Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #2: Having the Courage

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Basically, this is all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.
Continuing on with our baby steps of writing, today I’m talking about solidifying your concept. (If you missed Step #1, go here to the previous post about creative banners.)

So we’ve made our creative banner (i.e. the essence of the joy we’ve found in the initial story idea, the thing(s) that we most love about it). Now we need to mold the idea further into a tangible concept.

What a concept is NOT:
  • A theme, which gives mood and meaning to your story
  • Your banner. It’s a refined version and presentable version of your banner.
  • Your idea. I’s more expanded than that idea was initially.
  • Your plot. The concept is only an ignition coil while your plot is going to be your V8 engine.
What a concept IS:
  • The irony that makes your story different. (For example, in my book Courtesy and Patience, the main irony is a group of backwoods orphans, who never have anything unusual happen to them, have a never-seen before flying machine fall on their heads. What’s more, the balloon is full of sorcerer’s stones. Unusual and unexpected.)
  • Your banner duded up then married off to an interesting main character, a conflict, and a setting all in one “I do”.
  • Your hook. You have only two or three sentences to spew this information in a compelling way.
  • Your expanded idea. It’s about (insert character here) in (insert setting here) who wants (insert motivation here) but (insert conflict and/or antagonist here) gets in his/her way. Not really that simple but kind of is.
Larry Brooks, in his book Story Engineering, says to run a list of “What if?” questions to find your concept. I’ve never tried this, but I think it could really help boil your story down to what is the most compelling. (Just make sure you don’t include the questions in your query. Most agents hate rhetorical questions in query letters.) Another trick is to write down all the choices you don’t want in your story until you find what you do (i.e. you want to write a spy book but you know you don’t want a Bond character and you don’t want it set during the Cold War. So how about a New York nanny in a contemporary world? Spin the idea on its head until it looks like you’ve put your touch on a normal story idea.) Pretty soon by process of elimination, you’ll have come up with the beginnings of a concept. What I do is try and write a compelling concept several different ways, evaluate what I like and don’t like about each one and then mesh together the good stuff. I share it with my writing friends on paper and verbally pitch it to my non-writing friends. My writing friends give me honest feedback and my non-writing friends have tells in their body language that let me know what they really think of the idea. If that’s not enough (and even if it is), I fill out this form:


What it is in a nutshell: (1 to 2 sentences)

It’s like __________, but different because it ___________.

The Irony: (The appealing dichotomy or dichotomies in the story)

Hook: (The irony and the conflict in as few words as possible)

Who would my PERFECT audience be? (Twelve year old boys into baseball or purple-haired elderly ladies at a tea party?)

ATMOSPHERE of the Book: (The tone or the mood of the book.)

Locations and Time Periods:

Notice a lot of the info in my list could potentially be redundant. (About like washing a car in the rain.) No sweat. Thinking about each element in different ways helps our brains catch the strengths and weaknesses of our concept.

Whatever exercise you do to find your concept, make sure you write down everything and keep it with the rest of your files for that specific story. I cut and tape them in a notebook specific to this shiny new idea. And I don’t throw away any drafts or ideas. Some little piece might later be the spark I need to fix a problem or change a concept all together.

Anyway, that’s concept. I would be happy to help anyone struggling with this, there's no sense in being discouraged on your own! Just email me @ jackee(dot)alston(at)gmail(dot)com.

Best of luck, my friends! Next post: Title Ideas.


  1. Believe it or not this is the first I've read anything on concept--excellent explanation!

  2. Seeing the pic of the man washing his car in the rain reminded me of this guy watering his lawn during a downpour. I couldn't believe it but yes, guy was definitely watering his lawn while rain was pouring out from the skies!

    Thanks so much for the indepth analysis of concept! Yay! And I so agree! Never ever throw any discarded drafts/notes/etc - there could be a golden writerly nugget hidden in them!

    Take care

  3. I do find it so helpful to write down all the bad ideas, the stuff I know I don't want in the story, just to get to the good ones. The golden concepts that make me sit up and say, "Yes!" Great post, Jackee.

  4. This is such an excellent explanation of "concept." I have to admit I sometimes confuse "concept" with "idea" -- and this post is so helpful. :)

  5. Great ideas! I don't write a whole lot down other than the story itself, but I do a lot of mulling for these kinds of questions :)

  6. it's great of you to do this, Jackee. I have really missed your posts.

    Looking forward to the next one.


  7. Thanks for the post. I'm in agreement with the others, nice job on making concept and idea very clear.

  8. My story ideas always start with "What if...?" Sometimes the concept is strong enough to carry me through a first draft. Sometimes it isn't. But it's that question that makes me want to write.

  9. This is clear, concise, and helpful. Thanks for sharing all this, Jackee. I'd like to put these steps into action in the near future.

  10. Great advice and nice explanations. I wish i could articulate my thoughts on writing as well but I always fail to do so.

  11. I like your explanation. And your nanny idea sounds interesting! :)

    I look forward to reading your post on title ideas.

  12. Very thorough post on concept, Jackee!
    Hmmmm, how many 12 year olds are into purple haired ladies at tea parties?? ;)

  13. Great post, Jackee! I especially liked the part about the concept being the irony that makes your story different - what wonderful advice!

  14. Excellent post, with really great bullet points. Thank you!

  15. Great post! And I love Larry Brooks' book. It's awesome!

  16. I like your fill in the blanks. I'm going to use it next time.

    Can't wait to read your title post.