Saturday, April 16, 2016

The perfect description of my novel was written by someone else. Am I toast to use it?

Recently I've been studying queries by famous authors and found one that works well with my story. No, I'm not planning on stealing it, but I would love to use one sentence that sums up both his novel and mine. The sentence isn't part of the main story, instead the author is giving the ingredients for why his story works.

I know I can change his words to make them my own, but the way he says it is not only beautiful, it's perfection in setting the tone for both our novels. No, I'm not crazy enough to compare his work with mine. I'm simply using what he says is needed about stories in this category.

My question to you is, what would you think if you received a query that quoted a sentence from a super-duper famous best-selling author? Would you sharpen your shark teeth and chomp off my right hand for doing that? Would you adorn your queenly crown and banish me to the pits of Carkoon forever for even mentioning his name? Or would it not ruffle your finely toned fins one bit and you'll focus on what my story is about?

(Query letters are so damn hard to write!)

Let's step back a moment and review the purpose of a query:

1. Entice me to read your novel.
2. Show (not tell) you are not an asshat.

Since it's about the story, and not you, the question is then, will this comparison or metaphor or whatever it is entice me to read the novel?

If someone asked you about your novel, specifically "what's it about" is this sentence something you'd have memorized to make sure you said it right, and knew to say it when people asked that question?

If yes, use it.

If no, or not sure, don't.

You're so caught up right now in the crazypants part of querying that you've lost sight of a very basic fact: I don't care what anyone else says. I care about what you say, and MOSTLY I care about your novel.

If this sentence will entice me to read it, use it.

If it won't (or you're not confident) don't.

I'm not looking for ways to mark you down from A+ to B-. I'm looking for compelling stories that I simply must have because I desperately want people to read them and love them as I do.

Anything that illuminates your story and makes it enticing is good.
Anything that does not, should be left out.

Get off the rodent wheel, you're making the cat nervous.


CynthiaMc said...

Today is the beginning of National Park Week, y'all! Free admission to U.S. National Parks all week long! Wahoo! Off with the pups to explore fabulous settings for who knows what. Wheeeeee!

french sojourn said...

Love the new background design.

On topic, for me any way, I wouldn't use it. It seems a slippery path. I was recently enamored by a phrase I saw on facebook (cringe) That simply stated: If you throw me to the wolves, you better believe I'm coming back leading the pack.

I love the sentiments, the voice, and it's threat level; but won't use it because it feels too easy...My job as a writer is to find my own words and create something that makes me feel the same way, but most importantly in my own voice.

My $.02 worth for the day. Cheers

E.M. Goldsmith said...

"Get off the rodent wheel, you're making the cat nervous " <--- That there is a sub-header.

I feel for you, OP. I am spending the weekend making the cat nervous and fretting over my query letter. Hoping coffee makes it better.

Donnaeve said...

HA, CynthiaMc, if I didn't know your name, your off topic comment read like a spammer! But, thank you...our National Parks are important.

Oh, the angst of writers is a wonderful thing. Until they start calling agents in the middle of the night, or dig through their trash.

I think QOTKU laid out everything to ask yourself, OP. The good news is, since you love the sentence from super duper best selling author and you know it's perfect for your story, you CAN use it if you want.

I think what you were likely most worried about is thinking you might come off as comparing yourself to that author - as you pointed out in the question. Like saying, "BSA's book is described as x,y,z, and if you like that book you'll like mine!" But that's not exactly what you're doing. Instead you're quoting the sentence to finish explaining your story.

Not that it matters what I would do, but in my opinion, I think I'd want to figure out how to use all my own words. It's possible too, you're too focused on that sentence and it's knocking all other ideas out of your head. Kind a like the laser focus of that cat sitting on the hamster cage there.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Opie-query writing does bring out the rodent in us woodland critters but. You might like to take a step away. I've been writing my query alongside my story. I'm "only" halfway through my 2nd draft of the story but I've written a quazillion queries and tinkled around with each version. I've saved some of my first efforts. Not good. Query writing is different from story writing. It's flash fiction writing. Entice. Put in just enough plot. Have a crit partner or someone read your efforts to see if it intrigues them enough to want to read the story. I'm with some of the commenters here. Rather than borrowing someone else's words, no matter how famous, I'd kindasorta want to use my own words.

