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Thursday, April 22, 2010

HOW TO WRITE A BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 1 – An Inspired Concept


OK, enough messing around! It’s time to roll up our sleeves, sharpen our pencils, and get down to business. So have a strong cup of coffee standing by as we enter the classroom this week in the first of a series of (probably five) posts titled HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

These are based on a talk that I have given in various parts of the world, notably London, Los Angeles and Asilomar, California.  In each venue what I want to say develops and changes a little, but here I am going to distil what I think are the most useful points. This is what we’ll be covering, after a short introduction:  1) An inspired concept 2) Larger-than-life characters 3) A high-stakes story 4) A deeply felt theme and 5) A vivid setting . . . . Oh, and there will be a number 6) also – I wonder if you can guess what that might be?  At the end, you should have a set of notes that will enable you to heckle from the back of the room if you ever hear me give the talk in future – but also, I hope, notes that will be really useful.

Why do I want to talk about ‘writing the breakout novel’ and what do I mean by that?

Toni Morrison said: ‘If there’s a story you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

But HOW do you write it? Can there BE a recipe for writing a great novel or am I simply suggesting we manipulate a stupid marketplace?

Of course I am not. I am a lover of language and a lover of quality writing, whether that be what we might call ‘literary’ or ‘commercial’. So the last thing I’d propose is that you write something that isn’t authentic to you in the hopes of getting a deal.  That just won’t work!
However, I do believe there are certain common denominators to a great story, wherever it comes on the literary spectrum – and that that’s true whether you’re writing a plot-based novel full of action, or a quieter story where you’re primarily in the internal world of your protagonist. Does this apply to both young fiction and more sophisticated older fiction? I think so – test it out. But hopefully there will be some points at least that can be distilled even in a story aimed at younger kids.

What do I mean by ‘breakout novel’? Well, that’s my shorthand for saying – the story that gets you a deal, that creates a buzz in the marketplace, that enables you to go on writing for a career; the story that is passed from hand to hand.  And this is important because we are in a time of ongoing turbulence in the industry; editors are under pressure to cut lists, focus on the biggest brands (authors), and acquisition processes are even tougher and risk-averse.

Amid all this, the one great growth area is . . . the numbers of people wanting to write. And especially write for children/young adults, the sector of the market which has shown itself to be most recession-proof and such a dynamic force within the publishing world over the last 10+ years.  Record numbers attended the national SCBWI conferences in the past year; record numbers applied for the prestigious MFA in Children’s Writing program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. Everyone wants to write! So how can YOU break through – get published and, just as importantly, STAY published?

Here is my recipe for success based on the books I acquired and published during my 25+ years as a senior London children’s publisher, and my 2+ years as a literary agent, reading hundreds of queries each month. 

The first ingredient of your breakout novel must be:


I can’t tell you exactly how to unearth your concept, but I CAN tell you that it needs to be great!  And I know that keeping your eyes and ears open to the stories going on all around you, in real life, is one good way of tracking down a strong idea.

Once you have a theme, is there a way of portraying/developing that theme that is unexpected, unusual, different? Some of you will know that the book I like to mention at this point is THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, because I think Jay Asher was remarkably clever in taking a subject that has been written about before (a girl’s death by her own hand) and doing something completely different with it – structurally, conceptually, so that it is turned into a tense, compressed thriller.  This is just one example of a clever concept.  Other stories won’t be quite so ‘high-concept’ necessarily, but this idea of doing something fresh is one to work with.

OK, moving on - get to know your area of the market and what is working, the diversity within it, the parameters. In other words, educate yourself about the world you are trying to enter. But then set some of that aside, because you need to discover the story that fills YOU with passion and excitement. The story that you really can’t wait to tell.

Be aware of the risk of being derivative of current bestsellers.  Even if you get a deal today your book probably wouldn’t now be published until 2012, by which time the market will have moved on.  We see a lot of very similar stories, so be aware that we love to see something that’s fresh and different. Think big. Think bold. Think . . . . what if?  Always a great way to start plotting because it encourages you to think out of the box.

Try to be very clear about WHO you are writing for. There are stories that never find an audience because they’re not sufficiently clearly targeted for any particular section of the market. Is your story for boys or girls or both? What age group?

What is the Unique Selling Point of your story? Marketeers in any industry seek the USP of a product (ever watched Dragon’s Den on TV? If so you’ll know what I mean), and it’s great if your story has a USP that can be articulated. What sets it apart from other books? Look along your shelves and see if you can pinpoint a USP in your favourite titles. Publishers considering your manuscript will be looking for something that picks it out from all the others on their desks – a special way in which they can present your work to their sales team, to retailers, to the world. Why this manuscript rather than all the others?

Don’t start writing until you know you have a really, really great idea. Work out your pitch BEFORE you start writing. (Wow, radical for all you guys who like to start at the beginning and just WRITE according to where the wind blows you!) This can be a very good idea – it will help to start you off with focus, sure of the story you are really intending to tell, and more-or-less sure of where it is going to lead you.  Perhaps you don’t need this approach if you are an incredibly accomplished and experienced writer, but if you’re just setting out, formulating your pitch before you write the first page might be a real help. 

