“My book is a cross between…”

I know authors believe they are adding clarity to their query by giving a comparison:  “My book is a cross between a punk version of Atlas Shrugged and Wuthering Heights if the characters were college cheerleaders.” or “My book is a cross between a gay John Wayne and Ronald Reagan with a lisp.”

Huh?

Reviewers do this when discussing a new movie: “Think of Los Angeles Christmas as Rudolph the RedNosed Reindeer with a crack problem.”  I really dislike these things because they rarely tell me anything I can wrap my brain around. But movie marketing people love them. And now I see them in book trailers and reviews as well. And now they’re leeching over into queries. Gah.

I know a few agents who find these helpful, but I don’t because I don’t have the time or inclination to derive what these comparisons mean. I’m just  trying to find out what the story is about, and these are a waste of time – better suited for the marketing department.

First off, I have to consider the comparative titles, or people you’re using in your comparison, then I have to imagine them morphed into your vision. Then I have to combine those two titles (or people) in order to get some insight of what you’re talking about. Why not simply TELL me what your story is about and forgo the gimmicks?

Most of these fail because there is little frame of reference. What part of Wuthering Heights and Atlas Shrugged fits your book’s criteria? After all, these are multi-layered stories with sub-plots – so what aspects are you talking about? If that’s not enough, you then want me to imagine the books as something that they aren’t – neither punk, nor college cheerleaders.

The same goes for character comparisons. A gay John Wayne? Ronnie with a lisp? They had neither, so you have a degree of separation going on here. Besidss, who cares? What does any of this have to do with your book? Why not simply spit out the pitch and be done with it?

I realize why authors do this – it’s a quick and easy log line, and they’re hoping the agent or editor’s eyes will light up with a magical “ah ha! I must have this!” But what happens if the agent or editor didn’t read Wuthering Heights or Atlas Shrugged? What if they don’t know much about John Wayne or Reagan? There goes the author’s attempt at being clever.

Besides, this is tell, not show. Title/character comparisons don’t sell books to agents and editors…the story does. So think about keeping your focus on your story and not trying so hard to be gimmicky and clever. Let your story sell itself.

8 Responses to “My book is a cross between…”

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    Ugh. Yeah. Gimmicky.

  2. authorguy says:

    It sounds like a mistaken notion of ‘high concept’. I avoid stories with these descriptions anyway, since they sound like remakes or something equally derivative, which usually come out inferior to the original.

  3. anne gallagher says:

    How do you feel about comparables then? As in —
    Flavored with Italian and the sounds and scents of a Rhode Island summer, I believe it is comparable to Susan Wiggs or Sandra Brown.

  4. This was bust a gut, laugh out loud funny. I had to read to the family over breakfast.

    Dare I be so gross as to say, someone was drinking milk as I read this, and…

  5. Anne, what happens if the agent or editor hasn’t been to Rhode Island? Since query letters need to be brief and to the point, why waste space with a comparison? I tend to view comparisons as a crutch that authors use because they lack the finesse to write a compelling pitch. If the pitch rocks, then comparisons really aren’t necessary. The time to use comparisons is in the promo material, where it’s expected to have some catchy log line.

  6. Lyndsey, always happy to provide fodder for nasal milk passage. Hope it wasn’t too painful.

  7. danholloway says:

    Interesting – the reason why most people I know do it is because they are told it’s essential in the current climate to point an agent to the exact place on the shelf where the book will fit, and they are told that “will appeal to fans of…” is the best way to do this, though I guess that’s slightly different. Isn’t it also true that if an agent is right for a book that’s the lovechild of Tristram Shandy and Sharon Osborne’s memoirs then they will be able to picture it well, and if they can’t they might not be a good fit?

    I once one a pitch competition for my last novel with “Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. Relocated to post-communist Hungary”

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