And Congrats to QOTKU for the Writer's Digest trophy. In all of my awareness (or non-awareness) during yesterday's swirl of colors and festivities and scotch, I completely overlooked it til I read through yesterday's comments. It's a trophy well-deserved. I'm so glad we have a QOTKU.

LynnRodz said...

I love the new look! It makes me feel like the sun is shining at the reef. All that's missing is the frozen margarita. (No salt.)

LynnRodz said...

Oh yes, congratulations on the WD award, Janet! Your blog here is definitely #1.

Cindy C said...

I agree with french sojourn--this does seem like starting down a slippery path. Maybe I spend too much time with students, but I'd worry that using another writer's words might start to look like the easy solution to all my difficult writing tasks. However, I also spend most of my time on the rodent wheel, so I may be overthinking this.

Can a rodent wheel have a slippery slope?

Susan Bonifant said...

Cat: "Let's play I'll be a cheetah and you be a gazelle."

It still amazes me that the hardest chapters I've written are not as hard as that one-shot, 250 word query. The struggle to offer the right information and do it with voice and style are crazy-making.

I look at all my query versions and shake my head at how little they truly differ from one another, but seemed to me at the time like they did because of one word, one half of a sentence.

I wonder if it's possible, OP, to borrow the message or feel of the words without using the actual words themselves? Maybe paraphrasing would make you more comfortable.

Susan Bonifant said...

Also, belated congratulations to Janet Reid, wonder agent, blogger, and cat graphic expert. I'm proud of you.

Sherry Howard said...

Off topic: The award is so well-deserved I thought JR already had enough to fill that shelf already.

"Get off the rodent wheel, you're making the cat nervous " Did you guys see what JR did there? Took a common saying, but changed it just a bit to make it her own. That's gifted writing. And that's what I'd try to do if I were the OP.

Unknown said...

I’m completely over this fretting about queries thing. What ever, works, works. Out of several query versions, the one that works best for my MS is bare-bones and just barely there. My optimistic theory, and I’m sticking to it, is I just can’t write a good query. Reading barely there query happens so fast that agents, almost by accident, hit the sample pages and get sucked right in. My only other theory is….Crap, quick, back to my hamster wheel. Yikes, look at that cat! Faster, faster…

Ah! six hundred ninety-seven thousand, one hundred forty-three laps. I feel much better.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

If it is as you state it is, use it. If it gets the agent to want to devour your book, use it. If you can honestly say,
PERFECT, (I love to do that cap-word thingy)
use the damn sentence.
(Ha, I did it again.)

CynthiaMc said...

Donna - Holy cow - I didn't even think about that. Sorry, Janet! I was so excited because I love to hike and it fell on N for my AtoZ Challenge. Alas the weather is iffy today so it's a writing and clean the house, yard, and car day. Yard and car are done. Once the rain starts I'll do the house. Writing in my garden for now. Cloudy and cool. Good coffer weather.

I'm with Hank. Play with what you want to say but with your voice. One exercise that has helped me a lot came from Jack Bickham. He called it Speedy Lists - write down numbers 1-20 and jot down the first thing that comes to mind. No judging, just write. By midlist the obvious things are over and you're getting into original and creative territory.

The pups and I will head out for Canaveral National Seashore tomorrow after Mass. Come on, sunshine!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Robert- I think I like your approach. Write a minimalist query and trick the agent into the sample pages. Good, good. Lap 923- OMG- that cat is going to eat me.

CynthiaMc said...

Coffee I mean (of which I clearly have not had enough).

Colin Smith said...

Here's Cynthia's link:

On topic: I say use it. An agent isn't going to represent you based on that line, or, in fact, on your query. You'll get an agent based on the novel they request after reading your query. As Janet said, the query is the vehicle that drives the agent to the novel. She'll assume you built the car, and she's not going to care if your brother re-upholstered the insanely comfortable seats. What she cares about most is that she loves where you're taking her.

