The Big Idea: Greg Taylor
Posted on February 15, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
Every book featured in The Big Idea has a big idea behind it — heck, it’s implicit right there in the title. But how does one discover that big idea — and when one discovers it, how does one nurture it along so it becomes an actual book? Novelist and screenwriter Greg Taylor is here to let you backstage to that process, at least as it involves him and his latest book, The Girl Who Became a Beatle.
During the course of my career as a screenwriter, and now as an author, I’ve had maybe a handful of what I would call Big Ideas. I’ve been writing for over twenty-five years, so that averages out to about one every half decade. Not many, in other words. One of my rare stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks ideas came to me when I was raking leaves in the backyard. Another on a day when I gave myself an assignment to sit at my desk and not get up until I had written down five new ideas. As for The Girl Who Became a Beatle… I don’t remember exactly when that idea dropped into my head. But I was certainly excited when it did.
What I’m referring to when I say Big Ideas actually started out as what’s known in the film business as a high-concept idea. The high-concept, in turn, is defined as one that can be summed up in a single sentence. I realize these kinds of stories are not held in high regard in some quarters, often for good reason. If all a story has is a high concept that is not supported by compelling characters and an interesting and involving plot… well, that’s a formula for a pretty superficial literary or cinematic experience.
But done right, I believe the high-concept story can be as thrilling and involving and emotional as any other kind of idea. I’d better believe that, considering those are the kinds of stories I tend to write. I’ve tackled some character based stories over the years, but I always seem to gravitate back to the high-concept. For one thing, I appreciate the anchor a high-concept provides as I develope my story and characters. For another, I simply love these kinds of stories.
For a high-concept to work, however, at least as far as one of mine is concerned, I need to heed a simple rule. If I don’t, the concept will die on the vine, won’t evolve into that all-important Big Idea. I don’t claim my rule is profound or original. I’m just saying it works for me. Let’s take The Girl Who Became A Beatle as an example. I mentioned earlier that a high concept story is one that could be summed up in a single sentence. Here’s the sentence for TGWBAB:
A girl wishes she were as famous as the Beatles, then wakes up the following morning to discover that her band has replaced the Beatles in history and that all of their classic songs are attributed to her.
It wasn’t the idea of a girl – whose name is Regina – wishing she were as famous as the Beatles that made me stop and scrutinize this particular idea, but the notion that all of the Beatles songs are attributed to her. That was the A-HA moment for me, the thing that made this particular idea not only “high-concept”, but worth pursuing. Immediately I began thinking about what Regina would do with her newfound – and very bogus – success.
Just as immediately, the high concept started to become personal. During the endless hours I spent developing and rewriting and polishing TGWBAB, the more personal the story became to me. I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, so it was an easy decision to have Regina live in the Northeastern United States. For the past thirty years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, so bringing Regina to Los Angeles to attend the Grammys in her wish-come-true world felt like a natural progression in the story. Not just because I live in LA and would know what I was writing about, but because I was able to express some of the ambivalence I still have about LA after all these years, the love/hate relationship I’ve developed with the city.
Most important though – as far as developing the story and characters were concerned – was the connection I gradually formed with Regina, the narrator of the story. Even though she’s 16 years old, and I’m much older than that, she and I share many of the same characteristics, the same loves (the Beatles, of course, being one of them), the same dislikes and insecurities. In general, the same way of looking at the world. Perhaps the key moment in the story for me comes after Regina reads the lyrics for an original song that Julian (her secret crush) has written. Here’s an excerpt:
“They’re very good lyrics, Julian.” I wasn’t just saying that, either. They were personal and dealt with being an artist and how vulnerable that makes you feel but how you can’t help choosing the creative life. It chooses you.
“You really think so?” Julian asked tentatively. It was like he didn’t believe me. Julian’s response made me wonder if creative people ever get over their insecurity.
And there it is, that last line. Do creative people ever get over their insecurity? I know I haven’t, even after all these years. That might have something to do with that fact that writing is such a solitary profession, and one that opens a person up to criticism in a way that many other professions do not. But one of the compensations writers receive in return for the solitary life is the often mysterious way that characters can become real to them. That was certainly the case with Regina. She became very real, and as such a conduit for my feelings about, among other things, the importance of music in one’s life and how difficult it can be being a teenager and the often charged relationships between teens and parents.
Don’t get me wrong. First and foremost, I wanted The Girl Who Became A Beatle to be a fun ride, one that hopefully people will find to be an original twist on the classic wish-come-true tale. But without the connection I developed with Regina, without making the story as personal as possible, it would have been a hollow writing experience for me, and I believe for the reader.
And that’s my simple rule for turning a high concept idea into a Big Idea. Make it personal. When I’ve done that, things have tended to fall into place for me. When I haven’t, the high-concept didn’t take off, didn’t develop into anything I ultimately wanted to hold up and say, “Read this!”
Now that The Girl Who Became A Beatle is being held up to the reading public, it’s time for me to get back to work, back to panning for that kernel of an idea that just might evolve into another Big Idea. If past experience is any indication – one every five years – I might be at it for a while.
So where to start? I read that Agatha Christie came up with some of her best ideas while washing dishes. Raking leaves worked for me once. Why not washing dishes? That new idea just might present itself in the suds. Even if it doesn’t – and it probably won’t, because ideas tend to come when you least expect them – I know my wife will appreciate the end result.
