7.01.2006

I really am qualified to write a novel about nitwittery

Miss Snark,

In past posts, you've made clear that there's no need in a query letter for biographical information or anything about a platform for a work of fiction, other than previous writing credits or a respected writing award.

Yet I find it hard to imagine that a physician offering a medical thriller shouldn't mention her day job in her query. Ditto for lawyers with legal thrillers and NASA engineers with hard science fiction. Am I to believe that Robin Cook, John Grisham, and Robert A. Metzger omitted their professions from their first queries? Given two well-written queries for a romance set in the Capitol, wouldn't you have slightly higher hopes for the manuscript from the writer that mentioned he was a senator's office manager? (maybe)

Not every writer, of course, has a background that dovetails with their story. I'm sure some good novels about old-west madams have been written by Asian trapeze artists with no direct knowledge of the bordello biz other than a mountain of research. But when you do have a leg-up on your subject matter, is it wrong, especially in absence of previous writing credits, to mention a salient autobiographical detail?


No, it's not wrong, but from my standpoint it's almost a negative.

Just cause you know something doesn't mean you can write a novel about it. Most of the queries I get from lawyers and doctors are crap. Worse than the usual dreck. That's cause they've mostly been used to writing in a totally different form. The only people who write worse than those guys are academics and political pundits.


Lawyers are the alltime leader in this category; they don't know how to leave things to the reader's imaginations. They are used to the form
1. tell people what you're going to say
2. say it
3. recap,
and that is death on toast in a novel.

The other thing is that accuracy doesn't always serve the novelist well. Lawyers and doctors and nuclear engineers love to salt their writing with all sorts of information dumps.

You don't need qualifications to write a novel. You really can just make it all up.

23 comments:

Sherry Decker said...

MS said: "The other thing is that accuracy doesn't always serve the novelist well. Lawyers and doctors and nuclear engineers love to salt their writing with all sorts of information dumps."

Even popular authors sometimes 'dump.' Look at all the 'research' readers had to endure in Jurassic Park. Pages and pages. I skipped a lot of it. Just give me the damn story! Jeez!

jude calvert-toulmin said...

> You don't need qualifications to write a novel.

True. I can't talk about the qualifications for writing a badly written page-turner which makes millions, like The Da Vinci Code, because that kind of writing doesn't interest me.

What do you need to write a novel that is a work of art? Besides having a natural ability and desire to write, the single quality I see in common with all the truly great writers whose work I love (Dostoevsky, Marquez, Sartre for example) is the ability to express an innate love and compassion for the human condition.

I'm not sure most lawyers have that innate love and compassion.

But then most lawyers aren't great artists outside of their own field of "artistry."

Stephen said...

I have a day job in a line of work that is very promising ground for a certain sort of fiction, which I read and enjoy. Yet I would not consider writing novels set in that environment because I know that I would struggle to switch off the inner pedant ("somebody in her position wouldn't act like that really") and indeed the inner suspension of disbelief ("that sort of excitement never happens around here, really").

A realistic novel, even set in the most glamorous lines of business, would be extremely dull. The excitement comes not from an initmate knowledge of the setting, but from the ability to tell a good story. If you are too close to the former, it may hamper the latter.

Now, if I were to quit my job, and spend a few years writing something unrelated (historical fiction), then I might feel better able to write something about my old career.

Anonymous said...

Damn. I'm a lawyer. I live outside the contiguous 48. So the count is two strikes. Just waiting to hear from Miss Snark what else I'm doing wrong--without even getting to my writing!

Anonymous said...

As a reader, I'll second the comment about facts in fiction. Every so often, I start a book full of interesting, reasonably true, facts -- but the story drags. After getting through perhaps a quarter of the book, I put it down & go hunting for the next readable book.

Authors, don't let your research grow up to be the story! :-)

Inkwolf said...

"Lawyers and doctors and nuclear engineers love to salt their writing with all sorts of information dumps."

Oh, my! I have a friend who is a former NASA engineer, and his conversation is absolutely MONOPOLIZED by 'information dumps!' They are always interesting, but sometimes it's really challenging to get him to stop giving me the benefit of his techy insights.

Now I know what to call them! :D

Debby G said...

I practiced law for nine years, and have one humorous young adult novel published to great reviews and sales to Germany and Italy. Next year I will see five additional novels published with three publishers. My humorous newspaper column just won a national award last night.

Pretty good for a lawyer, eh?

C.E. Petit said...

On the other hand, combining the categories can lead to some really interesting train-wrecks. Consider, for example, legal academics (law professor types). Or, if you have any respect for the English language, don't.

Once upon a time, when I was the senior articles editor at a major law review (that is, the guy in charge of the slush pile), we got a submission from an assistant professor from the law school in a west-coast state. She had written a long article on legal implications of and foundations for land management on Native American reservations.

Long. A typical law-review article (at the time) was around 75 to 125 manuscript pages with from 200 to 300 footnotes. This one was 300 (well, actually only 289) pages long with over 900 footnotes. Keep in mind, too, that in the law review world it's typical to simultaneously submit an article to 25 to 50 journals--in full manuscript. (Only in the five years or so have journals started putting upper limits on article length.)

The irony warning went off for me rather rapidly, because I grew up in the Pacific Northwet (misspelling intended). One of the major uses of Native American reservation land is… production of forest products: wood and, especially in the Northwet, paper.

And that's all before considering the tangled underbrush of prose that hid the roots of the article; the author had missed the trees for the forest, and the forest for the Tacoma Pulp Mill.

Sarah said...

