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Thread: High Concept and Me
January 14th, 2010, 10:57 AM #16
You know I can't talk about my own work here, except maybe some technical bits on writing.
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Now, if I was writing that summarization I'd probably go with "a soldier's story, one where the soldier discovers something worth dying for."
Yes, I know there is a hell of a lot more to it than that but, me being me, I tend to interpret things in terms of myn own experience. The point for me is that the very best stuff you can read treat with issues, real issues. If you're gonna do a book on soldiers, then tell me something about what it means to be soldier. Forever War wasn't good because it served as a critique for Vietnam; it is good because it treats with what it means to be a soldier lost in time. Not real? Consider U.S. soldiers on their third and fourth tour.
Chronicles of Thomas Covenent was good because it made me think about a life where every move I make must be considered in terms of potential lethality. Life is like that, anway, but living through leprosy intensifies the reality. Covenant is believeable because he's so damned scared of an accident, a moment of indiscretion killing him. I had no contact with leprosy save through Michener's Hawaii and Wallace's Ben Hur; Donaldson gave me something to think about.
So, you say 'high concept' to me and I react with 'what the hell is the story trying to tell me?"
And, yeah, I know: that's not what you were getting at. Don't you just hate these posters who insist on dealing with the question in their own frame of reference?
January 14th, 2010, 11:15 AM #17
They're just borrowing buzz words from the film industry again, which they periodically do, especially during bad economic times when the corporate parents of publishers scream about their lack of profitability, booksellers get snarly and worry about closing, editors complain to agents that they need to have books their bosses will regard as potential bestsellers and have otherwise cut their acquisitions budget, and agents, already struggling, get very nervous. And then writers, who are always looking for the magic key, are very receptive to the idea that it's just getting the right formula down and you're in, and they spread the buzz words around. (Before this, the buzz word was "platform." Writers needed to have a good platform to have the best chance of a sale, which meant a highly visible Web presence, lots of media contacts, movie interest, etc. Earlier than platform was "franchise," which was essentially the same idea as platform.)
These things always remind me of Michael Korda's story about the time when Simon & Schuster was bought up and the new owner brought in consultants to survey their business and give advice. (Korda is himself a major bestselling author of both fiction and non-fiction plus an editor who has shepherded numerous bestsellers.) These consultants with straight faces said that the publishing house should only acquire bestselling titles. They had no clue as to how you actually do this, but they figured there was some way of determining it and the editorial and marketing staffs were just stubbornly forgetting about it. And then they took their money and went home, presumably, because business consulting makes a lot more money than book publishing ever will.
What they are asking for with "high concept" are novels that sound movie-like and can be pitched like a movie pitch and which therefore sound good on the Web and supposedly have the potential of getting optioned by film or t.v. Books and series that are turned into film or t.v., even if not big hits, immediately get a boost in sales and are thus about as close to a guarantee as you can get. Marketing people in particular -- and people from marketing and sales tend to end up in the top executive positions in a publishing house/corporation -- like this idea obviously.
But you can't actually predict which ones are going to get dramatic rights deals, and publishing has often lost money trying to gamble on it. More to the point, the Hollywood people mainly want the books that are already major bestsellers, so having a cinematic first novel doesn't mean a movie deal. For most of a publisher's list, it simply isn't a consideration anyway. Even with improved special effects, 95% of alternate world fantasy series are not going to be adapted. But there is still a very large audience for it, and second tier bestsellers who aren't probably getting a film deal can still make a lot of money for the house.
Most bestsellers develop that status over time. Writer experiences like Terry Goodkind and Patrick Rothfuss had are rare. The majority of bestsellers get there by building up an audience over time for at least one series. And even fast burn bestsellers have to top their performance and grow their audience. So for all the platform and high concept talk, publishers are well aware that most of their list will hopefully bring a solid return, but is not going to "light up the night like a flame."
But when economic times are bad and publishers slash their lists and sales decline and editors are told they can only buy those books that are really, really special and they believe will be giant hits right out of the gate, then the bestseller uber allis comes out and is also a really handy excuse for editors and agents dealing with angry agents and writers.
