Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer Rerun: Starting Before the Beginning

This week I'm mining the archives while the blog is on hiatus. I'll be back on July 23rd with query stats.


April 3, 2007:

So, regular readers know I am a bit obsessed with basketball. We had some wonderful friends in town last night and so I DVR'd the game and then set about trying to block out the outside world throughout dinner. I turned off my cell phone. I put my computer in an out of reach place. I had my girlfriend scout out the downstairs of the restaurant for TVs before I ventured down to the restroom (yes, she's wonderful. Also understanding.) And it worked..... until we were walking around outside and I looked into a bar and happened to see a bigscreen TV showing Billy Donovan with a net around his neck. A;LKDJF;LAKJF I about fainted on the sidewalk. Nooooooooo!! Anyway, congrats to the Gators, even if I didn't get to be surprised by the win. I still watched the game when I got home.

Anyway, the advice given in this blog has been mostly devoted to the art of the query letter, but really, that is putting the cart before the donkey. Aspiring writers agonize over query letters, they strive to make publishing contacts, they pour their time and energy into getting their book published. But actually, the absolute most crucial decision you can make as a writer happens before you take out your pen and write down, "Once upon a time in Borneo." The most important decision happens when you decide what you're going to write about.

Too many people assume that good writing is all you need, and believe what you write about isn't so important as how you write. Such thinking results not only in meandering 200,000 treatises on the peculiarity of our contemporary mores, but also in more mundane and unoriginal plots that aren't well thought through and thus, no matter how good the writing is, they are a tough prospect to sell. To put it short: You need a good idea.

When you're considering what to write about, you have to start with the assumption that everyone you're up against in the slush pile can write -- it's your idea that will set you apart. This may seem like really obvious advice, but an unoriginal or not-good-enough book idea is the basis for approximately 90% of my rejections. In a story-saturated world where it seems like every original idea is already taken, really great story ideas are very rare and precious. I find it much more agonizing to reject someone with a really great idea where the writing isn't there than I do passing on a project with great writing where there isn't a solid enough idea. I think this is because it's so hard to find a great idea. They're as rare as an intelligent conversation on The Hills.

So what can you do? One way to test your idea before you start writing is to tell it to someone out loud. If, after a short description, someone genuinely, involuntarily responds, "Wow, that's a great idea," you're onto something. If you have to include the caveat, "Well, anyway, it sounds boring but really, it's all about the writing," you might want to add some monkeys to the plot.






5 comments:

Subservient No More said...

Imagine my joy upon reading your last sentence. There are as many as three monkeys involved in my memoir. There is hope after all.

Anonymous said...

everybody says this, yet it's so hard for writers to sell new ideas. established writers? sure no problem. but new guys? might as well watch cobwebs grow.

A.S. Peterson said...

And yet, very few great books are based on so called 'great ideas'. In fact most good books have the 'sounds boring but' caveat.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

And yet hundreds of first novelists are published every year!

Nathan Bransford said...

a.s.-

Sure, there are exceptions (I don't think ULYSSES would sound great by this criteria), but very few books these days are published without a really compelling premise. A great writer can make a seemingly boring idea come alive, but still, there's always a great idea at the heart of the book.

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