High Concept

Since this is the day after Easter and I’m traveling home after Easter revels, I probably ought to be writing about the history of Easter eggs and rabbits, but we all know the celebration stems from the Teutonic goddess Eastre’s fertility rites on the vernal equinox, right? And that bunnies were originally hares, which can conceive while still pregnant and thus are the ultimate in fertility. And to celebrate the end of Lent, German children made rabbit nests out of their hats and caps that magically filled with plant-dyed eggs. And by  the early 1800’s, sugary candies were added and then they finally got the formula right for chocolate and whammo, Easter bunnies deliver chocolate eggs. And chocolate is now good for you, so go ahead and finish off that basket!

But I haven’t been writing historicals lately and can’t think of an interesting theme for Easter bunnies, so I’ll go off on what’s really bothering me—which is the concept of “high concept.”

First off—I am not talking about “writing what’s hot.”  That’s a fool’s journey.  I could write the next greatest vampire story in history and not sell it tomorrow because NYC will have decided the “vampire market is saturated.”  I could invent a whole new brilliant genre untapped by anyone and NYC will decide “it’s too different, we don’t know where to market it.”  So forget the flavor of the month. I’m not going there.

High concept is another critter altogether, one that apparently brings together popular themes/icons/whathaveyou into conflict with each other or reality, usually the latter in my not so humble opinion.

High concept doesn’t work well in historicals, unless it’s something along the order of “Prince of Wales kidnaps Arab Sheik’s Daughter.”  Essentially, everything in history has already been recorded, so we have to stretch ourselves pretty danged far to make a historical romance into high concept. Eloisa James’ Duke and fairy tale series probably come closest, but she deliberately stretches reality since there were very definitely not six handsome, single, wealthy dukes running around Regency England. The mamas wouldn’t have allowed it. So for historical high concept, one has to pretty much write fantasy concepts and six handsome dukes will do it.

I don’t totally grasp “high concept” so feel free to correct me, but I assume Wizard Kid Conquers Evil and Boring Bankrupt Writer Solves Murder fall under that term or Harry Potter and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wouldn’t have done so well. Again, a decided clash with reality, so maybe that’s the key.

But as much as I like fantasy, high concept irritates me. Whatever happened to  “quiet fiction”? Reality, if you must be literal.

When was the last time you read about REAL people instead of demon slayers?  Why can’t we write about people who worry about their weight or lose their jobs or who get the job they’ve always wanted and hate it?  Why shouldn’t we write about people who save trees or cities by doing something normal like writing petitions and protesting or even running for office?  Normal people. Normal situations. Not out-there-on-a-limb-so-far-its-gonna-break high concepts.  If anyone has any recommendations along the “quiet fiction” line, let me know!

But as of this moment, most romance editors seem to be after Navy Seals, Werewolves meet Frankenstein, Billionaire Buys Waitress (or better yet, Waitress Rejects Billionaire, but then it wouldn’t be romance <G>), complete with over-the-top sex and violence. I can’t blame fantasy editors for wanting sex, violence, and monsters, but must everything be apocalyptic and dystopian? Or is that fantasy’s high concept du jour?

The problem is that publishers have to SELL quiet books, and it’s not easy without a great hook shouting pickup lines to readers.  We have to pimp the cover with smoke and mirrors and hunks, and whisper come hither promises in the back copy, before a book even lands on a bookstore shelf.  Once it’s on the shelf, it has to make another big leap into the customer’s hands.  What are the chances of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON leaping into anyone’s hands when DANGEROUS DECEPTIONS is sitting next to it?  (and my apologies to anyone with that title—I count half a dozen on Amazon—I mean no offense. It’s a great title, which makes my point.)  We can’t even sell quiet titles anymore.

So I’m throwing this rant over to our readers—prove me wrong. Name some great quiet fiction you’ve read recently.

Or tell me why you’d rather read monsters and serial killers and superheroes and royalty than about the boy next door. I really want to know.

Small Town Girl high concept: Two musicians don’t kill each other? Waitress meets Hunk, Dreams versus Reality…










High Concept — 19 Comments

  1. I think that quiet fiction is mostly for the reader who has been reading so long that the endless iterations of the high concept story has been revisited so many times it’s lost its charm. Maybe.

    But I’ve got Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water going on my Kindle now, and recently reread (again) the delicious Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson.

  2. “Prince of Wales kidnaps Arab Sheik’s Daughter.” I desperately want to read this now!

    I kind of feel like “high concept” writing is when you start with the idea and then write the story to match, whereas “low concept”(?) is when you start writing without a pre-imagined framework and let the ideas emerge more organically. Would you agree?

  3. Sherwood, you could be right. And yes, I can still read some high concept books, but they need to be done well so that I’m reading for author voice as well as plot.

    Low concept! Cool, I love the idea of looking for characters in all the wrong places. “G” It may depend on your definition of “framework.” I can’t imagine writing a book without some idea of at least character arc, if not plot arc. I have the feeling women’s fiction, which tends to quiet voice, might develop organically, but the character’s story arc has to be reasonably clear before starting or there isn’t a story.

