>> 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.