Saturday, March 28, 2009

Make the right kinds of mistakes

Many novels have a phrase on the cover that says "a name here novel".

Examples: a Ray Sharp novel; an Avery Cates novel.

When you write a query letter and tell me your book is like a thriller similar to those written by Ray Sharp, or crime noir like the talented Avery Cates I laugh so hard I blow coffee out my nose.

Unless you intend to be hilarious, this is NOT the reaction you want to your query.

I thought it was obvious these are the names of characters. You can tell who the author is; that's the OTHER name on the book. When you look on Amazon, the author is the name that's preceded by "by."

If you didn't know that, now you do.

This is a mistake of carelessness. It's a huge warning sign. My goal is to always work with writers who err on the other side of care: they slave over every word. I'd rather have authors from whom I have to wrest pages as they wail "it's not done! it's not done!" than authors who throw pages at me saying "here, make sure I didn't confuse The Light Brigade with ConEdison. They're both in New Jersey, right?"

There's a reason for this. When I know you are meticulous, I don't assume the innovative things you do are wrong. For example, I represent Steve Ulfelder, a writer of precision and craft of the highest caliber. Good thing too, since his other job is high performance racing cars.

When Steve uses words I recognize but not in the context he's using them, I don't think "whoa, mistake." I look the word up. And yes indeed, I learn something. He's correct. I trust him because I know that he's meticulous. Sure he's made mistakes, and he's got a few pages from me with red marks to prove it. But, he's also as careful a writer as I've seen, and that's one of the reasons I'm very pleased to represent him.

Mistakes aren't the problem in query letters. Making the wrong mistakes: that's the problem.


PurpleClover said...

My red flag is that if they didn't know it was the character and not the author then how would they know that their novel is like it since I would assume they didn't read the book they just referenced.

Plus I wouldn't say my book is like Amelia Peabody's books because I know she's the main character...but I may have to double check the author's name since Elizabeth Peters also pens under Barbara Mertz and Barbara Michaels. But gee whiz...don't they know to double check these things? I'm a natural flubber so I have to double check these things!

(and I would be so excited if I wrote anything like Elizabeth Peters)

DebraLSchubert said...

Great post! I love how you differentiate between "mistakes" and "the wrong mistakes." We, as writers, are obliged to check, recheck, and triple-check if necessary in order to make sure our queries (and all of our writing) is as close to perfect as we can get it. Even then there may be "mistakes." We just need to make sure they're not "the wrong mistakes!"

Kim Kasch said...

Ohhh.... I'd love to say my story is similar to a BOD novel, no not a BAD novel.

And to be similar to a Neil Gaiman Novel would be even better


Bill said...

I've learned so much from reading your blog, Janet. Thank you.

Eric said...

You never know. I've got a friend who says that she loves my books, claims to have read all of them twice, and yet she still refers to the protagonist of them as "Ray Stone." I am reasonably certain that it is not intentional, that it is just some sort of bizarre dyslexic behavior on her part.

Janet Reid said...

Not a problem at all until she queries me by referral from Eric Sharp!

Sasha said...

How do your most meticulous writers avoid over-working their novels?

I have a tendency toward perfectionism that can become a tendency to suck every ounce of life out of my writing.

How can you tell when a piece is over-worked, and can you save it?

Is over-meticulousness ever a "good" mistake?

Eric said...

Sasha - Endless tweaking has probably defeated more first time novelists than anything else.

I think it's one of the trickiest things about writing a book. On the one hand, you want your writing to have a strong sense of immediacy and, even, spontaneity. On the other, you want it to be as perfect as it can be. Those two things can really get you chasing your tail.

One thing is that it is essential to understand that no book will ever be perfect no matter how much you work on it. You can use that as motivation: that last book was pretty good, I'm going to make the next one even better. Use your perfectionism to drive you forward, not in circles.

I'm helped by having been a journalist for many years. I'm accustomed to turning things in when they're due, regardless of how close to perfect or not I think they are. That's an advantage.

I don't know any sure fire methods for knowing when enough's enough. Having good, brutally honest readers helps. But, you have to be willing to actually listen to them.

Having a market-savvy agent helps. When your agent says, "I can sell this," you're done. At least until the editor gets their hands on it.

That's my two cents. And I'm not even going to go back and edit what I just wrote.

Gary Corby said...

I'd rather have authors from whom I have to wrest pages as they wail "it's not done! it's not done!"

You may regret saying that.

Sasha, I don't know about others, but for me at least a lot of research goes into one line details that most readers probably won't consciously notice, except maybe as a bit of atmosphere. Don't let the research become the story. Exposition = Evil.

Jinx said...

I don't understand writers who don't do their homework before querying. If I'm going to suggest that my novel is like someone else's novel, I'm darn sure going to read the blasted thing before doing so.

Seriously, referencing the character as the author? That's just hilarious!

Gary - You may regret saying that - LOL

Leif: A Voyage said...

You know what (one of the things) I love about your blog?

How very real you are.

You come across as a completely real voice; complex, funny, sharp-tongued and sharpwitted, kind (yeah you do sometimes) wonderfully real.

I laughed out loud a second time re-reading you talking about laughing so hard you blow coffee out your nose in this post.

Too funny.


ps, am STILL laughing about Yo Comments Are Whack uTube. Thank you over and over and over for that link to Grammar Girl' post.

BuffySquirrel said...

Why compare your book to ones you haven't read? You'd have to be pretty smart to bluff your way through that one, and doing it in the first place is hardly smart.

If you're writing SFF, you know where your book will be shelved. S'easy....