When Comparisons are Not Odious

I am a devoted, Killer Yapp-hearting snarkling who can read. Comparisons are Bad. Got that. But upon brief description, my WIP sounds just like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (first person chapters from different characters about a dying person.)

My problem is that it's completely different: each character has only one chapter; it's set in a very different time and place; each chapter covers the same period of time rather than trading off the narrative between characters, etc. Then again, that makes it sound like Roshamon, but it's not: the plot is revealed from each character's different experiences rather than just each one's different view of the same events. (And yes, despite being "literary" it definitely has a plot.)

Would it be appropriate to include a sentence or two in the query like "It differs from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying in that blah blah blah..." and perhaps "It differs from Roshamon in that yadda yadda..."

Actually that first paragraph isn't bad for a query letter. I'd give it a thumbs up on the crapometer after it got polished a bit.

The Comparisons Are Odious rule is mostly for quality and writing style, not structure. Saying it's structured like As I Lay Dying is a much different comparison than "my book can be compared to As I Lay Dying". You, being a Killer Yapp hearting Snarkling, can see the difference at once.

I like books that have interesting and unusual structure and surprise me. I don't like novelists who think they are the next Faulkner.

KY here: and what's all this hearting business? Don't any of you know that it's liversnaps that demonstrate true love?? Must I do all the thinking around here??


Mark Pettus said...

I never cease to be amazed at the multitude of opinions on what makes a good query letter. Half of the recommended "Market" books recommend comparisons, yet you're not the only blogging agent who gets snarky when writers compare themselves to other, better known authors. Last night I read an interview with a successful agent who said a comparison is always a good thing to include in a query.

I'm so confused. :(

I've abandoned comparisons, but sometimes it's really tempting to explain that my mainstream - or literary - novel is similar to... I'll spare you (and killer yapp) the comparison.

Agents and editors opinions vary on which of the non-genres it belongs to. If I call it a mainstream novel in my query, they reply that it is actually literary... or vice versa. A comparison would give me and the agent an objective reference point.

Its like Brokeback Mountain written by Pat Conroy. It has sex, murder, cowboys, and a huge emotional trainwreck you can see coming a mile away but are powerless to stop.

Like I said, it's really tempting.

Kat said...

I'm currently querying and struggling with the same problem in a different way. In my case, the hook paragraph (while accurate) didn't get across the tone of the book; it sounded very grim and slow, whereas the book itself is fast-moving and dryly humorous. But I couldn't find a way to get the humor into the hook that didn't sound flippant or flat-out dumb.

My solution was to compare the book to an author well-known for writing in that style (using the form "may appeal to fans of *author*"), but I fretted about it when I sent it out, and now that I'm sending the next batch I fret even more.

Oh, well. What would the querying process be without angst?

Mark said...

Isn't getting to be a be too much role palying here?

DB said...

What about comparing yourself to yourself in your query? I'm trying to mount a comeback. My first novels sold well and were roundly prasied. My last two were commercial and critical flops. If I were to say, "This novel revisits the territory of my wildly successful Darwin's Necktie, but in a contemporary context," would I risk reminding agents of my flops?

Anonymous said...

brown trout, I would defer to an agent on this, but it seems to me that it might be helpful to refer to your more successful work. If your last two novels didn't do well, conveying the idea that you're returning to a successful formula [or element] might make the work more attractive. I would avoid mentioning the "flops," but it makes sense to refer to books that did well that are related to the project at hand.

Unknown said...

I agree - that's a great first paragraph. Just a hint of the plot and characters and I'd be ready to ready it.

Shadow said...

Dear Killer Yapp;

Yes, of course we all know that true love is demonstrated by liversnaps. Unfortunately when I tried to insert them into the fax machine to send to you, all I got was a crumbly mess and a nasty repair bill.

"I heart KY" is writerly code for "I would shower you with liversnaps in a heartbeat if I were only aware of such picayune details as your address, which I don't want to know because knowing Miss Snark's true identity would completely ruin the fun. Please accept my wish to do so as the only sign of my affection I am able to offer given the limitations of the situation."

See why first makes a better bumper sticker?

And yes, I suppose you do have to do all the thinking around here. We're just writers. We write. You think. Sounds fair enough.

Anonymous said...

I don't like novelists who think they are the next Faulkner.

Me either. Look what the bastard did to me.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I write in the style of Franklin Irwin and with the panache of Franklin W. Dixon. I emulate Tate, except I don't have a bald pate.

If you represent my book, you'll find it will fit in the niche created by Tish.

Hey! It works for me!

(So, anyone but me know who Frankin Irwin was? Ha! I knew it!)

Kat said...

Another thing: when I use comparisons, I've been trying to draw specifically from the agent's client pool. Usually they have one or two clients whose work resembles mine (that's why I'm querying them, after all). So I try, when I can, to say something like "may appeal to fans of *author*'s *book/series*".

Good idea or bad one?

Bernita said...

The only comparison I have used is to suggest my female protagonist resembles to some degree two other well-known fictional females.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure this clears up the situation but I am working on a questionnaire for my French publisher. One of the questions is: List competing books in your field and show how yours differs from them.

Eva said...

It sounds like the key to a good comparison is to avoid the general, such as "My novel is like John Fowles's THE MAGUS," in favor of something specific that doesn't imply self-fabulosity: "The premise of my novel is similar to that in John Fowles's THE MAGUS."

Anonymous said...

I think there's a big difference between saying "I'm the next Faulkner" and saying "my book will appeal to those who like southern gothics like As I Lay Dying."

The first is a comparison; the second is market research.

Anonymous said...

Rashomon, not Roshamon. I can't imagine you'll make a great impression with your comparison if you spell that wrong.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is Rashomon (or more correctly "Rashoumon", to indicate a long "o" in the middle syllable). However, considering the fact that several reviewers have misspelled the title of my novel while making nice noises about it, I'm in a forgiving mood about spelling errors.

The Green Cedar said...

Shadow is right on, and...well, "I liversnap Killer Yapp" sounds just plain weird.

Anonymous said...

heh, heh . . . she said postlapsarian (in Beavis n' Butthead sotto voce)