Monday, December 04, 2006

More Bad Query Advice: You Are Not Dan Brown

The third is a slightly different set of advice given out to writers: compare your work to that of established authors in your genre. I've heard a lot of reasons for this, from "it proves you know the market" to it giving the agent an idea of your book's tone. I've also heard a great many agents say it's a horrible idea. Do you have an opinion on this?

Oh G-d, yes. We see this all the time, and while I suppose there might be a way to make it not harm your query, I've yet to see that. To me it's just a technique for spotting what I call an "overedited query." While it's not necessarily a bad thing that writers do research on what a query letter is supposed to be (in fact, it's a very good thing), it becomes obvious after a while that they're pulling out every trick they read on every website to sell me their manuscript, when in fact, all I really care about is if the hook is well-written and makes the book sound interesting. The only thing we care about is your writing. Listing writing credentials is only a plus because it proves to us that other people have seen your writing and assessed that it is quality.

Do not compare yourself to a bestselling author and/or literary genius. You are not currently a bestselling author and time has yet to determine whether you are a literary genius. Also, the other reason for comparing your work to the writing of other authors is bogus when you think about it. Someone will say, "I've written a legal thriller like the works of John Grisham." Look, if you've written a legal thriller and it's good, it will be read by people who like legal thrillers, so chances are it will be read by people who like John Grisham. That doesn't mean you're him. It doesn't sell your book to us; it just makes you seem presumptous about your writing. If your hook invokes in us the feeling that, "Wow, this is just like a John Grisham novel - it'll sell a million copies!" then you've done your Grisham-related job. His name didn't have to be mentioned.

Don't waste space, don't waste words, and don't waste our time. That's all we ask. Oh, and include an SASE if you actually want a response.


ssas said...

The only thing we care about is your writing.

I'm always so glad when I read this. As an editor at an ezine, I don't care how long you've been at it or if your cat is your inspiration or what your dayjob is. Can you WRITE? That's what we pay for.

Bernita said...

Always cringed at that sort of editorial description.
Makes sense to me.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

There are pages and pages and pages of heartfelt advice out there, about "how to write a winning query letter," and nearly all of them contradict each other. I was told time and again to always mention other books in your genre -- yeah, because it "shows you know the market."

62 rejections later, my first book didn't get a damn thing except a request for partial from an agent who died several months later.

Unfortunately, what seems the common-sense advice of "all you need is a good hook" doesn't get us very far, either, since what constitutes "good" is so highly subjective. You don't know whether your hook was considered "good" or not until you get the form rejection in the mail, and by then it's too late.

writtenwyrdd said...

That old "shows you know the market" bit really can be confusing. I am glad for the clarification.

But when I query an agent who I know reps authors who write similar genre novels, I'll just keep that knowledge to myself, unless one of their stable of authors referred me. (One can hope,lol.)

Anonymous said...

If I ever publish a book that reads like Dan Brown, I'm going to jump off a cliff.

Of course, if it sells like Dan Brown, maybe I'll put a huge of money at the bottom to break my fall and later console myself with expensive wines.

Anonymous said...

Of course, if it sells like Dan Brown, maybe I'll put a huge of money at the bottom to break my fall and later console myself with expensive wines.


Back to the topic, there is a lot of conflicting advice out there. For example, this article linked on Agent Query implies that it's good to reference other novels:

And Jenny Bent says on her website that whenever she's on an agent panel they disagree on how to write a query letter:

But I agree with Rejecter's bottom line: it's the writing that counts.

Anonymous said...

I recently heard from a cyber-buddy who was requested to do a marketing plan by her would-be agent. Now, this is at the query-letter stage. How is she supposed to know how to do this? How is she supposed to "read" a market in which she hasn't yet been a player? What has she to do but suggest that "readers of Famous Author X may like my book"?

I don't wanna sound like I'm ranting, here. I'd rather hear suggestions I can share with her about how to do part of the future-agent's job for her.


E said...

I'm with you, Anon #2. I can list at least five well-known agents ( including Andy Zack) who advise writers to compare their works to those of other authors. Recently, after reading this advice, I changed my query to include such comparisons, even though it was against my gut instinct to do so. Why did I do it? Because two of the agents I was really gunning for recommended it.

I'm also not sure I understand the concept of an "over-edited query". I admit to having researched the hell out of how to write a query letter -- apparently to some success, since I have about a 40% partial request rate so far. (Admittedly, this may be attributable to other factors.) If you don't research how to write a query, how will you know what agents consider a "good" hook?

While I'm sure it's true that, broadly speaking, "the only thing [agents] care about is your writing", in fact there is very little of an author's writing on display in a standard query letter. What is on display is proof of whether (a) you are enough of a pro to have researched the industry and (b) you know how to write an interesting hook, which offers HINTS of whether you can tell a story, but is hardly conclusive.

Just my two cents.

John A. Karr said...

Nice to see conflicting advice abounds in the pardoxical oxymoronic publishing world that my fellow unknowns and I keep trying to break into (for some damn reason).

John A. Karr said...


blame the ale

Anonymous said...

Honestly tho, what's wrong with people? is it really true that common sense is completely dead? Gone? Abolished? Expired? Extinct?

This is one person's blog. One person's opinion. Deal with it. Take it into consideration. Then move on. There are no magic keys to the kingdom. There is no mathematical formula that you apply correctly and will deliver the correct result every time if you just don't fudge it up. It's an imprecise messy business. But it is a business. It's profit driven. DEAL with it.

This is precisely why I never "hang out" with "writers." If there's one thing symptomatic of writers, it's not their mindblowing grasp of language or their precious insights into the human condition, it's their weaselridden anxiety. GAAAAAAAAAWD almighty the pain of it all. When people ask what I do, I tell 'em I'm in real estate. Makes for better conversation too.


Anonymous said...

CMonster @12.11 --

If I ever publish a book that reads like Dan Brown, I'm going to jump off a cliff.

Of course, if it sells like Dan Brown, maybe I'll put a huge of money at the bottom to break my fall and later console myself with expensive wines.

My example would be LaHaye & Jenkins (the Left Behind hacks -- 50 MILLION copies sold). Other than that, total agreement.