The Girl Who Became a Beatle: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the book page for the novel.
Monk: How do I achieve satori?
Master: Have you eaten?
Master: Wash your bowl.
so, apparently, there is opportunity for doing dishes.
The title kept making me think of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” beetle versus “Oh Bla Di, Oh Bla Da” kind of Beetle. Maybe if the cover sort of resembled a Beetles album? In a “fair use” sort of way, rather than copyright infringement thing.
But an interesting concept otherwise.
I love the idea of personalizing the high concept idea so much, but I was just this morning reading a Robert McKee text in which he asserts that “When talented people write badly it’s generally for one of two reasons: Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express. When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.”
Are these two ideas at odds with each other?
What an interesting high concept; I’m going to have to check this out.
And begging your pardon, Greg @#1, but the book cover does resemble a Beatles album — specifically, Meet the Beatles, from 1964. I’d have to say the half-shadowed faces are a pretty recognizable image of the Beatles.
@1 /headdesk… /headdesk
Hope there’s a Kindle edition in the future.
Hm. I was wrong. It is an album cover.
Certainly not the iconic barefoot walk for “Abbey Road” or looking down from the balconey on “Please Please Me” or even the half-head shots of “Hard Days Night”, but I guess it’s just a matter of picking the level of fame/obscurity you’re shooting for. There’ll always be someone who won’t recognize the cover of “Abbey Road” and there will always (well for a few more years anyway) be someone who could look at a staged shot of four guys sitting just like this and they’d recognize it as a mockup of “You cant do that. Cant Buy Me Love”.
I think I would have suggested the most recognizable Beatles cover possible, like a version of “Abbey Road” or the artwork from “Revolver”, but I wonder if something that complicated might be more apt to be on the receiving end of a copyright infringement suit. Maybe that’s why they chose something simple like “Meet the Beatles” and then moved it around a bit so that the “Ringo” character on teh book cover is over to the left compared to where the real Ringo is in the original album cover.
Dude, what? The Meet the Beatles cover is iconic — indeed, one of the first iconic images of the Beatles, at the start of Beatlemania. The cover of the book is pretty obviously echoing the album cover, down to the placement of “Ringo,” whose placement is moved more for the constraints of vertical book covers than anything else.
Evidence suggests it’s more than iconic enough.
What you’re saying is that you don’t recognize it, to which the obvious answer is: listen to more early Beatles.
The Maternal Unit graduated HS the year “Meet the Beatles” was new. I recognized, as it were, the cover art for this book because, when I was in gradeschool, one of my friends brought MTB to music class–her mother had owned it when *she* was in HS. I’m not nearly a Beatles fan to the extent that OtherSteve (hubby’s best friend) is, but even *I*, as previously noted, recognized the cover riff for TGWBAB.
In short: Greg, my dear, you need to get out (a lot) more.
High concept? I gots’yer high concept right here. And here… The dog Who Became a Beatle.
Looks like anyone disturbed enough to be interested could easily dig up more samples on them there interwebs.
(Apologies for being unable to resist the urge to post this.)
What you’re saying is that you don’t recognize it, to which the obvious answer is: listen to more early Beatles.
I shall redouble my efforts at once.
Greg, my dear, you need to get out (a lot) more.
Wouldn’t be the first time I flunked a pop culture quiz.
Greg, I’m just curious; how old are you? In addition to listening to more early Beatles, you may need to get off my lawn!
hugh: old enough I suppose. I guess when I see a book cover with a bunch of moodily lit teenagers on it, I think “young adult”, gothy, angsty, poorly lit, story, where the teenage, female protagonist is affected by something supernatural.
Is “The Girl Who Became a Beatle” a YA novel? (Hm, there’s a mention of “secret crush”, so I’ll go with “yes”)If so, I’d be curious how many young-adults when shown the cover with all the words covered up would think “Meet the Beatles” versus, say, “Twilight” or some other moodily lit teenager series out there right now. But then, maybe that’s a good thing: appeal to the moody, gothy, angsty teenager twilight crowd and give a shout out to old school beatles fans all at once. Whereas a well-lit “Abbey Road” version on the cover of “The Girl Who Became a Beatle” might make potential gothy, angsty, moody teen readers recoil from the light. And god forbid it have kids smiling like the Beatles are doing on “Please Please Me”
I guess I’m old enough to have a slightly allergic reaction to anything that looks “emo”.
But Beatles defenders fear not. I have found a website that has the cover art for all 115 Beatle albums and I shall make a point to memorize them all lest I fail to recognize an homage to the Fab Four again in the future.
All 100+ Beatle album cover art images can be found here:
I, Jacob Marley, have come back to warn you: Do not make the same mistake I did.
those links didn’t need a password before… weird.
I applaud both the general project of recognizing the merits of the high-concept novel — along with the attendant difficulties in pulling it off well — as well as at least the concept of this particular instance of the trope. My curiosity is definitely piqued.
A little off the present topic, but if you’ll indulge me, Will Self’s Great Apes is for me the best job of pulling off the high concept novel, with extra difficulty points for doing it well with the “A Planet Where Apes Evolved From Men?” trope. Cannot recommend it enough, and I would love to hear Scalzi’s thoughts on the exercise.
Just to follow-up. This book is now available for the Kindle and it’s excellent. Definitely a fun ride. I wish I could see what happens after the last page.