One of the hardest parts about being a writer is staring at a blank page, wondering how to start your story. A while back, I posted suggestions for coming up with great novel ideas. Since then, I took a workshop led by author Dorian Cirrone that was filled with amazing tips for coming up with high concept premises and great beginnings. With NaNoWriMo starting in just over a month, I thought today would be the perfect time to ask Dorian to visit us.
Dorian Cirrone is the author of the young adult novels, Prom Kings and Drama Queens and Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You, which was named an ALA Popular Paperback and made the Amelia Bloomer List for Feminist Fiction as well as the New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list. She has also written the Lindy Blues chapter books, The Missing Silver Dollar and The Big Scoop. Her stories were included in the middle-grade anthologies Sports Shorts and Lay Ups and Long Shots. Dorian holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and has taught writing at the university level and at many workshops and conferences. She’s currently revising her first middle-grade novel.
Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Dorian! Can you explain what high concept is, and share some ways to help our readers come up with high concept premises for their future stories?
High concept seems to mean different things to different people. And for some, it’s even a negative term, implying that a work with a high concept premise is all plot-driven, with no character development. That said, after reading various opinions, I look at high concept as having some of the following characteristics:
- Tremendous public appeal to the intended readership
- A title and premise that hooks the reader instantly
- A character with an exciting or enviable life that readers would want for themselves
- Larger than life characters and situations
There are several ways to brainstorm these types of ideas. Here are three that I like, with examples from notable authors.
1. Come up with a worst-case scenario for your characters. This pretty much sums up every dystopian novel that’s out there. But there are other worst-case scenarios, ones that might take place in our own world. For example: Chris Grabenstein’s ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY. It’s about twelve kids, who win an overnight of fun in a library, but then find out they’re trapped until they solve the puzzle to the hidden escape route.
2. Look at popular classics, examine the kernel of the idea, and give it a fresh take. Neil Gaiman has said that his novel, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, about a boy raised by ghosts, was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s THE JUNGLE BOOK, about a boy raised by animals. As we know, this worked out pretty well for the Newbery-winning Gaiman.
3. Examine the world around you and figure out what might interest people in the next few years. Donna Gephart did this with her award-winning AS IF BEING 12 ¾ ISN’T BAD ENOUGH (MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT). The year the novel was published, Hilary Clinton was running for the Democratic presidential nominee. How’s that for timing?
It’s often hard to figure out the best way to plunge into a new story. Do you have any tips for coming up with great beginnings?
Conventional wisdom dictates that you should always start in scene, but there are other ways to grab a reader. A couple that I like include:
1. Starting with a list. One of my favorite examples of this is from Lenore Look’s ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, SCHOOL, AND OTHER SCARY THINGS. Here’s how it starts:
The first thing you should know about me is that my name is Alvin Ho.
I am afraid of many things.
The list goes on, but you get the idea. Each of his fears tells a little more about the main character. It’s a great device to not only tell about him, but to foreshadow the many conflicts he’ll have.
2. Starting with some type of weird statement or fact. Rebecca Stead does this in LIAR & SPY when she begins with:
There’s this totally false map of the human tongue. It’s supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back. Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since.
The statement isn’t just a quirky fact to grab its intended readers. It also delivers a clue to the unreliability of the narrator, sets up an opportunity for plot events, and provides an extended metaphor for the character’s current situation. Triple duty. And brilliant.
Do you have a writing exercise to share with our readers?
An exercise I like to do when I’m planning a novel is to come up with a tagline that distills the story into a short phrase that would hook readers. Even if the tagline I create for myself wouldn’t appear on the book, writing it forces me to think about all kinds of things, such as: tone, audience, premise, promise, theme, etc. If I can pull all those things into one line—and maybe even include some type of contradiction or irony, it gets me thinking more deeply about both the head and heart of my story.
