Bad Ideas Don’t Become Good Books

kindle, book, ereader


Helping writers become published seems like as big a big business as writing itself. And writing, we know, is huge. People will help writers write, help them self-publish, and help with the endless baffling tasks—finding an agent, managing a self-publishing path, and promoting their product. As a book nears completion, a writer’s anxiety grows, and the whole process of sending that precious baby out into the marketing void fills authors with not unreasonable qualms.

That some of these purveyors are unscrupulous goes with the territory. (See links below.) That some of them serve ideas that are cold potatoes, ditto. But every once in a while, amid the cacophony of advice available to writers, comes a message that may not be exactly new but really resonates.

Jane Friedman is a consistently reliable, forward-thinking writing-and-publishing commentator and pulls in mostly helpful guest posters on her blog. Recently she invited Laurie Scheer, “a seasoned development exec and writing mentor,” to talk about a topic most authors (me included!) would rather not examine: What if the fundamental idea for your book is, well, mediocre?

Scheer started off with three questions, then presented what I found the most helpful part of her post: an example.

The Three Questions

question, graffiti


Every writer, she says, needs to have persuasive answers to these three questions on the tip of the tongue—for dealing with potential editors, agents, publishers, and the (eventual) marketing team and even the public. Why make this? Why make it now? and Who cares?

The answer to “why make this,” needs to describe what about a novel (or screenplay, for that matter) makes it unique, compelling, and authentic. For people who write in genre fiction—mystery, romance, science fiction, horror, and their permutations—this can be especially hard. A police procedural with a flawed detective? Divorced and drinks too much, perhaps? In truth, most plots have been done and done again—because they work—but something about them needs to be unique, compelling, and authentic. This is a flaw with many memoirs. Nothing new or insightful. That’s a hard message for writers delving into their own personal—and very likely painful—history.

Why make this now? Recognizing trends in the marketplace and when they’ve peaked suggests something about timing. In crime novels, the trend has been for ever-more inventive and grisly threats. This has upping the violence ante to the point of unbelievability, in my opinion. In one I read last year, a victim would awake standing up, with the lower half of his body encased in a block of ice. Nowhere did the text mention the amount of time it would take to freeze that much water, the noise of the generators producing sufficient cooling, how the equipment to do it was transported from one locale to another, in other words, a big “huh?”

And, the third question, who really cares? Who will pay good money to read this book? Herein is the flaw in the new Kindle Scout program—“reader-powered publishing for new, never-before-published books.” Potential readers help decide which books the program publishes and receive the book free if it’s selected. In other words, some of the people most interested in the book don’t have to pay to get it. (Thanks to Build Book Buzz’s marketing maven Sandra Beckwith for pointing this out.)

Here’s the Pitch

biological clock


Scheer gives this example of the kind of ideas writers often pitch in answer to the above questions:

A story about a 43-year-old unmarried woman who has had a successful career in advertising or law or pharmaceuticals or whatever, and decides at the last minute that her biological clock’s ticking and she wants to have a child.

Scheer says, “I will wait for the writer to tell me the rest of the story. And there is no rest of the story, because in their mind, that is the story.” A story that has been done many, many times. Some new element needs to be interjected to create new and unique conflicts (why now?). That new element might be one that would capture attention of some larger audience (who cares?). Perhaps the baby’s father should be a divorced police detective who drinks too much. Just kidding. Half.

So I’m going back to reexamine my pitch letters and make sure I’m not cutting short my three-sentence description of what my books are about before I get to “why now” and “who cares”!

Writer Resources

  • Preditors and Editors – this widely recommended website rates agents, editors, publishers, and many other businesses for writers. Though encyclopedic, it could use a makeover. Especially helpful would be dates added to its one-line reviews.
  • Writer Beware! – highly recommend website and blog maintained by Victoria Strauss for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, but applicable to all writers. Especially helpful information on contracts, I’ve noticed. (Her take on Kindle Scout is here.)
  • Laurie Scheer’s new bookThe Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit (Amazon says Tookit) for Mastering your Genre. I ordered this book, and will review it here.