I’ve recently finished my novel, A Reasonable Price, but I can’t tell you what it’s about because it’s a secret.
Here’s what I say to anyone who asks about it: “A Reasonable Price is the story of a mother’s battle against the doctor who used her son in a secret experiment.”
Here’s how most people respond: “Oh, interesting.” Which we all know is a code for “Boring.” Not the response a writer wants after spending a year on a novel.
Here’s my dilemma: My description is vague because my novel is high concept commercial fiction. I know this because a major NYC lit agent said so when I showed her my WIP (work in progress) this summer at a writers’ conference. What is high concept fiction? Briefly, high concept means the one sentence description (i.e., the hook) is shocking. Exciting. Fresh. High concept fiction takes a startling idea and frames it in an original story.
If I tell people what my novel is really about, I have two problems. First, any writer who thinks she has a great idea (okay, I guess that’s all of us), is fearful that someone else might steal the idea and get the story out faster (never better) than she would. In that case, our idea would no longer be Fresh. This rarely happens, but it would be soul-crushing if it did. Taylor Stevens has suffered comparisons and untrue accusations about mimicking Stieg Larsson because The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released shortly before Stevens’ The Informationist even though she wrote her book long before she, or anyone in America, had ever heard of Larsson’s trilogy. Fortunately, Stevens’ work is fantastic in its own right—just ask James Cameron who recently bought the movie rights for The Informationist.
My second reason for keeping my “hook” a secret comes from a good friend of mine, Larassa Kabel, a very talented artist. Larassa said to me, “When you are working on a powerful idea, telling people about it releases the energy.” An artist, a painter or a writer, must have a burning energy inside in order to create something powerful.
Other than the aforementioned literary agent, I have told only four people what my novel is really about, plus the three beta-readers who are proofing it for their various fields of expertise—until this week.
This week I began the querying process. (Wow, I managed to type that last sentence without any swear words! I’m quite proud of myself.) I must have written two or three hundred variations of my query letter before I felt it was ready to send out. My first question for myself was, “Do I tell the high-concept secret?” Eventually, my answer became clear, “Uh, yeah. Duh.” I have been so secretive about my novel, that it was difficult to start talking about it. The high concept idea is the hook, and all queries must tell the hook (but never the ending).
So now it’s out there. A handful of agents have my secret in their Inbox. If I’ve done my part well enough, one day the rest of you will know the secret of A Reasonable Price.
Curious about a few examples of high concept stories? Snakes on a Plane is the best bad example I can think of. Here are a few good examples: Jaws, Home Alone, Se7en, The DaVinci Code, but also Romeo and Juliette. But the three best (my opinion) high concept stories, the ones my novel most relates to, are Seven Pounds (starring Will Smith), Never Let Me Go (written by Kazuo Ishiguro), and The Skin I Live In (directed by Pedro Almodovar). The secret behind these three novels/movies is NOT announced in any of the marketing campaigns.
Their power lies in the secret that unfolds with the story, not on the back cover.
How about it? Do you agree, disagree? Do you have other examples of high concept? I’d love to hear from you!