Approach your book idea thoughtfully

No, no, I’m not talking about holding the door open for your book idea and insisting they enter first. Or saying “please” and “thank you” to your book idea. I’m talking about the veracity of your idea – the legitimacy, the viability.

Believe me, I know what it’s like to get caught up in the fever of an idea. I remember when Barfy McLennon decided we should rip off the teacher’s afternoon lesson plan so we’d be forced to play on the playground for the rest of the day. It was Barfy’s idea. In fact, Barfy had two claims to fame in the third grade; 1) he held the only distinction of hurking on his desk during a math test and earning the coolest moniker of the school. The teacher felt so sorry for him, she gave him an automatic A, and b) thinking up great ideas.

So Barfy got me all a-twitter. YES! We would rip off teacher’s lesson plan. Playtime was in our grasp. The rest of the class would shower us with the good parts of their lunches. Victory and faithful obedience were assured. We tittered about it all during lunch and recess. By the time the freeze bell rang, my knees started to go shakey. Was I wussing out? Barfy would never let me live it down. In the end, I chickened out, satisfied to let Barfy claim all the glory.

I had come to my senses and realized this wasn’t a good idea.

And this is what I wish more authors would consider before they sit down to write their books. No, let me retract that. Go ahead and write it. Get it out of your system because I’m a proponent of following your literary urges.

But just because it’s an urge doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. What I mean by that is that it is either too personal to be marketable, or simply not an interesting subject matter.

The Approach

Let’s use the example of a query I got a couple weeks ago. The author is a cancer researcher and put together a bunch of vignettes about his patients. For starters, vignettes are hard to sell. I generally dislike them because the quality of the individual stories are inconsistent. Read one bad story, and you lose the reader. Bookstores shy away from them.

My problem with his idea  – aside from the fact that it was 200k words – was that it took the focus off of him, the author. The author is the glue, the golden thread that ties these stories together. Minus that,  you have a collection. Big deal. Cancer has been Done. To. Death. Do a search on cancer at Amazon. The pages go on forever. If you’re gonna do cancer, you gotta be unique.

The author approached his idea with good intention and conviction since these were people he’d treated over a long period of time. He got caught up in the notion that his patients made for a good book. But that’s not enough. What seems great in real life may not translate well to paper.

I didn’t feel the idea was marketable. However, if he’d approached this by simply asking himself, “What is the glue that makes my book a gotta have it?” Oh sure, he had the usual platitudes – inspirational, romantic (?), sad, thoughtful…blah, blah, blah. But what he couldn’t tell me is WHY. He couldn’t make a case for the viability of his book.

Now, if he’d approached his idea thoughtfully, he may have thought to make himself the central focus of the story and write about how his patients affected his life and changed his perception of how he views life – let’s say he’s a cynical, angry guy. By weaving in their experiences into his narrative, the reader can see how the author is affected and influenced by those who are suffering and dying. I find that compelling because I’m an old Sociology major from the early Jurassic Era, and I love stories about people who are altered by their surroundings – how they react to life experiences.

In one simple twist of thought, this book could have gone from uninteresting and unmarketable to “please send me pages.” That is why you approach your book idea thoughtfully. Letting your idea serve as your internal fuel is marvelous, but I caution against getting caught up in your idea. Don’t lose sight of the reality that you actually have to sell your story.

Is your story idea a good idea, or is it akin to stealing the teacher’s lesson plan? That takes thought, research of your genre, and understanding your competition.

As for Barfy? Well, he got caught for snatching the teacher’s lesson plan and was suspended for two days. Totally glad that I came to my senses and decided this was a bad idea.

11 Responses to Approach your book idea thoughtfully

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I think some people have their One Big Idea and CLING to it, too.

  2. Hi 🙂

    I think that it all comes to one thing, target audience.
    An author should know his target audience very well, if not excellently, and then proceed. Who are the potential readers, what they want, how they want it, why would they want it.

    Thank you for the interesting article

  3. LauratheWise says:

    It seems like the structure of the book was clumsy/bulky. I once read a book that sounds similar to the one in this post: “365 Days,” a collection of vignettes by an army doctor about patients he treated in Vietnam. The writing was tight, concise, and driven. The structure was also very well thought out. Who knows, the cancer book could be cut and edited to work as a marketable story instead of a rambling “collection.”

  4. Hi Lauren, thanks for your comment. I look at the subject matter between the Army doc and the cancer vignettes. Cancer has been done to ad nauseum, so breaking through that barrier is much harder than an Army doc treating his patients. There is a tie-in to the current wars we’re fighting – and face it, doc stories always sell pretty well because they are our mysterious heroes.

  5. Lev Raphael says:

    Lynn, your comment about what would have made it a gripping book could also apply to memoirs in general, I think: too often there isn’t reflection and a sense of how the experiences described changed the narrator. Instead we get just stories or a story, and those can be fascinating, but they don’t take readers deep enough.

  6. YES! Lev you totally understand this. That’s why I don’t take standard memoirs. They don’t go deep enough – it’s simply a, “hey, here’s my life story.” While those life stories are good for celebrities and public figures, I’m not interested in that. Most of us are looking for the human story – how they have been influenced by their circumstances.

  7. Digital Dame says:

    I beta-read a book for someone once, and had to ask what the point of it was, what the author was trying to say. I never heard from the author again. 😦 That’ll teach me. I’m sure in the author’s mind it was gripping and riveting.

  8. Yikes, DigiDame, to read a book and still not have a clue is the stuff of nightmares. And that’s the subtle sub-message of my post – authors have to be willing to take critique and to look at their work as a reader would see it.

  9. Laura W. says:

    That’s why I am wary of memoirs. They sometimes read too much like journals and not like actual books.

  10. You haven’t read our memoirs…we rock.

  11. I’d really like to hear how cancer (or cancer treatments) can be romantic.

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