I don't think it's necessarily the worst thing in the world because authors -- even experienced and established ones -- hate to synopsize their work unless pushed (or unless they've worked in Hollywood,) and so it's good practice for them. But the point of the thing is the same things we've been talking about in the query letter threads -- what's interesting about the story, why did you want to write it, what are the emotional aspects of the story, what are major plot events that support and effect those emotional aspects, etc.
Remember when someone started that thread where you had to describe your novel in one sentence? Well, that's high concept. It's not impossible to do. But whether an agent or editor will see your effort as cinematic or best-seller appealing is subjective, as always, and will vary.
Additionally, "high concept" is "something that sounds interesting to me that will appeal widely but is different from other things I've been pitched lately," i.e. something that is right for that agent or editor -- subjective, various and anybody's guess. So again, it's better for a writer to focus on what he or she wants as the concept and then figure out where that may fit in the market, category or general, rather than chase vagaries and wishes.
January 14th, 2010, 11:24 AM #18
...the lone prairie
You should never give me ammunition like this, I could go for days.
So, if I understand, high concept means the story is summerizeable. Which would mean the story is about something. My first thought is that is pretty much everything, but no, I've read stories which were full of sound and fury, but in the end, meaningless. (Perhaps written a few too.)
Still, adverting your story as 'high concept' is another kind of spin. If you present in their language they like you better. This isn't good or bad, it's getting along in the world.
January 14th, 2010, 11:48 AM #19
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I wouldn't dare to give advice to you Great Gods of Writing, but maybe you could use a simple trickery: think about any kind of hook sentence, that gets someone to read. Like the first sentence of a novel or (already mentioned) blurb. Just think of something interesting, maybe a new viewpoint to the story. I think it's not cheating, as long as it is relevant to the story.
It's probably not necessary to try to compress your gazillion word masterpiece to three words.
Adding humor or drama to that sentence is additional spice, but you know that better than me.
January 14th, 2010, 11:55 AM #20
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In my understanding, High Concept is essentially when a work has a single overriding theme. That is, there is a concept that constantly runs along above and within the plot. That concept is easy to pick out at every point in the story, and the whole story's construction revolves around that point: Aliens attack; An asteroid is about to end the world; A virus threatens to spread; A volacano is about the burst under Los Angeles; An evil menacing Eye living in a volcano sets about to destroy the world; Something Awful Must Be Set Right. Which is to say, the story is singular in its exploration of that simple, succinct concept, and informs every thing that everyone in your story does.
In other words, stories that don't meander, follow stream of consciousness, involve diasporic twists and turns, sub-plot after sub-plots, or contain nuanced, philosophical moral grey-areas. Black and white. This is happening Right Now and it must be dealt with before we can move on.
Simple, to the point, getting the job done without all the noise.
High as in "overriding," not as in "lofty."
This is a fairly good description: http://www.scriptforsale.com/james.shtml
January 14th, 2010, 12:07 PM #21
Well, if you are general enough, you can always summarize your work in one sentence. Take my WIP, pushing 160.000 words with over 100 characters, the one phrase I can think to encompass all of it would be:
"Betrayal, Murder, Rape, Genocide: anything goes in order to save the world."
Is that High Concept enough?
January 14th, 2010, 12:53 PM #22
My conception of "high concept" has always been more than just an easily summarizable plot. There has to be a hook, a twist of some kind. "Aliens invade a planet" isn't high concept. "Aliens invade a planet -- and WE'RE the aliens" is.
January 14th, 2010, 01:40 PM #23
January 14th, 2010, 04:19 PM #24
katG is like a sff industry oracle and i simply dont have enough incense and oil to keep the fires at my alter burning!! did you/do work in publishing? you seem to know a great deal of useful information.
January 14th, 2010, 04:23 PM #25
January 14th, 2010, 05:06 PM #26
You guys are way overthinking it. Just because they're using the term "high concept" doesn't mean that it means anything specific like easily summizable, hot chicks or has one simple overriding concept to it. It means "stuff that sounds good to me" -- and what that gets you is a reading, which is better than a kick in the head and is the first step, but is not the same as actually getting an agent or getting your rights sold to an editor. They have to read it and like it and they don't like the same things. Nor do they all have the same business circumstances and constraints.
