11.16.2006

Like yanno..Hamlet, but darker


Dear Miss Snark,

A writer friend is currently making final revisions on (I believe) a beautiful novel about a Japanese mail-order bride in 1917 in Hawaii (not a romance). My friend is of Japanese heritage and was born and raised in Hawaii. My question is, how would you respond to a writer comparing her book to famous movies. For instance, my friend said, “I guess I'd call it a cross between the films, "Picture Bride" and "The Color Purple."

Would including a comment like that in an agent query be a mistake? Would comparing it to other classic novels be better?



How about you just include five beautiful pages of writing and let me figure out what to call it.

More people shoot themselves in the font by over reaching for comparisons that are just plain nuts (books are not movies) or out moded (classic novels).

I know everyone tells you you need a log line but honest to dog try to come up with something that doesn't depend on whether I've seen a particular movie or read a classic book. And you better hope I liked the movie or book. People who tell me they have something just like Hannibal Lecter just raised the bar another six feet cause those books scare the crap out of me.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I might be wrong, but it looks like... DRUMROLL... EE might be looking for an agent!

Elektra said...

Oooh...
It's like Hamlet, only more people die in the end.
It's like Romeo and Juliet, but they get together in the end.
It's like King Lear where the father lives.

ex-ed said...

The trouble with comparing a book to another book, when you're the one who's written it (and in an approach letter, saying 'my friends think this is like Alice Walker' is a terrible no-no) is that the author probably isn't the best judge. They might be right, or they might just be a really big fan of the authors they're comparing themselves to and unable to tell the difference between those authors' work and their own. It can look like delusions of grandeur. In my experience, it tended to be the worse submissions that compared themselves to established authors; the good authors had the confidence to let the work stand on its own merits.

It also risks looking unoriginal: some publishers may be on the lookout for the next Stephen King, but the person most likely to fill that niche probably won't introduce himself as 'the next Stephen King', he'll introduce himself as John Scarywriter, author of this novel, which turns out to be just what they're looking for. Someone who says they're the next Stephen King is much more likely to be influenced ONLY by Stephen King - and even Stephen King isn't influenced only by Stephen King, he's read around, you know?

If the novel has the qualities you describe, then agents should like it for itself. It sounds like an interesting idea; if I were your friend, I'd simply try to describe the book in a catchy way and make the strong concept work for me. I know I'd be interested to see what a non-romantic recent-historical novel about a mail order bride would be like.

Roxan said...

If something I write reminds someone of some other book I rewrite it.
Having someone say my writing reminds them of another author I take as a compliment. Depending on the author I remind them of.

Cynthia Bronco said...

"Fathers and Sons" meets "The Giving Tree" in this delightful science fiction/chick lit/thriller. Both of my parents raved about the prose, saying that it brings the fiction novel to new heights as our half-poodle, half-android heroine struggles with her humble Russian upbringing while searching for Mr. Right.

Anonymous said...

Like yanno..a forty watt bulb, but dimmer.








Sorry: Just wanted to use that line...
;(

kathie said...

You just made my life a hell of a lot easier, Miss Snark. I already knew this, but you saying it makes me sure I'm right. Just get to it, show your stuff with the writing...great advice.

The Unpretentious Writer said...

Once I wrote a short story that I was very proud of, until I let my mother read it...and she gave me a copy of 'Canticle for Leibowitz' and once I'd read it, I never tried to submit my short story anywhere...they were just too similar in tone and content.

Anonymous said...

It is far more effective to suggest that this novel might appeal to those readers who admire Jane Smiley and Sue Miller, say. It seems legitimate to compare styles in terms of potential readership.

A.R.Yngve said...

Critics use "non sequitur" comparisons, too! I have read at least two book reviews which compared a novel to a computer game (in the sense "it's as bad/unliterary as a computer game").

So does this mean a great novel is like a... really good car? Or a tasty steak? Or a brilliant painting?

ello said...

These type of comparisons are really specific entertainment industry stuff. Working with producers for many years, I know that this is how they talk - it's industry speak. It's the best way for them to describe a program during a pitch as quickly and visually as they can think of. And this is an industry that thrives on copycat programming so comparisons especially to a previously successful program is going to be a plus. I can't see how this type of unoriginal and short cut speak would be a plus in the book industry.

Anonymous said...

Cynthia, that was hilarious. I keep reading it and laughing.

Saundra Mitchell said...

*facepalm* It drives me crazy when people do this for books for all the reasons you describe, but also because the high-concept logline does not mean what these folks think it means.

As a screenwriter, when I say "It's Die Hard on a bus!" it's not really Die Hard on a bus. It's shorthand for "This is a high budget action movie designed to be a vehicle for a genre-star who can open a flick. Oh, and it takes place on a bus."

Likewise, "It's Steel Magnolias meets Shakespeare in Love" means "It's an ensemble chick flick in costumes; tears will be jerked." High-concept loglines are designed to describe first the market and budget, and then a vague thumbnail concept of the project.

"Speed" is actually nothing like "Die Hard." "Marie Antoinette" resembles neither "Steel Magnolias" or "Shakespeare in Love" - but the loglines explain what they need to - market, budget, genre. That just doesn't work for books, and everytime I see "This book is X meets Y!," it makes me wonder why I shouldn't I just re-read X and Y.

ORION said...

If you have a legitimate tag line that cleverly communicates your novel - great - otherwise I think an engaging hook, query, and first few pages are all that is necessary initially, as Miss Snark so ably puts it.
I will say that after my agent signed me and we were discussing my career and my other manuscripts - she asked me where I felt my books "fit on a shelf" i.e. which authors' books would I like to see next to mine. I gave her several names and after she read a couple of my manuscripts she has formed her own ideas.
We are too close to our own work to judge properly.
JMHO

Debby G. said...

I describe my first novel as, "It's just like Bridget Jones Diary, if Bridget were a teenage Jewish boy in San Diego with more depth."

It usually gets a laugh, at least.

Marcom said...

Damn! So this means that I can't say my novel is like Ayn Rand on crack cocaine? I'll have to rewrite my 250 word hook in time for December 15th!

JPD (still blogging under the legal limit)

Dave said...

Yanno, Akira Kurasawa'a RAN (chaos) is like King Lear, but with sons and castles in medieval Japan.
Blood too, and a beheading, dude.

with subtitles