Which Is Better?

>> Friday, June 4, 2010

More than the mechanics of writing, the breathing of life into characters, the slogging through syntax and grammar, the effective description, the clever weaving of plot, the coalescence of atmosphere, writing, in my opinion, should do one more thing: it should be worth taking up someone's time.

As I've read hundreds of queries (and, for that matter, hundreds of published books), one thing's struck me time and time again. So frequently, the book or the query letter is like an engineering problem: insert values into the formula, note down the results. Books slog forward with the formula, using cardboard caricatures, to reach utterly predictable outcomes, fight interchangeable bad guys, save inconsequential heroines or other victims, which could be fine if you could add *something* special to make it good. No, no, I'm wrong. You have to change something in that formula, I believe, to make that good. You might make a sale. You might be successful and successfully published, but you won't make it good unless you stir up at least one (preferably more) of those elements.

This is absolutely true of novels. The question is, is it true of queries? Do you have to be one of the herd, even if your book isn't, in order to get the attention or an agent or publisher?

I won't say I have the answer. I am not omniscient, but this question struck me as I saw a response to what is a very accurate reflection of my novel's voice, of Tander's view. A reader commented that I hadn't followed the formula (though, I had in a previous post, but that's neither here nor there) and seemed concerned that I didn't know the formula or couldn't use it.

I know the formula. I can use it (even if I haven't yet perfected the technique). Thanks for worrying. The question is, should I?

If Query Test is any indication, neither is very successful (which argues that, at least, either my usage of the formula is flawed or it's insufficient to give a real sense of a non-formula novel). My formula query has only 2 successes out of 11 readings. The unconventional query is 0 for 7. Hard to argue that the unconventional method has been less than successful.

But it calls to mind a dilemma. If we take as somewhat a given that many of the books published yearly are comfortably formulaic, the kind of books one can pick up at the airport when one wants to read a boilerplate book, a standard romance or cozy mystery. Formulaic queries for publishers and agents looking for an easy sell/easy sale will likely do quite well if the writer has any sense of the mechanics and a decent set of writing skills. There's nothing wrong with that.

But, if one has written something *different*, something that falls out of formula with insane plot devices or complex multi-faceted characters (or both), that manages to be touching and thrilling and funny as hell all at the same time, how would an agent know, how would a publisher know?

I guess my real question is, is it better to pander to the common denominator, find an agent willing to read it even if it's not reflective of the actual book? Or, is it better to infuse your query with a voice as distinctive as the book itself? Consider it understood that nine out of ten agents or publishers will be frustrated by the off-kilter format or nonstandard structure, but what if it might entice the *right* agent, the *right* publisher, make them a believer. Someone who will go to bat for the book because they believe in it.

I'm not expecting to hear the answers. I'm not sure there is just ONE answer.

I know, if I can get one, I want the agent who believes my book is special, is in love with it. I'm just not sure if I have entirely figured out how to get his or her attention. I don't think straight formula will work for me.

I expect I'll be doing a bit more experimenting.


  • Jeff King

    You might be right... guess you just have to find the right agent looking for what you have to say the way you have to say it.

    I am and was only trying to convey what I feel a query should have to entice me.
    Burst of plot
    And teaser

    Either way, I only comment to help... not discourage or demean in any-way, nor would I suggest you don't know what you're doing.

    I find it helps to see another opinion, looking inside out. So I comment how I would want someone to respond to me.

    Thx, and good luck.

  • Richard

    We already know you're wicked smart, but if you had figured out how to get your perfectly matched agent's attention already, you'd be some kind of query savant!

    Here's the only kernel of potential wisdom I've gleaned on the topic: Your query needs a voice, and that voice should match your novel. An agent who loves the voice of your query but can't find it in your subsequent submission will drop that manuscript in the circular file faster than you can type form rejection.

    This is perhaps the most frustrating part of being an aspiring author, and (I suspect) the main reason so few authors ever get beyond aspirations.

    After my first 25 rejections, I'm on query hiatus while I retool my manuscript. Best of luck finding the right home for Tander and his pride of familiars.

  • Project Savior

    As far as the really unconventional query, I did something strange recently. I sent very customized query letters to agents. I searched for any personal views they had. Easier for the ones with blogs but the info is out there. It didn't get me any requests but it did get me a lot personalize rejections, even from agents that state they only send out form letters.
    I can tell from the response that even though they say they want a formula query they do respond to the unconventional ones. The trouble is finding the balance.

  • Stephanie Barr

    That's what I'm thinking, PS. I'm working on something in the middle. I have to get them to like the book or it's no go, but I want to get a real response.

    I liked the unconventional one because it was up to the eyeballs in voice, the voice of a man who has always had things come too easy to him, who turned away from responsibility because there was always someone else to pick it up. Now he finds there are worse things to lose than his life and some responsibilities no one else can take over - even if he wanted them to.

    I have a lot of cool things, I think, in Curse of the Jenri, adventure and character interplay and humor and kittens who are not only key to the plot but LMAO funny. But, in the end, it's really about Tander becoming a real grown-up and figuring out what's truly important. (Since you're reading it, tell me if some of that's not true and I'll stop querying it.)

    I have to figure out some way of conveying that, who Tander is and the change he's going through, but not, I think, stray so far from the formula that people don't even bother to read through it.

    Jeff, I know you meant well. I consider it a lesson to myself in the risks of trying to write a query for a book I've never even read.

  • Anonymous

    Your stories.. no other way to say it... SUCK. I can't imagine someone wanting a copy of this crap. Get a life and go be a rocket scientist if that is if you really are a rocket scientist.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Well, I was overdue for a critic. Unfortunately, since you provided no insight into "which" stories or what was wrong with it, I can't say I found it terribly constructive.

  • Anonymous

    Ms. Barr, I stumbled on to your site and I was reading some of your short stories, looking your snippets over and I wanted to comment on them. But someone had already beaten me to the punch.

    I have to say not much insight is needed. To the reader, “Your Stories” as I read it, would indicate all of your stories suck. Ms. Barr you say “what is wrong with it”. Again I have to laugh at you. “What was wrong with it”? As the blogger stated, “they suck. I can’t imagine someone wanting a copy of this crap.

    I have visited a lot of on-line blogs that are very similar to yours. I find them not only more intellectually stimulating but a much easier enjoyable read. I find that you lack the ability to engage the reader. Sorry your stuff is just mediocre at best.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Don't let me stop you from frequenting them. No one is forced to come here.

  • flit

    I would be anon hasn't read a single one of your stories. Just likes to go around being a jerk.

    It's the pickle!

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