Approach your book idea thoughtfully

April 29, 2011

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.

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