Pitching Fiction without a High Concept

One Does Not Simply Meme High Concept VS Low Concept Fiction A.D. Martin

Thanks to the recession and other factors in recent years, many literary agents and publishers now have a more vocal preference for novels with a high concept. High-concept work, to put it simply, is work that’s easy to pitch effectively.

To define high-concept less simply . . .

To be high-concept, a work must be: (1) highly original; (2) widely appealing; (3) easy to visualize; and (4) easy to sum up in three sentences or less while demonstrating the first three elements.

See “Write Better: The 7 Qualities of High-Concept Stories” by Brian Klems (his elements for a high-concept story requires: high level of entertainment value; high degree of originality; a “what if” question at its core; highly visual; clear emotional focus; inclusion of truly unique element; mass audience appeal); “High Concept Defined Once and For All” by Steve Kaire (requiring, for high-concept: your story be original and unique; your story have mass audience appeal; your pitch be story specific; the potential is obvious; pitch is one to three sentences long).

Originality

This aspect of the work generally has to come early on in the writing process. You come up with some awesome premise or twist that just about no one else has heard of.

Wide appeal

Basically, the work has to appeal to the mainstream audience (or at least a large portion of a certain niche). This lies in the premise, theme and storytelling—the messages must be easily digestible (and entertaining) for as many people as possible.

Easy to visualize

If the aspects that makes your narration original or appealing lies in subtleties of character development or the like, then you’re pretty much screwed as far as having a high-concept work.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from having a high-concept work that includes subtle awesomeness. However, you must also have more surface-level awesomeness so that the originality and appeal of your work can be easily visualized (e.g., teens forced to participate in a televised fight to the death).

Easy to sum up while demonstrating awesomeness

Nathan Bransford provides a good example of high-concept versus low-concept pitches:

Kid wins a golden ticket to a mysterious candy factory? High concept.

Wizard school? High concept.

There’s this guy who walks around Dublin for a day and thinks about a lot of things in chapters written in different styles and he goes to a funeral and does some other stuff but otherwise not much happens? Not high concept.

-Nathan Bransford in “What High Concept Means”

Of course, today, if you were to pitch a story about a kid winning a golden ticket to go to a candy factory, or a kid going to wizard school, you would be lacking the originality element required to have a high-concept work.

Pitching (my) YA without a high concept

Character-driven and not much else?

I’m currently querying agents for my YA novel.

The early drafts of my manuscript were heavily character driven and did not rely on an eye-popping premise. Being an English major who read a bunch of literary stuff, as well as a fan of The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones, I was accustomed to narrations that started slowly. Consequently, I wrote my novel the same way and thought it was perfectly fine.

I was wrong. I was super-wrong, especially considering the fact that my novel is intended to be a commercial YA.

With my faulty belief that my voice, dialogue, and character development would be enough, I sent out a batch of queries nearly three months ago. Looking at that query letter now, it’s easy to see that my hook was not hook-y enough, and that I spent too many words describing not-so-original junk. That query was a highly pure form of suck, and I don’t blame agents for responding with form rejections (luckily, I didn’t send out too many queries using that letter).

Premise-enhancing drugs

After my handful of rejection emails, I brought my manuscript to the writing-gym (i.e., various Barnes and Noble, and Starbucks locations) and spent nearly three months developing a stronger premise and re-polishing the novel (along with major plot alterations). After X amount of feedback and Y amount of revision, my novel is much better than it was back at draft three (or whatever draft I was querying with in July).

Looking at my own definition for a high-concept work, though, I’m not entirely convinced that my novel is high-concept. It likely satisfies the first two elements; there is originality in plot points and characters, and is hopefully widely appealing. However, it may be difficult to visualize and summarize the best parts of the novel.

With this in mind, I’m going to take another look at my query, and hope I won’t have to substantially alter my manuscript anymore (well, unless I get a revise and resubmit from am agent; or notes from a publishing house’s editor).

Lesson of the day

If you’re writing commercial fiction, YA or otherwise, aim for a high concept right away. It’ll save you some time.

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29 thoughts on “Pitching Fiction without a High Concept

  1. The recent fiction I’ve read seem to lack character descriptions. The people are empty shadows of ‘real’ people and I find, as a consequence, the books lack depth. Personally, I would prefer believable characters and a less ‘original’, but interesting, storyline.

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  2. A good character can get me through just about any kind of story. I agree with the person who said high concept novels often have bland characters. But you’re right – that’s what the market wants, and if you’re aiming to get published, you have to lean your stuff towards the market. I never encourage people to write “for” the market or to follow trends, but there’s a difference between soulless pandering, and simply making your existing stuff more marketable.

    I also think it’s possible to be both high concept and character driven. The book I’m outlining now has a trippy high-concept premise, but follows one character around for the entire book. It’s sort of like Portal: The Novel. This novel basically lives or dies based on how interesting the protagonist is, even if the high concept would “hook” some people at the start. That’s the hardest part, too. Coming up with a high concept is really not that hard. Coming up with a great character is, at least for me.

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  3. Hmm. I get what you’re saying about high concept vs. not high concept. But where would you place John Green’s work? All of his work is contemporary realistic.The Fault in Our Stars might be considered concept, but not high concept, and yet it’s a resounding commercial success.

    Thanks for the definitions of high concept, by the way. I hadn’t seen those succinct definitions before, and they’re helpful.

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    • There are always exceptions. I’m not sure where I would place The Fault in Our Stars. A protagonist with cancer isn’t new, but the setting with the support group and whatnot may have been (not really my expertise). Assuming there’s an original twist, I think it easily satisfies the other elements.

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      • I don’t think there’s a particularly original twist, other than the author’s insistence that it’s more realistic than most cancer stories. But it’s not my area of expertise, either; I have read it, but haven’t read many other cancer stories. Compared with wizard school and a door to Narnia and a golden ticket, it doesn’t seem high concept to me. Maybe “literary novel crosses over into commercial success,” instead.

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    • Perhaps. I mean, even if a writer is focused on having a high concept, it doesn’t preclude their novel from being great in many other aspects as well. It’s just that there are so many books out there that it’s possible that the next awesome one (subjectively judged, of course) is right under your nose.

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  4. Even with a high concept storyline to pitch, the whole publishing field seems to be about connections. Otherwise how does a writer get an agent in order to meet the “agented submissions only” requirement of publishing houses?

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    • Bev, You don’t have to meet an agent in order to be represented by one, you sub to them the same way you would to an open publishing house, following the agency’s guidelines. The agent should be the one with the connections. 😉 Good luck!

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      • I believe a handful of imprints of the Big Five take unsolicited queries directly from authors.

        Then there are some agents who don’t take unsolicited queries, requiring submissions be from authors who are traditionally published or referred by an established author or editor they trust (or something like that).

        So, yeah, connections never hurt.

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    • Thanks. Since this post, I’ve substantially redrafted my query twice. I think it’s pretty good now, but I’m sure I’ll think it’s crap when I look at it tomorrow or next week.

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      • Hopefully you wont. I have been working on the outlines for two novels and I feel like neither have enough ‘wow factor’ at the moment. Hopefully I can develop that high concept 🙂

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    • There should be a button to subscribe by email on the left hand side if you’re using a computer monitor. For tablets and phones, the button will likely be at the bottom of the page. In either case it will be underneath the Twitter and Facebook widgets.

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