Monday, March 24, 2014

Why Comparing Your Work To Other Authors May Not Be So Good

A common thing we find in query letters is the paragraph where the author decides to give us more of an understanding of their novel by comparing it to another author's work. I know this is an element that is frequently taught in workshops and seminars on query letters. I know there are some agents who think the world of this approach. Yes, this approach CAN work if done right, but.... it might also be an approach that could bring death to that rejection quicker than you want. The key is if you have done your research carefully.

The idea behind the comparison is to give the editors and agents a chance to plant a voice or structure from the other author into their head as they think of yours. This is the same strategy advertisers use when they insert George Washington or some other great person into their add (which, BTW, is considered a Transfer Fallacy so be careful). In any case, the idea is simple. I don't know you, but I know the author you reference, for example Brenda Novak. Now I think of your writing like her writing. (There is also a link to her auction this year so check it out).

So here is where the flaw comes into this approach. The flaw stems from the same reason we don't start off things we write with a question being used as an introduction. While on the surface you might think this is an approach that gets the reader thinking about your topic, the assumption is that the reader will answer it the way you want them to answer it. For example, I am writing on the topic of sky diving so I ask the question, "Have you ever wondered what it was like to jump out of an airplane?" If I answer yes, I will want to read more. If I answer no, the point of your writing is dead right there and then.

The same thing happens with this comparison, but for two reasons. The first is pretty simple. What if the editor or agent you are pitching to has never read the novels of this other author or has no clue who the person is? Your line does nothing for us. I get this one a lot when people reference these obscure authors that unless you were in some 500 level literature class of Obscure Eastern Authors Talking About Toenails, no one would no. You also have to remember that, yes, editors and agents do read and they do read for pleasure, but they really don't have the time to read everything out there. The second problem here is what if the person hates that other author you just referenced. Think of it... you want me to make a comparison to someone I hate.

The next major reason also comes from doing your research. I see a lot of times authors making a comparison to authors I already represent. Again, on the surface, this sounds like a great approach. It shows you have done your research. The problem though is that we already have "that" author. We don't need two of those authors.

I had an author who I sent to a publisher once before. The editor wrote back and did pass on the work, not because she hated the work. No! She loved the work. The problem was it was just like another author they represented and, as I said earlier, they didn't need another one.

I should add, as I write this early on a Monday morning. Writers also need to be cautious of making these comparisons if the writing isn't really like that other author. I do think a lot of authors start doing this when a critique partner says something like "Hey this line reminds me of..." so now they think ALL of their writing is similar. Remember too, when we make those comparisons, we aren't comparing plots or characters, but themes and voice. In other words, I can't say, "My YA novel is very similar to Harry Potter because it has a kid living in a boarding school." Yea, and so was Holden Caufield?

The comparison works if done right. Just be careful out there (making another obscure reference unless you lived in the 80's).

No comments:

Post a Comment