BY CAROL MASON
In the book and movie business, they talk about ‘high concept’ ideas. What it basically means is, does the idea have a little X factor? Will it appeal, excite and matter to a huge audience of people? Can it be explained in one sentence – a bit like the length of a Tweet? Take the movie, Indecent Proposal. A husband allows his wife to have sex with a rich man for a million dollars. If the idea had been a married woman has sex with someone else, it would hardly raise an eyebrow. The how will this turn out? factor is replaced instantly with the really couldn’t care less factor. Yet a few tweaks transform it from a non-starter to a blockbuster hit.
Coming up with a genuinely worthwhile book idea is a writer’s greatest challenge. You search far and wide for it, land on it, and then you have to stick with it for the entire time it takes to finish it – in my case, about a year. During that time, you will go from loving it, to doubting it, to hating it, to thinking it’s not bad, to wanting to abandon it for something else, to feeling certain you are going to shoot yourself over it, to deciding it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. During this madcap process, the idea starts to become you and you have become it. There is not a moment of your waking day, and even often in your dreams, when it’s not on your mind. Yet even on your upbeat days, in the back of your mind you’re still wondering: Is it good enough? Is it big enough? Will people be hooked by it? (the whole Does my bum look big in this? insecurity as it applies to novelists.)
Everyone says that an idea has to be original. Sure. Just look at the books out there about city girl escapes to country, gets up to her ears in cow dung and finds love – or house-swaps and falls for someone else’s ex-boyfriend. Or doggy arrives in life, causes chaos, but ultimately helps a person heal from a failed relationship. Then there are the ones about Jane Austen fans, or people knitting their way to new friendships. Yup. They’re all original, right? Clearly. For every person who says ideas have to be new, some other says that every idea has been done before. Some think it’s even okay to have an old idea so long as you give it a fresh twist. This should make it easy to decipher what book publishers want? Right?
No! It’s not easy. In fact trying to predict what will take off is a writer’s version of banging their head off a wall. So you don’t. You just write and hope and go with your hunches. Because you do get a hunch about it. A big idea makes you want to rush to start writing it. You worry someone else will come up with it. If you’re not worrying that someone else might think of it, that in itself is a worry all of own. But then I automatically think of the books that have left the most lingering impression on me. Very often they have not been earth-shatteringly clever stories. They haven’t even attempted to mine new territory. One of my favourites is The Men’s Room by Ann Oakley. It became a popular BBC drama staring Bill Nighy. Married woman falls for married, cheating sheister. Married woman divorces, then marries sheister. Sheister never changes. Married woman leaves sheister. Then years later she has an affair with him all over again. If it were written today it would probably never get published. Because it doesn’t appear to offer the reader anything new. Plus the heroine sounds a little lame. Yet I’ve probably read it ten times.
My last novel, The Love Market, was inspired by an article I came across on the Internet, about a mountain village in Vietnam where lovers come to rendez-vous – married ones for forbidden trysts, and youngsters in search of the love of their life. The real Love Market inspired my fictional Love Market about a newly divorced professional matchmaker in northern England who is doubting whether she has done the right thing – and then her first love, whom she met while backpacking the world, in Vietnam’s famous Love Market – mysteriously returns to her life, complicating matters even more. Send Me A Lover was based on something my husband once said to me – that if he died before me he would send me someone to love me, because he knew what my taste in men was and he would know who would be right for me. My first novel, The Secrets of Married Women was written because I had the itch to write about an affair that was going to take a different turn to most affairs in fiction. Were they big ideas? They were certainly heart-warming ones. Stories I was bursting to tell. All of them have been fun and fabulous, (and agony) to write.
Has Hollywood come knocking on my door? No. But I’m not done yet.
Carol Mason is the author of The Love Market, Send Me A Lover and The Secrets of Married Women. All her books have been recently re-released as Amazon E books, for 2 pounds, or $2.99, and for the month of March she is donating 50% net proceeds from sales to breast cancer. See www.carolmasonbooks.com for more details.