QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, May 23, 2011

Vanilla is under-rated

What does an apple pie contest have to do with writing a novel? Something it took me about twenty years to learn.

Back when I first started getting a local small-town paper, I'd read the whole thing because, well, it was a small town. After the heart-stopping excitement of an apple-pie contest, they wrote an article about it, with the recipe and an interview with the winner.

Scanning the recipe, you'd find all the usual suspects: flour, water, salt, shortening, apples....vanilla extract?

The winning contestant explained in the article that she didn't normally make an apple pie this way. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, the vanilla extract stayed in the bottle. But with a contest (and this is a rough paraphrase, but we'll pretend it's a quote,) "I know the judges are tasting dozens of apple pies, so in order to win, I need to add something to make mine taste just a little different. Just different enough that they remember, and that's why my pies win."

Now, how would our winning baker write a novel? She'd think to herself, "This is a fine story just as it is. But the agents and editors of the world are looking at a hundred manuscripts a week, so I need to make mine taste just a little bit different."

This is especially true for writing contests, but it's also true for querying. Your piece sits alongside ninety-nine others. Where's your vanilla?

I'm not talking about adding a dragon, of course. (Nor gimmickry either; imagine using green food coloring on the crust. Yuck.) And although it's tempting to douse one's manuscript pages in vanilla extract for a little aroma-therapy, as a professional I have to recommend against it.

These are the elements of a good apple pie query: Professional presentation. A query that tells the agent what the story is about. A brief bio. Your writing sample.

Now for the vanilla: Your voice. Your details. A take on the story that only you could have written. A character you understand inside and out. If there are only twelve plots in the world, you'll have to infuse  your apple pie novel with your heart and your perspective. Your vulnerability. Your humanity. The love you have for your own story.

(By the way, I make my own vanilla extract. Shove a bunch of vanilla beans into a bottle of vodka and steep it five months. The alcohol draws all that yummy vanilla into the tasteless vodka. Think about it.)

We're not writing only for ourselves. We're also writing for our readers.

In the end, your readers will walk away from their slice of apple pie enjoying that lingering taste of vanilla, a subtle question mark bringing them back to the story again and again, and leading them to tell others about something they just can't get out of their minds.

Isn't that what we all want as writers? So go. Go deep and find your vanilla.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). 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.


Marty said...

Great article about making our writing and queries stand out...

(...and interesting thoughts on making home-made vanilla extract!)

Alison said...

great article! You can also use brandy too when you make vanilla.

Stina said...

Never mind voice, I'm making vanilla extract today. :D

Jane Lebak said...

Stina, it's so much fun. I buy vanilla beans off Amazon.com (the 20 pack, I think. It might be a quarter pound) and that does a full container of vodka. Split the beans lengthwise. If you get the 26 pack, you use 20 of the beans and then after the first batch is done, you can re-use the beans for another batch, adding the remaining six to make up for whatever the first beans lost in flavor.

I give away bottles of vanilla as Christmas gifts to teachers and such. You can put a slice of the vanilla bean into the bottle so it looks cool. :-)

Jane Lebak said...

Cautionary Tale, I heard that too about brandy but I haven't tried it yet. Thanks!

Stacy said...

Great article! I'm finishing my WIP, and while I have a lot of editing in front of me, it's good to get advice on the querying stage as well.

As for vanilla, I don't have much to add. I just buy mine, lol.

Delia Moran said...

Great article. I think we all need the reminder now and then.

Oh, and dark rum makes a lovely vanilla as well.

Tere Kirkland said...

Funny, I make vanilla vodka the same way...

What a great way to use "vanilla" (a seemingly plain ingredient) to make your writing and your query stand out. Just remember too much vanilla can overwhelm the delicate balance of your metaphorical apple pie. :)

Great post!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the article and the suggestions. My question would be, what is the difference between adding a little flavor and gimmickry? It seems there's a fine line.

Eric W. Trant said...

That's brilliant actually.

The key is that the judges felt her pie was better, but I bet none of them could put their finger on why.

Same with your words. It shouldn't be obvious what your trick is. Your voice and whatnot should be felt, not heard, if you get me.

It should also be noted that the woman baked a very good apple pie, even without the vanilla!

Same should be true of your writing. You aren't talking about covering up bad writing or a weak story. You're talking about putting the shine on a fine piece of literature.

Great way to think about it. I'll use this analogy at some point.

- Eric

Jo Schaffer Layton said...

I put vanilla in my apple crisp.
Now I need to figure out what "vanilla" I can put into my query. (=

Jane Lebak said...

Poovis, your question could be a blog post on its own.

In my mind, gimmickry is something that's an add-on to a story, whereas what I'd call "vanilla" is something that gets imbued in every part of the piece.

The real test would be this: will every reader notice it? Is a factor designed specifically to attract attention? Because the "vanilla" element would be something most readers would not be conscious of even though they find themselves attracted to it. Whereas a gimmick is something contrived by the writer to attract attention.