Friday, August 21, 2009

The Big Bad Book Comparison

I (Amy this time) was chatting with a writer about query letters this week, and we came upon a topic that I often hear about from writers. I’m going to call it The Big Bad Book Comparison.
What I’m referring to is the oft repeated advice that – in query letters or book pitches – a writer should describe their writing by comparing it to other writers’ work that is similar in tone or sentiment. Here’s an example (one I made up):

"In my new romantic thriller, Love in the Killing Fields, Mary Mallone, Irish nurse and blighted lover, follows her lawyer-come-soldier beau onto the battlefields of WWI. The novel is Maeve Binchy meets John Grisham on the front of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms."

Now, there are a lot of issues going on with this example, but let’s focus on the topic at hand:
The advantage of The Big Bad Book Comparison is that it can help an agent grasp the flavor of the writing or the sensibility of the story...quickly (which is helpful in our inbox-overflowing world). It can also catch the reader’s attention. What fan of Maeve Binchy wouldn’t be intrigued by a writer who professes to be Maeve 2.0? Who wouldn’t be curious to see how a new John Grisham navigates Hemingway's WWI landscape?

The disadvantage of The Big Bad Book Comparison is that it can cause confusion – even dismay – in the reader if it’s not executed well. After reading my example, do we really have any idea what this book sounds like? I mentioned Maeve Binchy, so there’s probably a love story. But didn’t I capture that by calling it “romantic”? Sure, there’s a lawyer in there. But does he do legal or military battle? Is it an occupation or an integral plot element? Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms gives us a specific picture of the landscape. But do Hemingway, Grisham, and Binchy belong in the same literary universe? Now, I mean no offense to Ms. Binchy or Mr. Grisham in saying this. My point is that all three of these writers are coming from very different places. How can we reconcile them into the same book?

So, what’s a writer to do?

Here are a few guidelines I’d like to offer. Keep in mind that they are not exhaustive and other agents might have a different view:

1. Stick with contemporary writers. If you claim to be the next Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, or Virginia Woolf, be prepared for your writing to go head-to-head with these literary gods. Literary greats have been venerated by generations of readers and critics, and I don’t think that any writer – no matter how talented – can stand up to that kind of notoriety. If you really must compare yourself to Salinger, then tell us what aspects of Salinger relate to your writing. (In my example, I reference “the front of Hemingway” so I am comparing his setting to mine, not his style.)

2. It’s okay if you compare yourself to a contemporary writer that I may not know. While you should try not to pick writers that are too obscure, you don’t need to limit yourself to best-selling authors alone. After all, an agent can’t know every writer that’s out there. When I come across a name I don’t know, I will either shrug and keep reading or look that writer up on the internet. If the comparison is accurate, you have nothing to lose here.

3. Intriguing combinations are helpful. Outlandish combinations are not. If you choose to make a “ ___ meets ___” comparison, an unusual combination can be intriguing. On the other hand, two writers that have nothing in common can be confusing. How would Binchy’s and Grisham’s writing or story sensibilities go together? What would that hybrid sound like? If you’re not sure, test it out on your friends. Does your comparison bring up more questions or does it clarify? If you find yourself writing “Danielle Steele meets Tom Wolfe,” STOP! This is impossible.

4. You don’t need to make a comparison at all. This is just one in a number of tools that you have to create a convincing query letter or pitch. If it’s difficult to find comparisons that work, don’t use them!

That’s just a start and it’s not exhaustive, but I hope that helps. Thanks for reading!