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Premise in fiction. Your undergrad English professor probably taught you a fancy definition for this concept, but every novelist will tell you this: The premise is the cool thing your book is about. Simple, right? Like, a crazed fan holds an author hostage and forces him to write a novel (Misery by Stephen King). The lives and loves of best friends through the years (Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy). A forbidden love that lasts a lifetime (The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough). A Navy wife whose marriage is in crisis learns her husband is missing at sea (The Ocean Between Us by my favorite author). In The Art of Dramatic Writing (1977), Lajos Egri (who seems to have been obsessed with the concept of premise) states:
“Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.”
I envy the writer who comes up with fantastic ideas again and again, using the same method–listening to music, going for a drive, staring out the window, reading the paper, brainstorming with a friend. For me, coming up with a premise is like going shopping without knowing what you’re looking for.
“I’ll know it when I find it,” you tell yourself. Figuring out exactly what “it” is can be all-consuming. All I know is that “it” will be the driving force that sends me on the longest walk in the world, every day for the next six months to a year–that deathly commute from the couch to the blank page. So “it” had better be good. The funny thing is, the harder I try, the more elusive “it” becomes. I think myself into a dither. I fiddle with things. I “what-if” myself into a state of confusion. I go on personal quests in search of the Cool Thing.
Sometimes I get lucky. I might discover it as I take my dogs for a walk on the beach. Suddenly, I might think, “a lonely woman who runs a beachside restaurant.” And I’ll think about why she’s lonely, and what it feels like to own a place where marriage proposals happen on a regular basis. Or I’ll be digging in the garden or Windexing the kitchen, two activities that any writer will tell you have enormous appeal when confronted with a blank page. Maybe “it” will smack me upside the head as I stand at the refrigerator with the door propped open, contemplating the merits of leftover mac-and-cheese for breakfast. Aha, I’ll think. How about a struggling young widow and a bazillionaire?
Then I’ll have to test the idea in a thousand ways, figuring out what the most compelling elements are. Where will the tension come from? What will the reader see on the page and how will I make myself–and then the reader–happy to be reading it?
For most books, my story premise is cobbled together the way a magpie gathers things for its nest, with a shiny object here, a twisty thread there. At some point, maybe while making a story collage, these seemingly disparate pieces will coalesce into the Great Thing I’ve been seeking, the thing that will consume me through the next year: IT.
Do you have a favorite story premise to read or write about? Share below! My inquiring mind want to know.
So my awesome publisher has produced a nice glossy advance-reading-copy edition of STARLIGHT ON WILLOW LAKE.
I know all writers will tell you “this book has a special place in my heart,” but this one REALLY does. After you read the dedication page in the front and the acknowledgment page in the back you’ll know why.
It’s a good book club topic. The storyline deals with with tragedy, a person’s role in caring for a parent, and how exploring the past can lead to a whole new perspective on life. Just as bonus, there are dogs, comedy, Balinese cooking, a few cuss words. and love scenes that will curl your toes but not offend your mother. Swear.
You know what’s missing? A reading group guide. I’d love your help with this. What’s the most thought-provoking topic your group has every discussed?
I have 15 copies of the ARC (pub-speak for “advance reading copy”) to give away. Here’s how to enter. Send the name of your book group, along with a contact person and mailing address, to susanmwiggs (at) gmail dot com, and fifteen winners will be chosen at random on May 1. You’ll receive the ARC along with some other goodies for readers to enjoy long before the book gets published.
I hear it from emerging writers all the time. I’ve got a great idea for a novel. I’m going to sit down and write it as soon as I…
- …get my day job under control
- …get my final kid into kindergarten
- …into college …out of jail
- …get my finances in order
- …fix my marriage
- …finish painting the house
- …pay off the car
- …clean the can opener
- …clean the rain gutters
- …get the puppy housebroken
- …retire from my job
- …finish watching the third season of “Weeds”
- …get my Bachelor’s…Master’s…PhD…LLB…MD
- …pay off my student loans
- …read all the Outlander books
- …check in with my nineteen thousand Facebook friends
- …upgrade my computer
- …make tenure
- …landscape the yard
- …take a vacation
- …host my book group
- …teach my teenager to drive
- …finish knitting this sweater
- …forgive my parents …forgive myself
- …get over my fear of failure …get over my fear of success
- …get permission from my parents/spouse/children/therapist
- …hire an agent
- …learn to use the subjunctive case
- …quit worrying about what my family will think of my story, especially the dirty parts
- …stop smoking/drinking/playing online games
- …figure out the business of publishing
- …lose 20 pounds so I look good in my author photo…
You name it, and a procrastinating writer has said it. Here’s a dirty little secret. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the cruel reality is this. There will never be a good time to write. Life will always intrude. That’s what life is. Be glad for that. If you have no life, you have nothing to write about.
The good news is, there’s a simple solution. Make time for the things that are important to you. If writing your story is important, make time for it. Simple as that. Turn off the TV, leave the dishes undone, close your e-mail, grab a notebook and pen, and tell your family, “Don’t interrupt me unless your eyes are bleeding.” You’ll be surprised by the respect they give you.
The way you spend your day is the way you spend your life. So quit being your own worst enemy and start being your own best friend. Make time to write, even if you don’t have time.
I have procrastinated my way through the writing of many books. Somehow, the story emerges. The Beekeeper’s Ball hits the shelves next week. There’s a lot of love and food in that book. Let me know what you think.
Step one – open shitty first draft.
Step two – print out in word draft mode, light colored ink.
Step three – put on extra strong glasses and bright lamp. Rewrite every single page until it looks like it’s bleeding. Be aware that you might need a lot of physical space for laying out the pages. Clothespins are key. So are Post-It notes.
Step five – type in handwritten edits.
Step six – go back to step 2 and do it all again.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Barkis is not too subtle when he wants to go for a walk….
The secret? See below:
Thanks for the love, Shelf Awareness. Fictional Stories, Real Food
There has been a growing trend over the past few years to write novels and memoirs that include recipes, although now it’s no longer a trend, it’s a genre. Obviously, some books are more successful than other with this; really, how many recipes for chocolate chip cookies can the market bear? But when it works, it’s very good. I still make the banana bread recipe (to great acclaim) from Molly Wizenberg’s wonderful memoir, A Homemade Life. Check it out.
Recent months have seen many entries in the book-with-recipes category. Susan Wiggs’s latest novel, The Apple Orchard, about a California apple orchard, an unwilling half-heiress to same, and the pleasures of food and family, is a captivating and charming story. So are the recipes, like lavender scones, and apple chutney. She says, “It’s always lovely to come across a recipe that’s good enough to share. My criteria for including a recipe in a book is that it needs to work thematically with the novel, it has to be delicious and it has to be reasonably easy to prepare. I like to picture my readers having their book club over and preparing something from one of my novels.”