Wednesday, June 5, 2013

2 The USP: What is it, and why do you needs it, my preciousss? by Christian Schoon

I started my writing life as a copywriter. I wrote film synopsis copy, trailer scripts, press releases, behind-the-scenes video scripts and a boatload of other marketing elements as an in-house writer in the home video division of the Walt Disney Company in beautiful downtown Burbank. After a couple of years with The Mouse, I bailed out and went full-time freelance, working for most of the major studios and a number of independents and entertainment ad agencies in Los Angeles. I was still writing lotsa marketing stuff but then also started selling scripts for live action and animated kids/tween/teen TV shows. Now, I write YA science fiction novels from a 170-year-old farmstead in the sylvan Midwest where I grew up, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.

So how does slaving away as a beady-eyed word-weasel in an over-air-conditioned cubical in a trailer on the back lot where they used to shoot Zorro prep one for flouncing off into the blue-bell-bedecked meadows of free-spirited, gypsy-bandana-wearing I-laugh-at-your-weekly-paycheck-ball-and-chain fiction writin’? What I offer up here is not so much advice as deceptively simple analytic principle, which would be: your USP, your Unique Selling Proposition. Also sometimes known as WTP: “What’s Their Pain?”

Yes, it’s an elementary and cold-eyed j-school premise that’s certainly re-heated the chilly hearts of legions of skinny-tied Mad Men, but it generally transfers just fine to your warm-hearted, puppy-eyed artsy novel-wrestling beatnik types chasing down their fleeing and terrified muses in a Tribeca loft or Venice beach hut. I bring no secrets, and you’ve likely heard this before, of course, but this straight-from-the-mktg-dept. viewing angle might give you a POV that’s just a bit different and so helpful in some small way. Hey, I live to serve.

Applied to your protagonist, for instance, discerning their USP is pretty much your first and most important job. All right, “selling proposition” may be a bit blunt, but you get the concept. What does your hero/heroine want (or fear) more than anything else in their world? To find true love? To find reasonably true love that lasts until this dance is over and/or the band takes their first break? To find their lost father/mother/sibling? To escape a monster? To escape their job? To escape the person who was ‘sposed to be their true love but turned out to be - yikes! – a monster? Same goes for all your supporting cast. In each chapter, in each scene, pretty much in each paragraph: what’s the main pain this character is feeling or dreading (or causing), and how do they (you) plan to make it end? (Or, how do they plan to intensify that pain, if they swing that way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Main point: ID pain, make plan, act.

But don’t stop there, industrious writer/author. Ferret out the USP of your story overall. Is it to illuminate the human condition? To consider weighty themes of sacrifice, redemption and self-discovery? To entertain the teeming masses with a light-hearted foray into pulpish serial slayings and resources-they-didn’t-know-they-had-in-‘em survival-and-retribution? This may sound obvious, but if, like me, you’re going the traditional and sometimes thorny find-agent/land-publisher path, you’re gonna need to whittle down your book’s USP vis a vis theme to a finely honed and dangerous point before you start the query process. Your USP will also feed into pinning down your genre, demographic/psycho-graphic bracket and other identifying characteristics that any agent is gonna wanna know up front, unambiguously and no messin’ around, before they read beyond the first two fascinating sentences of your query.

Admission: I didn’t know my USP or my WTP or even my WTF when I sat down to start my novel Zenn Scarlett (from Strange Chemistry Books, available now online and in finer blah blah blah… ya knew this was coming, dinchya? Sure ya did.) One day, I was visited with the image of a fearless young girl wearing hand-me-down coveralls and some sort of medical-equipment backpack as she perched on the furry, toothsome snout of an indeterminate carnivore the size of a schoolbus. Later to be the size of two schoolbuses. I just sat down started writing. But before long, it became clear that my book’s USP was a heroine whose compassion for all alien creatures large and small would eventually save the universe as we know it. Compassion. Yeah, that’ll sell.

So that was my USP when I queried the book. Unconventional heroine, has exoveterinarian field kit, will risk life to rescue critters she loves and, incidentally, civilization itself. The query snared the interest of an agent and eventually this USP hooked my publisher, the YA imprint of the awesome and furiously metallic Angry Robot Books. And judging from reports from the readers and reviewers who have been kind enough to read/review Zenn’s adventure, her compassion and empathy are doing more than selling books. They’re weaving minds-not-my-own into her world and her story. And that, IMHO, is a damn good proposition for writing anything in the first place.

So, thanks for letting me ramble on. Now, go out there and make your USPs the unique-est most proposition-y things ever. And may you then sell a boatload of ‘em. Cheers!

About the Author

Born in the American Midwest, Christian started his writing career in earnest as an in-house writer at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, California. He then became a freelance writer working for various film, home video and animation studios in Los Angeles. After moving from LA to a farmstead near Iowa City several years ago, he continues to freelance and also now helps re-hab wildlife and foster abused/neglected horses. He acquired his amateur-vet knowledge, and much of his inspiration for the Zenn Scarlett series of novels, as he learned about - and received an education from - these remarkable animals.

Check out Christian's website
Follow Christin on Twitter

About the Book

Zenn Scarlett is a bright, determined, occasionally a-little-too-smart-for-her-own-good 17-year-old girl training hard to become an exoveterinarian. That means she’s specializing in the treatment of exotic alien life forms, mostly large and generally dangerous. Her novice year of training at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars will find her working with alien patients from whalehounds the size of a hay barn to a baby Kiran Sunkiller, a colossal floating creature that will grow up to carry a whole sky-city on its back.

But after a series of inexplicable animal escapes from the school and other near-disasters, the Cloister is in real danger of being shut down by a group of alien-hating officials. If that happens, Zenn knows only too well the grim fate awaiting the creatures she loves.

Now, she must unravel the baffling events plaguing her school, before someone is hurt or killed, before everything she cares about is ripped away from her and her family forever. To solve this mystery – and live to tell about it – Zenn will have to put her new exovet skills to work in ways she never imagined, and in the process learn just how powerful compassion and empathy can be.

Buy Zenn Scarlett on Amazon
Find Zenn Scarlett on Goodreads


  1. Hi Christian,

    Thanks for revisiting us today! I love the USP example for Zenn Scarlett. I especially love the idea of linking the USP to what the mc most wants or needs! That linkage is often something that we forget, as if what's "cool" and "unique" in the concept can be something else entirely.

  2. That sounds like a book I need to read! Very intriguing, and thanks for your very-humorous-and-hyphenated-and-informatively-inspiring post. Nailing the key to one's story is so crucial! Story themes and character goals: good stuff. I'd better go run my WIP through that sieve now...


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)