Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Unholy Alliances

I've been rolling around in the query pile this morning and find, as usual, some of you are trying to tell me about your book by comparing it to other books.

This one made me laugh out loud: "..novel has many of the elements found in books by Patrick Lee and Kennedy Foster."

I'm pretty sure the only elements books by Patrick Lee and Kennedy Foster have in common are that they are written in the English language.

I've read them both, more than once. I should know.

But...do I?

It's one of the great mysteries of reading and writing that what an author intends is not always what a reader sees. I remember talking with the incredibly talented Kate Christensen about her amazing book The Epicure's Lament. I waxed on enthusiastically about the King Lear qualities of the book, how she'd so cleverly inserted the references and nuances.

Kate Christensen is nothing if not polite and kind to her readership but the look on her face soon revealed she thought I'd lost my mind. I stopped babbling and said "you did mean to do that, right?" and she said, very kindly, "well, this is the first time I've really noticed the things you've mentioned." In other words "no, you crackpot."

I mention this because if you are comparing your books to two very dissimilar books, tell me WHY. It's not obvious to me what Kennedy Foster and Patrick Lee have in common (except that words in English thing.) Maybe you do.

Of course, this only works if you've actually read both books and thought about them.


20 comments:

Furious D said...

I know that my work has many of the elements found in books by James Ellroy and Louisa May Allcott.

Dana King said...

I got caught with that when doing an interview once. I picked specific references in the book to scenes in THE BIG SLEEP and THE MALTESE FALCON and asked the author about them. he said I was half right. THE BIG SLEEP, yes. THE MALTESE FALCON, nope, hadn't occurred to him.

I felt like a high school English teacher, and not in a good way.

MeganRebekah said...

LOL! This reminds me of high school English, too. I used to argue with the teacher when she would tell us that an author had specific reasons for including particular colors and references. The hero couldn't just like Coke, no, the author made him like Coke because it was the opiate of the masses (or something like that).

It wasn't even the inferences my teacher made that annoyed me, but her belief that she was undeniably right. Without having met or spoken to an author, how could this teacher know the author's hidden agenda with such certainty?

Sean Ferrell said...

Did I ever mention how much Numb has in common with The Wizard of Oz and Tarzan of the Apes? No? Thought I put that in my query.

Travener said...

I think my book's comparable to Mike Hammer (guns), Jane Austen (luv) and Dave Barry (humor). I don't see how you missed that when I queried you!

Abby said...

As Kennedy's editor, I'm embarrassed to have missed an entire cache of futureweapons; guess they were hidden in the barn.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I've been paranoid about this in the past until I came to the conclusion that, like you said, I should explain how my work is similar to another author's when it comes time for me to query. I've read too many books where I interpreted or saw things one way, only to read an interview with the author later and discover their perspective was totally opposite mine. (Going through this right now with THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE; the way Niffenegger sees some of her characters and relationships is very different in some aspects than how I'm interpreting them.) I can't just assume agents will be able to discern the same similarities as I do when comparing my work to another's, or two authors to each other.

DeadlyAccurate said...

My book has many elements in common with James Joyce's Ulysses and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Specifically, the use of the word "the."

Jenna said...

ROFL!!! I've been on the other end of that.

Someone asked me what shelf I'd like to be on, and I responded "Whatever shelf Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, and Walter Tevis are on."

She thought I was trying to be a literary writer, but I was actually thinking Sci-fi with truly poignant reflections on humanity. I was impressed with Never Let Me Go, Oryx and Crake, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but she had read Remains of the Day, the Blind Assasin, and The Color of Money!

You really have to be careful!!!

Liz Kreger said...

I can never think of novels that my books are similar to ... so I never try. I'd probably be more inclined to use a comparison with a movie.

Linda Rader said...

I liked the "rolling around in the query pile". Very vivid image. :)

Debbie (Nerd Goddess) said...

What? You mean I can't just pull random names of authors that I like out of my head and say that their books and mine are totally alike? I have no idea what to do with myself now.

Eva O'Dell said...

What I am curious to find out is if agents want to know what your book is similar to at all. Some things I've read say the query should at some point discuss what you book could be similar too, some say to point out what makes it different (which I believe the query itself should make obvious as long as the story is unique). And yet, some say to not discuss other books or authors at all in the query. What's right, what's wrong? Or, is every agent different so I should stop asking because I will be doing it until I am blue in the face? Thanks!

Steve Stubbs said...

You have probably seen this before, but I have only caught this quote slithering around the internet very recently. It claims, with presumed authenticity, to be the work of the greatest rejectionist ever:

"Dr. Samuel Johnson is said to have told a potential contributor to his journal that he found the pesented manuscript to be both original and interesting. 'Unfortunately, the part that is interesting is not original, and the part that is original is not interesting.'"

Whoa! Add that to your subtlety of the form rejection file.

http://www.americangeriatrics.org/specialists/GSR/lessons_from_a_life_in_research.pdf

Nadine Laman said...

What? You don't read minds?

Mary Arrrr said...

I dunno. Lady lonely rancher fighting to save her home from a dishonest partner discovers a secret technology from the future? Sounds like a fun one to me.

A new twist on paranormal romance!

Rebecca Knight said...

Kate's response is priceless! That made me laugh out loud.

It's good to know people may think us more literary than we actually are (yay!).

Kimber An said...

I actually love it when readers do that.

I go, "Uh, yeah! Meant to do that." (((wink)))

techtigger said...

Did you know the Beatles wrote "I Am The Walrus" specifically to mess with english professors who were trying to find deep meanings in their lyrics? Goo Goo Gajoob! :)

Munk said...

techtigger... any deep seeded meanings behind blue meanies and green apple bonkers?