Processing the Paralyzing Premise

by Rachel Hauck

I’ve heard editors and agents comment on book proposals. “Wow me.” Or, “I’m looking for something dynamic. Fantastic.”

As a hungry writer, such words can be paralyzing. Editors and agents are asking for filet mignon when I’m approaching with my supersized McDonalds meal – hot from the grill and fry vat.
I think, hope, pray, believe it’ll be a satisfying meal. But, no, turns out the requirement is filet.
High concept. I’ve heard that too. Have you? “We’re looking for high concept ideas.”
I’m not even sure what that means from house to house, agent to agent. Definitions and tastes vary from agent to agent, editor to editor.
One agent loves literary. To him, a high concept, wow-me-fantastic story will have a literary tone. Another agent loves the high concept mainstream contemporary story that’s more plot driven than character.
Rats. I just pitched to the wrong agent. Now what?
So, we eat our own supersized McDonald’s meal and contemplate how to produce a filet from two-all-beef patties, special sauce and cheese on a sesame seed bun.
Wait, I got it! What about a cooking show host who can’t cook?
It’s high concept. I can spout the premise in a single sentence. I’ve nailed the elevator pitch. Cooking shows and foodie blogs are all the rage.
Great. Sold. Go for it.
Little did I know I would go from high concept to paralyzing premise syndrome. As I told people about my WIP during the first draft, they’d laugh. “I can’t wait to read it.” Or, “What a great idea. Too funny.”
Really, okay, but just what is that idea? What do you expect to read?
The delighted would shrug. “I don’t know exactly.”
Great. Me neither.
When I started writing Dining with Joy, about a cooking show host who can’t cook, I had to ask myself several questions.
1. Why can’t she cook? Even a little bit?
2. Why does she even do the show? Doesn’t she have other goals and dreams related to her talents?
3. Is she successful? If she’s not, why not just quit the show? If she is, what is at stake if she quits?
4. How do people not figure out she can’t cook? Do people know? Do they keep it a secret? Why?
5. How did she get the show in the first place? I knew it had to be circumstantial, but then why does she stay with it?
6. Does she learn to cook over time?
7. How does the hero discover her secret and help her overcome?
8. What’s the black moment? Well, I knew the heroine had to be exposed in a big way, so what were the stakes?
9. Who loses when she’s outed? If she’s the only one, then it’s not as dramatic. But if others are at risk, then her actions have devastating rippling effects.
10. How does she recover? What does she really want to do with her life?
As you can see, I had a lot of questions to figure out before I could even get to the plot of who, what, when, where, why and how.
Some of my answers lead to more questions. Each scenario had to have a plausible outcome.
I talked to show producers, cooking show producers, and a chef. I talked to a women who taught the untalented how to cook. I talked to people, like me, who aren’t into cooking.
I read memoirs and biographies of foodies and chefs.
Still, when it all boiled down, the premise had its very paralyzing moments no matter how much pre-planning and research I did.
Why? Because the heroine’s lie lives. It’s not that Joy believed a lie like, “I can never learn to cook.” She lived the lie.
My friend Susie, Susan May Warren, had the same problem with her book about a radio host who advises the lovelorn even though she’s never been on a date.
The hows and whys are endless. Once you find one solution, another question arises.
For me, the plot called for Joy, who is beautiful and great in front of the camera, to move from a small network to a large one. She’s funny and quirky. They love her.
But it’s also her perfect time to bail. Tell the truth to her new producer. But if I did that, the book would be over. Then what? Three hundred pages of Joy trying to find herself?
I know, I know, others have written such masterpieces, but not me.
So, a great idea usually comes with great problems. Worse, readers often miss all the details threaded in to show motivation, to give reason. They blow right past them and write a review that goes something like, “Why didn’t she just tell the truth?” Or, ”How did the hero figure it out when no one else did?”
Um, didn’t you read the book? All of those questions are answered. I’m not a fan of skim-reading. If you skim, don’t bash. Chances are, you missed something. I speak from experience.
Nevertheless, it was a fun book with a witty premise that can be pitched on one sweet sentence. “A cooking show host who can’t cook.” Like it or not, the sales team at any given publisher has about that much time to sell a book.
A rep can go to a book buyer with, “It’s Amish” and write a large order. Or the rep can say, “A rogue New York cop saves his wife and an L.A. building from terrorist,” and write a decent order.
If the salesman has to explain a book, “Yeah, this is a great story about a woman who lives an every day life. She’s the happiest of homemakers but one day her daughter comes home with a new friend. That’s when things really take off. Yeah, I can wait for you to take this call. But trust me, you’re going to love this book.”
Book buyers see a lot of sales reps. And as hard as we all work to promote our books, there’s only so much time and space allowed to sell them.
So, where does this little diatribe of mine leave us, the writer? Let me list a few tips:
1. Dig deep to come up with a unique idea. By that I mean, a twists on a common theme. There are cooking show novels. But only a very few where the host can’t cook.
2. Juxtapose your character’s talent and problem. In Lost In Nashvegas, Robin was a songwriter afraid to sing in front of large crowds. Her fear doused her desire. What’s your idea? What’s the opposite of that idea? Fit your character into the scenario. What is her desire? Contrast it with her fears.
3. Once you come up with an idea, write down all the ways it will work. All the ways it won’t. Brainstorm scenarios. Ask yourself “why?” and “what if?”
4. As you write, keep digging. Is there a door your protagonist should see as an escape hatch? If so, why don’t they? Dig deep to figure out internal struggles that keep them from the truth.
5. Create a complex character. Protagonist in situations opposite their desires have to be strong enough to carry the premise. For Joy, she was a college athlete, a competitor. She never quits. Even if she’s ill equipped. And, she had a wound over her father. In Susie’s book, the protagonist suffered a tragedy that locked her in fear. The reason why she never went on a date was because she rarely left her house.
6. Write it and write it again. Answer all the questions, close all the loop holes. If a reader or reviewers asks, “Why didn’t she just tell her new producer she couldn’t cook?” I was prepared with an answer. And I wrote it in the book.
7. Be prepared to change the plot. As the questions pop up and demand answers, be ready to change your story. Once I realized Joy was going to have a new producer (problem one) on a major network (problem two) with fame and fortune being promised to her and her staff (problem three) I realized she couldn’t just walk away. It fit her character to try. She was a competitor. And, she was a popular TV show host. She knew she could pull it off. As long as the universe stayed in harmony…
Those are some tips on gaining a high concept story idea and seeing it through when it becomes the paralyzing premise!
Off to McDonalds…
New York Times & USA Today best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She is on the Executive Board for American Christian Fiction Writers and leads worship for their annual conference. In 2013 she was named ACFW’s Mentor of the Year. She lives in Florida with her husband and ornery cat. Read more about Rachel at