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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Johnny Luigi-Montoya and the Vampire Whale of Destiny...or, It’s the Concept/Hook, Stupid!

Would you read a book entitled Johnny Luigi-Montoya and the Vampire Whale of Destiny?

Quite a few agents, particularly Young Adult ones, are requesting big hooks and “high-concept.” That doesn’t mean that nice, quieter books don’t get agented and published—of course they do. Agent Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency (one of the biggies) is fond of saying “Good writing is always trendy” (or something along those lines—“is always in style”, “is always what I’m interested in”—I’m paraphrasing here). That said, what does “high-concept” entail? Usually, you need a big hook.

Aliens and world domination? Killer bees released in Vegas? The discovery of a vampire whale destined to save the world? Opinion of the definition seems to be differ quite a bit, but one thing is certain: my early writing was definitely NOT “high-concept.”

Now, I’m no expert, but I do frequent a number of sites that offer free critiques and feedback. I remember early into my writing experience, I had two query letters that received numerous comments, but none of them had anything constructive to say. Don’t get me wrong, reading things like:

“this sounds great!”
“good flow and pacing”
“you hit all the right points”
“looks fun!”
“sounds polished and ready to go!”

is an ego boost for sure.

The thing was, they were wrong—they certainly didn’t mean to be wrong, and I wish that agents shared their opinions of my letter. Sadly, that was not the case. Full of confidence, I sent the query out and got maybe two requests out of forty-some agents. Good feedback is awesome—it keeps the motivation going and gives you a little pat on the back when you need it. But the negative stuff is gold. And these critiques all failed to tell me what I really needed to hear: my hook was CRAP. Or if it wasn’t crap, at least it was boring.

I started reading lots of query letters that people put up for review, and some of the plots astound me. No wonder I wasn’t getting offers—why didn’t I think of doing an erotic paranormal fantasy where someone is stunned to realize that the liquid in the decorative blood necklace hanging around their neck, that they inherited from an eccentric relative, isn’t just normal everyday necklace blood— it means that they are about to be given in sexual sacrifice to the Vampire King, who gleans his power by having lots of sex.

My sad little plot at the time dealt with middle school bullies…I was so naïve. Now, maybe it would have worked if the bullies were secretly 1,300-year-old robots with squirrels controlling them and the squirrels were planning a world takeover. That’s a hook.

The fact is, seeing the demand for big hooks/high-concepts made me take a hard look at my writing. Did it make more sense to consider something a bit edgier, more adventurous, or dangerous—a plot where the stakes were higher than hurt feelings and a beloved dog dying? It didn’t make me switch genres and try to write something that I’m not (although my husband and I had a fun time coming up with the bizarre title that leads this post).

HOWEVER, it made me consider my audience. I realized that, while my plots were interesting to me and catered to my affinity for realistic settings, I was doing something wrong. I was writing for myself, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but if you’re looking to make novel writing a career, it may not be the best path to get on. It wasn’t leading me to publication anyway.

I definitely have not done a 360 (the Vampire Whale of Destiny idea is up for grabs), and I want to be clear that I am not mocking or knocking the paranormal genre (or dystopian or any other genre)—on the contrary, I sincerely admire writers who have created wonderfully imaginative worlds—what would the world be without Tolkien? I LOVE LOTS OF PARANORMAL BOOKS!

That said, I am not that type of writer, and probably never will be. I have, however (on occasion), made a concerted effort to insert a little more spice/substance to my plots specifically to create a bigger hook.

How about you? Any thoughts on writing for yourself versus considering the demand out there, and partially catering to what is being read?

Perhaps the ideal answer is to do a little bit of both. Then again, by the time a trend is out there, sometimes it’s a mistake to hop on board—that’s why agents are complaining about all the “Twilight copycats.” (By the way, I feel really bad for the authors who truly have a passion for those plots, and are getting rejected purely on the basis of overwhelmed agents receiving too many similar requests…who knows how much longer before dystopian queries get burn-out rejections too).

Opinions on high-concepts and big hooks?

**Post disclaimer: Please do not read this and misunderstand me. I know that saying “paranormal=high concept” is not accurate. I just used it as an example, because it was fun to do so. High concept is more along the lines of anything where the stakes are high—could be a gang, could be a teen pregnancy debacle, could be a suicide club, could be a ‘save the last rainforest’ story…you get the idea...**

**There are a few links at the top right of this blog that deal with hooks and high-concepts--feel free to check them out! :)

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