What’s The Big Idea 5

*Guys sorry I didn’t post till now.  I seem to have caught the flu. (argh).  Hopefully the post makes sense.  I’m now going to nap.*

Very Big, Very Small

When I was a kid, the part of Alice In Wonderland that both fascinated me and disturbed me was the eat this to get big, eat this to get small thing.

Little did I know that when I grew up and became a writer, I would run into the same idea.  Almost as soon as I broke in, agents and editors started telling me that I needed to make my books “big”.  The bible on making books big was Writing The Blockbuster by Albert Zuckerman, the iconic founder of Writers House Agency.  Perhaps it still is.  If you are trying to sell to the big houses and go the traditional route, the book is definitely worth reading, re-reading and taking notes on.

Others have written variants on these books, of course, and they all read to me like diluted versions, but then I’m a well known intellectual snob when it comes to studying difficult material.  At any rate, the entire concept of writing “the big book” and “writing the blockbuster” became massive in the oughts.

This is not a coincidence since the oughts is when the publishing houses and the bookstores perfected their control over what the public got to see and, therefore, got to buy.  To put it bluntly, the only route to a bestseller was to do exactly what the publishers thought would make a bestseller.  Then you got push and it would do well.

Theoretically, of course.  A lot of things were “big” and still didn’t get push.

I’m doing the book a disservice, but what it boils down to is a “big” book contains big ideas, ideas beyond the story it encompasses.

If you’re scratching your head and saying practically any book contains that, even if the idea is “love conquers all”, you’re absolutely right.  BUT and this is important, the ideas had to be those the publishers viewed as “big.”  For instance, in my third Shakespeare book, whose ideas I’d define, if anything as “a man may smile and smile and be a villain” critics detected the “big” idea that I despised racism.  (Rolls eyes.)  True, as far as that goes, but it is an incidental and small point of world building – it is however the “big idea” they could identify… i.e. the one that tied in with their own ideas.

This obsession with the “big book” which eventually became a condition of the agents sending the d*mn thing out at all, gave us romances in which every regency female is a proto-feminist.  It gave us mysteries in which an important person’s life ALWAYS has to be at stake.  It gave us… nonsense.

Did this help the books sell?  Well, it helped them sell to the publisher, and – insofar as the publisher decided to put push behind it – could help it sell to the public.  Now, all these variables are questionable, since, after all, your book could become a stealth hit on Amazon even if your publisher doesn’t put it on shelves – even in traditional format.

So, if you’re going indie, does the story “size” matter?  Do you have to put what NYC publishers recognize as big ideas in it?  Does it have to involve people of importance, historic or otherwise?

I don’t know.  I’m one of those people who reads anything, “big” and “small.”  OTOH would Da Vinci’s Code have sold as well if it were “The Code of Guido, the renaissance accountant?”  Probably not.  The fact that Da Vinci name recognition called people’s attention should not be underestimated.  So, if you’re selling something with an historic tie, making it have some relation even if peripheral to a famous person – famous enough to be recognized by most of the public – might help.

Considerations of this nature help if you have a formless idea.  Say I wanted to write a book about someone usurping the throne.  I could use a king in Portugal, but no one in the States knows or cares enough about Portugal (In fact I’m using a dynastic Portuguese squabble as the basis for the partly finished fantasy book To The Dragons.  Yeah, yeah, hey, let me kick the flu and resume writing.  I will try to get to it this year, I promise.)  But if I use the war of the roses, I clue in the vast majority of the historical-story-reading public in the US.  If you have a choice with your idea, please take that in account.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t.

OTOH let’s say the story you WANT to write, the one that’s pounding down the doors, is a small, private story: a cozy mystery with murder in a family circle or a house party.  Should you force your idea to become bigger so it will sell better?

If you’re going indie, please don’t do that.  (If you’re not, I’m not informed of the benefits of playing to the audience, right now.)  There is nothing more infuriating than a tightly woven mystery with understandable private motives and suddenly, out of the blue, the government did it, or the mafia did it, or… There is nothing worse than a romance that becomes social commentary halfway through.

Keep things plausible.  Stick to the scale you do have.  And if people don’t like it because it’s too small or too big, well, that’s life.  Some people prefer one or the other.  (I have a slight preference for small, since I have a slight preference for internal moves, as a reader.)  But if they don’t like it because the “big idea” is shoveled in with a trowel and doesn’t fit – that is your problem!  Don’t let it be your problem.  Suit your idea to the story you’re telling and beware making it really big or really small when in fact it’s just proper sized.

