Lori Nelson Spielman”s debut, The Life List, became a #1 International bestseller and has been translated into 29 languages. If that’s not enough, Fox 2000 purchased the film option. Her second book, Sweet Forgiveness, is just out, and Kirkus says of it: “Bright prose, a plucky heroine, and more than a few plot twists make for a delightful, light read.” Enjoy Lori’s post about writing high concept novels. – Meg
Lori Nelson Spielman: High Expectations—and Concepts
As a former teacher, I believe in the rule of expectations. Expect great things from students and you’ll get great things; expect mediocrity and you’ll get poor performers.
My mother expected a lot. She’s the first person who told me I’d be published. An avid reader who’s brutally honest, if my mom says she likes something, I believe her. So, over the years, each time I finished a manuscript, I’d have it bound and delivered to my mother.
The first was Letting Go for Dear Life. She read it during her winter in the south and, afterwards, loaned it far and wide, like a real honest-to-goodness book she’d bought at a bookstore. It made her friends cry, she told me with a twinkle in her eye. Why an agent never pounced on it baffled her.
After reading my second manuscript, The Life List, she left me a voicemail saying, “I thought it was great. I think this one’s going to be published.” And yes, I am able to quote her verbatim. I kept that voice message on my answering machine throughout the entire query process. For six months, every time I received a devastating rejection letter, I pressed ‘play,’ and hear my mother’s reassuring words, “I think this one’s going to be published.” It was a balm to my blistered heart.
Fast-forward two years. My mother’s prediction came true. The Life List really did get published. She was ecstatic! I was ecstatic! But expectations crashed our party—I needed to write a second book. And quickly.
My dear mother had the perfect solution, or so we thought. She suggested I show my agent that earlier manuscript I’d written, Letting Go For Dear Life. She and her friends loved it. Surely my agent would, too.
What a brilliant idea. I had a finished product loitering in the corner of my laptop, waiting to break out. I immediately dusted off the three-page synopsis and fired it off to my agent, with a message proudly stating that the book was complete and ready to read. What an easy client I was!
My agent’s reply was swift and unapologetic. She wasn’t interested in Letting Go For Dear Life. In fact, she didn’t want to read it—any of it. Not even a page. Why? Because it wasn’t high concept.
High concept? I was a novice. I didn’t want to exploit my ignorance. But what the heck did she mean by ‘high concept?’
It turns out a high concept is a book idea on steroids. It’s what sets a story apart, makes it unique. It’s that teaser you hear for a movie that makes you think, ‘Wow. I definitely want to see that one,’ regardless of the cast or crew. Or when someone tells you their latest book idea and you think, ‘Wow, why couldn’t I have thought of that?’
My agent described high concept as a big-screen feature film versus a made-for-television movie.
Great. So now I knew what my agent wanted. The problem was, how could I deliver high concept? How does one create, out of the blue, a high concept story? And did my agent expect high concept with each and every book? I was exhausted just thinking about it.
I agonized over my second book. I wrote, re-wrote, scrapped and started over a dozen times.
In the end, I created a concept around a phenomenon sweeping the country a called the Forgiveness Stones, a pouch of stones sent from person to person, with an apology and two simple requests: to forgive and seek forgiveness. It’s a pay-it-forward chain letter of forgiveness in the form of two garden pebbles.
Is it high concept? And will I be able to deliver another? I honestly don’t know. I’ll admit, more often than not, I’m filled with self-doubt and insecurity. But I’m also motivated and encouraged.
The rule of expectations seems to have worked here. My agent’s expectations drove me to reach higher, dig deeper, think more outrageously. As easy as it would have been to dust off that old manuscript and call it good, I needed to prove to myself that I could write a new and better novel.
Now, if I could come up with a high concept idea for book three, I’d be all set! – Lori