Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Query Question: who are you to write this book?

In researching agents to query, I'm coming up against one question (in multiple forms) that stumps me. It runs something like this: Who Are You To Write this Book? [Mind you, this is not for a work of serious non-fiction where questions of platform and profession come into play, nor for a work of literary fiction, for that matter]. I'd like to answer, "I'm a Great Liar, and all works of fiction require it," but I don't think that would be advisable. My mind jumps to JK Rowling. Who was she? I'm guessing she didn't list broom-flying as a prerequisite.

I'm bristling at the question and I think it's because I'm not really understanding what these agencies/agents are trying to get at. (BTW, the question was separated from another question regarding previous publication, so I've ruled out: What Proves you can get Published, as subtext).

Well, I'm not even the right person to answer this question cause I think asking someone for their credentials to write a novel is idiotic.  And yes you can quote me.

I'm not sure Patrick Lee has ever been to North Dakota or Alaska, but THE BREACH sure didn't need his travel credentials to be a fascinating page turner.

I'm pretty sure Jeff Somers drinks like Avery Cates but I'm hoping he's not as well versed in weapons as Cates: The Electric Church didn't need a gun club membership credential to be a fascinating page turner.

I know Sean Ferrell has not invented a time travelling raft, and yet, there he is with MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT.

I'm really hoping Stephanie Jaye Evans didn't club anyone to death on a golf course, as "credentials" for writing FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH.

It's fiction. You get to make it up.

If an agent asks why you're the right person to write your novel, the only real answer is "it's my novel, who else is going to write it?"


Kitty said...

Is question an indication that maybe the writer should skip that agent?

LynnRodz said...

"It's my novel, who else is going to write it? " I love that answer, and if the time ever comes, I'm going to use it!!!

Amanda Capper said...

I've heard this question as another variation of 'write what you know'.

Answering 'I know nothING' in your best Sgt. Schultz impersonation, is, apparently, not the correct way to snare an agent.

Joyce Tremel said...

I'd be tempted to say the voices in my head made me write it.

Colin Smith said...

I've seen this question too, and while I have also bristled at the thought of having to justify why I would have the audacity to think I could take this wonderful idea and turn it into a novel, I think the reasoning behind it is to see if the author has a unique POV to bring to the story. If it's a legal drama, is the author a lawyer? If it's a police procedural, is the writer a former cop? Writers may overlook such details that, admittedly, help sell a novel to an agent.

However, as Janet correctly points out, this line of reasoning has limited spin. I am not, and never have been, a female teenage alien stranded in Victorian London. That didn't stop me from writing my novel. :)

Ellipsis Flood said...

"If it's a legal drama, is the author a lawyer? If it's a police procedural, is the writer a former cop?"

Lawyers and cops might write more realistic legal dramas/police procedurals, but not necessarily more gripping ones.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Sometimes questions are just questions and answers, answer themselves.

It doesn't matter who you are or why you wrote the book, if it's good, it's good. Although, if you are a serial killer submitting a novel about on again, off again relationships within a psychopathic family in suburbia, that might lend greater credence to the project.

french sojourn said...

Then Dinosaur Porn would never be written....perish the thought.

"Exit...stage left even"

Lance said...

What a great answer! We are thankful that the great dino porn writers weren't filtered out by this type of question. Joyce Tremel is on the right track.

James Ticknor said...

Mrs. Shark's other life calling obviously was to be a stand-up comic.

Wendy Qualls said...

I do see the point of this from an agent's view when it comes to heavily-researched fiction - if a medieval history professor wrote a medieval romance, I'd subject the everyday details to a lot less scrutiny than if an 18-year-old wrote the same thing. Same with military, police, legal, etc. settings - it's entirely possible for a novice to do the research (and/or consult an expert) and get everything right, but the agent will probably want to be more aware that there may be mistakes.

That said, I would see the question as a request for reassurance. I wouldn't be willing to write a YA about a Hispanic teen considering suicide, since I'm not Hispanic and I've never dealt with those mental health issues. If I did write one, though, I'd darn well better be able to tell the agent "I researched X, Y, and Z, spent some time doing ABC, and consulted people in D, E, and F fields to make sure I got it right."

Michael Seese said...

Somewhat like Joyce said, when faced with that question I answer, "Because the words were in MY head."

Of course, I don't have an agent yet...

DLM said...

William Golding spoke at my school when I was 18 and he talked about the island he invented, from whole cloth, for "Lord of the Flies." Turns out it is a geological impossibility. Seems he managed to get by with it anyway.

Of course, he also addressed why there were only little boys on the island. "I've never been a little girl," he said. And that, sooner or later, if he put girls and boys together, "dreary old sex" would inevitably appear, and he wanted to tell a very different story, without that.

He set his damn rules.

I have never been an ancient Frankish king, nor even a Catholic, and there are places my fiction explicitly departs from legend and/or conventional wisdom about Clovis I. I covered it in my author's note (currently being serialized on my blog, actually), and any guitarist at the back of the bar who has a problem with my story or my methods is welcome to write a better one. The Ax and the Vase is mine.

All this said - I have seen this question, and have generally taken it to mean something more in the way of "what compelled me to write this story" rather than what business is it of mine to take it on. But then, I am an arrogant cuss and entirely confident in my work. So the stuffing of it is always somewhere lurking in my response to those without any credentials demanding to see my credentials.

Sunday Reflections or Stumbling Towards Happiness by Bill Holland said...

Thank you for the blunt response. You are right of course...the question is idiotic.

alaskaravenclaw said...

The form I most usually see of this is "How is your book different from all other books?"

I just ignore it. No one ever notices.

whiporee said...

The problem with getting indignant with an agent's request is that you still want representation. So intentionally denigrating one of their requests may make you feel better, but it's not going to help you appeal to that particular agent.

And while I appreciate the candor everyone has shown, you probably should be able to answer the question because the agent may get it from an editor. So I would suggest coming up with a reason why. It could be because the subject has always interested you and you studied it. it could be because the idea of this other world popped into your soul and you can't make it leave. It could be any number of reasons why you're the person to write this book, but it never hurts to have an answer that goes beyond snark.

As it's been said, a query is a pitch, and they're asking you a follow-up question (even if it's not actually a follow up). The fact that they ask such a question might make you reconsider querying them in the first place. But if they put it on their site, it's because they've found it a useful question to ask, and I've never found it useful to insult the way someone else does business. said...

People asking that question should look up German author Karl May on Wikipedia.

Yes, it's a silly question, but as with a job interview (which it is, in a way), the point of asking it is not always to get the correct answer (often there isn't one) but to see how a person responds.

Sarah Moreno said...

This particular question has been one of the requirements for submission to almost every single agency I've decided to query. It seems to be a growing trend in recent years in order to weed out previously unpublished authors and discourage them from querying -- after all, if one has no credentials in the form of previous publication, a platform, or writing degree, what could one possibly put under this heading without coming off as crass? Hence, most sensible people would probably be inclined to skip that agency. Just my two cents.