Thursday, February 8, 2007

Can It Be Made to Sound Stupid?

My best friend has informed me that what I posted yesterday was really snarky. She's an author, so I'm sure she sympathises with the queriers rather than the queree (or queryee?); she's probably going to have nightmares about evil editors dripping scornful snark over her own past queries. I'll admit that I wasn't particularly nice yesterday, but I want to note that what I posted about each query was the quick 3-second impression I got from reading it. What I'm trying to say, if rather badly, is that I didn't reveal anything about the actual queries or their authors; what I did was take a passing glance at each one, just long enough to form an impression, and then I wrote about my impressions.

Unless you're a potential querier yourself, the distinction probably doesn't matter. However, if you're planning to write a query letter, particularly one for an historical fiction or fantasy manuscript, you might want to consider that editors will have seen a LOT of queries and most of them will give yours the same passing-glance treatment that I gave the ones I posted about yesterday. They will pick out a few words and form an impression that may or may not have relevance to your book. The thing to keep in mind is that the relevance doesn't matter. What matters is whether or not your query can be made to sound stupid in ten words or less.

I'm not kidding. If you are planning to send a query to someone, you really need to consider how it will be perceived by an editor who is likely to give it little more than a brief glance before moving on to the next one. If you want the editor to linger over your query long enough to actually read it, you need to be very careful with the words you use to describe both the book and yourself. This is particularly true if your book has the potential to sound clich├ęd (as most do) because the more potential it has for this (e.g., anything to do with Richard III), the easier it is for the editor to form a negative impression of it.

I realise my comments probably seem vague and unhelpful, so to further illustrate what I mean, here are a few suggestions:
  • Do not use the word "epic" to describe your book. Why? Because it can instantly transform your query into one that sounds stupid. An editor or reader may use this word to describe your book, but you shouldn't. I see "epic" and I immediately think, "Oh God. Not another one. Is it an 'epic struggle' this time, or an 'epic journey'?" NEXT!

  • Be careful with dwarves. LOL! (Sorry; just typing the word dwarves makes me laugh because the recent popularity of Tolkein means I have to wrestle with the dang things frequently.) OK. Back to business. I don't mean to suggest that you shouldn't HAVE dwarves (though frankly; they have been done to death of late), what I mean is that you shouldn't focus on the dwarf-ness of your dwarves. Treat your dwarves as characters. e.g., it would be better to tell me that your book is about Boo-Boo, a dwarf with a heart of gold (well not really, but you get the point), than to tell me you've written a generic book about dwarves. I should probably note that this also applies to elves, trolls, unicorns, and other miscellaneous "unusual" beings. Also, please keep in mind that dwarfism is a genetic disorder suffered by people and should not be taken lightly.

  • Go easy on the melodrama. Seriously. This is becoming my number one turn-off. When I see a query with too many over-the-top words (e.g., cataclysmic, devastating, terrifying, shocking, explosive, etc.), I perceive absurdity. More importantly, please don't heap these words on top of each other. That flood may be devastating. Or, it may be cataclysmic. But must it be devastatingly cataclysmic, or cataclysmically devastating? If you think so, then I respectfully suggest that it might be a good idea for you to sign up for a writing workshop or something. Seriously.

  • Try to avoid sounding narcissistic. If your background includes writing or other experience relevant to your book, then of course, editors will want to know about it and expressed properly, it will increase your chances of publication. But please, please don't tell me you are the next Dorothy Dunnett or (fill in name here). You may very well be that person, but please don't state it as a fact; let me make the call. I don't care what your teacher, your brother, or your co-workers think either. I'm sorry, but I really don't -- if you tell me what they think, I'm probably going to decide that they're stupid and so are you. By the way, Dorothy Dunnett is dead, but if I get a query from her, you can be sure the presses will be rolling tomorrow. *g*

  • Finally, here are a few other hackneyed expressions you might want to avoid: fast-paced, heart-strings, tragic love affair, visionary (particularly when used to describe yourself!), rebellious heroine, taming (particularly in a romantic context), and prize (in the context of virginity or marriage).
I think that's enough for now, but I hope it was helpful for elucidating yesterday's snark-fest...


Tess said...

Great tips, Doubtful Muse. And as a writer as well, I didn't consider that post snarky. Many other agents/editors comment on queries in a similar manner on the net, for the same reason you do. To let writers know how their queries are perceived.

Gillian said...

Tess, you need to know I am an evil person :). Doubtful Muse had the reason for my reaction exactly right - I was imagining myself having sent a query and reading comments about it. I am not teribly confident about queries.