Winning over an editor – using comparisons to prove your book’s raison d’être

June 25, 2012

Queries can consist of two parts; the pitch and the raison d’être. I like to know what makes your book so fabulous and why readers will rush out to buy it. In order to get that point across, authors often compare their books to movies or other books. The most often-used type of comparison is the, “If readers/movie goers like this, then they’ll like my book,” which, to me, seems like wasted space.

Instead, I suggest using comparisons to elevate your pitch to new heights. Written carefully, they can help us understand which category and readership your book will fit into, and what makes it a “gotta have it.” That said, you need to logically connect the dots between your book and your comparison.

I’m talking about something like this:

Hollywood has a fascination with the developmentally disabled, as witnessed in blockbusters like Forest Gump, I am Sam, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Rain Man. These box office successes indicate a body of interest in this subject and suggest that people want to know more about these individuals and what makes them tick.  My book  will address this topic by stripping away the glitz and glam of motion pictures to reveal what people in this population experience in reality.

So let me pull this apart and highlight why this didn’t pass my Reason To Be test.

“Hollywood has a fascination with the developmentally disabled.”

I haven’t seen that Hollywood and movie goers have a fascination with the developmentally disabled. They have a fascination with interesting characters and good plots( I can’t believe I just wrote that, given that Adam Sandler movies make gabajillions).

A mentally disabled character adds all kinds of layers to a plot, but I don’t see the marketplace developing a whole sub-genre with books and movies about disabled characters.

How could the author turn this around? What happens in Hollywood isn’t indicative of the reading population, so I would be careful about comparing a book to any movies – especially in this case where the author is trying to convince me that a few movies equates to public interest in disabled characters. Hollywood exists in its own little bubble and has questionable taste in what movies it decides to make.

It would be more advantageous if the author keeps most of the focus on the book; specifically, on the plot because that’s the meat of the book, and the characters are the vehicle that move the plot. The author could use a comparison to pinpoint more specific elements, such as, “The main character is trying to live in a world that sees him differently, which leads to his seclusion, in much the same vein as Character ABC did in Movie XYZ.”

Now I have a much clearer idea of the author’s book and how it specifically compares to the movies.

“These portrayals and their box office successes indicate a body of interest in this subject and suggest that people want to know more about these individuals and what makes them tick.” 

The author draws a conclusion that has no foundation. Readers want a good plot, and just because you inject a disabled character into your story isn’t a guarantee it’ll be any good.

If we saw the same kind of explosion as we have with Vampire Romance, then I’d agree with the author. But we aren’t, so this statement is a stretch.

How could the author turn this around? It could be more helpful to draw specific comparisons that go to the meat and potatoes of your book. “Much like Charlie in Flowers For Algernon, my character begins life unaware of his disabilities and, thanks to a medical breakthrough that’s only temporary, realizes his mental deficiencies separate him from his dreams for a better life.” 

This is far more useful because I have context with the comparison. People aren’t necessarily interested in the disabled, as a whole, but they can definitely wrap their heads around the complexities of a great plot that centers on a character who becomes aware of his disabilities, only to regress back into what he was.

“My book  will address this topic by stripping away the glitz and glam of motion pictures to reveal what people in this population experience in reality.”

This is a throwaway sentence. I understand authors want to convince an editor their book is a cut above everything else. But I wish they would avoid the temptation because it’s all Tell and no Show. Just because you tell me that your book all that doesn’t mean I’ll believe you. You need to Show me with your pitch (this blog is littered with posts on the subject).

It doesn’t matter what Hollywood is doing because this isn’t a screenplay; it’s a book. You can’t compare the visual components of movies to a book. It’s not a selling point. Hollywood pretty much screws up all books, so it’s not news. Best to stick to the proper comparisons…other books.

Your book’s raison d’être needs to convince editors of its unique qualities. Comparisons shouldn’t be undervalued. Oftentimes an author’s pitch can be a bit muddy, but a solidly written comparison of “This equates to that, and here’s why” can be just the ticket to the light bulb turning on above my head.

Have you had a hard time utilizing comparisons?

Premise – can I make a story out of that?

February 8, 2010

Jane Friedman posted really cool article by Jim Adam [Premise Vs. Story: One Big Mistake Writers Make] that put the jam in my jelly doughnut because I see stuff like this all too often. Authors mistake premise for plot, and this is often the reason for an instant rejection.

A PREMISE is a declarative sentence – as in, “Imagine living on a farm.” Oh lets! Now what? Uhh… And yet, that is exactly what authors send me in their queries. What am I supposed to discern from this?

This is opposed to a PLOT, which is a progression of events, the “why” for the things that happen in the story. The plot draws the reader into the character’s lives and helps the reader understand the choices that the characters make. [thank you]

So instead of our imagine living on a farm premise, this is expanded: “This tells the story of a young man who yearned to be a surgeon but is forced into taking control of the family farm and giving up his scholarship to Yale.” As Jim Adam’s article reinforces, this sentence puts the premise into the background.

If writers would only learn to differentiate between premise and plot, I’d see a lot less descriptive premises that tell me very little and a lot more plots in query letters.

But this goes beyond just how to formulate a query letter. It also goes to the very heart of writing a story. Since I specialize in memoir/biography/nonfiction goodies, I see a lot of authors who fall in love with their premise and forget to consider whether there is a story lurking beneath the surface. Hence, many make me say, “Yah, okay, braiding horse manes saved you from drinking like a fish. So?” Is that a compelling story? Is it even a story? Or is it simply a cool thing to whip out at your high school reunion?

This is especially true with memoir because everyone thinks they have a terrific story to tell. They loved living it, so that means everyone will love reading it. Thing is, what’s so fascinating about living on the family farm? Writers need to put down their cyber-quills and scratch beneath the surface. Do I have something, or do I only have a cool premise with no guts?

As Jim Adam illustrates, a premise can be a real attention grabber and seduce the writer into thinking something great is in there:  “Imagine a publisher who finds herself with seven retired ladies who anonymously write popular smut.”

The premise, while interesting, needs a main dish – the plot – in order to deliver the goods. I can get just as excited over a mouth-watering premise as the next gal, but you can be certain the next thing out of my mouth will be, “Ok, totally groovey, and then what? What does the publisher do? What is the progression of events that happen in this story, and how do the characters move those events along?”

It’s the difference between a flat tire where you’re stuck at the Mall without a ride home and a Jaguar that hums with the touch of a button and takes you down the road to Publishing Nirvana. Hey! What a great premise for a story…

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