Wednesday, February 9, 2011

High Concept?

So this morning, the electronic messenger pigeon that is Twitter dropped an interesting link on my virtual windowsill, a blog post from agent Scott Eagan discussing how to tell if your query letter problems are the query or--eep--the book itself. One of the points he made was that, if your book isn't "high concept," you've got a problem. Without high-concept appeal, he notes, your book isn't going to hook an agent, editor, or reader.

This raises two questions. One, what is high-concept? And two, related to one, does your book really it?

Eagan's post described a high-concept idea as something different, something unique enough to stand out from the pack. Following the oft-repeated phrase that everything's already been done, and there are no new plots, you have to create a new twist on an old plotline and really make it something.

Trove of publishing advice Nathan Bransford further elaborates on high-concept, noting that you can spot a high-concept book by the ability to give an attractive but succinct description.

So: Girl must battle 23 other teenagers in a televised fight-to-the-death? Hunger Games is definitely Bransford high concept. Through a clerical error, elderly siblings are sent an orphan girl and slowly learn to love her, and many hijinks and shenanigins ensue? I'm not quite sure Anne of Green Gables succeeds at Bransford high-concept. Much of the appeal is in the storytelling and the sidetracks, not the main concept. Yet, the story--particulary the character of Anne--isunique enough that the book stands out, Eagan high-concept style.

So maybe we've got a variation in what people mean when they say high-concept--Bransford's definition of something very punchy, fresh and immediately graspable (and Tweetable) is a bit more legalistic than Eagan's definition of something unique that breaks it away from the pack. Which edges me toward my other question...really? My book really needs to be high-concept?

Well...yes and no. Perhaps it doesn't need to be a gut-punch of a high-concept. Perhaps it doens't need to be something so fresh and unexpected that the concept rivals Hunger Games. (But maybe it helps.) Regardless, as Eegan says, your book should be different enough from the other stuff out there, and unique enough that it stands on its own.

To the original question--how to tell if it's the query or the book that's causing problems--perhaps it is a good litmus test that, if you can't write a decent query for the book, try as you might, the book might need some more scrutiny. If your query is a meandering mess, you probably should make sure the book doesn't suffer the same malady. If there's nothing new and appealing in the query, is it missing from the book? If the query is banking on the writing alone--and not the story--is that what the book is trying to do, too? In no way am I saying query writing is easy; I stink at it, and there are some stories that do defy quick and dirty queries.

What do you think--does query trouble sometimes--always?--point to book trouble? What's your definition of high-concept--and does a book need it? As readers, does a high concept attract you, and are your favorite books high-concept?

11 comments:

Nicole MacDonald said...

mmmm another example of why really good indie books are on the up & up

The Arrival, only .99c on Amazon
www.damselinadirtydress.com

Jill said...

Forget the query for a second. If you can write a good logline for your book, then that's the first step to knowing if the plot works. The query is just an extension of that. Both are difficult, though, and I think it's tough to know whether it's the query or the book that's not working.

Rowenna said...

Nicole--good point :)

Jill--very true--I think the idea being, can you boil your story down, or not? Hard either way, for sure! And I've always been bad at summarizing...lol

Carrie C said...

Rowenna, nice post. Of course, it's really impossible to have a secret key that can tell us if a given concept is going to work. Like you said, it'll usually come down to the writing! It can be useful to use the query as a lens for summarizing and knowing if the plot works. But the bottom line is: readers' reactions. (And I'd be happy to give you a test read, if you are ever in a tight spot!)

Connie said...

I love high-concept books. I'll read others, but a high-concept book attracts my attention immediately.

And you can usually tell by the writing whether an author has the "chops" to pull it off.

Rowenna said...

Carrie--great point--I like "query as a lens"! Thanks for the offer--I may be in touch sometime :)

Connie--thanks! So true--a high-concept book definitely grabs you. And then you're just crossing your fingers for the writing to hold up :)

mesmered said...

Last week I read a great post on a blog (maybe through Nathan Bransford's This Week in Books) that absolutely castigated agents for making the game so hard with queries. The gist of it was 'why should a book be judged on a query?' And further, that it was time agents got down from their ivory towers and provided a form-query for all submissions. That way everyone starts on a level playing-field.
I loved the bravery of the commentator and confess to agreeing whole-heartedly with the sentiments expressed.

mesmered said...

Last week I read a great post on a blog (maybe through Nathan Bransford's This Week in Books) that absolutely castigated agents for making the game so hard with queries. The gist of it was 'why should a book be judged on a query?' And further, that it was time agents got down from their ivory towers and provided a form-query for all submissions. That way everyone starts on a level playing-field.
I loved the bravery of the commentator and confess to agreeing whole-heartedly with the sentiments expressed.

Rowenna said...

Mesmered--good point--I think the query game puts everyone between a rock and a hard spot--perhaps forms would be helfpul for keeping things more fair. I know that I'm a bit confused by this emphasis on "high concept" because some of my favorite books couldn't be well-Tweeted. :) They're not boil-down-able.

Jen said...

I'm still confused on what high concept actually is. After all, if agents and publishers only pick books that stand out from the pack, where the hell did the pack come from?

Rowenna said...

Jen--good point :) I think it may fall into subjective category--like voice. Know-it-when-you-see-it stuff. And that is ever-so-unhelpful when trying to polish your own work!