Recipe for success? High concept.
At conferences and editor lunches, the question I’m getting most is “how is the economic climate changing how you do business.”
The short answer is that it’s not a matter of changing, it’s about refining. And for me, that refining is mostly taking the form of, more than ever, looking for the Big Book–fiction or nonfiction–and what makes a Big Book almost always comes back to high concept.
Ok great, you say. What is high concept and how do I get one?
Well, the classic agent cop-out is “I know it when I see it,” but quite honestly–that’s what high concept is. It’s an idea that is immediately accessible & appealing to a large group of people, that taps into the hive-mind if you will, but with the added spark of feeling new (even if it’s as old as the hills).
Twilight has that feel. Sophie Kinsella owns high-concept. So did Michael Crichton. And it’s not just for fiction–Malcolm Gladwell and Mary Roach are terrific examples of high-concept (and bestselling) nonfiction.
How do you know if you’ve tapped into that? Honestly, I think it’s often intrinsic. I know that’s not what you want to hear, and you can teach yourself to work & think this way, but some writers are naturally drawn to the Big Commercial Plot, while others are just not.
And I see a lot of writers who refuse to accept that what they are naturally drawn to isn’t high concept. This might be you if you have ever tried to make an existing manuscript high concept. Often people do this by patching in something they heard was “high concept”, and then they wonder why it’s not selling/getting requests. It’s not about taking your quiet family saga and sticking a vampire into that. You can’t make an apple into an orange by spray painting it. Often, making the leap to high concept is a matter of redirecting your passions and strengths into an area with more commercial appeal. For instance: turning the Salem story inside out and giving it a totally new spin is high concept; a novel set in the heretofore underreported witch trials of Borneo is not. For writers who are drawn to the obscure and the un-covered, who think “but no one has ever written about this! why write about things people already know?” I hear you–this feels remarkably like commercial pandering. But I would encourage you to think about three things: 1. it is all in the execution but no one will ever see your execution if your premise doesn’t catch their attention; 2. it’s hard to be attentive to things we don’t recognize on at least some level; and 3. who do you write for? If it’s for readers, think about it not as selling out, but about seducing people into your world, giving them a point of entry that lets them feel comfortable. High concept is all about the touch of recognition that makes readers ready to go along on your ride.
High concept is about making it easier for people to pick up what you’re putting down, which benefits you at every stage of the publishing game. Everyone is busy. I’m busy. Editors are busy. Booksellers and publicists–I don’t actually think they ever stop moving. And readers, who are inundated with noise and ads and coop, are busy and overwhelmed. To get and stay published, you have to make all those people stop for 300 pages worth of time. Yes, they will be seduced by your glowing prose. But aren’t the odds of that a whole lot better if that glowing prose comes with a premise that makes them go “Ooh?”
For instance, my author Libby Sternberg is an incredibly smart, gorgeous writer. Her work is nuanced and sharp. But the film rights to one of her manuscripts were optioned before a publishing deal was even in place, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that her book, FIRE ME, has a crystal-clear high concept: when her boss announces the company must lay off a staffer, a young woman spends a day at the office trying to convince him that she should be fired. Of course there is a lot more to the book. There always is. But you can see Amy Adams darting around creating workplace shenanigans already, can’t you?
If the idea you’re kicking around is really high concept, it should feel natural to come up with a one or two sentence affair that conveys the general premise of the work. It won’t capture every detail of course, but that’s ok. The essence of “oh neat” should be coming through. This blurb is what should headline your query. If yours is really good, I’ll probably bogart it when I pitch the book to editors. For instance, debut YA author Rachel Hawkins had a line in her original query: “where the traumas of mortal high school are nothing compared to the goings on at “Freak High,” which made it all the way through to my pitch letter and the Publisher’s Marketplace announcement of her sale. So you can see that one strong concept line can really have some serious legs.
Of course, there are plenty of ways for this to go terribly, terribly awry. I just caught the trailer for a certain upcoming movie, which just cuts to the chase and lays its high concept on out there, saying, “It’s Sweet Home Alabama meets Legally Blonde.” And while I have no doubt that killed in the pitch meeting, the trailer still leaves me feeling meh–because it feels contrived, like it was cooked up in a focus group. Which is why I do caution people about the “x meets y” formula. While it is helpful, and I use it in my pitches all the time, there can be a sort of cart-leading-horse feel to a project that’s created this way. Sometimes I can feel that an author sat down and said “I’ll show you, publishing. Today I shall write a book that is Back to the Future meets Joe Versus the Volcano.” And other times authors go way too far with the comps in an attempt to capture every aspect of their books: “Schindler’s List meets Joe Versus the Volcano,” for instance, which just leaves me very confused.
And as we all know now, that reaction is the opposite of high concept.
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