Processing the Paralyzing Premise

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 memoires and biographies of foodies and chefs.

Still, when it all boiled down, the premise had it’s 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.

Susie had the same problem with her last 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…

Too Stupid to Live? Building Act 1 with believeable motivations!

Yesterday we talked about incorporating the first couple beats of your story into the first Act, and especially the first scene.  Today,  we’re going to continue the conversation by show how we might use Why/Why Nots to help move our character forward in his journey toward Act 2.


ACT 1 Review:


Inciting Incident

            The Big Debate

(Romantic) Quest


You’ve already established your character’s home world and had them meet in a way that helps the reader to feel sympathy for your characters.  You’ve also shown that they have an interest/need for something more, namely, a romance.  Finally, you’ve hinted at the stakes of the story, and perhaps even woven that in with the Why Not (or obstacles) between your characters.  E.g., having your character say, “The last person she wanted in her life was a know-it-all redneck,” right before her car breaks down in the middle of the northern Minnesotan woods, where a very buff logger redneck walks out of the forest to help her get back on the road. J


So, let’s move the romance thread a bit further along, using our why/why nots to help us.


Let’s refresh:

The Why Not are the Obstacles between the hero and heroine, the True Love that conspire to separate them. Remember,  you MUST have why not’s in a romance. Because without the WHY NOT, there is no conflict and the story is… boring. Or not a story.


The WHYs tell us why are these two perfect for each other?  We must know this by the end of the story because the core reason they belong together saves the day and brings them back together at the end.


We talked about the Why elements earlier this year, but there are three elements that draw people together:

1.      Their essential values. We like people who hold our values dear to their hearts.  At the end of the day, they need to see the core values of each other and have that draw them to each other.

2.     Their vacancies.  We like people who “complete” us – who can do the things we can’t do. What can they do for each other that the other can’t do?

3.     They make each other better people.  We like people who can see the best in us and draw it out.  What do they see in each other that they draw out, and how do they become better people when they are together? 

The inciting incident should cause a need to arise in the hoer/heroine so much so that they are “invited” by either an external or internal force to go on a “journey” or Noble Quest.  Although this is a plot element, likewise, they are going on a romantic journey as well.  They may not decide to pursue the object of their affection at the moment, but you are going to feed the internal interest or needs by giving them a glimpse of one of the whys.  By doing this, you will lowering their defenses for a second meeting.


For example, in Return to Me, the hero sees the heroine filling up the water bottle of the crabby patron in the sink.  This act feeds his internal values – he likes down to earth people.  When he doesn’t rat her out to his date, this ignites her interest/need for a man who might accept her (which, ultimately, is her hope).  Thus, she writes him a little note in his take-out meal.  Likewise, he hopes to see her when he goes back for his phone…and the story continues from there. 


Pick one of the Why elements and insert a hint of it in Act 1, as a sort of “pull” toward each other. Can they observe the other doing something that speaks to their values?  Can the hero do something for the heroine that she can’t do, or vice versa?  Or, are they briefly working together, or challenging each other to become better people? 


Think about the first Act of your favorite romances:  What Why do the hero/heroine hint at even before they begin their relationship/wooing?


Of course, there must also be something holding them apart, or it would be love at first sight.  Which means we need to return to the Why Nots.  What obstacles have you put before your hero/heroine?  If you are constructing a Why Not/Why romance structure, then the Why Nots at the beginning should be looming.  There should not be a doubt in the hero/heroine’s mind that this is NOT the one.  Which makes that hint of Why ever more important.  They have to have at smidge of an impulse to connect with the other again.


If you are constructing a Why/Why Not romance, then the whys will be large and beautiful, and you’ll need to hint at the Why Not, a blip of why things might go wrong.  You also must hint at the EMOTIONAL Why Nots.  We might understand why they can’t be together on an external level, but now you have to hint at what holds them apart internally. Because it is our deepest fears and wounds that ultimately hold us back from true love.


