in fact, less than compelling, then the scenes are already doomed. Complicated by the fact that you over-write them – and many of them don’t serve the core story, they are side trips with the “diary” you are creating – the sum becomes something that calls for a closer look, with a view toward improving the core story (which means you need to change it), and then , a narrative strategy that better serves it, but focusing on the DRAMA instead of the backstory or the subplots, which in the current version completely smother the intended “plot” itself.

When it matters what your hero does, because there are stakes involved that touch us emotionally and intellectually, then you’ll be on point with this story.

****

If you’d like to experience this feedback process for yourself, click HERE for the concept/premise level, and HERE for the Full Story Plan program.

 

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Eight Fundamental Steps to being a Professional Writer

September 29, 2014

 A Guest Post by Art Holcomb Writers and Athletes and Actors all share very similar career arcs. Many start out but few make it to become practicing professionals. No matter what their path, they all have to master the fundamentals. Practitioners of all three of these professions are rightly considered artists – people striving toward […]

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Case Study: When Your Concept Disappears

September 18, 2014

From my chair, sometimes it seems like folks encounter the “What is your concept?” question, and then they scramble for an answer.  They conjure something conceptual, or what seems conceptual in that moment. As if they weren’t ready for that question.  Hadn’t considered it.  This is part of the value of the analysis process, it […]

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Story Deconstruction: “Remember Me?” by Sophie Kinsella

September 14, 2014

A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard Spoiler Alert: This deconstruction dig deeps to break down the novel. The story will be fully exposed. This process provides a great opportunity to follow along when reading the book and see how a badass story is put together. There are a lot of things at play in this […]

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A Process-to-Product Success Story

September 8, 2014

Welcome new readers: click HERE for a no-strings free ebook offer, equivalent to an entire writing workshop! ***** This post wasn’t my first impulse where this story is concerned.  I’d like to share a story with you, submitted to me for evaluation by a Storyfix reader.  A story that is so good, so shockingly professional […]

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The Six Great Epiphanies of Successful Authors

September 2, 2014

I love this word: Epiphany. It comes from the Greek word epiphneia, which means apparition, in reference to the manifestation of a supernatural or divine reality. The more contemporary definition, one of four contexts, is: A sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, […]

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Story Structure: a Graphic You Can Use

August 18, 2014

You are one click away from a useable, printable, post-able (as in, on your wall) graphic  representation of classic 4-part story structure, including the 7 major story milestone transition “moments” within the story. Get it right here: Structure Graphic. In the previous post I framed this… as part of a Powerpoint presentation on the subject […]

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How to Elevate Your Story Above the Eager Crowd

August 16, 2014

The “crowd” is pretty good, too.   And they want what you want.   So you need to be better. Greetings from Los Angeles, where I’m presenting at the Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference.  I did two sessions yesterday, and later today I’m doing a workshop entitled: “Your Story on Steroids.” This is why I […]

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The Value of “Pantsing”

August 8, 2014

(Click HERE to land a trifecta opportunity: 1) score a mystery/thriller with killer reviews for only $1.99 for the Kindle edition; 2) download a totally FREE, no strings ebook that deconstructs the whole thing, while going behind the curtain to see how this book, and many like it, find their way to market; and 3) […]

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