Tuesday, January 17, 2017

When to include "why I wrote this book" in a query for a novel

I am writing a young-adult fantasy in which nobody is white. And also in which gender issues are not an issue. I have built these qualities into my invented world because I feel that repeating the same tropes about minorities having to overcome the same old disadvantages has the unintended consequence of making these disadvantages seem normal and acceptable. Presumably non-white readers would like to see some stories about non-white people who aren’t having to slog uphill through racism on their way to the plot about as much as I’d like to see women being bad-ass without having to fight the patriarchy on the way to saving the world. For them and myself, I have cheerfully up-ended various tropes.

But! This race and gender stuff is, essentially, background. The plot of my story centers about other issues entirely. My question is: should I mention these things in my query? And if so, how?

The purpose of your query is to entice your reader (me) to want to read more.
Whatever you can use to entice me is fair game.

The most compelling enticement is a great story.
A great story is most-often something that turns expectations sideways.
(I love those. LOVE)

BUT you must SHOW me that in the story.
And if you can show me that in the query, all the better.

BUT if you're having trouble getting the plot on the page AND showing this colorful gender bending world, a paragraph like you started with at the end of the query would NOT be out of order. You'd put it at the end of the query right before Thank you for your time and consideration. You'd start with I wrote this novel because I'd like to see women being bad ass without fighting the patriarchy and people of color who don't have to fight racism.

Generally I don't much care for "why I wrote this novel" kind of stuff. I figure you wrote a novel cause you have a story to tell.

But you're right that people are looking for things that upend stereotypes.

Telling me your book is intended to do that might get you farther than not including it.

Just make sure you tell me enough about the story. Plot is the key.


Colin Smith said...

What Janet said. And this goes back to our friend Jessica from last week who wondered if she should mention her ethnicity because agents are looking for non-white authors. Whatever you need to do, within legal and tasteful parameters, to get your query noticed, DO IT. If you can show in your query how your story meets an agents MSWL, DO IT. If you're a POC and you don't think either your name or your story gives that away, and the agent has said she's trying to include more POC on her client list, then do as Janet suggested.

This is a competitive industry. Agents are very selective who they take on as clients since managing clients is a full-time job. In fact, that IS their full-time job, which is why many agents read queries and submissions off-hours. They're looking for that something in a query that elevates it beyond its superlative competition.

If that means raising your hand and saying "You say you want X, and I'm X with a cherry on top!" then DO IT! :)

DLM said...

This is one of those times when the story seems like it might explain itself. If you're telling me you've got a diverse novel in which nobody's fighting the Same Old Tropes, it's fairly likely I can see why that would be.

But then, I am so amused by Colin's "I'm X with a cherry on top" that I can see the point in making the explicit statements.

Most theme novels, I find, do make their themes clear enough, though. The real trick is to make the rest of the work so compelling the theme is just along for the ride, rather than the work being so didactic that the characters and plot are just afterthoughts ...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Story, story, story, plot. It's just so complicated.
Got up late need more coffee.

How about a bad-ass crime fighting granny without aches, pains and Depends and with enough in her Social Security payments to keep her out of a cardboard box under a bridge.
Thank God its fiction and not a memoir...yet.

Crabapple cove? Been done.

Sherry Howard said...

I think I need to re-work my query. It's possible I did this. It's probable I did this. I did this.

Anonymous said...

1000% would read this book! And that sort of description would also help me recommend it to others.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

It’s been done. It’s all been done. Read widely in your genre, and give over to your story. Theme is important but have a care. Authors who write as a cause often come across as didactic and that destroys story. Readers, in general, don’t read to be preached at, especially when reading fantasy. Often the really great SFF authors explore arching social themes, but they are hidden well in the story so that the reader comes across the theme on his own terms.

By way of example, read Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, and Brandon Sanderson (for a start) for reference. All have done what OP proposes in multiple worlds. If any of them had to query their books (it’s been a long while since that happened with any of these), I doubt they mentioned they were turning stereo types on their head. Their stories do that. Especially with the way Hobb and Lackey treat dragon societies. Sanderson does not do dragons, but his tropes are wild and unexpected, brilliant without being unrealistic despite his fantasy settings.

