Defining Your Book

October 10, 2019 § 6 Comments

Researching agents and working on queries brings up the key question, How should I describe my book?

Definitely with a plot summary. For queries, that’s a 1-2 paragraph description of the protagonist, their major problem, their biggest obstacle, and a couple of key events. For an elevator pitch, that’s 1-2 sentences like “In SITUATION, CHARACTER must ACTION against OBSTACLE towards GOAL or else STAKES.”

Queries thrive on comps—”My book will appeal to readers of Not-Super-Famous-But-Widely-Recognized-Book and Medium-Notable-Book.” With comps, don’t aim too high (Eat Pray Love is a phenomenon, not a comp), too low (a book that sold poorly is not a selling point), or overly aspirational (no Nobel-Prize winners).

Genre describes a book’s content, by what the label on the bookshelf says. Romance. Thriller. Fantasy. Genre is much less specific than Amazon listings with subrankings like “#3 in Memoir-Women Writers-Zookeepers-Penguin Specialists.” Memoir is a genre, but it will be shelved with Biography, or based on the written experiences, somewhere like Travel or Addiction and Recovery.

Tricky but useful, category helps us pick the right agents to query, and entice those agents to read our manuscript. Category is not content; it’s who will read this book. Young Adult is a category containing the genres YA Mystery, YA Romance, etc.

For memoirists and novelists, the most relevant categories are commercial, high-concept, book-club, upmarket and literary.

  • Commercial means the book is not too hard to read—usually 7th-10th-grade level—and appeals to a wide range of readers. The DaVinci Code is commercial. Commercial books sell in grocery stores and airports as well as bookstores.
  • High-concept books can be summed up in one fresh, intriguing sentence: “A man’s wife frames him for her own murder” (Gone Girl). “An autistic boy solves the murder of a dog, told in his own voice” (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). Gone Girl is high-concept commercial domestic suspense; Curious Incident is high-concept book-club fiction. High-concept books often top libraries’ reserved lists, and have front-facing displays in bookstores.
  • Book-club books are commercially accessible, but showcase deep issues. The book’s themes or plot tie into a larger cultural question. The blurb for Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light (crisis in an abortion clinic from multiple conflicting perspectives) sums this up well: “…a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel.” Enough meaty ideas for a club to wrestle with; not slanted too far to one side; a compelling plot readers don’t need an MFA to understand. These books show up in Oprah and Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson’s lists, and as community-reading books.
  • Upmarket means smarter-than-average, but with wider appeal and more action than full-on literary fiction. Upmarket books are less likely to depend on a twist ending and are read for the quality of writing as much as for the story. Wolf Hall is upmarket historical fiction. H is for Hawk is upmarket memoir. These books show up in Booker Prize and National Book Award lists.
  • Literary is a quality of the writer’s voice rather than a genre or category. Sometimes literary means “written really well, but it’s hard to sum up the plot.” Literary novels tend to be “quiet” and character-driven with emphasis on theme and mood, but there are also literary mysteries and historical fiction. For querying, it can sound arrogant to call one’s own work “literary,” (and it begs judgement of your writing craft) so instead use literary comps, mention your literary previous publications, and in your personalization to the agent, stress your attraction to literary books they represent.

Upmarket, book club and literary works are usually shelved together in Fiction or Nonfiction unless they are specifically another genre; high-concept and commercial books are out on display tables. If you’re unsure how to classify your book, walk into a bookstore and notice where your book might be shelved. What else is on that shelf, and does your work fit in? If someone reads the most popular book on the same shelf, and they pick up your book next, will they feel like they’ve discovered something amazing in a realm they already love?

Write your book first, with no regard for how it will be classified or sold. Use your creative spirit to get your story on the page before worrying about labels. But once you’re ready to query, locate your book’s place in the world. Chances are it has some friends—and those book-companions will help you reach the readers who need your words.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her stable of work-in-progress includes one nonfiction writing reference, one commercial thriller, one YA book-club fiction, one YA literary thriller and a probably misplaced optimism about her ability to sell them all. On Instagram she writes book-club memoir—follow her @guerillamemoir.

All Books Are Mysteries

November 22, 2016 § 8 Comments

It was Uncle Claudius in the garden with the ear-poison!

It was Uncle Claudius in the garden with the ear-poison!

Every so often, I’m asked to edit a memoir that’s more of a case file. That is, it’s a series of incidents showing an antagonist in the worst possible light, a justification of actions taken by the protagonist, and a summing-up that involves bravely coming into the light.

They don’t work.

Not because they’re badly written on a line-by-line level, but because structurally, there’s no mystery. We already know whodunit, because they’re the person being textually crucified.

We can learn a lot from Agatha Christie. Or Dorothy Sayers. Ruth Rendell. P.D. James. Any of the stellar writers of relatively formulaic mystery novels. There’s a crime. There’s an investigation. The culprit is identified and caught, and the book usually stops right before the punishment—it’s the “Law” half of “Law & Order.” Chung-chung.

In a classic mystery (and Hamlet), the question is, “Whodunit? And will they be caught?”

In narrative nonfiction, the mystery is “Where did this thing/idea/practice come from? Where is it going?” or “What really happened here?”

For memoir, it’s “Why’d I do that?” or “What really happened to me?”

Laying out the facts in a row and (often unconsciously) slanting them toward the protagonist’s hurt feelings is boring. It’s boring because there’s nothing to discover—it’s all right there. Telling instead of showing, on a whole-book level. No-one wants to be lectured about how everything adds up to a solution they just got told. Instead, make the reader your detective.

The fun of reading—whether it’s playful excitement or intense engagement—comes from spotting the clues and making deductions. The reader needs the a-ha moments of “Oh shit! He’s a bad guy!” or “Wow—no wonder they turned out like that.” The reader needs the investigative moments of “What’s going to happen? Who will it happen to?” The more the reader autopsies with you, the more they engage in the book. We don’t know what’s about to happen, but we want to. This tension makes us read to the next paragraph and flip to the next page. The more the reader almost-but-not-quite pieces together the solution, the more satisfying the final revelation that fits it all together and confirms a hunch. The reader experiences the situation with the narrator and makes their own emotional realizations (which are often but not always the same as the narrator’s).

On a narrative level, that means don’t give away the solution first and then present all the evidence that adds up, which is the format of a scholarly paper. We need a burning question—What happened to me?—and then to investigate with the narrator, and make discoveries not just along the way, but that must be made to get to the answer.

Investigating mystery leads readers to enlightenment, to empathy, and to catharsis. George Saunders says,

The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.

As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s a bad start to write a memoir already knowing what the story is, and going there with fixed intention. “Let the story surprise you,” Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story, even if it happened to you. Be ready to look underneath.

With memoir, looking underneath is sometimes interrogating our imagination and sometimes out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why. When we lay out the clues on the page, and allow ourselves to investigate, too.
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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a webinar on story structure in fiction and memoir for Editors Canada, December 3&4 (recorded for on-demand viewing after).

 

 

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