Return to Me is a Why/Why Not romance because from the hero/heroine’s POV, they have no obstacles until the big Why Not at the end.  So, the Whys seems glorious and beautiful until they begin to get closer and she might have to tell him about her surgery.  And then, they are devastating when she has to tell him the truth about the origin of her heart.  But, the first hints are when she is walking with her best friend, and she is carrying the envelope to the donor heart’s loved one, which she’s never mailed.  She says…how could anyone ever live with knowing someone else has their loved one’s heart?  It’s what drives her fear – that the hero wouldn’t be able to see her, but instead by always blinded by the fact she has his wife’s heart.


The author has hinted at the internal Why Not to come.


Have you hinted at the Why Not in the first Act?


Now, here’s the key:  Do this before you get to Act 2 by having your character include the Why/Why Nots in the Big Debate. 


What is the Big Debate?  This is when your character realizes that they must change their world, do something different, go on a journey of emotions, or even physically, they will have a moment/scene where they “debate” their options.  Should they or shouldn’t they?  This is where the concept of a Push-Pull motivation equation is essential. 


Something (usually as a result of the inciting incident) should PUSH them out of the situation they are in, and a glimpse of the Happy Ending should PULL them toward the journey.  If you are writing a romance, then the equation works like this:


Emotional Push + HEA Pull = Romantic Quest

(Push:  I have a need/interest/vacancy in my romantic life, brought to life because of the inciting incident.

Pull:  I see a potential of the Happily Ever After out there, and the other person has ignited that hope.)


Do you have a Push/Pull?  This equation is also the key to avoiding the “These people are too stupid to live” ailment.  Now, you’ve given them a good reason for their actions, both in plot, and in romance. 


Once you have your Why/Why Nots hinted at, and you’ve waged the great debate, then you’re off into Act 2…and we’ll see you next week!


If you have questions about how to build a great romance, check out the romance discussion at


And, although the story crafting retreat is full, ACFW Denver is having a one-day intensive seminar on story crafting – I’ll also be introducing my new “Managing the Muddle” class on how to strengthen the middle of your novel. J


Susie May




Putting it all together: Adding the Romance beats to your first chapter

For the last two weeks on the blog, I’ve been going through the 10 beats of a romance that we discussed last February so as to refresh our minds before we start putting the elements together.  This week, we’re going to dive into taking those beats and combining them with our story structure so that we can actually build our novel.


Just to sum up, we’re going to be working with the first three beats as we start putting together Act 1. 


Beat 1: Boy Meets Girl:  In this component, there is an event, goal or circumstance that occurs to bring our hero and heroine together—Usually this happens in the first chapter, but it definitely needs to happen by Chapter 3.

            Some examples that you thought up before:

            You’ve got mail—they were both in a chat room and started talking about New York City in the fall.

            Sleepless in Seattle—the phone call to the radio show

            Harry Met Sally—the car ride

While You Were Sleeping – Christmas at the family’s home.

The Cutting Edge—the hero and heroine bump into each other at the Olympics when he knocks her down. But really later, she needs a skating partner.


Titanic—the Ship!

Chasing Liberty—the heroine runs out and needs a ride to get away from the paparazzi.

Return to Me—the hero is on a bad date in the restaurant.



Beat 2:  Interest/Need: Something about their own situation makes their heart vulnerable to romance.


Some examples might be:


Titanic…Rose hates her life, feels suffocated and longs for freedom and adventure.  Jack is a vagabond, and when he sees this beautiful woman who loves him, he is affirmed. She believes in him!


Sleepless in Seattle—she is marrying a man she doesn’t really love. He’s lost the only woman he thinks he can ever love.


It’s very important for you to figure out what it is about your characters that make them ready or vulnerable to romance. Often this element is revealed though a conversation they have with their friends. Or is a part of inciting incident.


Beat 3: Why Not: These are the Obstacles between the hero and heroine, the True Love that conspires to separate them.


As we’ve talked about before, there are two romance structures:  Why/Why Not and Why Not/Why.


