Sure, a classic plot line may make a novel perfectly readable, but it won't necessarily be enough to make people pick (or click) it. (The seven main story plots in literature, as summarised in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker, are overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth). A bestseller needs a winning concept. Consider this:
Think of your book's sales blurb. Or what would be on the movie poster? Sarah Lotz signed a six-figure deal with UK publishers Hodder and Stoughton for her novel The Three and another book. The Three's tagline reads, 'Four simultaneous plane crashes. Three child survivors. A religious fanatic who insists the three are harbingers of the apocalypse. What if he's right?'
Daydream about a fascinating world. British author Sally Green signed up for a creative writing course a few years ago, and hit on a concept which led to a bidding war for her first novel, a supernatural young adult thriller about witches living in contemporary Britain. Twilight producers acquired the film rights to her trilogy. 'I became obsessed,' she told Woman and Home. 'I wrote and wrote, and spent 24 hours a day thinking about it: I was weeding, I was cooking but, in my head, I was living this story, which was about witches and set in the same witchy world that became the setting for my book Half Bad.'
Gather the ingredients. Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black (now a film, in which Daniel Ratcliffe starred after his stint as Harry Potter), told the UK press how she'd been reading ghost stories and wondering why there were so few full-length ones. 'I wanted to see if I could do it and began listing what seemed essential ingredients: a ghost, human, not monstrous; haunted places, especially a house; mists, a thin, moaning wind and, for me, ancient churches and graveyards which are traditional settings.' Characters appeared: 'I did not really have a plot at this stage, but one morning the woman in black arrived in my mind. Within six weeks, using pen and paper, The Woman in Black wrote itself, as if by magic'.
Look out for unusual objects. Jessie Burton's debut novel The Miniaturist is set in 17th century Amsterdam, in which a wealthy merchant who refuses to sleep with his young wife, Petronella Oortman, buys her a miniature version of their townhouse as a wedding gift. Soon, it becomes clear that the characters' lives are being influenced by the movements of their replicas within the cabinet. An actual cabinet in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, once owned by a Petronella Oortman, sparked the concept for the mystery novel.
Find the cocktail that excites you. Brainstorm a list of all the topics you like to think and write about, anything from chocolate to taxidermy. Keep a file or box into which you regularly throw magazine clippings and notes, such as that riveting story you overheard at the hairdresser and jotted down for its plot material potential. Then close the lid, put it away, and let it simmer.
Listen to your body. It'll signal you when The Concept arrives. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Joanne Rowling recalled the moment she hit on the Harry Potter concept: 'I wrote compulsively but I'd never really found the right thing. And then I was on a train – I was 25 – and it came: boy doesn't know he's a wizard, goes to wizarding school, bang, bang, bang! And that was it. I don't think I've ever felt so excited.'
Catriona Ross is the creator of The Peacock Book Project: write the novel of your dreams (www.peacockproject.net). Her books are available in the Kindle Store: Little Diamond Eye, The Presence of Peacocks or How to Find Love and Write a Novel, The Love Book, Writing for Magazines: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know, and The Happy Life Handbook.