Article of The Month
THE PROMISE OF THE HOT PREMISE
Copyright 1998 by Alicia Rasley
Let's talk about your premises.
No, not your offices. We won't worry about those. I mean the premise that can help sell your story to editors, or rather, help them sell the story to their marketing department.
You've probably noticed that mere writing ability is not necessarily a primary prerequisite of publication. As long as you're writing above a certain minimal level, your prose is good enough for publication, and unfortunately, writing better than the minimum acceptable level doesn't give you that much better a shot at publication. Beautiful stylists get rejected every day, while barely adequate prosemongers make the bestseller list.
So what does matter in getting published? I know from my own experience there's a large element of luck involved, with market forces opening or closing publishing spaces and whole lines. You have virtually no control over that.
But one aspect you do have control over is presenting your book to the editor in the most beneficial light. I mean beneficial to the editor. What will benefit the editor is some quick shorthand summation of the commercial potential of your story, one she can present more or less intact as the "sales hook" of the story.
Unfortunately, unless she can find a hook, an editor can flat out love your story, admire your voice, envy your grammar skills... and still reject you.
That's because there's a part of her brain tuned into.... Marketing. Yes, the marketing channel. That's the one that keeps broadcasting: "Athletes don't sell! Musicians don't sell! Over-40 doesn't sell!"
You see, nowadays, many editors not only have to get the senior editor to approve their buying choices... they've got to run everything by marketing too. Oh, maybe not officially. But they can never forget that they will be blamed if they buy a book marketing thinks it can't sell. (It seems to me that anyone can sell a book that's easy to sell, and that any marketing guy worth his gold pen ought to regard your over-40 NFL quarterback violinist as a challenge, but....)
Anyway, editors are always mentally consulting their marketing channel as they evaluate your query and synopsis. And sometimes they reject a book they might otherwise accept, because the "marketer-within" bleats a protest. They can't keep on presenting "hard-to-market" stories at the acquisition meetings without getting a reputation as a loser.
Now does this mean that you should mold your book to fit the dictates of marketing?
Certainly not! Why give them more power than they already have?
Rather I'm suggesting that you present the editor with a marketing hook, a hot premise, a high concept, that she can take to those skeptical marketing folk. That is, find the most commercial, most "sexy", most marketable element in your book, and play it up. But only in the query letter and synopsis and pitch to editor. Your book itself doesn't have to change.
You just have to find the hook that will pacify the marketing people (who most likely will never read the book so won't ever know about that violinist hero you snuck in). The editor will be grateful. This effort on your part saves her work, and maybe lets her buy a book she really wants but has dreaded trying to "pass".
So... are you still with me? Ready to try to find and hone your hot premise?
You might be asking, does every book have a hot premise? Even my gentle little coming-of-age novel set in a boarding school just after WWI? Well, I think, if you stretch, there's a hot premise in there.
What you are looking for is the clever situation, the "tagline", that will catch the eye of the editor and sales rep, and eventually the reader when it appears on the cover of the book. Even the gentlest, coziest coming-of-age story can have within it some easily summarized situation that, properly presented, will intrigue the editor.
As I said, the high concept, the hot premise, is the situation. That is, not so much the plot or the character but in that setup of the external conflict. EXTERNAL, mind you. Many of us focus more on the internal when we say what our books are about: "It's about this rich but neglected kid who has to find his place in the isolated and insulated world of his school." But that's not the hook.
The hook, whether we like it or not, is in the external situation. Try this instead, as a situation, "There's a big conflict between rival dormitories in this elite boarding school." (Hang on- we'll refine later.)
It isn't a plot-- it doesn't tell what happens or who wins. It's certainly not characters.
It's just the situation which develops into the plot, or rather, the situation from which the plot develops. There's an element of suspense, a sense of potential, of possibility, of anticipation.
"There's more to this story! I want to know what happens!"
That is, by withholding what they want, we entice them.
Sort of like with men. :)
That's the situation. How about a premise? Can you take that situation and come up with a concise, precise sentence? Can you make that short and pithy, with a buzzword or two? "Civil war breaks out in an elite boarding school." That's a quick, clever, resonant TV-Guide sort of summary. (TV-Guide is your best manual for hot premises, by the way.)
Think "setting and conflict." Think "character role and conflict." Conflict is definitely the key, because conflict is potential, conflict is danger, conflict is suspense.
Now what I propose is that you find the hot premise in your book-- the one already there-- and hone it and revise it into one or two sentences that just glitter with intrigue and promise. It must imply conflict. It must imply potential. It must imply tension.
And it will have to be the tightest sentence you've ever written. No vagueness allowed.
Every word, every word, has to carry plenty of promise. If a word can do double duty (a double-entendre, sexual or otherwise), all the better. If a word or phrase has some cultural resonance ("star-crossed lovers"), all the better. Good old buzzwords (yes, I mean cowboy, bride, baby; but also rich, danger, hot, death....) let the editor know right away what the market niche will be.
- Find a keyword and play with it. John is an accountant trained never to take risks... so will he risk falling in love? Risk is the keyword, used first as a noun then as a verb. You could maybe go for a synonym for one of them (gamble, say) if you don't like repetition, but personally, I like the rhythm of repeating the keyword. While you're at it, how about editing that to show more conflict, more potential, in the second clause? .... so why would he risk falling in love?
- Go for strong nouns and vivid verbs. Use the combination of an adjective and noun (in conflict if possible) to describe your protagonist in the most concise terms (Cautious accountant, a burnt-out cop, a renegade nun, star-crossed lovers).
- Exploit cliches whenever possible- this is one instance where cliches are clever, as long as you give them a bit of a twist. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and.... poison ivy on the tenderest spots. This is not the honeymoon Joe has always envisioned. Note, by the way, the use of the ellipsis to lead into the punchline. Ellipses and dashes add "typographical tension" to these little sentences, by connecting clauses and sentences and events in an unexpected way. They also look like fun!