Caveat: If the agent then wants to offer your query as cover blurb, come clean about that line. If it ends up printed on the back of your book, the original author might get a bit miffed, unless you ask permission, or cite the source.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm still adjusting to the blog. I have a copy of an ad from an Oklahoma City newspaper advertising for someone to kill the green dragon that's been flying around the northwest area of the city. No pay, dragon slaying is its own reward. Leave the red dragon alone, please, the ad author and red dragon have an understanding.

Who knows? Maybe he uses the dragon to fertilize his crops or for midnight rides. Either way, the dragon is useful.

I miss Oklahoma crazy.

If the line is useful, use it.

When I write queries I'll fiddle around with it until I can't go any further and then put it on the forum. Then everyone picks and pokes at it, making suggestions, rewording, adding a line. Most of the time I fiddle more with it, parsing it into my style or words. In the end we finish grinding out the sausage and have a decent query. Sometimes, though, someone suggests something that is perfect just like it is and thus it stays.

Frequently, Diana Gabaldon will pop in and make a suggestion or reword something. She does this when she has time for anyone, I'm not that special.

She helped me with my last and the previous query, as did a lot of wonderful and talented people. I'm not going to mention her name or the names of the others who stuffed the sausage. Wurst case scenario, an agent raves how wonderful that line was and I say, "Thanks, I had some friends help me with this. ABC actually wrote that and let me use it."

I am not going to say, "Hey, Best-Selling Author wrote this line in my query!" in the query.

Hemingway said it was no one's business how you learned to write. Let them think you were born that way. I'm fairly certain the agent doesn't care how you wrote a great query. They just want to know if you wrote a great book to match it.

Julie Weathers said...

Second verse.

Does anyone remember a few months ago someone wrote in about a fabulous query they had, which had been written by a professional writer? The query was getting lots of bites, but when the agents read the work they passed. The presumption was because the writing style in the query and the manuscript were so different.

That's the flip side of this. It's fine to get help from others, but the query still needs to reflect your voice and style. I think it's a bad idea to hire someone to write your query.

Hank, I love that quote. Rawr!

When Diana suggests something for my query or synopsis, I'll sometimes leave it as is, but I may fine tune it to more reflect my style. Trust me, you can tell the difference.

As I've said before I used one sentence she suggested in a previous query. I submitted it to another site and the Master and minions shredded the sentence with gay abandon because it was incomplete. Yes, it was, but where it came and how it was phrased perfectly ended that section. It wasn't correct English, but it was danged good writing.

So, if you have famous best-selling author friends, talented friends, can afford to hire a professional, I still think you need to make sure the query is yours. It has to match the rest of what you're written.

Agents are crafty. They will recognize the difference. Captain, is that you?

The Sleepy One said...

I agree with Robert and I'd add: writing a serviceable query isn't that hard. If you can't write out a decent bare-bones query, the problem is probably with your novel.

Plus, writing a query and distilling your story down to the inciting incident and main choice your character(s) make is a strong editing tool. 'Cause if you can't figure that out, you (most likely) have a problem to fix.

Me said...

Good advice! And really like your new blog design.

Joseph S. said...

The cat has the same coloration as my miracle cat, Brigada. Startled me when I first saw it.

BJ Muntain said...

OP: Are you planning on using it as a quote? A quote in a query letter may be a bit awkward. But does the writing style match the style of the rest of the query letter? If not, that, too, could be awkward.

The writing in that sentence may be beautiful, but if it doesn't fit smoothly, it will only look awkward. And that will remove the beauty.

SiSi: A rodent wheel with a slipperly slope is the hamster's worst nightmare.

Julie: Your 'Master and minions' are fools. Incomplete sentences are perfectly correct English. Any style guide (except maybe Strunk & White, which I have problems with) will tell you that. And from the sounds of it, it's not like you overused that technique.

As an example, my Canadian Press style guide (and I've read a lot of American style guides, too. This is just closest at hand) says specifically: "Write incomplete sentences occasionally. Like this. To make an idea easier to absorb. For a change of pace."

(Sorry. I'm often considered to be a grammar nazi, but pedantics who don't know enough to be pedantic bother the heck out of me.)

Brian M. Biggs said...

