What Exactly Am I Writing?

I attended the PNWA writers conference earlier this month, where I sat on the editors’ panel and answered questions (along with six other editors) from an audience of 400+ writers and aspiring authors.

I was inspired to write about this topic this month because of how many questions were about trying to get to the root of how a project ought to be labeled. Among them: What’s the difference between high-concept and low-concept? What’s the difference between commercial and literary fiction? Am I writing creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction? What’s a hybrid?

This has everything to do with category, which is a critical thing you need to know before you approach a publisher with a book idea. If you don’t know what category your book falls into, walk into your local bookstore and figure out where your book would be shelved if it were there. If it straddles two categories, that’s okay. You might well be writing a hybrid.

But back to the questions asked by the audience, which I’m going to answer here because I think the answers are worth sharing.

What’s the Difference between High-concept and Low-concept?

The answer to this one came from Rose Hilliard* at St. Martin’s Press (and I’m paraphrasing all answers). Rose gave the example of a novel she acquired about women who get sick of doing all the work at Christmastime and decide to go on strike. That’s an example of a high-concept book. In a single sentence you can imagine how this novel will capture its intended audience’s attention.

So what’s low-concept? Rose followed up with an example that went something like this: The protagonist commits a crime and so he has to go back to his hometown and connect with his family, and from there he meets a bunch of guys who are up to no good. And then those guys decide to go to France and take the protagonist with them, where he gets mixed up in some stuff he shouldn’t be mixed up in because he’s trying to get away from all that. You get the picture, right? After two run-on sentences, we’re not hooked. There’s no sense of what the book’s about.

So is it important to have a high-concept book if you want to get a publishing deal? Not necessarily. Some low-concept books are simply too complex to be captured by a quick get-to-the-point pitch. And that’s perfectly okay—and a beautiful segue into the section question:

What’s the Difference between Commercial and Literary Fiction?

The answer to this one came from Katie K. Gilligan* at Thomas Dunne Books. She’s a runner, and so she told the audience that this is how it breaks down. If she’s able to read a book while running on the treadmill and it keeps her attention, that’s a commercial book. If there’s no possible way she can read on the treadmill because she needs to curl up on the couch with a glass of wine to really enjoy the prose, that’s a literary book. I loved this distinction.

As a side note, there’s also such a thing as commercial and literary nonfiction. It’s a little different only because commercial nonfiction is usually high-concept. These are books you might find at Chronicle Books, for instance. A book like The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook is a great example because it’s fun, full of cool and funny anecdotes, and it makes you want to pick it up and buy it as a gift. Commercial. A good example of literary nonfiction is almost always going to be a memoir, or a biography that’s beautifully told. Examples of literary memoir abound, but as an example I offer The Story of My Father, by Sue Miller, who’s a novelist. And a literary novelist at that.

And so to the next question:

Am I Writing Creative Nonfiction or Narrative Nonfiction?

This was the one I took. I said there was no difference, though some disagreement followed. The biggest issue where creative nonfiction is concerned is the word “creative,” which really, when you think about it, doesn’t jive with “nonfiction.” Creative implies creating things out of your mind while nonfiction implies truth. Of course, memoir is creative nonfiction because no one is capable of remembering the exact details of what happened to them when they were five years old. If you think Running with Scissors and The Glass Castle are examples of authors will phenomenal memories, well…. I’ve heard Augusten Burroughs does have a fantastic memory, but even still. For an in-depth read on the variations of creative nonfiction, I highly recommend “The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction,” by Sue William Silverman.

And Finally, What Is a Hybrid?

A hybrid is a book that straddles more than one category. Practical nonfiction is often hybrid in nature because it’s prescriptive nonfiction, but the narrator’s voice is key. Oftentimes these books are memoir in nature because they tell stories about the authors’ experiences. Smart Women Finish Rich is a good example of this. It’s clearly a prescriptive book meant to help women understand their finances and money issues, but it’s also very full of the author’s personal story, as well as the story of women he’s helped. Eat, Pray, Love is another. It’s memoir, but it’s shelved in travel. This oftentimes happens because publishers want to keep books out of memoir whenever possible. Why? Simply because it’s an overcrowded shelf. If you’re writing a memoir, don’t despair. It’s not a bad thing. But if you’re writing a memoir about sports, travel, food, a personality disorder, you name it, you’re better off positioning yourself in the sports, travel, food, or psychology category when pitching your book to an agent or publisher. It’s just another one of the quirks of this industry.

That’s it for now, though hey, if you have a question about category or terminology, leave it in the comments section and I’ll happily respond.

*Editor bios for those of us who attended the conference can be found here.

Until next month.


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