Then you could try condensing that pitch further – into a couple of lines. Like the shoutline on a movie poster. Can you do that? If not, it may mean your story doesn’t have quite enough focus.  Focus is a good word; I like it! What is the focus of your story? When you’re sure of it, keep your eye on it. It will help you to rein yourself in a bit if everything starts falling apart and losing momentum.

A final point?  This is all just suggestions.  If you find another way of working that gets the result you want, then stick with it. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to writing, though these are hints that are pretty tried and tested.

So - an inspired concept. The first thing you really need when writing your very own Breakout Novel!

That’s it for now. The hour is late, the day was long, the words were many. Time to stop and rub the tired eyes.

Next time:  HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL:  Part 2 – Larger-than-life characters.

See you in a few days.  Oh, and do come and find us on Facebook - the Greenhouse Literary Agency has its very own fan page and we’d love to see you there.

Take care and happy writing!

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Monday, April 12, 2010

In the roll of an eye


Ah, so a note has just appeared in the mail saying it’s that time again. Time to make an appointment with the eye doctor. Perfect – I’ve been having some problems with my baby-blues for a while now, so not a bad idea to get them checked out.

You see, I have a bit of a problem with eye-rolling. Always have, and it’s got quite bad recently. The problem began at school.  Lacking the nerve to be honestly and openly BAD, I simply became an eye-roller – master of the swift, fleeting head swivel, the sardonic lip curl, the rebellious flaring of the nostril. And yes, that eye-roll, just out of sight of the teacher.

I blame others for my descent into eye-rolling virtuosity.  People like Miss Eyre, leader of the woodwind ensemble during my teenage years.  A lady of stout ankles and formidable shoes who would peer through her spectacles as a waggle of her flute led us into a honking decimation of Mozart.

‘No, girls, we DON’T tap our whole foot in time to the beat. We only tap our TOES inside our SHOES.’

Eyes start to swivel.

‘Modern music? No, girls, at St Helen’s School we are not interested in music composed after 1850.’

Eyes rolling so fast I can practically see my brain.

And really, eye-rolling has stood me in good stead ever since – during dreary speeches, endless meetings (at which publishers excel), pomposity and frustration of every kind. Try it and see.  If you can get really skilled, no one will even spot it!

Agenting has introduced me to a new kind of eye-roll. The submission-related kind that makes my eyeballs spin – not in response to the writing (on which you will hopefully find me quite kind), but to various other triggers.

Here is a handy guide to Sarah’s Eye-Rolling Hall of Fame, courtesy of her inbox – and with only a modicum of poetic licence in order to protect identities:

Roll 1:
‘Dear Ms Davies, I am an extraordinary and potentially very famous person. My writing is a cross between that of Charles Dickens, Philip Pullman and Tolkien. You’d better sign me up FAST while you still can.’

Roll 2:
‘Dear Ms Davies, You don’t want to represent me? Your loss.’

Roll 3:
‘Dear Ms Davies, I have written a series of 46 books and I’m sending you now 5 pages from the middle of Book 7.’

Roll 4:
‘Dear Ms Davies, My daughter is a star of stage and screen, and has her own show on MTV, though she is only 4 years old. She has written a fictional story book with a heroine looking remarkably like herself. It will change the world. I advise you to take up this opportunity soonest.’

Roll 5:
‘Dear Ms Davies, My book is an urban paranormal romance, which comes in at 365,000 words and 623 pages, single spaced. I am happy to send it over in a Humvee.’

Roll 6:
‘Dear Dan Lazar of Writers House . . . . .’

Roll 7:
‘Dear Ms Davies, I am resending my query because I sent it to you originally on Christmas Day, the day before yesterday, and you still have not got back to me.’

Roll 8:
‘Dear Ms Davies, This is the third query I have sent you today, in separate emails . . . ‘

Roll 9:
‘Dear Ms Davies, sorry I can’t be bothered to send you an actual query, but here are the pages anyway.’

Roll 10:
‘Dear Ms Davies, Can you please publish my book in your publishing house?’

Roll 11:
‘Dear Ms Sara Davis . . .’

Roll 12:
‘Dear Ms Davies, I am delighted to send you some pages of my novel, complete with endorsement from bestselling author Fred Snooks, whose book CHAINSAWS OF THE WESTERN WORLD has made him a sensation in Pig Hollow, South Dakota.’

Roll 13:
‘Dear Ms Davies, If you can help to get my book published, my cousin says he will promote it in his grocery store.’

Roll 14:
‘Dear Ms Davies, I have studied your website and acquainted myself with your tastes. I am therefore delighted to send you my novel, which is a thriller about rape and incest in Soviet Russia, aimed at readers of John Grisham.

Roll 15:
[Scroll down immense list of agent addressees. I don’t get as far as Ms Davies.]

Roll 16:
‘Dear Ms Davies, my story about a race of little people called Weeeeneez would make an excellent movie (probably by Disney) and I have already designed a range of merchandise. Please click through the 7 links below to read a sample of my screenplay. Then call me to set up a phone call on Thursday.’

Roll 17:
‘Dear Ms Davies, I think we are a match made in heaven; shall we make sweet music together?’

I could continue but my eyeballs seem to have pivoted so far they’ve got stuck, so I’m off to that nice eye doctor for a little R&R;.  Oh, and some drops.

See you soon (I hope!). 

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