To me, there is a very big difference between the idea and the story. I've had great ideas that I couldn't transform into a story. On the other hand, I've taken some not so great ideas and pumped them up with a very good story.
The original idea is the foundation. It's that one sentence beginning. Then you have to figure out how you are going to tell that idea. That's the story. It's the building that goes on top of the foundation.
The difference between idea and story is one reason I don't get very hyper about sharing my ideas with others. I
believe two people can have the exact same idea but they will come up with two very different stories.
An idea is usually an abstract. I have found that many fledgling novelists start with the abstract, then got bogged down trying to take that into something concrete (black and white on paper). This is why I beat to death being able to state your idea in one sentence and then writing it down. It makes it real. It makes the distance from idea to story less of a chasm. Even just thinking your original idea is not good enough. You have to state it out loud and write it down on paper. I always find putting thoughts down on paper forces me to focus and I find that this great idea I had in my head suddenly becomes much more difficult to state clearly.
It is a big jump from idea to story. Story includes characters, timing, point of view, pace, locale, etc. etc. Story has to answer all the questions that come to mind the second you tell someone your idea. Story answers: Who? What? Where? When? How? It also answers the Why of your intent.
Ambiguity is not good in most novels. You have to be a damn good novelist to take your reader along on a vague ride. There are courses dedicated to taking apart and analyzing what exactly did James Joyce mean in his books, but it is not likely they're going to start a course next week on you and your book to analyze it. Several authors who teach at universities have really impressed upon me this big problem they have with literature students who think being vague and ambiguous is a good thing when they write. Many times being ambiguous is more of a sign of the writer not knowing exactly what they want to say in the first place.
Watch the movie, The Player. Watch the writers try to pitch their concept to the character Tim Robbins plays. His line to them all is: "Tell it in 25 words or less." As a novelist pitching to an agent or editor you get at most one paragraph to "hook" them, usually only one sentence. If you can't do it, you've got a problem.
I was watching Biography on TV last night and they were covering Clint Eastwood. He would talk about one movie or another and say, "The thing I liked about this screenplay was..." And he would sum it up in a sentence or two. He didn't go on and on saying, "boy I really liked the great scene on page 28, and the twist on page 43, and..." I find many writers get too caught up in the minutiae of their story and lose sight of the big picture.
What do you like about your proposed book?
Another of my favorite lines to go from idea to story is: "Take it one step further." After you "what if", play the one step further game. You will be surprised where it can take you. What if things aren't as they appear? When you are first starting out, don't use this very much, but as you get more proficient at writing, it helps you develop more complex and interesting plots. It allows you to add layers to your story.
I can not overemphasize the need to be able to have that original idea in your mind at all times and to be able to state it in one sentence. It will prevent you from making many of the common errors in manuscripts.
If you cannot tell someone quickly and concisely what your story is, you are going to lose your way when you try to write it. Try talking your story out with someone who knows nothing about it. If you can't succinctly explain it to another person, you are going to have difficulty writing it.
Another thing to remember is that almost everything has been done before. The secret is to do it somewhat differently. Many best-selling authors are writers who have "launched" a genre. There was horror before Stephen King but he took it to another level. He even admits, for example, that The Stand, was inspired by the idea of an earlier book, Earth Abides, but King took the idea to a higher level.
Do not write for the "market." Because you really don't know what the market is going to be in the two and a half to three years it will take you to get published. The bottom line is to write whatever you feel you want to. But remember if you want to sell it that you need to write it so other people will want to read it.
The original idea is also critical when it comes to marketing your manuscript, as you will see when we get to the business section. Guess what the opening line of your query letter is going to be? Guess what is probably the only thing an agent or editor is going to read?
I know you may think this is terribly unfair. You may feel that taking four hundred pages of brilliant manuscript and trying to sell it on the basis of just a sentence or two is a travesty, but here is something to consider—how do you buy a book?
Most people buy because they know the author and like reading him or her. But if you are a new writer, then you don't have this option. So how do you buy a book from an author you never heard of? Do you stand in the bookstore, read the entire book, then go and pay for it?
Go to your local bookstore or even better, local supermarket. Stand near the paperback racks. Watch how long each person peruses the books on the shelves. How many seconds do they give to each book? Then, when they pick a book up, how long do they spend looking at it?
Why should it be any different for agents and editors?
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