  4. Democracy by Henry Adams. Will the heroine ruin her life by marrying the corrupt politician who wants her money and to dominate her, while what she wants is to redeem political life? Gore Vidal’s Chronicles of Empire series is very much influenced by this novel of Adams, as well as his historical work. For that matter I’m re-read Vidal’s 1876 from the series right now.

    Mason’s Retreat by Christopher Tilghman — Maryland scion returns to the ancestral home before WWII, and how do they put the ruin back to rights — while the family crumbles in some ways, and in others grows stronger.

    They aren’t that easy to find now, especially as the libraries don’t have these older titles and publishers aren’t publishing much of this sort of thing, but they are around. What publishers like as a ‘quiet’ novel these days tends to make my teeth hurt ….

    Love, C.

    • Excellent examples, thank you, and once I retire and have time for the lovely tomes of Gore Vidal again, I shall have to re-read. But the only “quiet concept” books I’m seeing today tend to be literary fiction, and even in that genre, they’re rare. (and to spur additional controversy–I think litfic may be dying under the public’s demand for high concept)

      • Vidal, like Henry Adams too, has his own axes to grind, politically and historically — for instance they both loathe President Grant and will admit no good in him at all.

        Two more titles you might find of interest in terms of so-called quiet books:

        The Barbarian Nurseries — this one has a brilliant female protagonist who is most effective, though she doesn’t kill anybody or save the world, though she does save a couple of kids when their parents can’t be bothered. This is one of the best titles as title ever.

        One of Tobar’s conceits in this portion of the novel, and it really works, is to invite his readers to consider Los Angeles as though it were fabulous and exotic — which, of course, it is. His travelers stumble around this unfamiliar place like a lost band of Marco Polos. Later, 11-year-old Brandon recounts the adventure through the filter of all the hundreds of fantasy novels he’s read. “We were looking for Grandpa’s house, because Araceli said we should look for him. But we found this other place instead, where there are houses like jails I guess …. and other things I thought only existed in books. But they were real.”

        and this one, which I finally got hold of after over a year of waiting for it to be published in the U.S.:

        <a href="http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/dj-taylor/derby-day/&quot;Derby Days by D.J. Taylor

        • Thank you for the recommendations! They sound like just the sort of thing I enjoy, quiet intelligence, character, theme, without the slam, bang, boom.

  5. “we all know the celebration stems from the Teutonic goddess Eastre’s fertility rites on the vernal equinox, right?”

    Actually, what we know is that Easter was celebrated in the Roman Empire long before there was any chance of Teutonic influence.

    And that there is no evidence of Eostre’s existence — there was some random speculation several centuries after England was Christianized about there having been, to explain the name, but modern studies have debunked said speculation.

    • Nifty, I’m trying out the new Reply to Comment button. This is fascinating info, thank you! I can’t imagine “Easter” was celebrated by Romans but spring equinox goes back to ancient civilizations, yes. I have to wonder how they came up with Eostre’s name if there wasn’t some random evidence somewhere.

  6. The most recent ‘quiet’ books I’ve read recently are the Hilary McKay YAs. Slightly dysfunctional British family runs around being dysfunctional; none of the crises involve death, dismemberment, world domination, or global issues.

  7. I go in and out of wanting”quiet books.” Right now I’m more in my “Evil” phase, referring to that character in Time Bandits:

    “If I were creating the world I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day One!”

  8. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 4/10/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  9. I have been thinking of it as the front side and the back side. On the front of a world or creation you have the big gaudy stuff, the swords held high and the oliphaunts rampaging across the Fields of the Pelennor — the stuff that makes for a good book cover. But if you lift the fabric and look at the back side of the work, you see the more subtle workings that are just as important. Think of Faramir up in the tower, paging through old Elven documents, or Sam and his cooking pans.
    People who do upholstery, fabric arts, or curtains (this happens less with clothing although it is not unknown) sometimes use the ‘wrong’ side of the fabric as the ‘right’ side because the pattern is subtler and prettier. The designation ‘wrong side’ or ‘right side’ is convention, no more.
    And so it is with a fiction. It would be a -different- novel for sure, if LOTR focused on Faramir and his family difficulties, and it would definitely be less high-concept, but it wouldn’t be impossible. It would just be turning the fabric over and calling the back the ‘right side’.

  10. Does The Book Thief count as a quiet book? I think it does, but it’s also high concept, maybe.

    Or at least I’d think a book told from Death’s pov is high concept.


  11. I like the backside of the fabric–the inside-out clothing–as an explanation. That’s the part I prefer, I guess. I’m not as fond of the flaming swords and oliphants. But even then, I don’t think LOR is high concept. Not quiet, either, just genre fiction. Oliphants qualify as genre. Oliphants carrying flaming swords and conquering the world…different picture.

    I would think Death’s pov ought to be high concept, but I guess it depends on what you do with it. I can’t remember Book Thief’s concept. I suspect it didn’t have flaming swords and oliphants though. But if all Death is doing is looking for a book thief and cleaning out his cabinets, probably not.

    Okay, so now I’m confusing myself. Easily done. I think I’ll go look for a way to change the strange avatar.