July 3rd, 2013

Writing to Sell

Darynda Jones

Darynda Jones

by Darynda Jones

Have you ever sat and listened to a panel of editors and agents go over their wish lists, the manuscripts they’d most like to see at that moment? And have you ever thought to yourself, “Hmmm, a space opera about a zombie captain who is commissioned to take an elemental princess across the universe to a peace conference where only she can stop a war that is destined to destroy an entire race of people while fighting evil star demons bent on killing said princess? I can do that.”

Yeah, me too.

I used to listen with bated breath to those editors and agents, my mind spinning a mile a minute on what I could write next. What would most appeal to an agent and editor? What would get their attention? And guess what. There’s nothing wrong with doing that.

I’m not saying follow trends. That endeavor is almost hopeless from the get-go. More often than not, by the time you finish your manuscript, the trend will have passed and the market will already be flooded with the latest and greatest concept since sliced bread.

What I’m talking about is writing to sell. And sell big.

Put yourself in an editor or agent’s shoes and look at writing from their perspective. Just like you, they want to make a living at what they do. They want to make money from the projects they take on. If they think they can’t turn a profit from your project, they will reject you. As hard as that is to swallow, it’s ridiculously understandable. Writing is a business. Sometimes we forget that. And just like all businesses, it needs to turn a profit or someone—possibly many someones—is out of a job.

When we think of writing in those terms, it is easier to step back and look at what we are writing from a marketing perspective. Every once in a while, I get flack for this. I hear everything from, “Writing is an art,” to “If you try to write for the market, you are selling out.”

Make no mistake, writing is my job. It is how I make money. It is how I pay my bills. So, yes, I look at it as a business, and luckily for me, it paid off. Romance writers are some of the savviest businesspeople I’ve ever met. They write for the love of writing, for the love of telling that great story that is burning within them, but they do it while being very conscious of the market, of what is out there, of what will sell and what probably won’t. That is good business. That is getting paid (emphasis on the word PAID) for what we love to do.

So, with all of that in mind, the trick to selling, to getting an editor or agent’s attention, involves the old standbys: Fresh, crisp writing; a solid concept; a tight story; etcetera, etcetera. But what you might not hear as often is ‘a fresh twist.’

Let’s face it. There are no new stories, but there are always, always, always fresh twists to old ones. It’s that fresh twist that will get you noticed, that will catapult your story out of the slush pile and into an editor’s eager hands.

This can also be thought of as high concept story writing.

Sadly, high concept has gotten a bad rep in recent years, and that’s too bad. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. In fact, if your story is not high concept, the odds of it selling are astronomically lower in comparison. In the simplest terms, high concept is merely an old story, one that is universally understood, but with a fresh, unexpected twist that evokes an instant emotional response. It is not, as many people believe, comparing two stories to create one. For example, it is not merely stating, “My story is Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Glee.” Though that is a rather intriguing concept.

Nathan Bransford says if high concept were a person it would be a teenager, because it’s often totally misunderstood. If high concept were a tool it would be a sledgehammer.

And that about sums it up. High concept is often misunderstood and misused, but knowing exactly what it is and how it can help propel your manuscript out of the slush pile is crucial to success in the world of publishing.

Look at these examples and tell me what you think.


Option A: Terrorist gang takes hostages in an office high-rise after dark, seeking millions from the company’s vault.

Not bad, but what if we add a fresh (at the time) twist?

Option B: Terrorist gang takes hostages in an office high-rise after dark, seeking millions from the company’s vault. What the criminals don’t know is that one resourceful cop (whose estranged wife is one of the hostages) is in the building, aiming to stop them (and save his wife.)

Better, yes?


Option A: An orphan boy is raised by his resentful aunt and uncle.


Option B: An orphan boy is raised by his resentful aunt and uncle only to find out he has magical powers and is the target of the evil wizard who killed his parents.

Much better!

Writing to Sell has three ultimate requirements:

  1. Your premise should be original and unique.
  2. Your story must have mass audience appeal.
  3. Your story must evoke an instant emotional response.

Look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High school girl destined to fight vampires while trying to pass algebra. How much fun is that?

And that is exactly what I’m talking about. Write your vampire story, but give it a twist that other vampire stories don’t have. Same goes for your murder mystery or your small-town contemporary romance. Give an agent or editor something to sink her teeth into, something that will set her afire and give her the ammunition she needs to fight for you in a sales meeting.

So, this is what I was thinking when I came up with the idea for the Charley Davidson series. Basically, I wanted a snarky girl living in an urban area, just trying to get by on mocha lattes and sarcasm. Nothing new there. But what if I gave her world a paranormal underbelly? And what if she was supernatural herself? Still, I wanted something different. Something that hadn’t been done often, something fresh and untapped on a mass scale, so I made her the grim reaper.

Here is the first line of the pitch that garnered 8 offers of representations from some of the top agents in the biz in one week: (It was a stressful week.)

Female private investigator Charley Davidson was born with three things: a smoking hot ass, a healthy respect for the male anatomy, and the rather odd job title of grim reaper.

What is different about your story? What sets it apart? If you can answer that, you are halfway there. I hope this helps you on your way to career bliss!

Thank you for coming!

About Darynda

Fifth GraveNYTimes and USA Today Bestselling Author Darynda Jones has won numerous awards for her work, including a prestigious Golden Heart®, a Rebecca, two Holt Medallions, a RITA ®, and a Daphne du Maurier, and she has received stellar reviews from dozens of publications including starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and the Library Journal.

As a born storyteller, Darynda grew up spinning tales of dashing damsels and heroes in distress for any unfortunate soul who happened by, annoying man and beast alike, and she is ever so grateful for the opportunity to carry on that tradition. She currently has two series with St. Martin’s Press: The Charley Davidson Series and the Darklight Trilogy. She lives in the Land of Enchantment, also known as New Mexico, with her husband of almost 30 years and two beautiful sons, the Mighty, Mighty Jones Boys. She can be found at www.daryndajones.com.

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