QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A poignant story of love and self discovery that you've already forgotten

My family watches MST3K's Santa Claus Conquers The Martians every Christmas. It's our personal wacky tradition, and often I surprise myself by catching a new reference even though I've seen it twenty times.

This year, I caught Tom Servo whispering under his breath. Joel has managed to get ahold of some classic Christmas films, and then at the end he's down to a few low-budget films from the bottom of the bag.

Joel: This one is The Christmas That Totally Ruled. It's about a curmudgeonly old man who learns the true meaning of Christmas.
Servo: Fresh idea!

The meta-irony here, of course, is that I found something fresh in a movie I've seen at least twenty-five times, but for now, just keep it in mind that every genre has its cliches.

On January 1st, I got a multi-book ad in my inbox, and one of the books was this:

"A poignant story of love and self-discovery." Doesn't that make you want to run right out and plunk twenty dollars on the counter at Barnes and Noble? "I heard someone talking about this book," you might say. "It was really intriguing, and I just can't get the concept out of my mind."

Or, as Servo would say, "Fresh idea!"

Would I be correct in assuming that fifty percent of the books published in the past hundred years involve love or self-discovery? And that many involve both? This particular book's genre is literary. Can you name a title in the literary genre that in no way deals with self-discovery? Some characters may resist self-discovery, but I think in most literary fiction, discovering things about oneself drives the character development.

What makes literary love and self-discovery so precious to the reader are the circumstances under which they take place. The love takes place across enemy lines at wartime. The self-discovery occurs at great personal price in a woman wondering why she consistently sacrifices for people who don't value her at all.

Queriers, take heed. Anyone who takes part in a Twitter pitch event like #PitMad, take even more heed. Don't do this to your story.

Do not pitch your romance as "A couple meets and falls in love, but they face many obstacles to happiness." Yes, that's a given. Tell me that he's an animal rights activist and she's a slaughterhouse owner, and now we've got something more memorable.

Similarly, don't query your fantasy as "In a world where magic is commonplace, one amulet may hold the key to power."

(I can do this all day. "In order to succeed, Chris will have to overcome many hurdles, but the stakes have never been higher!")

Avoid having your future agent to open your query and mutter, "Fresh idea!" just before deleting it.

  1. Read widely in your genre so you'll know the standard tropes.
  2. Go beyond those tropes when pitching your story. You can do that by including setting, timeframe, or other details that set your book apart.
  3. Keep touch with those tropes, though, so your story feels comfortably within its genre. 
The last point means you need to take your trope and leave it unsaid while simultaneously dancing all around it. 

Take your curmudgeonly old man learning the true meaning of Christmas. Don't say curmudgeonly, but tell us he's hated Christmas ever since his wife died four years ago on Christmas Eve. Don't say he learns the true meaning of Christmas, but give us a bit of his situation (maybe he volunteers to take a 24-hour shift at a local animal shelter so everyone else can have the day with their kids.) And then give us the situation that challenges our MC's steady state. He finds a runaway boy huddling among the dog crates for warmth, and now they're going to spend Christmas together.

We don't need to hear "finds the true meaning of Christmas" but by that point in the pitch, your brain has anticipated the trope, and now we want to know about the kid, about the man, about the puppy we're sure the kid is going to bond with during the holiday, and maybe about the turkey sandwich they split because all the takeout places are closed and it's the only food in the building.

Maybe you want to read it now. Maybe I do too.

I suspect the poor book in the ad above is a complicated and intriguing novel that a beleaguered marketing intern on a deadline had no idea how to pitch, and that's why it ended up as "love and self-discovery."

But for your own complicated and intriguing novel, see how much you can add with only a little work. Try adding in a timeframe: "A story of love and self-discovery during the Black Plague." Or a location: "A story of love and self-discovery at a hot dog cart in Times Square." Or character: "An anarchist descendant of Alexander Hamilton engages in a journey of love and self-discovery."

Take the hobbles off your story so the thing can stretch out and run. And then, when it catches your future agent's eye, she'll say, "Fresh idea!" and really mean it.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great blog post! I hadn't thought about it this way before, and I love your examples. :)