Here are some examples of taglines on covers that have caught my eye:
“A dose of magic can save the world.” (THE APOTHECARY by Maile Meloy)
“If you could see into the future—would you look?” (A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN by Liz Kessler)
“A road trip with her ex? Danger ahead.” (TWO-WAY STREET by Lauren Barnholdt)
“The greatest love story ever told is a lie.” (JULIET IMMORTAL by Stacey Jay)
“Never trust a pretty girl with an ugly secret.” (PRETTY LITTLE LIARS by Sara Shepard)
“She wasn’t supposed to survive the accident. But she did.” (THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by Mary E. Pearson)
Taglines seem to appear on the covers of teen novels more frequently than they do on middle-grade novels, and I’m not sure why. However, I’ve also noticed that some middle-grade novels include the elements of a tagline in the title, as in the aforementioned ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, SCHOOL, AND OTHER SCARY THINGS and in FAKE MUSTACHE: OR, HOW JODIE O’RODEO AND HER WONDER HORSE (AND SOME NERDY KID) SAVED THE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION FROM A MAD GENIUS CRIMINAL MASTERMIND by Tom Angleberger.
Whether you end up using your short phrase as a tagline, as part of a title, or not at all, after doing this exercise, I think you’ll come away with a better understanding of your story.
What are some of your favorite middle-grade novels?
There are so many great middle-grade novels that I’ve enjoyed—too many to list. But the ones I’ve most recently read and loved include: Rebecca Stead’s LIAR & SPY, Donna Gephart’s HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL, Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s DESTINY REWRITTEN, and Liz Kessler’s A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN.
Can you share some of your favorite books about writing and let us know why they appeal to you?
One of my all-time favorites is Les Edgerton’s HOOKED: WRITE FICTION THAT GRABS READERS AT PAGE ONE & NEVER LETS THEM GO. I love how he nails down everything that should be in the first few pages of your novel to set things up for the reader.
I’ve recently started reading K.M. Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL: ESSENTIAL KEYS FOR WRITING AN OUTSTANDING STORY. I’m particularly interested in techniques for writing stronger scenes these days, and she has some great ideas for doing that.
Also, anything by Donald Maass. He’s a master at breaking things down, particularly when it comes to creating tension in a novel.
Thank you for sharing so many wonderful writing tips with us, and for offering such a generous giveaway, Dorian! Watch for Dorian’s redesigned website and blog with writing tips in the next few months. In the meantime, you can connect with her on Facebook.
One lucky person will win two of Dorian’s Lindy Blues chapter books—The Missing Silver Dollar and The Big Scoop.
Plus, another lucky person will win up to a ten page middle-grade or young adult novel critique from Dorian! Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below. Everyone eligible will be entered to win the chapter books—please let us know in a blog comment if you’re also interested in the critique. The winners will be announced on Saturday, September 28. Good luck!
**The book giveaway is for people living in the United States and Canada, but the ten page MG or YA critique is open to everyone.
LINDY BLUES: THE MISSING SILVER DOLLAR
When Lindy Blues, Your Nose for News, gets a call that there’s been a bank robbery, she jumps into action. She heads for the White House – the one on 14th and Flamingo, the home of Joshua and Amy Becker. When she learns there’s only one silver dollar missing from Amy’s “World Bank,” Lindy can’t believe an important reporter would be asked to cover such a small story. But it’s a slow news week and she needs a scoop. Will Lindy solve the mystery of the missing coin by tonight’s news show? Tune in and find out!
LINDY BLUES: THE BIG SCOOP
Lindy Blues, Your Nose for News, is stumped when she hears about the missing ice-cream shop. How could “Mr. Hoop’s Super Scoop” go missing and then mysteriously reappear? As Lindy sniffs around the neighborhood for clues, she realizes that this might be her toughest scoop yet! Time is running out for her Saturday night news program, and all Lindy has is a story about flowers and their biological clocks. Will she crack the case of the missing ice-cream store in time for the LBN newscast? Tune in to find out!
Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her twelve and fifteen year-old daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer pup who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.