Guest Post: Finding that Elusive High Concept
Hello, fellow bloggers! Today on the blog, we’re happy to introduce a debut author, Mary Elizabeth Summer. Earlier this summer, I was approached by this author to see if I was interested in having her for a guest post, which of course, sounded fabulous, so that’s what we did. Mary Elizabeth Summer’s novel, Trust Me, I’m Lying just recently released – this past Tuesday in fact, and just happens to be one of the books I still need to review. The plan? Hopefully that can go up next week! Until then, come and meet Mary Elizabeth through this lovely guest post she wrote for Dreaming Under the Same Moon. Join me in welcoming Mary to the blog – and read up on her advice for aspiring authors.
has heard the phrase “must be commercial, must be high concept.” It’s been
repeated ad nauseam in forums, conferences, blog posts, and rejection letters.
It’s been driven into us until our bones are grafted with the phrase. But
finding that elusive high concept is not nearly as easy as one would think,
given how ubiquitous it is in the publishing narrative.
publishing whirlpool, let me bring you up to speed on what we mean by high concept. Nathan Bransford (and a
lot of other smart folks) define it as a story premise that can be described
succinctly in a single sentence or phrase, e.g., reality TV show forces kids to
fight each other to the death for their freedom. (Here’s Nathan’s post on the subject.)
interest with high and universally relatable stakes. In the example above,
we’re immediately sympathetic to and worried for any children, even ones we
don’t yet know, who are forced to kill each other over something as frivolous
as other people’s entertainment. The stakes are incredibly high (risk of death
is the ultimate in high stakes), and the fact that they’re being watched and
judged and manipulated against their will is very easily relatable—we’ve all
experienced emotional fallout from one of these at some point in our lives.
concept means, how does one go about finding ideas that are high concept?
else is out there and twist it. The plethora of creative retellings of
fairy tales is a prime example of this method. Take a beloved fairy tale that
everyone already relates to, and make the protagonist a cyborg.
How cool is that?
stranger than fiction. The Nazis, for example, collectively committed greater
atrocities than any antagonist I’ve ever written. What if the Nazis had won
World War II? What would our world look like today? (See Caroline Richmond’s THE ONLY THING TO FEAR
for the answer.)
better news story. Another great breeding ground for ideas is newspaper
headlines. Find a piece that intrigues you, and then fictionalize it. For
example, April Henry’s inspiration for GIRL, STOLEN was
a newspaper clipping she came across about a blind girl who happened to be
sleeping in the backseat of her mother’s car when it was stolen. Henry riffed
off the idea, coming up with her own story of how the girl dealt with that
problem, but the idea initiated from a news story.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. You just have to recognize it when you see
it. And to that end, here are some tips to help you.
afraid of bad ideas. The key to fruitful brainstorming is putting the inner
judge to sleep and letting in all the
ideas, good, bad, and ugly. The reason for that is not because some of the ugly
ideas might turn out to be good ones. Ugly ideas are ugly for a reason. If they
were good ideas, they’d have been in the good column from minute one. But the
ugly, stupid, hackneyed ideas are actually necessary. Letting them out encourages
your brain to generate more ideas. It’s like priming a well. You pour in a
little water to get the mechanism going, and then the first bit of water that
comes up is gross and slimy and probably full of germs. But you don’t stop
pumping, thinking all the ideas are bad. You keep pumping until the fresh,
cool, crystal-clear ideas start flowing like Niagra Falls. This is where mind maps
become important. Use them.
afraid to scrap ideas. Hey, if it’s not working for you, it won’t work for
anyone else. Even if you’re 20,000 words into it, let it go—or be prepared to
rework it entirely. It’s just one idea out of hundreds you will have to have
over a long, successful writing career. Don’t get too attached to one book. If
you’ve lost all zest for the project, get out now, and start on a new idea at
once. Caveat: That being said, don’t
mistake the middle doldrums for a premise that just isn’t working. Everyone
flounders through the middle, second-guessing everything about the book, and
feeling like every word is cut out with a scalpel. That’s the middle doldrums.
Keep slogging through those until you reach the reenergizing third act. But if
you start to feel really icky about your premise as a whole, then don’t be
afraid to shelve it and move on.
looking for your next idea. Remember that pump example above? Well, it’s
true here, too. If you stop pumping, the well is going to dry up, and then
you’ll have to prime it all over again. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for
anything that catches your interest—a bit of conversation, a lyric in a song, a
line from a TV show—and write it down. I use the Evernote
app on my phone for this. Other writers use notebooks. The more ideas you write
down, the more will come to you. And it’s not just ideas for a high concept
premise I’m talking about. Anything that snags your attention could be used to
add layers of complexity to your already existing project.
simple. If the idea can’t be effectively distilled to a single sentence,
then it’s not high concept. Throwing in the proverbial kitchen sink to make
your idea unique is not the answer. Unique is nice, but it’s not essential.
There is nothing new under the sun, not really. A hook that grabs you and
stakes that are both high and relatable, those things are far more important to
you find them?