Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Q & A 158

The past two days I have been reading your blog entries from April of 2006 forward. I have completed eight months and find your most frequent statement regarding query letters is (forgive my paraphrasing), “Tell me more of the plot.” You also frequently ask to know more about the main character.

Query letters are for books, not series. So, when attempting to sell the first book in a series, is there any value in providing the editor/agent with information about the main character which is pertinent to the series but is only of minor concern in Book I? A silly example would be a story about George Washington fighting with the British, in which the focus was on what led to a specific battle, won by the French and Indians. George Washington was not in command, but the experience was a lesson in how to defeat the British later when he was no longer their ally. Does the editor/agent need to know George Washington is destined to fight against these same British (he doesn’t know it), and that he will become the first president of a currently non-existent nation (he has no clue about this either). Should this knowledge be retained until reaching the stories in which this information is directly significant, or should the Editor/Agent be in the know on this from Book I?

First of all, let me correct one erroneous claim. My most frequent statement about query letters is actually Yes!, which I utter as the balled up letter kisses gently off the wall on the far side of the room and drops into the wastebasket.

I was looking in TV Guide for something to watch the other night and saw that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was on. That's the one that introduces Jar Jar Binks, the character who single-handedly destroyed the entire Star Wars franchise. The description of the movie was: Writer-director George Lucas' exciting sci-fi epic depicts the early years of Anakin Skywalker, the boy who would grow up to become Darth Vader.

As you see, they didn't hide the character's future. In fact, they were so anxious to reveal it, they went so far as to spoil the crucial scene of Episode V for those who haven't seen that movie. And with good reason: Would anyone want to see a movie about Anakin Skywalker if he didn't eventually become Darth Vader? Of course not; he's not even from Earth. Think about it: how many people can you honestly say you care about, who aren't from Earth?

No doubt I would have found the following descriptions of other movies, if they were on TV this week:

Psycho IV: the Beginning. A young fellow lives with his domineering mother and runs a motel in this story of the man who would become Norman Bates.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning. The childhood and teen years of the boy who would grow up to be Leatherface.

Hannibal Rising
: The story of young Hannibal Lecter, who is destined to one day become Hannibal Lecter.

Obviously it's to your advantage to briefly mention that your main character, who never amounts to anything in your book, will grow up to be the American president or a successful serial killer.


writtenwyrdd said...

But EE, the beginnings you cite are follow ups to very successful previous works. Wouldn't your point then be that you shouldn't sell a series by listing the exciting sequel that has yet to be written or published?

I'd suspect it might be more successful for an unpublished writer to sell the first book as a stand alone and add after you get representation that you have a series with x number of books written or in the works. What's your thinking on this, EE?

Evil Editor said...

Yes, you sell the first book. It's fine to mention that it's the first book in a planned series, but that it stands on its own.

The question was whether you should reveal that your main character is a future star. A brief mention is okay: This is the story of the formative years of John Doe, a man who will one day rule the universe, is a better hook than This is the story of the formative years of John Doe, a man of no apparent consequence.

pacatrue said...

I think it's critical to always have a great single book that's worth reading even if the planned follow-up never appears. The single greatest problem with all three of the prequels to Star Wars was that they entirely derive their importance from the first three classic movies. Without having some interest in Darth Vader already, we had no interest in the prequels.

On the actual novel front, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is another good example. The first couple of books in particular were part of a larger series-level plot, but they also were rewarding and fun all by themselves, if you like high fantasy of that sort. A couple later books were just 800-page middle sections to the series with no resolution, no progress...

Your book should be sellable by itself.

talpianna said...

How about a character who grows up to be President of the United States AND a successful serial killer? I'd read that!