Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Genre Confusion

I don’t know about all you fellow kidlit writers out there, but I’ve been stumped by at least one publishing term that an agent or editor has attached to my w.i.p.

Here’s an example. At one conference I attended, after pitching my manuscript to an editor, she smiled at me and said, “Hmm. It sounds very high concept.”

High concept? Um, okay. Was this a compliment or a thinly veiled insult? Having no idea, I simply smiled back and said, um, nothing.

After some frenzied, post-pitch googling , I was still stumped.

Luckily, Nathan Bransford posted about this meaning of this very term on his blog a few months ago. For those of you who don’t want to click on the link, here’s the nutmeat of what he wrote:

"High concept means that a novel’s plot can be described very succinctly in appealing fashion.”

Great, I thought. I have an appealing plot. But after reading further, I wasn’t so sure. As Mr. Bransford went on to write:
“High concept is very often misunderstood because what it sounds like it means and what it actually means are basically completely opposite. It doesn't mean sophisticated (opposite), it doesn't mean cerebral (opposite), it doesn't mean difficult to describe (opposite). And it's very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.”

Hmm, maybe not so great. Maybe she thought my plot was unsophisticated, non-cerebral, and facile. Ouch.

But his post ended on a high note.
“And it's very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.”

Okay, so maybe my first instinct—it was great!—was spot-on after all.

Or, maybe not.

I guess I’ll never know. With a term like "high concept,” it could go either way.

Recently, I heard from a writer friend that an agent had called her manuscript too “commercial” to take on. At the time, I didn’t get it. Since when is being “commercial” a bad thing? Isn’t that the point, to sell as many books as possible?

Since I’m already over my word limit, I won't even begin to dive into my current state of genre confusion. To wit, is my fantasy w.i.p.…

a) straight fantasy
b) science fiction
c) urban fantasy
d) paranormal
e) high fantasy


f) steampunk (just kidding, I know it’s not that)

…since it contains elements that relate to all of the above (except "f"). Of course, in my query, I could always go with…

g) science fantasy (a nice hybrid term)

...or, as one editor called it…

h) a fantasy/mystery/adventure (a really nice hybrid term)

Frankly, I like “h” best, because it opens up more pitching possibilities. Maybe if I called it “a high urban paranormal science fantasy,” I’d hit the pitching jackpot.

Fellow Paper Waiters, are there any publishing terms or genres in kidlit land that have stumped you? If so, please share them. And it you have the proper definition, by all means, be sure to share that too!


  1. We had a "high-concept" discussion at RUCCL 2008 and one agent yelled out a movie example--"Phonebooth." It's about a guy trapped in a phonebooth by a sniper. That's about all you need to know to understand what the movie's about. Maybe editors want "high-concept" because it's easy to explain to a buyer/audience.

    The term "quiet" confused me at first until I realized it's probably the opposite of h-c, a story that cannot be succinctly summarized.

    From what I've been hearing about the current market, I gather h-c books are more attractive to editors than the quiet ones.

  2. J.L. I have another literary term for your story - a portal story - like THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, and Suzanne Collins' THE UNDERLAND CHRONICLES. I think that explains it all.

    I'm confused by "magical realism" and "realistic fantasy" - a story when magical and fantastical elements are overlaid into a realistic setting (TWILIGHT would have fallen into this category, but I think vampire books have morphed into their own genre) but other books include FALLEN and HUSH,HUSH.

    And, of course, there is that ever present and constantly changing term "edgy."

  3. Banging my head against the keyboard. Genre, Schmenre

    SOOOO understand your frustration.

    High concept...egads.

    How about your book is damn good. 'Nuff said. :)

    Seriously...I hate genre typecasting. I know it's necessary but as you pointed out, a bit silly. I think I may be in the middle of writing a high concept novel. But is there such a thing as high concept chick lit with a male protaganist....I'm just going to keep writing and leave the genre casting to someone else. Which is probably idiotic of me, but...really, something else to worry about!!??

  4. To me high concept = plot driven.
    It's about a particular situation, and not as much about the characters in the situation.
    It has to be a situation that entices the reader or viewer to find out more.

    I write steampunk, and there are so, so many variations on that theme (which is part of the appeal) that it gets terribly hard to explain, but I often go with "modern Jules Verne".

  5. I vote for middle-grade!

    But seriously, now with Borders and B&N shelving YA Fantasy/Paranormal away from other fiction, genre definitions may become increasingly important.

    But overall, I completely agree with Robin. It's the book that counts.

    I don't think any agent will turn down a writer because the writer labeled a book scifi that the agent feels is more fantasy-ish. Or paranoramal-lite. Or suburban-science-fiction. Or -- oh, you know.

  6. The genre that made me go "huh?" was steampunk. I'd still not want to have to get up in front of a group and define it. Of course, now I'll say "modern Jules Verne." :)

  7. Tara: So I guess high-concept is all about the 10-word-or-under pitch. It's like the publishing equivalent of Name That Tune!

    Meg: Yes, a portal story. Which reminds me... I attended a conference once where they passed around a genre cheat sheet of agents and editors' likes and dislikes. For one of them, it said the agent "likes fantasy, but no portholes." At first, I wondered what she had against luxury liners. Ha.

    Robin: Agreed. I can't wait for someone to coin a term for the genre of your w.i.p.! I thought of one possibility, but it's not appropriate for a G-rated blog like ours.

    Lily Cate: Modern Jules Verne works for me.

    J.A. Good point.

    Marcia: When I first heard the word "steampunk," I thought it was related to punk rock. I guess Lily cleared that up for both of us.

    Thanks for your great comments, eeryone, and for reminding me that terms like "quiet" and "edgy" should remain on my "huh?" list.

    Any more out there?