Best Advice: "If this sentence will entice me to read it, use it.
If it won't (or you're not confident) don't." Or like Mark Twain said, "Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."

Lennon Faris said...

Hmm this answer completely surprised me. Using someone else's writing word-for-word, even just one sentence, wouldn't be considered plagiarism?

Also, even if that sentence seems to perfectly reflect the novel, because it's not the author's creation, I feel like it would NOT reflect the novel. So even if the query entices the agent to read the novel, it seems like it wouldn't be doing its job, if it doesn't adequately reflect something they might want to read.

Obviously you know best Janet but this one surprised me!

Lennon Faris said...

And I wanted to add, I mean 'surprised' as in 'confused,' not 'offended.' I don't mean to come off as disrespectful, but was just taken off guard with what I was expecting. I'm not too experienced in this writing world, which I'm well aware of :)

literary_lottie said...

Something that I see repeatedly stressed by agents and authors is that the query is only the first of many, many pitches you will make over the course of your novel's life. The agent pitches to the editor, the editor pitches to the marketing and sales departments, the sales department pitches to their buyers, etc. You will be asked to pitch to bookstore owners, journalists, over social media, at readings, at conference panels, etc. Therefore, if it vitally important that you nail your pitch and truly know not just what your story's about, but also why readers should care, i.e. what makes your book different and why you are the only person to write it. You cannot make that distinction - and therefore make a good pitch - using someone else's words.

I presume you haven't written the exact same novel as Big Name Author, yes? So why would you want to use part of Big Name Author's pitch? And why would someone want to read *your novel* instead of his?

Find that reason. Use it. And if you really feel the need, name Big Name Author's novel as a comp. But write your own, completely original pitch. You'll be glad you did in the long run.

literary_lottie said...

*Therefore, it is vitally important...

I swear I know the difference between if, it, and is. Most of the the time.

BJ Muntain said...

Regarding plagiarism and pitching:

I think a query letter - which is basically a business letter - is different from many other forms of communication. I don't think using someone else's words in a business letter would be much different from using a business letter template, although - as I said earlier - it would need to fit in somehow without being awkward. Which would mean it would have to match the style of the rest of the query. Query letters are rarely published, and if this author's query letter were published the way Big Name Author's was, I would expect this author to note the use of BNA's words. A query letter would not be published without the author's permission, so there would be a chance for this author to note this use.

And pitches will change throughout time and will be different for every purpose. Once you've attracted an agent's notice with the query letter, kept that notice with the pages sent, and signed on with that agent, the author will have that agent working on their pitch, perfecting it, making it appropriate for whatever future uses a pitch would need. I would expect that, if the agent were using the words from this author's query letter (and that isn't necessarily the way it will work out), this author would mention they'd borrowed the words from BNA. And then it would be up to the agent to see what needed changing.

I'm not saying OP should definitely go ahead with it. I'm just saying it wouldn't be ethically wrong to use it, in my opinion. So long as the OP doesn't try to pass these words off as their own creation anywhere it truly matters.

As Janet says, the object of a query letter is to entice the agent to read the marvelousness that is the actual novel. A query letter is not a permanent record.

Julie Weathers said...

See, this is what I get for reading before I'm coffeed up. I thought the OP was working with the Bestie author in question. This happens.

You're supposed to be my friends. Friends say stuff like, "Go home, Julie, you're uncaffeinated or drunk or maybe both, but you aren't making sense."

I don't know. I wouldn't lift the line if I didn't know the author. Use it to inspire you to come up with something uniquely you.

One of my favorite lines is: "cows drinking their reflections". I can't remember the rest of the line, but I love that image. I'll never write anything that evocative, but I use lines like that to prime the pump.

Craig F said...

I seriously doubt that any sentence hasn't been used at least a million times previously, so you should be fine.

My question is why are you reading the queries of established writers? They get to make assumptions of their own recognizability that newbies can't. Better to find queries for new writers that have worked.

The other question is why do you want to sum up your novel in a query? You want to tease an agent into wanting to read more.

Amy Schaefer said...