- Look for opportunities for wordplay, such as puns and alliteration. Fashionable fribble Freddie Whitcomber has plenty of admirers... and one detractor- the unknown fashion critic who strangled Freddie with his own impeccably starched cravat. These are probably best confined to lighter books, but can add bounce to the sentence.
- Try to balance the sentence rhythmically. This is hard to do unless you have an ear for it, but it does help to think of this as a chorus to a popular song, or a jingle in a commercial. You might have to add or subtract a syllable or two to make it scan, but it's worth the effort if it sings in the editor's ear. A heroic, sexy man , a motherless child, a family: a substitute wife can't ask for anything more reads better as A heroic hunk, his motherless child, and a family of her own: what more can a substitute wife ask?
Keep it to one sentence or maybe two- no more. Edit ruthlessly so that every word, even the a and the, matter. You can elaborate on it in a paragraph in the query letter, or use the synopsis to develop and resolve the conflict promised in the teaser.
In other words, use the weapons THEY use in their advertising copy-- teasing, tantalizing, playing hard-to-get. Dressing sexy. :)
Let's parse a quick one here.
Civil war - strong noun as subject, plenty of cultural resonance, clear conflict
breaks out- strong verb, active, action-oriented (as opposed to, say, "starts"), conflict-filled
in an elite boarding school- buzzword "elite", establishes the powerful, enclosed setting, hint of pathos (children growing up away from their families).
Let's edit a situational statement down for maximum effect:
As an orphan, Jodie Wilson needs only three things on the night she encounters Tom Jarrett, who has escaped from jail. Those are keeping her little sister Trudie safe, earning enough money to pay off the mortgage on her house, and a way to restore her late father's reputation. When she threatens to turn him in, Tom is forced to help, but only if she'll agree to let him go free when he's done- he doesn't want any entanglements.
This is way too long, like most situation statements, so look for places to cut: Orphan Jodie Wilson.
Get rid of what isn't absolutely necessary. Compress long vague elements into tight little bundles of action/conflict: needs only three things from Tom Jarrett
Turn dependent clauses into modifiers: escaped convict Tom Jarrett:
Go with parallel structure for better rhythm and coherence, and use the strongest, most precise, most concise verbs: protection for her little sister, money to save her ranch, and restoration of her dead father's reputation.
Try to stay in one viewpoint (Jodie's), and show action and conflict, external and internal: Blackmail gets her Tom's help, but before they defeat the forces that besiege her, will she come to regret the promise she made- to use him and then to set him free?
All together now! Orphan Jodie Wilson needs only three things from escaped convict Tom Jarrett: protection for her little sister, money to save her ranch, and restoration of her dead father's reputation. Blackmail gets her Tom's help, but before they defeat the forces that besiege her, will she come to regret the promise she made- to use him and then to set him free?
So... you've got your hot premise! So what do you do with it?
You use it as your introduction to editors and agents. Type it on an index card and memorize it as a pitch at in-person editor appointments.
Put it in a new paragraph after "I would like to send you my 60,000-word manuscript, Time Enough," in a query letter.
And start your synopsis with it. Then start a new paragraph and introduce the characters and their conflicts, then go into the story.
Want to know how successful this can be? A recent writer's workshop featured an editor reading 1-page synopses volunteered by members of the audience. We all know how difficult those one-pagers are. But what's scary is- the editor often made up her mind after reading the first paragraph. In several cases, she read only the initial sentence, and if it was "hot" enough, she'd say, "I'd ask to see this manuscript. That opening is clever."
After slaving for months on a book, none of us want to be judged on a single sentence. But if that's reality, then doesn't it make sense to craft the best single sentence you can?
Here's an exercise to help you locate and present your story's hot premise to an editor:
1. What is the situation? NOT the plot, but more the setup-- tells what -starts- but not how it finishes. Think suspense, potential:
Bobby Jim's family wants to fix him up with a blind date.
Joe's honeymoon is a memorable disaster.
A boarding school is divided by rival factions.
A woman on the run from a serial murderer gets amnesia.
A woman with a terminal illness arranges her own murder.
2. Can you identify the hot marketing element here? Is there some buzzword or phrase you can use? Look for some word resonant with cultural trendiness.
3. Now come up with some TV Guide type of teaser sentence- look at your situation above and any buzzwords and write me a single sentence. Look for tension, suspense, potential, cleverness.
Examples: Bobby Jim doesn't want a wife... but that's what his family gives him for Christmas.
Jim can't believe it! He got poison ivy on his honeymoon???
The students at an elite boarding school go to war with each other.
Hayley has amnesia, but she remembers someone is trying to kill her!
Terri has arranged her own murder. Now she has to stop the hit man before he does what he's been paid for.
4. Refine! Tighten! Go with strong verbs, powerful adverbs, resonant nouns. Aim for alliteration, exploit clichés, go for the visceral. Get the protagonist in there if possible. Ellipses and dashes are useful here.
Examples: The last thing Bobby Jim wants is a bride, but guess what he got for Christmas?
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and.... poison ivy on the tenderest spots. This is -not- the honeymoon Joe has envisioned.
Civil war at an elite boarding school- can a school divided against itself stand?
Hayley remembers nothing at all-- except the face of the man who tried to kill her....
Arranging your own murder is tougher than it sounds. But Terri is nothing if not efficient-- unfortunately, so is the hit man she hires.
Go to previous articles:
Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes
Subtle and Sensual
Plotting Without Fears
Structuring the Story
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The Story Within Writing Series
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Mail to Alicia: [email protected]
Mail to Alicia: [email protected]