If you hang out around agents and editors these days, you're likely to hear the term "high concept." As in "We're only looking for high concept works--" (heard at the Novelists, Inc conference last fall), and "You have the best chance of acceptance with 'high concept'. Every writer should be striving for 'high concept.'"
Despite sitting through two lectures by the guy at Ninc I was still shaky on the whole "high concept" concept. What the heck IS high concept? I started hunting around in online writing blogs to see if I could understand it, and discovered that one person's high concept is another person's cliche. Cliche? How did that happen? That sounded like "one person's steak is another person's prune juice."
But I finally found a blog entry last week that made some sort of sense, though I still have a large blind spot in the middle of my understanding. High concept is a) a story that has immediate appeal to a lot of people and b) can be briefly and easily summarized so everyone involved in the buying, production, marketing, and publicity department "gets it".
I was thinking of that again today when my editor asked me to come up with one paragraph summarizing what the new book is "about"--just the highest high points. Panic. The darn thing is over 170,000 words. How can I possibly distill it into a paragraph? If I could do that it would be flash fiction, not a monster novel. Panic led me to summarize each chapter (all 38 of them) and then try to pick out the "highest high points." Was it this? Was it that? Did the highest points all belong to one character? (no.)
I don't have a high concept mind. But (according to the blogsite that helped me get a tiny grasp of it) some people write high concept fiction without being aware of it, and other people can't, even if they struggle to make their stuff high concept. Hmmm. I went back and read the blog entry again. If "high concept is about making it easier for readers to pick up what you're putting down" then...that's what I try to do anyway. So...maybe there was a high concept way of summarizing this thing. What was the "touch of recognition?"
Like very rusty gears slowly engaging, with grinding and squealing and flakes of rust and old grunge falling off, my brain tried to locate something that might fit...and then work those concepts (if not "high" at least having a "touch of recognition" for genre readers) into coherent sentences. King, yes. Um. Treachery? Yes, probably. King + treachery = conflict...good. What about, um, rumors? Um...OK. That really cool bit with the swords? Um...no. Not high enough concept; would need longer explanation.
I don't think like this. I think more like "Hmm...I wonder why Character A is so eager to please...hmmm...maybe when he was young, he was...yeah, that will work...and then his uncle...OK, that fits...and then...of course...he's going to see Character B as completely admirable and have a case of hero worship when everyone else knows that B is a selfish, arrogant twit..." and "If it takes four days for a courier to get from This Fort to That Fort, then Character K at This Fort won't know what happened at That Fort for at least four days, which means Those Guys have more than twice four days to rebuild the defenses..." Not only is this a long book, it's a long second book in a multi-book story arc, and what it's "about" is what the whole story arc is "about" which is a fairly complicated set of things...maybe. Or it may be simple but I won't know until it's all done.
This is why I find proposals hard. I can't say what it is until it's done...I'm like a sculptor who can feel where to chip away the marble but can't describe what it is he "sees" in the stone until everyone else can, too. If you said "The high concept of this book is 'The rich kid everybody loathes gets his comeuppance, but then becomes a decent person" (which is pretty much the story of The Magnificent Ambersons) and told me to write the story, it would end up something else entirely.
The take home lesson (if there is one) is that if you're good at "high concept" thinking, and can write it as well, you're going to find publication a lot easier. If you have to pick between understanding "high concept" (without being able to write it) and writing something with the appeal of high concept without understanding how you did it...choose writing it.