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Thursday, March 6, 2008

High Concept

Today, over on Word Wenches, Pat Rice was talking about high concept and how difficult it is to come up with one for historical romance. This reminded me how nuts I get whenever the subject of high concept comes up. It's always been a thorn in my backside.

To me, high concept, by definition, should mean an idea that aspires to more or is bigger than the norm. When it's said that someone has written a "big" book, this is what pops into my head. And of course, by big book, that doesn't mean it's extremely long. It has nothing to do with size at all. It means just that-- a story with a bigger concept than the norm.

So, imagine my surprise a couple of years or so ago when I realized people in the industry were calling a "tag line" a high concept line. Yes, sometimes I am the very last person on the planet to find out these things. This came to light when we were discussing a letter I had received from an agent, wherein she mentioned the words "big book." From that, someone suggested the agent might have thought it was high concept. And from there, someone else suggested I simply come up with a high concept line to attach to the work when I pitched it to agents and editors. Problem solved.

That's what threw me for a loop. The general consensus out there is, if you can come up with a dandy "line" to describe your book, then you have a high concept.


Confused yet? I was, and even though I now know what they're talking about, I still don't think it's right. Just because you can attach a killer tag line to a book doesn't mean it's high concept, by any means. But most out there would argue with me on this point.

In all fairness, I have to say of my writing group that the point was finally conceded that the high concept "line" is a totally different animal than a high concept "idea." But I really think there are some people out there who don't separate the two, and that's why I object to the use of the term to describe a tag line. It's danged confusing and inaccurate.

Here's an example, Toni Blake's high concept line for her upcoming book, "Letters to a Secret Lover," is -- Sex and the City meets Grizzly Adams. From this simple line we get the big picture in brief. Modern, sophisticated city girl meets nature man who lives in the woods. Sounds good, doesn't it?

A high concept line is composed of industry buzz words, or phrases that are easily recognized by everyone. Another example would be -- Legally Blond meets The Beverly Hillbillies. (that one I came up with myself for a book, the author of which I won't mention because I found it to be just as silly as the tag line suggests. ;o)

So, the question is, how do we come up with a high concept for historical romance? There isn't a whole lot in modern pop culture I could apply to one of my western historicals. At least one part of the buzz words or phrase needs to be current and what's happening now, or else you end up with something that sounds antiquated, which defeats the purpose. None of us wants to plant the thought in an agent's or editor's head that our story is old-fashioned or out-of-date.

I'm going to be giving this some thought. I'm a little rusty because it's been a while since I've been in the position where I needed to think about these things. But the sad fact is, if we plan to submit, we need to have a snappy one-liner that describes our story in a nutshell. A high concept. (and I still cringe because, in my opinion, it will always be a tag line no matter what kind of spin everyone puts on it) But incredible as it may seem, this one line is often what an editor will take into a meeting and pitch to the rest of the staff when she's interested in buying your book and needs to get a thumbs-up before offering you a contract.



  1. You all are making me glad I'm NOT a writer! Too cornfusing for this little brain! I just know what I like and what I don't. I guess I don't pay any attention to those Tag lines or whatever you call them. It's the description on the back or iside cover, which ever the case may be, that I pay attention to.

  2. Susi, if we could just write the stories and not have to worry about or deal with all the other stuff that goes with it, I'd be a happy camper. ;o)


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