QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Querying The Cliché

Recently I heard a writer complaining that the "rules" for querying were impossible to follow. She pointed out that there are only eight (or twelve, or four) standard plots, and therefore it's ridiculous for agents to issue decrees such as "Don't tell us it's a story of forbidden love: that's cliché." Or "Don't say 'choosing between life and love.' That's overdone."

In effect her question was this: What if your story really is about forbidden love, or about choosing between life and love, or could be quickly described by some other cliché? Are they saying you can't query it?

Of course you can query it. If there are only four (or eight or twelve) standard plots in the world, you can assume there's going to be some repetition.

Therefore it's up to you to do your future literary agent a favor. Assume your future agent goes to  her inbox every day to find a hundred new queries. She's read all the clichés. She wants to find something she'll enjoy, but in order to enjoy your story, she needs something to remember. Something specific.

Remember that a cliché is a shortcut. And when you use one to describe your own work, you're giving only a surface rendering of a story with depth. Work harder. Give it that depth.

It's cliché to say, "Theirs is a forbidden love." Instead you say, "Mom has taken out a restraining order against Tanner, so Emily learns to scale the chimney in order to sneak out at night."

You don't write in your query, "Choosing between life and love," but you do say, "Unless Steve hands over the Omega Stone, the Bertrandians will drop Esmeralda into the vat of boiling oil."

You have to "show-don't-tell" in your query the same way you do in your manuscript.

A coming of age story? No. A teenager whose mother just died, struggling to guide his young brother through their father's emotional absence? Better. A high school dropout choosing between a joyride with his garage band buddies or protecting his ten-year-old brother from their drunken father's rampages? Memorable because we can feel for the characters.

The specifics are the difference between a cliché and a compelling story.  If your future agent really is receiving a hundred queries a week about forbidden love, make it so she remembers yours.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs(this December from MuseItUp). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the amazing Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


lbdiamond said...

Great point! Pulling out the specifics can turn a "tired idea" into a unique one. Great post! :D

Krista V. said...

Great advice. Generalizations are the death of queries, and cliches are the worst kinds of generalizations.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Perfect advice, Jane. Agents want specifics in the query, not generalizations.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I also think that if agents read a query full of cliches, they automatically believe the manuscript will be full of them as well. And I agree. To me, cliches are the easy way, someone else came up with the perfect way to say something. If you deconstruct the cliche and figure out what you REALLY mean (like the post says, be specific) then you'll get the point across with originality and voice.

Great post.

Shannon Renee said...

I love this... this is the first blog post where I've seen examples of what to do. Most of the time you just hear "Show me your voice" and "Show don't tell". As a beginning writer your examples make a lot more sense and I can see what I've been doing wrong.

Thank you!!!

Deb Salisbury said...

Great post! Being specific is is hard in 250 words, but so much more entertaining - and more likely to interest an agent.

Shannon said...

Those are some really good examples. Basically it all boils down to 'What makes your tale special?' rather than 'So which plot are you using again?'

donthangupthequill said...

Great post. Cliches are so easy to use that it's hard to get your mind around something else sometimes.


Andrew Rosenberg said...

I have found this so true in the last week or so going from "makes an impossible choice" to "could save her country, but her sister would have to die"
(it actually more specific than that...I saw how she could save her country and how her sister would die)

Shari Green said...

Excellent post! I loved the bit about a cliché being a shortcut. You really helped me see how going deeper will cut through cliche and bring life to a query. Thanks. :)