16 responses to “What’s The Big Idea 5

  1. I’ve heard “the book” referred to as the “Great American Novel”. [Grin]

    The problem IMO with the “Great American Novel” (or the “Great British Novel”, etc.) is that not every writer can create it.

    While writing a “good read” is more possible to shoot for.

    Mind you, Sarah’s correct about the publishers looking for the “Great American Novel” instead of the “good read” type book.

  2. Just as I’m glad that the indie world is allowing shorter books to find a home, I’m also glad that it’s allowing smaller ideas to find a home.

    I have a series of stories that I like. I hope somebody else will, too, but I write them because I like them. They’re stories about ordinary working class folks with ordinary lives and ordinary jobs — on the Moon, which makes them out of the ordinary from our perspective. I dubbed this style “Blue Collar Space”. They’re mostly not big ideas. One, for example, is just a geologist telling what he had to go through to study on the Moon, what it cost him, what he found as a result, and what new challenges result from it. Very sedate and introspective. I don’t expect a lot of people to like it, because it’s really just an ordinary life told in retrospect. But thanks to indie publishing and e-books, it’s out there for that small number of people who might appreciate it.

    In discussing “The Trouble with Tribbles”, David Gerrold once wrote why episodic TV can’t be Great Art: because Great Art is about a pivotal point in the protagonist’s life, and you can’t have a pivotal point week after week. That cheapens the pivotal points. So you have to leaven the Cities of the Edge of Forever with the more everyday stories like Tribbles. I think indie fiction creates room for that sort of everyday story.

  3. (Tribbles are totally great art. For certain definitions of art. 😉 )

    And, in a spree of fixating on a relatively minor detail, I am even more glad that, when copy-editing my mom’s book, I took it onto myself to delete some bits of the paragraph about “well, this character is enlightened for his era.”

    I hope you feel better soon!

  4. Funny how “BIG IDEA” never seems to correlate to “an entertaining read.”

    A cynic (never one around when you want one, is there?) might suggest that “BIG IDEAS” are simply tools used by publishers to move product. A cynic (has anyone seen one lying about?) might even observe the tendency of “BIG IDEAS” to correspond to the biases and pretensions of the type of people who find “BIG IDEAS” compelling reasons to read a book.

    Speaking as a cynic (not that I am one, but apparently there is a need for filling that role, at least temporarily) I suspect “BIG IDEA” is the publisher-speak version of cleavage. It distracts the audience from the absence of content.

    • Nice one! But I do like a bit of literary “cleavage” now and then. Using “Davinci Code” as an example – great escapism, but there is no way I would read any of his other books.

  5. I like the idea of “right sizing” an idea to the scope of the book. I mean, how many times have you read a fantasy about saving or recapturing a kingdom? Saving the World. Fighting the Ultimate Evil.

    Can’t a village just have a problem with standard bandits, instead of a brush with Mega Doom as he passes by on his way to world conquest, leaving behind burned villages and sudden orphans with revenge burning so many holes in their souls that they’ll become expert swordmen and cany tacticians by the time they’ve caught up with Mega Doom again?

    • “Can’t a village just have a problem with standard bandits[?]”

    • “Can’t a village just have a problem with standard bandits?”

      Seven Samurai.

      People forget that big ideas can be expressed in the smallest of frames. And The Hidden Fortress didn’t become more brilliant and enticing when it got turned into an empire-spanning space opera.

      • Duty. Integrity. Honor. Valor. Character. Defending property rights. Pretty big ideas in some circles. Maybe those things matter even more when done for a lousy little village than for an Empire.

        Since we’re pounding Cinema Nippon, how about the question of What is Truth, and how do we know it?, asked of a few travelers waiting out a rain storm under a city’s gates.

        Shoot, Stagecoach poses some pretty interesting questions and it ain’t but about a few itinerant travelers whose lives and deaths don’t much matter in the grand scheme of things. Some folk think High Noon an interesting tale, but what, really, is it about? Some dumb hick town marshal pointlessly confronting a few ex-cons, needlessly endangering the town’s folk?

  6. Another factor to consider is “growing” an idea. Look at Heinlein’s Juveniles (ought we call them YA now?) Many of them start small –think of Citizen of the Galaxy, Have Space Suit, Tunnel In the Sky, Between Planets, Space Cadet, Star Beast — each starts small and some grow to be very big ideas indeed — but the growth is organic and natural, not forced.

  7. Great post. This is really re-assuring and timely for my own soon to be self published 99c offering!