Lennon Faris, I had the same 'plagarism?!' reaction. On rereading the post, Opie said: "...quoted a sentence from a super-duper famous best-selling author." That sounds like intent to attribute, so I feel better. But I will say: Opie, do you need this? Trust yourself. Use your voice and your words.

I've written more queries than I care to count. I followed the rules and wrote a Classic Query. I joined a crit sites and massaged my query into something Acceptable to the Crowd. I bent myself into a pretzel trying to take all advice and make a Perfect Query. So much tweaking and junking and restarting and maybe-this-path and oh-that-was-a-disaster. So many, many, many drafts.

Nothing worked.

What did work was when I threw my hands in the air and said: "You know what? This sucks. I am starting again again, and this time I'm going to write in the voiciest voice that ever voiced. This query is going to sound so Amy that if it were walking down the street and someone called 'Hey, Amy!', it would turn around and say hi." And so I wrote a query that had the key query features, but from the first sentence had the feel and sound of my book.

That one worked.

You'll have to navigate your own way down the query path. Just make sure you are you. It's worth it.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Oh you novel writers, you worry about so much stuff.
Wait, I think I are one, was one, am one, want to be one, tried to be one, wrote one, wrote two, working on another, damn rodent wheel.

Julie Weathers said...


Writer's Digest has a section with agents who post query letters that worked. Then they describe why the letter worked. It both interesting and maddening to read. Most of the time the letters break every rule on correct query letter writing.

In the end, it comes down to enticing writing and like porn you might not be able to define it, but you'll recognize it when you see it.

Kae Bell said...

Any time I see writing better than mine in my genre, I say "I can do that", just like the brother in the Broadway show A Chorus Line. (I'm watching sis go pitter pat, say I can do that...)

And I practice and practice. Read. Think. Read. Still practicing...Sigh. But I believe I can do that.

Craig F said...


Someone at QueryTracker was bright enough to start a thread on successful queries too.

I've read some of those WD things that Chuck S. does. I sometimes think those agents say some of those things just so they can watch us scurry back under our rocks. If that isn't the reason it brings to mind crapshots.

CynthiaMc said...

Amy - I love this. You give me hope. I just did the same thing today with a novel I love but was not working. Kept what I liked and changed up the voice completely. It feels right now. It was third person but I figured it's my heroine's story, I should let her tell it. Apparently she's been waiting for me to do just that.

Julie Weathers said...

Craig, back in the olden days when I was querying, I studied all the sites with queries with a fine tooth comb, more like a find tooth comb. I searched for the secret.

Obviously, if you study something long enough you'll learn something. I learned Excedrin Migraine works better than Advil.

Craig F said...


Two fingers of sourmash poured over an ice cube works even better

Amy Schaefer said...

Go CynthiaMc! Those aha! moments are the best.

Anonymous said...

I also got the impression that OP intended to give proper attribution for the line (if not, s/he absolutely needs to). Still, I wouldn't use it. I mean, you're a writer, why would you use someone else's words? Where's your supreme confidence, your towering arrogance, your stunning hubris? OK, I'm kidding. Sort of. There's a difference between getting someone's feedback/input to improve your copy and using something wholesale that wasn't written with your work in mind. Very fine line. I wouldn't cross it.

Honestly, my gut reaction to discovering someone had written a line that perfectly summed up MY story would be to go into a complete panic that my story wasn't original enough and immediately begin a total re-write or scrap it entirely. But I'm weird.

Amy wrote: "I'm going to write in the voiciest voice that ever voiced." Yes yes yes. (Also, happy to see evidence you haven't drowned.)

And slightly off topic: I read this:

"I'm looking for compelling stories that I simply must have because I desperately want people to read them and love them as I do."

. . . and felt a little shiver and thought, "This. This is exactly what I want." *sigh* Someday.

abnormalalien said...

I still snicker at purpose 2 every time you mention it!

Kae Ridwyn said...

KD James - I must be weird with you, because that "on no, my story has been done by someone else already!" was my first 'freak-out' thought too :)

Julie - I've read that green dragon / red dragon advertisement too - LOVE it!

And OP, I agree with all those here: focus on using your own words. That way, you can have complete and utter confidence that, should dream agent choose you, that it wasn't for using 'that' sentence. Best of luck!