Begin with the High-Concept Premise

When I attended the Romance Writers of America® national conference in San Antonio last year, writers, agents, and editors continually referenced an elusive term: the high-concept premise.

Uh, excuse me? What?

I left the conference knowing my manuscript lacked a high-concept premise. After I’d consoled myself with a hunk of dark chocolate, I then spent months fiddling with the plot to make it worthy of a catchy description. It’s a laborious task, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. So when I sat down to write my second manuscript, I vowed to begin with the high-concept premise.

By now, some of you might be asking: What the heck is a high-concept premise, anyway? Literary agent Rachelle Gardner offers this useful explanation: “When an agent says they want high concept, they’re looking for an idea that can be captured in just a title and a brief, pithy tagline—and from that brief description, will immediately attract interest.” For more on this topic, see Ms. Gardner’s video and write-up here: http://www.rachellegardner.com/what-is-high-concept/.

Why does it matter? It matters because books with high-concept premises sell. It matters because agents, publishers, and readers are drawn to books with high-concept premises.

Let’s imagine that I’ve written a romance, and this is its premise: Sally Drake can’t risk falling in love, so she avoids it—until Jake Carpenter walks into her life.

Is that an Amazon one-click? Of course not, and I’ll tell you why. Because there’s no high-concept premise; instead, it’s a flat and clichéd description of a romance novel that will never be published. But with just a few tweaks, I can infuse this one-line description with beaucoup de high concept and spark interest in the story.

Bounty hunter Sally Drake craves liaisons with anonymous, dispensable men who won’t be caught in her dangerous lifestyle, but after a soul-shattering sexual encounter with her latest bounty, Jake Carpenter, Sally learns what it’s like to be hunted.

It’s not perfect, but hopefully you get the idea. The premise gives information about the hero and the heroine and hints at the conflicts, both internal and external, that will keep the couple apart for most of the story. (And just to be clear, this is not one of my works in progress—yet.)

Not everyone works out their high-concept premise before they begin to write, but I’m experimenting with doing just that. And I love that if someone asks me what I’m working on, I have an answer that doesn’t begin with “um” and end with a blank stare.

Here’s the premise for my latest work-in-progress, The Wedding Disorganizer:

With her business and reputation at stake, wedding planner Miranda Chase’s warfare skills are put to the test when her latest clients can’t agree on anything and the bride’s sexy older brother threatens to derail her efforts to throw the perfect wedding.

I’ll tweak this many times before I pitch it to anyone, but I think this premise has promise (for fun, try to repeat that last clause five times in a row).

Now if I could just finish the damn story, I’d be in great shape.

What about you? Before writing, do you check your book idea to be sure you have a high-concept premise? Do you draft a blurb only after you type “The End”? Tell me about your process in the comments. I’d love to learn from you!

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