The Forest for the Trees
July 6, 2017 § 10 Comments
I’ve been querying a book and it has not been going well. I had a few requests from conference meetings and Twitter pitchfests, but in the actual emailing-agents-I’ve-never-met process, I was just not getting the response I hoped for.
This was deeply puzzling.
I definitely workshopped the heck out of the actual book. It’s a Young Adult novel so I had kids read it (they showed up 40 minutes early for school to discuss it, perhaps the best compliment my work has ever received). Good adult readers read it and gave feedback I used.
And I workshopped the heck out of the query. I read all of Query Shark (highly recommended!). I participated in Twitter pitchfests. I ran the query by query workshop leaders.
But not too many nibbles.
A couple of weeks ago, two of my writer buddies and I were sitting in a curtained-off cafe. It was Ramadan, so pretty much only restaurants in hotels were open, and they had to make sure food and eating weren’t visible from outside, hence the huge swath of decorator-beige separating us from the lobby of the Sheraton. I said, “I gotta run this query by you guys,” and I read it out loud.
Writer Buddy #1: Huh. I’ve heard you describe your book and that doesn’t sound like it at all.
Writer Buddy #2: I’ve read your book, and it’s not about Controversial and Off-Putting Thing in Your Query at all. Sure, that’s a theme, but it’s really about More Topical and Less Alienating Thing.
Me: Wait, what?
A lightbulb went on over my head, and it was a good thing because that curtain made the cafe really dark. After the waitress was done with the lamp, I leaned in to my friends and said, “I just realized…people have read the book, and people have read the query, but I don’t think anyone’s read both of them.” There wasn’t anyone to tell me the book wasn’t represented by the query, because I had missed the vital step of having someone read them together.
Midway through the query rewrite, I noticed I’d avoided the word “bully,” because in my generation it was a little bit cheesy and silly (a bully was someone in an Afterschool Special that adults would solemnly warn you against and had nothing to do with the actual daily torment of people picking on you). I called another friend twenty years younger than me, and he said, actually, bully was now a very powerful word with a lot of impact and meant something pretty serious and real. I had been wrong about that, too.
Whether writing fiction or memoir, essays or books, when we’re writing we’re in the trees. We’re shaping and trimming and generating at a level where our brain fills in gaps on the page, too close to get real perspective. We see the leaves closest to us until we ask someone else to walk around to the other side. Words may not mean to everyone what they mean to us, or to our generation, so ask both older and younger readers to take a look. Make sure someone sees both the book and the query, and ask your early readers (before you even write the query), what they think your book is about.
The answer may surprise even you.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at VCFA’s Postgraduate Writing Conference August 7-13 and the Writers Digest Conference in New York August 18-20. Holler if you’ll be there, too–maybe you can tell her what the next book is really about.