Anyhow, write a great story. If the story falls short, the agent and later publisher won’t care “why” the writer wrote the story. While agents may be on the look out for what the OP is doing, show don’t tell. Anyone can say they have turned the typical stereotypes on their ear. Few can prove it.

RachelErin said...

This is really good to know. My world is not as upside down as this one sounds, but my heros are all POC in a world without institutional racism (conflicts and clashes between different regions and groups, but no race/ethinicity-based discrimination). The story is about a girl on a quest - and although her background matters, it's not a plot point.

Another trick I've thought about with agents who love twitter, is to include relevant hashtags in the title/word count area (e.g. #DIV, #DIS). If I know they follow twitter pitch contests, it's a way to let them know certain features of my story in less than a word.

Thanks for the question OP!

Jessica said...

I tend to agree with EM. Fantasy in particular is difficult because, theoretically, our social problems on Earth don't have an impact on a completely separate society/world. I know there can still be racism and oppression, but it's not *exactly* the same. I say write a great story, polish it until it shines, and then worry about diversity. But what Colin says is also true--we're in a competitive game, and anything that helps you stand out can't be too bad. Also thanks for remembering me Colin :)

Good luck with querying, OP! I'm in the middle of polishing mine and it's miserable work...

Colin Smith said...

Elise: Absolutely, there's no substitute for story, and showing over telling. Ideally, the agent will want to read the ms before she gets to the housekeeping. But in those cases where there's no way to show the ethnicity of the characters in the blurb, and the agent has specifically asked for non-white characters, there's no harm in mentioning in the housekeeping, just to make the agent want to read the ms all the more.

Jessica: Of course! Your question generated 80 comments. And it was a good discussion. :)

Jen said...

Oh man. OP's book sounds awesome!

Lennon Faris said...

As a reader, a short explanation of that would make me more inclined to read the book. I also get tired of bad-ass girls getting compared to a guy every time she does something awesome (she can throw like a boy, she's chill like one of the guys, she's got some cojones! she's not 'girly' at all). Why not just say she's an awesome girl.

But, if it wasn't a compelling story I still wouldn't buy it.

So good luck OP and keep us updated with the query process!

MB Owen said...

I am genuinely curious. Given that most agents and editors seem to be liberal or at least, open to all kinds of stories, I doubt they were actively trying to sideline stories about, or written by, PoC and what we've come to call marginalized voices. That is, these queries were alongside every other query. So if a non-white, non-traditional story came along in the slush pile, why weren't agents grabbing it? Why is extra identification needed when there is no discrimination? Or is the appropriate hashtag and extra identification simply a red flare saying: I'm HERE. I'm what you're looking for?

Colin Smith said...

MB: I think the concern is when it's not obvious from the query or the author's name that the novel hits an agent's MSWL sweet spot. While Janet usually advises against discussing the novel's theme or inspiration in the housekeeping, this might be an exception to that rule.

Julie Weathers said...

Agreed. I'd put this at the end of the query.

I didn't put in why I wrote Far Rider because I wanted it to stand on its own two feet, but I read a story about Jewish teen resistance fighters who very successfully fought the Nazis during WWII. They were a serious thorn in the side even though the elders thought they were too young to carry guns. I thought when I read the story of the reunion of these people how remarkable their story was. I wanted to write it, but didn't think I could do them justice, so I thought what if it were in a fantasy world where the racial prejudices are just being stirred up before war breaks out?

The super villain is an Elizabeth Bathory type woman who realy is doing all the wrong things for the right reasons, women's rights in a very patriarchal society. Villains are always the heroes in their own story.

A big part of the struggle for he MC is to join a newly formed women's fighting unit and face down the both racial and gender prejudices as well as trying to stay alive.

When I was at a query workshop in Surrey the agent asked me why I wrote the book and I gave her a brief synopsis of all this.

"Oh, what I cool story. I want one about the Jewish resistance fighters."

"Umm, OK, but I don't have that."

Though I certainly have some issues I deal with in the book, I didn't want it to be an issue book.

In the OP's case, I think it would do nothing but help their cause.
Any piece of driftwood you can find in a storm is worth grabbing.

