Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - Intro & pt. 1

This is an essay in ten (short) parts, in which I investigate what makes the parts of a novel cohere into a meaningful whole.  Although I’m using it to inaugurate what I hope will be a regular series of advice posts for emerging writers, this isn’t so much advice as it is an attempt to map out the landscape of my own thinking about a subject that continues to torment, confuse, and fascinate me on a daily basis.


I have worked in publishing – as an intern, an editorial assistant, and even, briefly, as an agent – off and on for the last six years.  And that means I have read some very shitty query letters.  I have read query letters that annoyed me, bored me, creeped me out, confused me, and made me laugh aloud for reasons clearly contrary to the author’s intentions.  I have signed into a briefly neglected email account to find literally hundreds of query letters shimmering in a rainbow of colors and a torrent of fonts; I have read them laser printed, typed on typewriters, and handwritten from prison.  I’ve read query letters from precocious, vampire-obsessed high schoolers who offered classmates’ lukewarm praise as potential blurb fodder, and from retired businessmen eager to imitate the dick-lit espionage thrillers that gave shape and meaning to their decades spent flying business class.  I’ve read query letters for literary novels and diet guides, addiction memoirs and middle-grade chapter books.  I have read the same query letter from the same author more than 100 times, thanks a lot, Oscar Whitfield.  I have sent so many form rejections that some day, I’m sure a very special corner of Writer Hell awaits me: perhaps James Frey will stand over me with a whip while I’m forced to piece together copies of his books from a ball pit full of shredded galleys.  Yet, in spite of all that, or perhaps because of it, I’ve come to what seems like a counterintuitive conclusion on the craft of the query: I think it barely matters at all.

I don’t deny that you can tell a lot from a query.  You can generally discover if the author has published broadly, if the author has attended an MFA program or has an Internet presence, if the author is aware that this is business correspondence and not a PostSecret.  You also generally get a vaguer sense of what the book is about, if it sounds like a flagrantly bad idea, and what other published work it’s consciously imitating.  You find these things out because this is the information a query letter usually contains: it’s the text, not the subtext.  And if some of this information is omitted, you (this being the tricksy, undefined second-person “you,” by which I of course mean, “I”) most often cynically assume it’s being omitted because the author has Something to Hide, or, perhaps more accurately, especially as concerns publication history, Nothing to Hide, because, like a resume, a query letter usually offers up whatever selling points its author can think of.  But there’s no secret Scantron Query Decoder 4000 employed at every literary agency, no hard and fast universal rubric to apply.  A query letter is just that: a letter, sent from one person to another person, who considers, briefly, what the first person has to say.

I say all of this because, of late, I’ve observed a high degree of anxiety concerning the “right” way to prepare a query letter in my immediate circle of literary friends and acquaintances.  Some of this, I think, is due to online resources like the immensely popular QueryShark, who eviscerates letter after letter for minute, seemingly unguessable infractions, like saying you “just” finished a novel, as opposed to, I guess, saying you finished it six months ago and then allowed it to properly marinate in a drawer full of hesitation and self-doubt.  I’ll point out something obvious: agents can be pompous assholes, but there is not a one still roaming the charred wasteland of what used to be American literary culture who would turn down an otherwise appealing prospect for employing the wrong adverb in a fucking query.  “Mistakes” like that are just an excuse for the real reason that queries get rejected, which is that the agent can’t imagine the book therein described ever making money, or even being interesting to read.  And if you’ve already finished working on the book in question, that’s not something you as the writer can do very much about.

Let me make this perfectly clear.  If you ask yourself, “What is my book about?” for the first time when you sit down to write your query letter, you are already royally screwed.  “What is my book about?” is a question that should have occurred to you long, long before, at least during the revision process but probably even earlier, during the composition of your first draft.  And by, “What is my book about?” I don’t mean the premise (which by its very nature is an unavoidable first step) or vague thematic stuff – “loneliness” or “modernity.”  I mean major defining decisions about the book’s structure, and in the case of almost all fiction, its pivotal events, their consequences, and what’s at stake for the characters.

I say this not in a spirit of condescension, but empathy, because it took me ages to start understanding how this works, and it’s still not clear or easy.  But it all boils down to this: you, the writer, must engage the curiosity of potential readers.  You must give them a reason to read your book.  Doing this is not “marketing” your work.  Doing this is the work. 

The right way to answer the question, “What is this book about?” is not to come up with some clever spin long after the fact in the form of a 250 word query letter.  The right way to answer it is to come up with a story and tell that story on every page of your book. 

...next up: the "art" of the pitch??


scott g.f.bailey said...

I'll be following this series with interest. Ideas about unity and form nag at me the whole time I'm writing a story. Right now I've got a work-in-progress that is being written without a formal outline, but I think about what it really is and how it should shape itself as I go along anyway. Not only can I not help planning it out in advance, I can't think of it as a story until I know what it's the story of.

A lot of folks I know write with--I think--the hope of having a reading experience. Which is to say, they want to see what happens as if they were reading the book, not writing it. I think this leads to a lot of episodic, unorganized novels that don't add up to anything.

This comment is poorly organized and hastily written; mostly I just wanted to say that I want to see more on this topic.

The Chawmonger said...

To the contrary, Scott, I think this is a terrifically thought-provoking comment. You've got a great point about writers who approach their own work looking for a reading experience, rather than a writing one -- "to see what happens." I hadn't thought about it that way before, but that's actually a really astute way to explain the phenomenon I'm describing.

Thanks so much for coming back to the blog after my long absence! I've been following your progress with the existential detective novel over on Six Words for a Hat, and am very intrigued...