I'll bring out two stories that I've brought out before but they are relevant. In the first one, a pal of mine who sells very well in mysteries was having trouble getting publisher support. Instead, they were throwing all their energies into a new series by a woman that was a bit more hard-boiled about a female detective. They thought she was going to be the next big thing. They paid her a lot in advances for a multi-book contract. They had "high concept" titles. They were probably hoping for Hollywood involvement. The books did reasonably well, but they weren't bestsellers and they lost the publisher a lot of money. (Meanwhile my friend had a phenomenal sell-through rate.)
Knew an author on another forum who had worked in British t.v. production. She had written a novel about a middle-aged woman who has to deal with her past. One major agent told her that the book was chick-lit, that chick-lit was over in Britain, and that she should go write another novel. This was despite the fact that both women's fiction titles (including the more sparkly kind,) were still coming out in Britain and new sales had been announced. But this agent didn't think it was a good idea. An editor who got to see some of the ms. at a conference and another agent disagreed and the author ended up with a two book deal.
The point of these stories is not that publishing people are stupid. It's not that they are smart. It's that what they say they want is not always what they actually want, and what they say they want -- if it's clear at all what that is -- is not always what they need. And what they think will work sometimes does and sometimes doesn't. They're using their judgment, submersed in the market, to try to figure it out, complete with subjective reactions and preferences, feedback from others, and gut hunches. Which quite often pay off. What they want is something that sparks their interest, and then when they read it, they like it and think others will like it too. They call it by different names, but that's what it is.
It doesn't hurt to call it Die Hard on a Mattress if you think it will help you get a reading. But there will inevitably be some of them who absolutely hate the Die Hard movies and think that whole genre is worthless.
(Used to agent, keat. Please stop burning incense. I rant regardless. )
January 14th, 2010, 05:24 PM #27
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Good points, Kat, but there are agents (more so than editors, it seems) that get sucked into these trends, and then try to pass them onto authors (usually the unpublished ones who are more eager to please).
I probably told the story on another thread about the panel of agents and editors (plural, as in a couple of each, and representing major industry brands) who told a packed roomful of aspiring authors that they should all write vampire novels because that's what hot. Of course it was lunacy, but they all concurred with straight faces.
You can't blame the writers for getting confused. There are thousands of sources of advice about writing and publishing these days, and 99% of them are bunk. You usually don't know the truth until you step in it.
January 14th, 2010, 05:30 PM #28
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Die Hard on a stick would be an instant classic.
The high concept has been around in comics for ages and is basically a summation of what you're going to then expound on if the editor/pile reader likes that phrase/short paragraph. With X amount of pitches per month (X being a stupidly high number you then multiply by 10) a publisher only has a small amount of time to read stuff to risk their livelihoods on. Therefore they need something they can sell to customers, with the understanding that if you can do it, you may also be sellable ()
I know people have already said 'oh but what about my opus, how I am supposed to explain this' well every pitch they receive is someone's opus and if you, who know it best, can't explain it simply to draw someone's attention, why should they bother about it? That's how its been sold to me when I first learned of it. The high concept (don't they call it the logline in movies?) is one way they tell whether reviewing a pitch is worth their time. It's a first impression and fair or not is how your pitch will often be judged. I've actually practised several for works I'm trying to pitch. It's not easy and does end up with a lot of comparisons. It seems like putting the pitch reader in a certain frame of mind for your story.
January 14th, 2010, 05:49 PM #29
My 2 cents:
Hot Chicks And Guys With Big Muscles Fight Evil And Win And Then Do It More In The Even More Over The Top Sequel Boom Que Explosions And Fast Cars Exclamation Point Exclamation Point
In my honest opinion: High Concept is nothing more than the bottom-lining attempt to "HollyWoodize" the literary industry. The razzle-dazzle of the entire story must be hyped enough to entice someone to buy the book right after they here it.
If this High Concept notion existed several years ago, I would be bold enough to argue that the likes of The Hobbit and LOTR would not be sitting on our bookshelves today.
Of course I could be wrong. We can just wait until there is only one single publisher in the world (that gobbled up all the remaining smaller ones), and wait to see what High Concept is to them (most likely when they ask for agents to only submit the 1st paragraph of your book).
Last edited by JT Billow; January 14th, 2010 at 05:52 PM.
January 14th, 2010, 06:16 PM #30
From the clarifications that have emerged in this thread, I understand how misguided I was to equate depth and high concept. It would seem that high concept is 1984-speak. Snakes on a Plane, fer crissake!