I did one year of law school, and was horrified when my legal research and writing teacher told me I needed to stop using clauses, I should make my sentences subject-verb, and I should not vary words or sentence structure because people wouldn't understand my writing. "But... but... I said that in the LAST sentence and it would be repetitive and tacky! I was an English major!"

I couldn't handle law school.

Bernita said...

Yet I see calls for this sort of credential all the time - something to do with platform and promotion I suspect.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Well, that's a relief. :-)

Today's word verification is ginsw. Drinks are on me.

Jeanne Edna Thelwell said...

But then most lawyers aren't great artists outside of their own field of "artistry."

In fairness to lawyers (I confess to being one), how many people in any occupation are "great artists outside of their own field of 'artistry.'"?

And, as for the "ability [of lawyers] to express an innate love and compassion for the human condition": Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, Henry Fielding, Walker Percy, Goethe, Franz Kafka, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson were lawyers.

Anonymous said...

Duck, everyone. The stereotypes are flying out of the woods again. Doctors, lawyers, academics and political pundits can't write fiction to save their lives.

How about hairdressers, cabbies, secretaries, teachers and mailmen? Are they any better, snarky? And what about literary agents?

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure most lawyers have that innate love and compassion."

Yeah, like that guy Gandhi! Called to the Bar way back in 1891 and never did understand a damn thing about love or compassion or the human condition!

Inkwolf said...

Anonymous said...
"Are they any better, snarky? And what about literary agents?"

When I started looking for an agent, I read the advice, "Look for a writer writing something similar to what you write, find out their agent, and contact them."

Well, not too many people (in the US anyway) are writing the sort of young humor/fantasy I'm writing, and my first thought was Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler. That was a dead end, though...seems he was a literary agent himself, who turned to writing himself.

So then I looked up Daniel "Captain Underpants" Pilkey. Guess what--another lit agent.

Bet there are a lot more.

Word verification-- uyono...you know?

archer said...

You are disingenuous about lawyers. Because we write every day, our novels are able to proximately cause certain emotional and mental fireworks to take place.

jude calvert-toulmin said...

> Damn. I'm a lawyer.

Hi anonymous. Just out of interest, would you say you have an innate love and compassion for the human condition? (I have to admit, I struggle a lot of the time in my real as opposed to my literary life LOL!)

I *have* met lawyers in the past who really care about people (my own solicitor is a gem, for a start) but on the whole would you agree that lawyers have a bad name? :)

> In fairness to lawyers (I confess to being one), how many people in any occupation are "great artists outside of their own field of 'artistry.'"?

Er, probably not many. :D

> And, as for the "ability [of lawyers] to express an innate love and compassion for the human condition": Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, Henry Fielding, Walker Percy, Goethe, Franz Kafka, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson were lawyers.

LOL! Game set and match to Jean ha ha! :)

> "I'm not sure most lawyers have that innate love and compassion."

> Yeah, like that guy Gandhi! Called to the Bar way back in 1891 and never did understand a damn thing about love or compassion or the human condition!

HA HA HA HA HA! LOL! Well and truly trounced :)

Oh boy, you couldn't make it up :)

Debby G said...

Other lawyer/authors, off the top of my head, are Louis Sachar (HOLES) and this struggling unknown named John Grisham.

Lydia said...

I made a reference to my age. It's stupid that publishers get excited about young authors, but they do. And did.

Anonymous said...

Sherry:

But when we hear about whale hunting in Moby Dick, or get a Maori language lesson in Bone People, or learn the organizational chart of a convent (Underworld), we are aware that we are reading something that deepens the narrative. Discursion in those novels has the same effect as that wobbly hand-held camera style that Hollywood loves so much right now. It feels "documentary."

I know an ER doc, and a nuclear scientist, and they don't pour borax to enhance the meaning of the backstory. They talk to establish a form of intellectual/territorial dominance. Many closeted computer experts are the same way. See debbie, above, who felt she needed to reclaim her territory by plugging herself as the counterexample. See, also, the many anons whose delicacy was wrinkled, and who needed to defend their territory.

Sure, Grisham. Sure, "stereotypes." Remember the law of large numbers. For every Grisham, there are millions of slush pages, and they spout nonsense.

What have you done to be a good storyteller today?

-kd

Anonymous said...

Somebody with time on his hands should do some research on the ratio of good fiction writers to slush pile nightmares for a bunch of professions/occupations.

I'd bet that the ratio is hardly different for doctors, lawyers et al than for pilots, teachers and nurses. "Law of large numbers"? Puh-lease.

And no, I have no reason to be defensive, since I am neither lawyer nor doctor nor academic nor political pundit.

Anonymous said...

archer said...
You are disingenuous about lawyers. Because we write every day, our novels are able to proximately cause certain emotional and mental fireworks to take place.

disingenuous; proximately

You've explained a lot with those two words. Then next thing you know, we'll be seeing, "he said incredulously."

Adrian McCarthy said...

No, you don't need qualifications to write a novel, but does it really hurt if you have them? The writing sample can tell you if the writer can craft decent prose. Once you've vetted the writing sample, what's the next thing you want to know? I imagine you'd care about how well the story holds together, whether it has the ring of authenticity that helps sustain the disbelief, and if the fictional world has enough texture and depth to interest the reader. It seems to me that once you're past the writing sample, qualifications can be a clue to those concerns.

Bad infodumps are bad, but good ones are great. I like novels that take me to places I don't know. My favorite novels are loaded with infodumps. If I don't learn something new about the world of the book, it won't stick with me.

Watership Down, The Name of the Rose, Jurassic Park, The Firm, and Angels and Demons are all filled with infodumps, but they don't suffer from them. They rise above the rest because of the rich worlds they invoke. They are nothing without them. This richness comes the specific details. The details come from research or experience or both.