One of Curtis Brown’s distinguished agents, Emilie Jacobsen, suggested a great blog topic to me the other day and I’m pleased to follow her lead.
The shrinking violets among us often lament that they hate to brag about their work in a query as the mere idea makes them palpitate and sweat. Well, you’re in luck! As Emmy pointed out to me the other day: you shouldn’t anyway.
Now, I want to qualify this. Bragging honestly about your personal qualifications and publishing credits is not only appropriate, it is appreciated. If you are the world’s foremost expert on alien monkey encounters, well, then I would like you to be upfront with me that you are the world’s foremost expert on alien monkey encounters.
But when it comes to describing the actual work in a query, we really don’t want to be told how great it is.
There’s a further qualification I’d like to make, which is that there is a sliver of a place for positive characterizations, such as describing a suspense novel as “fast paced,” although be very careful with these labels because it’s always better to show these qualities in the query rather than tell.
But when an author describes their work as “hilarious” or “amazing” or “great” or a “masterpiece” or “more gripping than THE DA VINCI CODE” or as “beautiful as Faulkner”… well, as Emmy said: “I’ll decide for myself, thanks.”
The rule of thumb on braggadocio: leave the reviews to the critics.
Margaret Yang says
I think this happens to beginning writers because they hear the advice, “Make your query look like back-jacket copy.” So they go to their book shelves and look at jacket copy, which often contains praise for the novel as well as a hook.
Oops. Perhaps that advice should be amended. “Make your query hook look like the HOOK of jacket copy.”
I supose talking subjectivly about your book rather than objectivly are lines that are often criss-crossed. Every author thinks their book is worth good merits or they wouldn’t bother with the publication process. We all learn from our mistakes, well most of us.
Tracey S. Rosenberg says
But when an author describes their work as “hilarious” or “amazing” or “great” or a “masterpiece” or “more gripping than THE DA VINCI CODE” or as “beautiful as Faulkner”
But my book is ALL these things, and more! 🙂
Reviewer X says
HAHAHAHA this always amuses me. Question: Has this ever backfired? Have you ever rejected a query based on their superfluous comparisons to other works?
Does this include special talents like being able to tie a knot in a maraschino cherry stem? Or play Ina godda davida by slapping your butt cheeks with your hands?
Cuz I think that helped MY query.
Of course if could have been my premise…
I’ve never found Faulkner beautiful. Ruggedly handsome in a certain light, maybe…
Funny how writers abandon the “show don’t tell” dictum when they tackle a query letter. I figure the more specific I am, the more likely you’re going to see what sets my work apart from all the other “Sentient cheese vs. rat infestation” stories in the pile.
I’ve also never understood the urge to compare one’s work with that of X (Faulkner, Rowling, Asimov, Christie, etc). To me, that’s the same as saying, “Here’s my ego measurement: 36XL.”
Nathan, I’ve been thinking a lot about your networking assertion in response to my comment on an earlier post. I’m concerned I may be missing something.
As a fiction writer, I network with critique partners. If we can count publishing-insider blog reading and comment writing as networking, then I’ve been doing that for industry information (and entertainment!). What other contacts that would benefit my career at this early stage?
Adaora A. says
So basically we shouldn’t be so bold as to say:
THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE THE WORLD THEREFORE YOU’D BE A NUTTERHEAD TO REFUSE IT.
I think you’ve made mention of recieving similar statements in the past. ^_^
Well, I don’t have any previous publishing credits to brag about, but as you said, every great author was in my boat at one point.
Mark Terry says
What about if you’re a previously published author looking for a new agent. Can I say:
Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen said of my novel, The Serpent’s Kiss, “I can’t remember the last time a thriller made my heart pound and my hands sweat, but The Serpent’s Kiss did all that and more. This is a tense, high-octane read!”
Or quote from David Morrell’s review of my earlier novel?
I’d hate to let those go to waste.
Nathan Bransford says
Blurbs are ok as long as they’re not relied upon too heavily. Sometimes blurbs are honestly given, sometimes a well-known author is just being a friend.
Conda V. Douglas says
Good clarification. And much needed! And I also presume only mention that you are the world’s foremost expert on alien monkey encounters if that expertise has something to do with what you’ve written and are submitting?
Not that it wouldn’t be interesting.
I have a new favorite word: Braggadocio.
Brilliant(the word, not me).
Can I just compare mine to Orion’s LOTTERY?
That sold like hot cakes!
So when I mentioned my story had a “natural flow” in my recent unsuccessful query to you (and prayed you wouldn’t think of menstruation)… That’s not bragging, right?
