Q is for Boring

My Dear Miss Snark:

Each chapter in my novel begins with an epigraph. I quote some bits of Auden, John Bunyan, and Shakespeare, among others.

When I send the manuscript out, should I take out the epigraphs? I wonder especially about the first ten pages of the ms. that are attached to the query letter; I worry that I am raising the stakes too high, and an unfriendly eye will judge me presumptuous from the get-go to be pairing myself with Auden et al. They might also be distracting. On the other hand, I think what I've written is good--and it's my attention to the right word, the right punctuation, the right allusion, and in short, every tiny detail, that have made it so--thus I am reluctant to scrape the poetry away unless ordered to do so by my future agent or future editor.

I would be most appreciative and grateful to hear your thoughts on the matter. Please convey my best wishes to K. Yapp.

Killer Yapp wants to know if you quote Dr. Seuss. If not, he's retracting his offer to read it.

I have no idea why authors like epigraphs. I find them a total pain in the asterisk. And all they do is take up space in a query letter. Save them for the full manuscript if and when an agent requests it.

Epigraphs are a snore
--Miss Snark


Dave said...

I tried this once and it was so difficult, so hard, so arduous that I had to give it up completely.

Each and every epigraph has to mean something significant to the story. It has to advance the plot. . . It's hard enough to come up with one epigraph for a novel let alone one per chapter.

My advice, don't do it. Keep the epigraphs as your inspiration and put their spirit and meaning into each chapter.

Elektra said...

I usually hate epigraphs as much as you seem to, MS--but the ones in Watershp Down are especially well done. Also, while the book itself wasn't my cup of tea, the epigraph to Devil Wears Prada is perfect.

HawkOwl said...

Amen. The only epigraph I've ever enjoyed are the ones in Dune.

Anonymous said...

Writer: Notice that the objectors make one favorite exception, where their personal tastes apply.

This is a metaphor for your marketplace. If I were reading (for reasons inconceivable) a time-travel romance, I would say that epigraphs add nothing (because there is nothing that would make such a read appealing to my tastes).

But the epigraphs in many thrillers and mysteries (Ian Rankin is especially well-eyed at this) tell me that the author wants his story connected in some signficant way to the tradition from which the epigraphs originate. I.e., Shakespeare = political intrigue, &/or betrayal

Now, I will retire to await the hate mail of time-travel romance fans.


le neveu qu'elle n'aime pas said...

An epigraph for every chapter? That seems a little excessive. I would hesitate to use even one, unless I thought the quality of the writing allowed me to get away with it.

nice anonymous said...

Epigraphs are like accessories: Best when used sparingly, so they don't distract anyone's eye from the good tailoring of your dress.

I like epigraphs all too well myself. Particularly if they come from poems I've loved. But I tell you now, they can be a lot of work. After my own book was accepted, I was the one who researched the rights for each handful of lines and sent letters requesting permission to use the quotes as epigraphs for each section of my book. Fortunately, one of my friends worked at permissions for the Library of America; she gave me a letter to use as a model & offered invaluable tips about what publisher was a subsidiary of what & who was the heir to whom. Most publishers let me quote the lines for free, but one prominent poet's publisher did request a small fee. When I told my friend how much the poet's publisher wanted for only three lines, she just smiled at me & told me to be thankful I wasn't quoting lyrics from pop songs -- apparently, quoting some prominent bands can be ruinously expensive.

Anonymous said...

If you're using any poetry still under copywrite protection, you may need permission, depending on how much you cite.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark, you amaze me once again. Just when I feel I know you, you espouse an opinion that surprises me.

I personally love epigraphs. But of course, only the ones done well (pithy comments that connect clearly with the story).

I never use them in my writing because I'm not so witty. Now I know not to feel bad about this, because the esteemed MS doesn't want to read them, finding them boring.

Poetry yes. Epigraphs no. Excellent writing yes. Follow up messages no. Queries with 5 pages and a SASE yes. E-mail queries no. Gin and George Clooney yes. Barbara Bauer and scams no. (some commas in there--probably yes, but forgiveness when writing comments to blogs, also yes).

Thanks for keeping us informed.

Molly said...

As a reader, I like epigraphs. It can be very cool if done well, and hey, if it doesn't add anything, one is usually not long enough to get too much in the way.

HiltonRC said...

"Epigraphs are a snore."

That would make a pretty good epigraph.

So would this:

"I find them a total pain in the asterisk."

I think the required permissions would be daunting, however.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I rarely read epigraphs. I'm not interested - I want to read the paragraph/chapter/story. If I remember, I go back and read the epigraph after I have read the section to see if there is any relevance. But I find it distracting in the beginning and just ignore it.

Just Me said...

I skip over them. *yawn*

Anonymous said...

To Dave:
If you every go back to it, try the Colin Dexter method: where he couldn't find appropirate epigraphs, he made them up and attributed them to a Diogenes Small. I've sometimes flipped through his books for just the epigraphs.

archer said...

Epigraphs may put Miss Snark to sleep
But how else will she know I'm deep?

WitLiz Today said...

"T is for Tombstone"

"I am slow of study."
Witliz Yada
1955 - 2005

(Yes that's right, I'm a ghost)

Epigraph, or Epitaph...I prefer the latter.

B. Dagger Lee said...

Alas, a low Q Score, what shall I do?

"One fish,
two fish,
red fish,
blue fish."
--Dr. S.

yrs, obediently,

B. Dagger Lee

Beth said...

Mary Stewart used chapter epigraphs in her suspense novels. I loved them. They were always well chosen.

Anonymous said...

If you have an original that you think will fit the chapter I say why not? If you don't, then don't. -JTC

Sue said...

I have to agree with Miss Snark. If you are writing a novel where quick pacing is required, all an epigraph does is interrupt the flow. Actually, they make me stop, dead in my reading tracks, study and try to figure out what the point is. I have yet to find it.

kis said...

I have them, but they are quotes from fictional historical figures, made-up adages and folk songs, and bits of scripture from religions entirely of my own devising. I have occasionally paraphrased a real person, but never closely enough to get in trouble.

My WIP is epic fantasy, and I've constructed an entire universe with thousands of years of history. I don't want to bore potential readers with frequent history lessons within the narrative, so I've chosen to insert relevant snippets in epigraphs at the start of each chapter. I'd never do this if I was writing something set in the real world.

And if you want to read some great epigraphs, read Robert Asprin's M.Y.T.H. Inc. books. They're all perfect--the real ones even more so than the blatantly fake.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to kis, I vow that the next book I read will be fantasy -even though I haven't read one in many years. -JTC