Writing quote:

“I don't know why anyone would be scared of a homeless person. The truly scary people are all the murder mystery writers. They spend all day thinking of the perfect plot on how to kill someone and get away with it.”
― Shannon L. Alder

BJ Muntain said...

People have mentioned that theme shouldn't trump plot... but this isn't theme. This is background. OP doesn't say anything about making this a theme. It's just the reality of the world in their novel. And mentioning it at the end of the query would not take away from the plot.

RachelErin: I don't know. Hashtags in a query letter don't seem to be a good idea, sort of like textisms in a job application. Unless it's #MSWL, because they've noted it as an #MSWL (manuscript wish list, for those not on Twitter) in a tweet.

Julie: Love that quote!

Almitra Clay said...

Thank you Janet and everyone else for your feedback! Thank you Jessica for your question to Janet last week, which got me wondering -- and good luck with that polishing!

Jessica said...

Good luck to you too, Almitra!!

I kind of want to play devil's advocate for a minute. The exception to this would be if you wanted to write an allegory like Animal Farm, right? You'd plan your slam on communism first, then create Benjamin and co., right? If so...what makes that so different than what OP suggested?

Colin Smith said...

Jessica: I know I've said this a billion times before here, but it annoyed C.S. Lewis when people described his Narnia books as Christian allegory. He didn't deny that they are that, but for him they were first and foremost good stories. Any work of fiction should be a great story first. If you want it to be satirical, or have some profound message, it should never be in your face. Otherwise you're preaching a sermon, not telling a story.

Jessica said...

I've heard that before about C.S. Lewis, Colin! I'm unfamiliar with Orwell's intentions, but I'm under the impression that he actually meant to make an allegory for communism and used animals to do so. In C.S. Lewis's case, his books were viewed in a way he didn't foresee, but what about Orwell? What happens when you deliberately want to make a point with a book?

I guess it's irrelevant because either way, you've got to have a great story first. But I'm saying maybe it doesn't have to be first and *foremost.*

Colin Smith said...

Jessica: I think it's hard to read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE and not see intentional allegory. Whether or not Lewis planned this from the outset, I don't know (maybe someone else does), but the point still stands. Same for Orwell, whether you pick ANIMAL FARM or 1984. Their intentions may have been to say something profound theologically, socially, or politically, but the books would not have been as popular if they weren't good stories first. And I'm sure both authors were well aware of that.

"The most compelling enticement is a great story"--as a wise person once said. ;)

Jessica said...

I had a whole paragraph written, but then I realized what I wanted to say was already said by Janet: "I figure you wrote a novel because you have a story to tell."

In Orwell's case, communism. In CS Lewis's, magical wardrobe/land (possibly unintentional Jesus lion?). In OP's, realistically diverse characters. Writing with a clear theme/idea in mind isn't inherently a bad thing, just tricky. So, in my opinion, sometimes the story can still come second to your main point or "cause"--it just has to be a darn good one.

Colin Smith said...

Jessica: I don't think there's any doubt Aslan = Jesus. And there are a whole boatload of Christian elements throughout the series. Maybe it's more helpful to state it this way: You may primarily want to make a theological/political/social point, but your reader must first and foremost see a great story. That way they're more likely to get your point. If the story's not good, the reader will get neither.

BJ Muntain said...

An allegory, or an idea, or even a message, can definitely come first when starting to write a book. "I want to write an allegory about" is entirely okay. But it shouldn't be first in *importance.* The author should write a damned good story around that allegory or idea or message, because that's what will keep a reader reading. The coolest allegory will lose its readers if there isn't a good story around it.

But the OP didn't mention any idea or message. Just that they wanted to show a world where racism isn't the stumbling block it is in real life. In science fiction, we write books where space ships and other technology are a part of life, but that's not what the books are about. The books have their own messages surrounding these, possibly involving these, but the books are not ABOUT the tech. The books are about the people living in a universe where such tech exists.

Steve Stubbs said...

Conflict is what drama is all about, so if the OP starts her query by proudly announcing that there is no conflict, she may have a hard time selling it. A reader is going to want to know what the conflict IS, not what it isn’t.

OP’s story does pose some interesting subtle questions by implication:

Why would someone who has no idea what racism is want to live in a world in which there is only one race?

