Deb: High Concept

If you’ve spent any time at all researching agents, publishers, and submissions guidelines, you’ve no doubt encountered one phrase that appears more than most: high concept.

What does that mean, exactly?

Let’s start with an example that I recently came across in, of all places, the thirty-second thumb-through I give the Costco magazine before I toss it in the trash.
The featured book was Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. According to the article, this novel has “resonated with readers worldwide.” It has also been nominated for one of the biggest literary prizes around, the Man Booker.
Ozeki had completed the fifth draft of this book and was getting ready to send it to her publisher when the 2011 tsunami hit Japan. Perhaps because her father is Japanese, her emotional response to the tsunami was so great that she decided to rewrite the novel yet again. In the new version, the one that not only made it into print but found both readership and acclaim, the sixteen-year-old protagonist decides to end her own life as soon as she finishes documenting the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. In the tsunami, the girl’s journal is swept away. It washes up on the coast of British Columbia, where it is discovered by a woman who becomes a second protagonist, drawn by the tale told in the journal, and concerned about the girl’s threatened suicide.
That’s high concept. Whether you care about suicidal sixteen-year-olds or Buddhist nuns or Japan is irrelevant. The set-up is irresistible: strangers drawn together by circumstance, the proverbial message in a bottle, evocative settings. You care even before you crack the cover. There’s much at stake, both overtly and lurking within the set-up.
You’re hooked.
Here, a few thoughts about the “high concept” premise, to apply to your work:
·         High concept goes beyond a unique topic or situation. Alien armadillos who fight gladiator style on top of skyscrapers—that’s unique, but it’s only high concept if the set-up makes us care about what happens and if readers can sense the story potential in complexities they feel compelled to explore. The premise need not be complicated, but the possibilities should be.
·         Let concepts evolve. (For more on this, see my post on first thoughts.) Be open. Of your premise, ask what else, and what else, and what else.
·         There’s much to be said for a concept that can be articulated in a sentence or two. A publisher’s salesperson or a reader recommending a book to a friend doesn’t have all day to explain. Early in the drafting stage, after I have a strong feel for how my book will unfold, I like to also draft some flap copy—a sentence or two that would entice a reader to buy or borrow my book. I do this for both fiction and non-fiction projects. If this flap copy isn’t irresistible, the concept likely needs to evolve.
·         Books come from where they will. You can’t force or impose a high concept. And keep in mind that, important as it may be, concept alone won’t make a book worthy. Without masterful development, a concept is only a concept.
·         Despite all that’s said here (and elsewhere), not everything you write will be—or needs to be—high concept. Alternative markets and readerships welcome other types of writing.
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