Kristin Laughtin says
The way I see it, I only have so much space in a query letter. I could tell you how brilliant I am and how marvelous my pacing is, or I could devote those words to describing my story in such a way that you have no choice but to think, “This girl is brillaint! And her pacing is marvelous!”
(OK, easier said than done, but no one said this was an easy business. Or if they did, they were clueless/lying.)
William Womack | Words for Writers says
Point taken, Nathan. How about this: is it okay to make a comparison to another (presumably successful) novel in order to position our work in the marketplace? I’ve gotten the distinct impression that some agents prefer to know where on the bookshelf I see my work residing.
You know, “it’s like Pretty Woman meets The Manchurian Candidate”.
Sounds like an instance where showing, not telling, works better. For example, instead of saying that the book is hilarious, it’s better to let the humor shine through in the voice and the circumstances presented in the query letter, synopsis, and pages.
Josephine Damian says
you are the world’s foremost expert on alien monkey encounters
Pretty much sums up my entire dating experience. lol
I wonder what James Frey’s latest query looked like.
I use to start all business correspondence telling the other party what a total suckface I am and that I understand there need to grind me down one more time with their big money jack boots and grind my unworthy ego back into the unholy dust from whence it sprung baby..
Tell J, yes only one who has the Q.
Your a front for a patsy. Don’t forget too..
Katie Alender says
I’m just speculating, but… If job 1 of a query is to present your story in an interesting manner, job 2 is not to make yourself sound like a tool. Whatever you have to leave out to achieve that aim, do it. 😉
Julie Weathers says
I’ve also never understood the urge to compare one’s work with that of X (Faulkner, Rowling, Asimov, Christie, etc). To me, that’s the same as saying, “Here’s my ego measurement: 36XL.”~
Unfortunately, I think some of this may be induced by agents and editors.
I have more than one writing book and article that states, “tell me what your book is like so I know where it fits in and who your readers would be.”
Also, not long ago I read an agent critique of a query. She ended it by saying it would have helped if the writer said she wrote books similar to so-and-so.
However, I am more than a little head shy, so I won’t be doing any comparing to anything. I’m also hesitant to mention the book has a strong humorous element even though I have been advised I should. Too many critiques saying, “don’t tell me it’s humorous, show me in the query.”
If I am trying to keep everything to the magic two paragraphs, I’ll concentrate on other things rather than trying to show a humorous side.
I would never compare myself to Faulkner or the Da Vinci Code. I couldn’t classify my book as hilarious. And I’m not in the habit of using the word “amazing” in regular conversation.
I think I’m safe.
I’ll send the query as soon as I’ve finished polishing….. Don’t hold your breath.
-JM who dislikes editing final drafts exceedingly.
Ok, let me get this straight.
We should mention it’s humorous/show don’t tell. Compare so they know where on the bookshelf it fits/don’t compare. Use blurbs, but don’t rely on them too heavily (how heavily is too heavily?) Be confident, but not too confident, in your work.
Basically, there’s no real template. There’s a few commonalities, but the rest just depends on the preferences of the agent or editor you’re submitting to. Even then, it depends on what kind of day they’re having or what catches their eye that day.
That’s the message I’m getting, Nathan. Am I hearing it right?
Nathan Bransford says
I think that’s missing the forest from the trees a bit. You’re right that there are no hard and fast rules, that every agent looks at queries with their own preferences, and that ultimately things are subjective. But there are some commonalities and universalities.
Basically I’m just trying to give people a sense of what things look like from this side of the computer, and perhaps some people might not have even considered that they shouldn’t do X, Y and Z. I’m not trying to make things more complicated, and at the end of the day, the author has to choose their own path.
Julie Weathers says
Basically I’m just trying to give people a sense of what things look like from this side of the computer, and perhaps some people might not have even considered that they shouldn’t do X, Y and Z. I’m not trying to make things more complicated, and at the end of the day, the author has to choose their own path.~
I think most writers appreciate the advice they find on agent and editor blogs. It really is much simpler now than it was a few years ago, because a bit of research does help. We can figure out certain major disasters and also things that attract agents.
It does get confusing at times, though, because advice can be very conflicted. Just have to sift through it all and do the best we can.
Now that I’ve finally figured out how to work this blogstuff, I do have something to say. I’m a sexologist who wrote her dissertation on sex toys. A subject not well respected in polite society, yet eagerly invited from my lips whenever I attend a gathering. I wrote two books. One called Debt Bondage on the human face of sexual slavery and one called Buzz Off, the first in a series I call the sex toy murders. Yes, I do promote myself and the possibility of having my books published, but I’m also careful about what I say. People have preconceived ideas and sometimes those ideas interfer with what we’re trying to promote. So I believe it depends on how you present yourself and your work. Toni Weymouth