Why would someone who is totally non-sexist want to live in a world in which everyone is female?

Where did all the white, non-female people go? Did black feminists wipe them all out triumphantly? If so, OP can start with the triumph and then flash back to the beginning of how all this came about.

Or she can use a counter-intuitive premise. I can see OP starting with something like this:

Malicious Felicia lives in a world in which everything is perfect. Malicious Felicia does not like men, but that’s OK because there are no men. Malicious Felicia does not like people who have a different color skin than she does. But that’s OK because everybody looks the same way she does. Malicious Felicia does not want to strive for anything or overcome any obstacles of any kind. But that’s OK because she was born into a wealthy family.

And it sucks. It really sucks.

In case you are not a fan of The Twilight Zone, I just described the premise of one of their episodes. The premise is, imagine how terrifying it would be if you had everything you ever wanted. And you had to live with it for the rest of eternity.

Spoiler here: I’ll tell you how terrifying it is. It’s bone chilling.

Talking about upending reality.

You can get the whole series on CBS All Access and on DVD.

The best eps are as good as TV ever gets.

Have fun.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I think the point Colin is making is that a reader can read Lewis without knowing anything about Christ or read Orwell with no understanding of communism and still be moved by their stories, riveted by the characters, left seeing the world in a new way after although they may not be able to say why.

There's no preaching in the Chronicles of Narnia. It's simply a great story. Without any Biblical knowledge, a reader can understand Edmund's envy of his siblings and the love and sacrifice and mercy that makes Aslan such a powerful and inspirational leader to the children.

At least I think that was Colin's point. I could be wrong. I'm wrong a lot. I ordered a pair of Janice's judgement cats, Beezalbub and Bob, and they tell me I am wrong most of the time. Ah well. I still maintain story is most important although great stories are often inspired by great themes.

Adele said...

I know, I know. I know C.S. Lewis was famous for his Christianity. And everybody (teachers, friends, chance-met strangers) tells me The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is all about Christianity.

And I still think it's perfectly obvious that it is a story about World War II.

My conclusion is that writers can't tell what their readers will draw from their work, so just tell a great story, leave out the preaching, and hope for the best.

Almitra Clay said...

I suppose I should have mentioned that I'm the OP. Hi!

I never announced that my novel had no conflict or that my plot (which is separate from the background elements discussed previously) had some sort of message. My plot does, in fact, have some message to it. . . but I have already discovered the hard way not to casually mention this. "Didactic!" people say, back of hand to their brow and falling in a faint. But what is the alternative? Set out to write a piece of fluff and say something profound by accident? I would like to think that I can master the craft well enough to both amuse and enlighten readers at the same time. Why does this goal shock people, writers especially, when so many authors have already done exactly this?

BJ Muntain said...

Hi, Almitra! Great question.

I've noticed that people have been making assumptions from your question that aren't called for.

So, for everyone: Let's just talk query letters here, as that's what this is really about. All stories have messages - they really do! - but not everyone, even the writers, realize this. For instance, in a simple romance, the message is simply "the right people will be drawn together". There's nothing wrong with having a message.

The 'wrongness' is mentioning a message in the query letter: "Jane learns that fascism is evil." Or, "This is a story about how fascism can destroy a people." Neither of these are useful in a query. In a query letter, the author should talk about the choices and consequences Jane faces in her fight. What draws her in? Why does she fight? "Jane was okay with the new regime, until the Nazis took her best friend's father away, threatening his family and the whole community. She realized then that she had to fight, or lose everything she cares about - even if it might mean she be taken next."

Now, in the housekeeping near the end - as Janet says - if it's important enough, the author can say something like, "In my family research, I discovered that my grandfather lost his best friend to the Nazis, and his whole family became freedom fighters." This would be most useful if an agent has a #MSWL for 'fiction about WWII with a basis in reality."

So, if an agent says "I like to see tropes turned on their heads", then, yes, you would mention this in your query. If an agent seems to be the type who might be interested in turned tropes, mention it. It's only a few words in your query letter - you don't want to get into any real detail and take valuable real estate away from the story.

This piece of information might get an agent to look at your pages, but everyone here knows that only a good story will keep the agent reading.