HOW TO WRITE A BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 1 – An Inspired Concept

April 22, 2010

OK, enough messing around! It’s time to roll up our sleeves, sharpen our pencils, and get down to business. So have a strong cup of coffee standing by as we enter the classroom this week in the first of a series of (probably five) posts titled HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.
These are based on a talk that I have given in various parts of the world, notably London, Los Angeles and Asilomar, California. In each venue what I want to say develops and changes a little, but here I am going to distil what I think are the most useful points. This is what we’ll be covering, after a short introduction: 1) An inspired concept 2) Larger-than-life characters 3) A high-stakes story 4) A deeply felt theme and 5) A vivid setting . . . . Oh, and there will be a number 6) also – I wonder if you can guess what that might be? At the end, you should have a set of notes that will enable you to heckle from the back of the room if you ever hear me give the talk in future – but also, I hope, notes that will be really useful.

Why do I want to talk about ‘writing the breakout novel’ and what do I mean by that?

Toni Morrison said: ‘If there’s a story you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

But HOW do you write it? Can there BE a recipe for writing a great novel or am I simply suggesting we manipulate a stupid marketplace?

Of course I am not. I am a lover of language and a lover of quality writing, whether that be what we might call ‘literary’ or ‘commercial’. So the last thing I’d propose is that you write something that isn’t authentic to you in the hopes of getting a deal. That just won’t work!
However, I do believe there are certain common denominators to a great story, wherever it comes on the literary spectrum – and that that’s true whether you’re writing a plot-based novel full of action, or a quieter story where you’re primarily in the internal world of your protagonist. Does this apply to both young fiction and more sophisticated older fiction? I think so – test it out. But hopefully there will be some points at least that can be distilled even in a story aimed at younger kids.

What do I mean by ‘breakout novel’? Well, that’s my shorthand for saying – the story that gets you a deal, that creates a buzz in the marketplace, that enables you to go on writing for a career; the story that is passed from hand to hand. And this is important because we are in a time of ongoing turbulence in the industry; editors are under pressure to cut lists, focus on the biggest brands (authors), and acquisition processes are even tougher and risk-averse.

Amid all this, the one great growth area is . . . the numbers of people wanting to write. And especially write for children/young adults, the sector of the market which has shown itself to be most recession-proof and such a dynamic force within the publishing world over the last 10+ years. Record numbers attended the national SCBWI conferences in the past year; record numbers applied for the prestigious MFA in Children’s Writing program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. Everyone wants to write! So how can YOU break through – get published and, just as importantly, STAY published?

Here is my recipe for success based on the books I acquired and published during my 25+ years as a senior London children’s publisher, and my 2+ years as a literary agent, reading hundreds of queries each month.

The first ingredient of your breakout novel must be:


I can’t tell you exactly how to unearth your concept, but I CAN tell you that it needs to be great! And I know that keeping your eyes and ears open to the stories going on all around you, in real life, is one good way of tracking down a strong idea.

Once you have a theme, is there a way of portraying/developing that theme that is unexpected, unusual, different? Some of you will know that the book I like to mention at this point is THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, because I think Jay Asher was remarkably clever in taking a subject that has been written about before (a girl’s death by her own hand) and doing something completely different with it – structurally, conceptually, so that it is turned into a tense, compressed thriller. This is just one example of a clever concept. Other stories won’t be quite so ‘high-concept’ necessarily, but this idea of doing something fresh is one to work with.

OK, moving on – get to know your area of the market and what is working, the diversity within it, the parameters. In other words, educate yourself about the world you are trying to enter. But then set some of that aside, because you need to discover the story that fills YOU with passion and excitement. The story that you really can’t wait to tell.

Be aware of the risk of being derivative of current bestsellers. Even if you get a deal today your book probably wouldn’t now be published until 2012, by which time the market will have moved on. We see a lot of very similar stories, so be aware that we love to see something that’s fresh and different. Think big. Think bold. Think . . . . what if? Always a great way to start plotting because it encourages you to think out of the box.

Try to be very clear about WHO you are writing for. There are stories that never find an audience because they’re not sufficiently clearly targeted for any particular section of the market. Is your story for boys or girls or both? What age group?

What is the Unique Selling Point of your story? Marketeers in any industry seek the USP of a product (ever watched Dragon’s Den on TV? If so you’ll know what I mean), and it’s great if your story has a USP that can be articulated. What sets it apart from other books? Look along your shelves and see if you can pinpoint a USP in your favourite titles. Publishers considering your manuscript will be looking for something that picks it out from all the others on their desks – a special way in which they can present your work to their sales team, to retailers, to the world. Why this manuscript rather than all the others?

Don’t start writing until you know you have a really, really great idea. Work out your pitch BEFORE you start writing. (Wow, radical for all you guys who like to start at the beginning and just WRITE according to where the wind blows you!) This can be a very good idea – it will help to start you off with focus, sure of the story you are really intending to tell, and more-or-less sure of where it is going to lead you. Perhaps you don’t need this approach if you are an incredibly accomplished and experienced writer, but if you’re just setting out, formulating your pitch before you write the first page might be a real help.

Then you could try condensing that pitch further – into a couple of lines. Like the shoutline on a movie poster. Can you do that?