Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Adjectives and How I Hate Them

Dear Rejecter,

I'm wondering what genre to label my novel-mainstream/contemporary or the little checkbox on many agents' lists, "Offbeat/quirky." Now, I don't think "offbeat" is officially a genre, but if that's what my novel best fits into, should I call it that anyway? When the agent's reader encounters the surreal elements of my novel a mainstream/contemporary" tag is going to seem clueless, I fear. I am also trying, in my desperation, to avoid comparing my work to great works, because I know how often agents roll their eyes at every writer who thinks they're "the next great X." However, if I use a sparing simile here and there- I'm thinking of comparing the surreal effects as comparable to David Lynch, but with the black humor of Dr. Strangelove- might my query not get tossed? My friends tell me it's a strong novel, it's just very surreal. Is there any way to sell that today? What do you recommend for writers that have an odd but strong novel? How does one sell strange?

Must resist urge to say something mean.
Must resist urge to say something mean.
Deep breath....

...If you novel has strange things happen in it, that should be obvious from the summary in the first part of the query. We don't like people using adjectives to describe their novel - we like people who describe their novel and then happen to mention its genre, and "quirky" is not a genre. What's your novel about? Insane commanders ordering their men to drop nuclear weapons on an unsuspecting populace? A backwards-talking dwarf? If you mention that yeah, there is a backwards-talking dwarf in your story (and he's the killer! haha!), we will be able to figure out "Hey, this is pretty strange" and then decide if it meets our tastes based on that and a host of other reasons, like the quality of your writing in the query letter and/or the partial.

Do not use words to describe your novel - and this goes for everyone - that are not words used by bookstores to define genre so that they can put it on the correct shelf. If you don't know and the genre isn't obvious, that means it's probably just fiction and would go in that "fiction and literature" section. We can tell from the summary. Don't label it as "great" or "funny" or "strange" or "the next bestseller." And I don't know why everyone's memoirs about how they were brutally raped by their fathers involves "a touch of humor" and I refuse to believe it until I see it, and I usually don't want to see it. Everyone, stop saying your novel is humorous if it so obviously isn't because you just said it was about how your wife died of cancer. That's not funny. You have to be a pretty brilliant humorist to make that funny.

Sorry, poster - that last bit didn't involve you so much, but we're seeing a lot of those these days. Everybody's writing dark comedy, but every "dark comedy" manuscript I've seen isn't very funny.


Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for agents who get these types of submissions.
I don't want to read about mother-rapers, father-killers (I forget Arlo's list, but put it all on there), child molesters -- either from the victim or predator's point of view, etc. Bad people doing bad things to other people was covered in depth at Nurenberg. There is evil in the world. I choose not to support it.
I "get" why people feel the need to vent for their own recovery, but I don't understand why they think that the world in general wants to read about all this stuff.
This belongs in textbooks: sociological, psychological and police science. This is not by any stretch of the imagination entertainment. And since I know I'm not the decider of what gets published, I'll vote with my dollars.

Anonymous said...

Kurt Vonnegut was a bit "strange," but that was just him. If pressed, I'd have to call him a variation of SFF.
There are lots of others. If you're a good writer, your work stands on its own.

Celeste said...

Super post! You can sure find alot of advice about how to write a "great" query letter. But shouldn't the most important advice be "grab my interest and get to the point"?

Anyone with a critique partner has probably been compared to an existing author... Maybe even one we know and respect!

"This feels sort of __-esque" or "that part reminded me of __."

How flattering and encouraging! But that doesn't mean our query should say that our story is a cross between the two.

Anonymous said...

Everybody's writing dark comedy, but every "dark comedy" manuscript I've seen isn't very funny.

All "dark" and no "comedy", huh?

Sounds like their target audience is the Uber-Goth in the VCPR loop in GTA: Vice City.

Matthew said...

Thanks for the great reply. I've decided to just label it "political satire"(which it is) and let the reviewer get a feel for my story as he reads the synopsis.
I liked the crack about the Backwards Talking Dwarf, btw. Twin Peaks rules!

Mig said...

It's probably also advisable to compare your novel to other novels and not to movies or TV shows. I'd be afraid that if I compared my novel to a TV show the agent would asume that I don't read my genre and thus wouldn't know how to write it.

Michele Lee said...

anonymous 8:45- I'm pretty sure you were talking about memoirs that feature such dark things, but these themess are pretty common in crime fiction and such. What would SVU be without the abused kid? CSI without an enraged wife or husband?
I guess there can be dark sf/f/romance/horror (well duh)/YA/whatever, but ultimate a memoir should be uplifting.

Anonymous said...

But agents are guilty of the same things, asking for "quirky" or "edgy" fiction, for example. Maybe that's why they're agents and not writers.

Kanani said...

I think the problem is that people get back cover 'blurbs' confused with their pitch.

So while a blurb (taken from a review) might use adjectives such as surreal, quirky, poetic, black humor,offbeat, your own description of the book when you're trying to pitch it.

Work on this: Describe what happens in your novel in three lines.

Anonymous said...

Try this:

Sex, Love, Hate, Adventure, Happiness: If any of those words offend you, then grab your rejection letter now -- my work is not for you.

Heck, I haven't tried this approach myself, but I think I will.

Jesse45039 at

Denny G said...

If your friends say your novel is "strong, but very surreal", they're trying to tell you without hurting your feelings that it's weird, in a bad way. It's strong, so that's good, but they also said "BUT it's very surreal." The "but" indicates that the novel's surreality is not necessarily a good aspect.

This is why the advice of friends and well-wishers can often backfire -- comments like that are geared towards not offending you, and not necessarily in making your work better. It would be nice if you could get a totally objective view from someone who doesn't know you, but that's not very practical. After all, how many strangers would be willing to read your novel and critique it for you?

The best solution is to compromise: offer your novel only to friends who you know are blunt and maybe even brutally honest. These friends will feel they'd be doing you a disservice by praising your work if it was not praiseworthy, and they'd be right.