High Concept: Where Art Meets Commerce

Last night, a couple of friends took me to dinner to celebrate my long-awaited sale. One of them was Elana Roth from the Caren Johnson Literary Agency. We had an interesting discussion of what makes a “high concept” story. Elana works with Children’s fiction, Middle Reader’s fiction, and YA fiction. My focus is adult historical fiction, but storytelling is storytelling. What makes an agent or an editor hear a pitch or an idea and say, “Yes, I have to read that”?

 

No doubt it takes more than one thing to catch an agent’s or an editor’s eye: a well polished query and a professional presentation are just the beginning.  Beyond the mechanics of making a pitch, what about the concept itself? What makes one irresistible and another simply one more letter in the slush pile?

 

To find Elana’s definition of what “high concept” means, please look on the Caren Johnson Literary Agency’s website:

www.johnsonlitagency.wordpress.com/2008/10/24/defining-high-concept

 

From talking to Elana, I gathered that a high concept idea can be summed up in one sentence, and contains something unexpected, a hook or a twist that is unique and interesting. A writer with a high concept storyline then must have the talent and dedication to execute it. This post is about what “high concept” means. In my next post, I will write about the challenge of making your writing good enough for an editor to buy. As you may imagine, the later is much harder, and often takes years.

 

A high concept story idea can be handed to a writer by the Muse, or discovered waiting in line at the supermarket, or while reclining in the dentist’s chair. Or, if a writer is very lucky, as I was, an editor or agent will take the time to make a suggestion that will transform a good storyline into one that can not be turned from.

 

My novel, The Queen’s Pawn, began as a novel told solely from the point of view of Alais, Princess of France. While Alais’ voice was compelling and garnered compliments from various editors, it did not secure a sale. Only when Eleanor of Aquitaine joined the novel, and added her voice to the story, did the book take flight. The story of A Lion in Winter as told from the point of view of the French princess is interesting, but is not high concept. The story of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her protégée, Alais of France, battling for King Henry’s love and for the throne of England is high concept.

 

Queries can be improved and concepts can be heightened, but ultimately, every writer must follow her Muse in her own way. A high concept storyline just makes a book easier to sell.

One Response to “High Concept: Where Art Meets Commerce

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