The why not/why structure is when the obstacles appear first, and the why (they need to be together, which we’ll get to soon) appears second.


Or, you may have a why/why not book where they fall in love first…and then realize why they can’t be together.


Never the less, a hint at the obstacles in the beginning are a way to keep the tension high between them.


So, now we have the three beats we’ll be using to insert into our first Act elements:


Let’s review the First Act:




Inciting Incident

            The Big Debate

Noble Quest


We start with LIFE – that snapshot of their ordinary, everyday world, the starting place of their journey.  Many romances start with the hero/heroine meeting in the LIFE chapter, and if you are writing for Love Inspired or Heartsong, this is a must.  If you are writing a longer trade novel, you can have them meet in chapter two, but definitely, you want them together by chapter three. 


So, let’s say you’re putting them together in chapter one.  Along with the other first chapter elements of hinting at what is at STAKE for your character, putting them in Sympathetic Situation (or a situation that makes the reader identify with them), Anchoring them into the world, starting with the story already in motion and finally hinting  at the story problem, you also want to weave in the beats:

Boy Meets Girl – you want them to meet each other.  Now, they don’t have to talk to each other, but you want to make a statement that they’ve seen each other.  Some of my first scenes are running into each other, seeing one or the other on television, tracking someone down as the object of an investigation, being assigned to protect/interview/fire someone. Asking for a job, rescuing someone on the side of the road, being assigned to work with them…  anything that would put them together.  They might even be haggling over the same pumpkin/Christmas tree!  Whatever works.  Like I said, they don’t have to talk – they just have to remember meeting each other.


Start with asking:  How do your characters meet? 


Weaving that in with the other chapter one elements – can you combine this Sympathy?  For example, in Escape to Morning, my heroine has just come off a body recover with her K9 SAR dog, and the hero nearly runs the dog over with his car.  He feels badly for her, so he invites her out for dinner. 


Ask: Does your Boy Meets Girl moment contain any elements of sympathy?



Now, after you have the Boy Meets Girl, you might add in an interest/need.  Something about their life suggests they are single, or in need of a good woman (or man).  For example, in Taming Rafe my heroine has a date to her gala event, but he’s rude and condescending and it is clear she’s with the wrong man.  In Nothing but Trouble, my heroine, PJ, breaks up with her boyfriend in the first scene (and thoughts of her old beau Boone enter her mind almost immediately. This is how I get him on the page. J )

            In Reclaiming Nick, Piper sees Nick as a patron of his café, and watches him rescue a girl in need. She makes a comment about how she doesn’t need a man rescuing her – and we realize she’s never had anyone protect her. 

            They may not REALIZE they have a need or interest, but the reader does by the way they react, or comments they make, or an opinion or internal thought.  The idea is that they notice the other person and something about them piques their interest because they have a need/latent desire for a relationship.



Ask: How do your characters show they have an interest or need for romance?



Finally, you’re going to add in tension – by hinting at the Why Not.  Now, let’s go back to the other elements.  You might incorporate the element of sympathy here.  OR, you could move onto the STAKES of the story – what might happen if she doesn’t get what she wants, and how does HE stand in the way of it?  Let the Why Not do double duty and be a part of her overall conflict. 


For example – in Reclaiming Nick, Piper and Nick’s Why Not is that she is trying to prove that he helped kill her brother.  At stake is her career – she is trying to land an anchor position and landing this story will cinch it.  So, if she proves his guilt, then she gets the job.  The Why Not plays a role in the plot – she has to choose between happily ever after in love, or happily ever after in her job. 


Ask: How does the Why Not contribute to the stakes of your story?  Can you hint at this in the beginning scene, or act?


I know it’s a lot to think about, and yes, you can stretch some of these elements over the first couple chapters, but as you put together your romance, you need to know how to let elements do double-duty and lay a firm foundation for every story thread. Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about how to incorporate they why/why not into Act 1, and move your story into Act 2!


