Monday, October 10, 2011

Today's query pitfall

Describing a character only in terms of race and sexuality: sexy Latina; hot black; frigid bitch (this one was a Labrador retriever I'm guessing)


If you think that's an enticing way to describe a character, any character, you're querying the wrong agent. You might consider the editor for Penthouse Letters.

It's easy to get caught up in cliches.  Tell me something interesting about the characters in your novel: like what choices they face, and what dreadful plot points await them.

But if you set a blonde adrift in a canoe with a boa constrictor, well, then you know how to turn a cliche upside down and hell yes, I'd read that.

14 comments:

Abby said...

This makes me laugh but I still love information like this. Thanks.

Kaleen said...

**Starts writing about a blonde adrift in a canoe with a boa contrictor. Will title it Stuffed Snake Shark Snack**

Scooter Carlyle said...

I notice nobody uses the descriptor, "Sexy Polish guy." Hmm...wonder why that is?
:-)

jjdebenedictis said...

I've been reading about screenwriting and one author noted you want your descriptions of characters to avoid mention of race or physical attributes unless those things are necessary to the plot.

The reason why is the writer doesn't know which actors will be cast. The studio needs the flexibility to choose the perfect actor for the role, so they resent any attempt by the writer to narrow their options.

It's an important lesson for novelists, too. How your character looks is often irrelevant; it's their inner character that drives the plot. And you don't have space in a query letter to dwell on things that are irrelevant.

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

I wrote a blog post once about how writers love cliches. It was called, "WARNING: Cliche Infested Blog Post Ahead!" Writing it made me as happy as a pig in mud.

jesse said...

So, a Latina, a blonde, and a sexy boa constrictor float into a bar...

Kristin Laughtin said...

@jjdebenedictis: While I can see your point, I've also heard arguments (from novelists, who aren't worried about hypothetical potential future actors) that, given the inherent issues in our society, this is how characters, and book covers, and eventually movie castings, get whitewashed. A good majority of western society will think of an undescribed character as white, and that mentioning things like race at least helps to create diversity and possibly contribute to the breaking of that tendency, even if it's not strictly necessary for the plot. And though it varies from reader to reader, I think many like at least a basic description to help them visualize the world.

In a query, though, I might omit the description unless it is really necessary, simply because of the economy of words.

(I think most of us figure as well that if our books ever get made into movies, the studio might not care if the actor matches the book description. This is why they cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, why most of the cast of The Last Airbender was white (even though the cartoon it was based upon featured Asian-based societies), and so on.)

Loretta Ross said...

@Jesse:

The bartender said, "I'm sorry. We don't serve your kind here."

The blonde said, "that's okay. None of us are cannibals."

(It's lame. It's late. :-/)

Adele said...

It's true that casting directors often take the easy way out and hire stereotypes, but that's their problem. I still like it better if the novelist doesn't specify age/race/sexual preference unless it is part of the plot. Then when the character turns out to be different from my expectations, I get an insight into my subconscious mind that I wouldn't otherwise have had.

mbenkin said...

I agree that if someone asks you for one word that describes your character, you shouldn't say "black!" But race isn't 'irrelevant'-- it's part of the hero's life experiences. If Sherlock Holmes were black, Charlie Chan white, and Hercule Poirot Latino, they'd still be brilliant detectives-- but they'd be different detectives, no? A white Othello still has jealousy issues, but he's a different Othello from what was originally written. Are we really saying that race doesn't influence how you're treated by others at a particular place and time?

Here's what puzzles me: race is already present in a query through character names. If you've got Tosha Freeman, Muriel Gerfongawitz, and Alejandra Martinez walking into a bar, I don't need you to say anything more. But if you've got Jack Smith, Jane Jackson, and Nikki Black walking into a bar, and Jack's black, Jane's white, and Nikki's Chinese, then I would like a little clarification somewhere so I don't assume everybody's white. That isn't being cliched, in my book-- that's just being clear.

So here's my question: if you have a non-white hero with an Anglo-Saxon name, do you specify the hero's race in the query, or do you let everyone think he's white until he saunters past a mirror in Chapter 1?

JS said...

I love how Walter Mosley marked Easy Rawlins's racial self-identification in his first awesome novel.

Yes, readers probably expected Rawlins to be black because Mosley is black, and clearly a black writer's first-person protagonist is also necessarily a black person, right? (PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT FRANK YERBY BEHIND THE CURTAIN) but Mosley did a great and subtle thing---Easy only describes people's races when he perceives them as different from his own. So he's in a bar and "two big dudes and a white guy come in" and for me, as a white reader, I had a fabulous poke in the ribs.

My fangirl for Walter Mosley knows few bounds.

On the topic of reader assumptions about characters' races, I think that few essays are as brilliant as Pam Noles's "Shame". (Actually, I think "Shame" is one of the most brilliant essays ever about anything, and this comes from someone who owns multiple editions of Montaigne.)

JS said...

But race isn't 'irrelevant'-- it's part of the hero's life experiences

Yes.

But "My landlord was one of the Tuskegee Airmen" and "My landlord is an old black man" are different levels of characterization, and I often see special pleading that conflates the two.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

A blond adrift with a boa constrictor? That's nothing. How about a blond pixie imprisoned in a kitchen with a Knobby Kneed Scot and five girls each of whom wants something different ....

or how about a blond pixie in an over stuffed classroom full of hormonal middle school students, each of whom is too smart for words and too clueless to be let out on their own ... AND the air conditioning has failed .... AND while in the normal course of events their attention span is 10.2 seconds, it has diminished to 3.1 seconds .... AND one of the students thinks the main character in the book we're reading should DIE a painful death, thus causing a major blow up between the female students who like the character (Menolly of Half Circle Hold) and male student with attitude. .... And you thought being adrift with a snake was high adventure ... HA!

The Stray said...

Read that as "A blonde set adrift in a casino whit a boa constrictor," which was an odd mental image indeed.