Qualifications for writing novels

Dear Miss Snark:

I am writing a mainstream novel featuring a young adult character of a Bosnian-Muslim background set in 1994. The crux of the story deals with her identity crisis as her extended family come from Bosnia as refugees and her mother being mentally ill.

In the query letter I shall have the descriptor of my novel (which as you can see from the last paragraph I have yet to write) and before my writing credentials I was going to write a sentence to the effect that just like my character I am of a Bosnian-Muslim background, have a mother who is mentally ill and my extended family came to Australia during the Balkan War.

While my novel is completely fictional I am dealing with themes that are important to me and I'm passionate about and I'm thinking about including this sentence as it in a sense says "this is why I'm the only person who can write this novel" as well as kind of setting a backstory that I would be promoting if this novel was published. I know that this is very important in a non-fiction novel
(there is no such thing as a non-fiction novel) but I want to know if it it will help or hinder a fiction novel query letter.

From an agent perspective would this be a good or bad idea?


By definition ( James Patterson aside) you are the only person who can write your novels, regardless of topic. You don't need to sell an agent on that. Non fiction is a different story, but you said novel, so the rules of novels and ONLY the rules of novels apply.

You don't need to establish your bonafides to write about a subject. The classic example is Stephen Crane writing The Red Badge of Courage.

Write so well that no one reading it can believe that it's NOT real, and you've done your job.

My guess is you might be writing in your second or third language here which is a tough task but certainly doable. You'll want a native English speaker to look over your work carefully to spot any oddities.

One of my dearest friends who arrived in this country at age 19 with no English whatsoever still makes some very funny statements. Her most hilarious was thinking "whitetrash" was a geographical designation like Brooklyn, and her befuddlement at the outrage of some folks from WestVirginia is STILL one of our favorite mutual jokes.

Aleksander Hemon writes in English now; he's from Sarajevo. His books are beautiful. Read them.


Anonymous said...

While I agree that personal background won't compensate for writing, I met my agent when she was giving a presentation on how to writr query letters, and she said she responded to a query letter because the woman described the town she'd grown up in and how much it was like the setting for her short stories. My agent considered it a selling point both in terms of writing and marketing, and she recommended that when writing query letters we talk about what drove us to write what we were writing and what background we had with the subject matter.

snarky little vegemite said...

You've got to love those 'funny statements'. I have a Swiss friend who once told us he was going to JFK's for dinner. He meant KFC, poor lamb.

Lizzy said...

Speaking of funny statements, I have a friend whose second language is English who meant to ask someone if they were a vegetarian, and he asked if they were a herbivore.

Ilona said...

I have a friend... wait, I am that friend. :P English is my second language, and having a native speaker look over your manuscript is an absolute must. For me, it's the articles. I had them explained to me a million times, but I still forget "the" and "a". But you can make it as a writer, if your writing is polished enough and your work is engaging.

Here is my personal list of Things That Greatly Confused Me:

What's up? - first time heard: I dutifully looked at the ceiling.

Hush puppies

A few short of the six pack - first time heard: what the heck is a six pack? And what does that even mean?

I read but I've read - would it kill you people to differentiate your verb tenses?

Hi yall - first time heard: utter confusion.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Spanish is my second language. I've made plenty of goofs. One was believing somebody when she told me an expletive was a much used colloquialism for saying 'please to meet you.' No, I won't say whose hand I shook when I said it. Fortunately, he had a sense of humor.

In another incident, I was trying to offer somebody half my sandwich, but kept offering him pantyhose instead. The look on his face was priceless.

Anonymous said...

My husband, who speaks English as a second language, once said "Who could ask for anything else?"

Bernita said...

Idioms and slang give a language vitality, but they can confuse.

Elektra said...

sigh--the only other language I know is dead.

BuffySquirrel said...

Look on the bright side, elektra--the dead aren't going to laugh at your mistakes!

Lizzy said...

Life lesson: be very careful when telling someone, particularly a Spanish-speaking boyfriend, that you're embarrassed in Spanish. "Embarsada" does not mean "embarassed." It means "pregnant."

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

And preservitivo is not 'preservative' it's 'condom'