This post is just one in a series about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click the RUCCL tag above to read them all.
After we heard from the panelists, Alyssa Eisner Henkin opened the floor to questions.
One writer asked, “In the editor and agent bios, a lot of you say that you’re looking for two things: high concept and unique voice. Could you please tell us exactly what you mean by that?”
Chad Beckerman couldn’t resist: “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: high concept, unique voice.” Then one of the editors explained high concept as boiling the essence of a story down to one line.
Agent Stephen Barbara offered an example, shouting down from the audience, “Phonebooth!” The movie is about a man trapped in a phonebooth by a sniper. You can summarize the entire film with that single concept.
On the other hand, a literary novel or a coming-of-age story isn’t necessarily about a single concept. You may still be able to describe the story in a sentence, but it doesn’t offer the instant understanding of a high-concept pitch. The industry wants the next big thing, and high-concept often delivers it.
Next, the editors talked about unique voice. One editor told us about her friend’s personality. “She’s the most bubbly, interesting person I’ve ever met. But in an email, she comes through flat. Hi. How are you? I am fine.” That’s not what you want to do. Your writing should capture the essence of your character. Inject your writing with its own personality. The voice is what makes your story stand out among similar tales. It’s the way you tell your story that allows kids to connect and relate to your characters.
Another question from the audience had the editors a little tight-lipped. “What are the new themes coming in the next 1-2 years?” They looked around but no one spoke. The writer pressed, “Come on, what are you working on right now that you think is going to be big?”
Chad Beckerman said he hoped there would be “more books without words.” Just like an art director! Lisa Cheng talked about a new novel that’s told in text, IM and blog posts. Chad offered, “High concept!”
Then Molly O’Neill gave a fabulous answer to the next question regarding the border between YA novels and adult fiction. What distinguishes them from one another? “This is going to sound like a perfect, rehearsed answer,” she said, “but honestly I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.”
YA novels have a sense of immediacy. When you’re a teen, every experience is new. Every hour of every day is heartbreak, tragedy, elation. There’s a heightened sense of reality and being in the moment. There’s no time for pondering, you’re too busy living. Adults have their entire lives on which to base decisions, but a young adult doesn’t have that experience to draw on. They’re making decisions in the here and now, raw and full of emotion.
Lisa Cheng agreed and added that in a YA novel, she doesn’t want to leave the reader feeling hopeless.
With their thoughtful answers and wealth of industry knowledge, the editors didn’t leave any of the writers feeling hopeless, either. (Yeah, corny ending, but gimme a break, I’ve written a lot of these posts!)