Thursday, March 08, 2007

Q & A 97-103


How do you define your novel in a query letter if it is not genre fiction?

Mainstream? Literary? Humorous, tragic, political, quirky, historical, uncatagorizable or some other adjective? Depends.

For instance, wouldn’t it be a little presumptuous to say that you have written a work of literary fiction?

Not as presumptuous as saying, I have written a work of literature.

How the hell do you know you’ve accomplished this feat?

Your characters are all miserable until the very end, when they die.

What if you’re simply a pitifully unaware dolt who wrote a rambling piece of plotless crap?

Whether you tell the agent it's literary fiction or a rambling piece of plotless crap, you'll get the same reply. But at least if you call it a rambling piece of plotless crap, you won't look clueless.

Commercial fiction, as I understand it, is seen to be more plot-driven while literary fiction is more character-driven. But what if you’ve written something with a plot that you also think has accurate and thoughtful character development?

Try to arrange for one of your more thoughtful characters to be eaten by a shark.

But I’ve also read agents’ websites that mention they are interested in commercial fiction with literary leanings. I read that to mean “well-written”; I thought it was a given that everything you submit had better be “well-written.”

An excellent policy. Of course, there's well-written and then there's well-written. Jane Austen, Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll are known for romance, horror and fantasy, but also for writing that has stood the test of time. Genre writing can be "literary." But "literary fiction" has a general meaning to agents and editors. As Potter Stewart said, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." Granted, Justice Stewart was talking about hard-core pornography, but . . .

Why can’t you (or can you) simply say…I’ve written a novel?

You can.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jane Austin?

Steve Austin's sister, right? What was she worth?

Anonymous said...

Jane who?

Sir, I think you are referring to Jane Austen, are you not? Sir?

Evil Editor said...

How many times do I have to tell you people, give me ten minutes to read my posts before jumping all over me.

Anonymous said...

Seven. Seven would be fine. Or perhaps you could just put it in the FAQ? A kind of fallibility clause, headed 'Waving, Not Drowning.'

But fair enough: you're on your own now, pal.

Brenda Bradshaw said...

Obviously someone reads Kristen's blog who is also a minion.

I'm quite proud to call my stuff commercial fiction. Between worrying about formating and story and arcs and everything else, I could care less about "literary" vs. "commercial". Although I do think that tight writing, a well-written story, is a given regardless of what it says on Kristen's blog, which seemed to upset many romance writers.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I have the best of both worlds. My novel features a thoughtful shark. A philosopher phish, if you will.

Robin S. said...

Meetings get in the way of much more important things...

So, if I have a thoughtful character who is eaten by a shark, or better yet, marries a shark - you know, the kind with 2 (and a half) legs rather than the legless variety - and is eaten by the shark, you're good with calling that literary, as long as no one is in any remote way happy that the character was eaten - and, at the end of the novel, everyone sits around looking dolefully out to sea.

But you don't have to say it, and, in fact, you're better off keeping clear of classification, just using "novel" - even if the agency's website asks for a little more. So the plot, synopsized in the query, will tell them what they need to know.

Or, you could say commercial fiction and relax.

writtenwyrdd said...

I once wrote a page and a half short story about a depressed old man with his little granddaughter at the seashore. He sees the shorebirds and likens them to how things come and go from your life and starts to cry. The little girl is confused. End of story. My prof loved it. I still don't get the stupid thing, but it was literary.

I think it is probably safest for me to just say "It's a novel. I wrote it. Please sell it for me." I can't possibly screw that up, can I?

blogless_troll said...

I was hoping for more equations.

E.S. Tesla said...

How the hell do you know you’ve accomplished this feat?

Your characters are all miserable until the very end, when they die.


I laughed out loud.

Anonymous said...

Dear author,

Just call it something approximately correct. The agent/editor will need to read the book to find out if it's any good; your query just has to convince them to read it in the first place. Work on writing a gripping query letter, not on the fine details of classification. You're sweating the small stuff.

If the novel is rambling plotless crap, the agent/editor will spot it as such regardless of whether you called it literary fiction or mainstream fiction.

Likewise if it's really good.

McKoala said...

Oh, please, please let's all amend our query letters to replace the word 'novel' with 'rambling piece of plotless crap'! I'm sooooo tempted.