Monday, October 24, 2011

When you're querying non-fiction

Before you finalize your query letter for any work of non-fiction, you should google your subject's name and see what comes up. Generally it's the Wikipedia page. Read it.

If you're querying me about a biography, that's exactly what I'm going to do after I read your query.  The reason I do that is because one of the things I look for in a proposed project is whether there is something fresh and new to say about a subject: new information; new analysis, new sources.

If you've queried me for a project and you fail to mention some of the basic things I can find in a quick google search, particularly the negative ones,  it does not bode well for the quality of your research.

And if Wikipedia and the generally available sources are wrong? Hurray! This is exactly the kind of information you WANT to include: "everything we think we know about Subject X is wrong, and my book will fix that."


Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Janet said: "If you've queried me for a project and you fail to mention some of the basic things I can find in a quick google search, particularly the negative ones, it does not bode well for the quality of your research."

You mean negative things related to the subject? Like, umm "He was a well known drunk and fornicator, but our research has also uncovered a hidden bad habit so shocking that I must send it as a single word in a second email"?

Or do you mean as in, "An unattractive bit of personal history that you should know is that my toes sweat a lot. My sister put that on her face book page, and we'll have to deal with it in the author's bio ..."?

Simon Hay said...

This - everything we think we know about Subject X is wrong - describes how I feel about energy healing & working with spirit. The problem is it's not an evidential process, it's a story. Client's lives are changed, but you can't prove how. I can only describe my experience, which is not the client's or an observer's experience. I'm in the business of I don't know, but I can entertain you. Thanks for the heads up.

Janet Reid said...

Princess of Pixies, dearest Sha'el,
More like don't send me a proposal for a bio of a "great man" and forget to mention he was found guilty of bribery.

He may be a great man but being convicted of bribery is a pretty big omission.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

ah, yes ... well we have characters like that in the history book we're writing now. There's a Mr. Albert Delmont Jones, the publisher of a religious magazine ... ran a fake charity, was divorced by his wife after one too many girl friends, was politically active but on the shady side, founded a bank that promptly failed, embezzled a huge sum leading to the suicide of a famous admiral’s son. In other words he was thoroughly disreputable and totally interesting. He is a much “funner” character than some of the true saints that show up in our history.

Jeff Marks said...

After publishing the said biography, be sure to go back out to the Wikipedia page and correct the mistakes you've found.

In writing about Craig Rice I edited all the conjecture about her name and her involvement in writing the Gypsy Rose Lee (Sing out, Louise) mysteries. In citing your biography, you become the expert.

Janet Reid said...

Jeff's comment is exactly on the money. I didn't mean mean to suggest Wikipedia was the best source, but if info is in the Wikipedia article, and it seems at variance with the material in the query, a writer should address that. I'm going to notice for sure!

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Yes, Jeff is right. Our book on Nelson Barbour is the basis for the wiki article. It corrected all sorts of foolishness. And it's now "the authoritative source" for related history.

Those historians who've reviewed chapters of the new book have said that it will become the definitive history both of the subject and the period. One can hope. And I like to be flattered. All pixies do.

Hey! We're even cited as "the authority" in a new encyclopedia. Cool beans, huh?

Jeff Marks said...

I'm working on a Erle Stanley Gardner biography, and I hope to put to bed (pardon the pun) the relationship between Gardner and his secretary vs Perry Mason and Della.

Additionally, I found a shopping bag (yes, you read that right) of research at a well-established library that disproved a well-known anecdote about Gardner and his work as AA Fair.

Of course, I've spent 2.5 years researching and writing this, so I expected to uncover several issues and address inaccuracies.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dear Jeff,
New, original research is both fun and frustrating. Almost everything in both the published book and work in progress is new to historians. That's fun.

Prying things out of reluctant relatives, archives and such can be frustrating.

My writing partner and I maintain two history blogs, one for bits of research that might interest readers and an invitation only blog where longer bits of research are published for review by other interested historians. The closed blog was the best idea we've had. We have about 50 subscribers and of that number we have professors and historians from major universities, published authors, and experts who are fans of our research. This drawn bits of research our way that we would not have found otherwise.

I figure we have another year to go, at least, before book two is done. Book three is up in the air. We have an outline, but we haven't decided to write it yet.

Have fun! When it gets too frustrating, eat an oreo and drink strong coffee.

JS said...

Jeff, I want to read your Craig Rice book, and will, but do you really think Lee wrote The G-String Murders? If so, where did all the Anglicisms come from?

When I read it, Occam's Razor suggested to me that an English person had probably done the writing from Lee's outline, rather than Lee having suddenly acquired the habit of referring to "trunk lines" and the "boot" of a car.

Jeff Marks said...

JS, no I don't think that Rice wrote the GRL mysteries. First, I could not place them in the same location during 1941, prior to the book's publication. Second, Rice's one immutable writing rule was to never include a parent. As I'm sure you know, Mama Rose appeared front and center in G-String.

It was not a popular view when the book was published but in the past 2 years, 2 new bios of Gypsy have come out and both agreed with my opinion about the authorship. Vindication is always welcome!!