By the way, although the story crafting retreat is full, ACFW Denver is having a one-day intensive seminar on story crafting – I’ll also be introducing my new “Managing the Muddle” class on how to strengthen the middle of your novel. J


If you have questions about how to build a great romance, check out the romance discussion at


Susie May


Your Now Story

“What’s the story of your heart?” Haven’t we all heard that question? Or overheard another author say, “I’m writing the story of my heart.”

I believe in those lingering stories. The one waiting to be written. The idea not yet honed or ripened. Perhaps a story ahead of it’s time.

But I don’t really have a “story of my heart.” I have a cool idea tucked away. An end-times epic not in line with the theology of the Left Behind books so I’m not sure mainstream publishing would be interested. But, I’m not aching to write it. At least not now.

Because the story of my heart is the one I’m writing. And the story of your heart should be the one you are writing. If it’s not, ditch it. Write something else. Or make it the story of your heart. If you’re on deadline with a contracted book, you have no choice.

Writers can have the attention span of a gnat. We love capturing the gem of a story idea, but we loathe redeeming it. Things change. Ideas don’t work. Plans fail. The writing is hard.

In my last book, every one was “tucking” things away. I even had a character named Tucker. In the book before, could there be any more references to doors? Every character was knocking, turning a knob, walking through or out of a door.

In one book, it seemed like all my characters were fixated on food. And it wasn’t the story about a cooking show host!
In the midst of my tucked, door and food weeds, I wondered how I could possibly have written a publishable novel. I wanted to move on, find a different and better story. One that would really hit the sweet spot. One that captured my heart for the entire writing duration.


Books are work. Stories are mined from the core of our being and frankly, it’s painful.  We cannibalize our own emotions and thoughts in order to create believable, lifelike characters.

To get away from the pain, we quit, or think up another story. Surely this one will be easier to write.

When writing Dining with Joy, a story about a cooking show host who can’t cook, I was often paralyzed by the high concept premise. Susie ran into the same trouble with her next Tyndale book about a radio host to the lovelorn who’d never been on a date.

The concepts are funny and visible. But why does a woman who can’t cook host a cooking show? Why does a woman who’s never been on a date host a romance and dating radio show? Great ideas that would fail miserably without digging deep to get all the right emotions and motivations.

I couldn’t just have it that Joy, a former college softball star, was a bad cook, or just didn’t like to cook, because then it made no sense that she’d host a cooking show. I had to have some link to cooking and food her heart and mind. Some catalyst that put in her in front of the camera in the first place, and a reason she stayed.

I did a lot of research. There were days when I wanted to pull my hair out. I kept coming across grey areas, walls I couldn’t see behind, subtle motivations that I couldn’t quite make believable.

I stayed with it. I prayed a lot. Because Dining with Joy was my now story. Even if I didn’t have a contract for it, I’d have stayed with it because it was and is a darn good idea. The Lord blessed me with unexpected help. I’m always so amazed at the help and information He sends me.

I’d be lost without Him. In oh, so many ways.

So, dig deep. Stay with your now story. Finish what you started. Here are a few tips.

1.    Even if you’re a pantser, write out a loose plot. Get your beginning, middle and end.

2.    Did you do all of your character work? If not, go back and make sure you have a strong bio on your characters. What are their greatest fears and desires? What’s the lie they believe? Why does he need her? Why does she need him? If you’re not writing a romance, what drives the protagonist? Who are the people around him? Why does she need to solve this problem? Do your character work! It’s easy to write about people you know.

3.    Be disciplined. Get your daily word count, even if it’s only 250 or 500 words. Do it!

4.    Stash new ideas in a folder and let them go. If you have a lot of thoughts about this great idea, write them out, then get back to your WIP. Never leave your WIP, man. 😉

5.    Finish the book. And by finish, I mean write The End, then go back and rewrite and edit. Books are rewritten, not written. Be patient. I know you feel like time is passing you by and every one else is getting published. But as you write and rewrite, you are learning. Do not shortcut the learning process. God’s timing is RIGHT on TIME.

Write your “now” novel. You’ll be glad you did!