5.16.2007

Stop, drop, (sc)roll


Dear Miss Snark,

Since I read your advice not to mix genres in query letters I've been planning to market my novel as a mystery. The problem is that although I throw out some hints early on, the 'mystery' itself doesn't emerge till page 100 or so. I've also tried to make the book stylistically interesting. Is 'literary mystery' a viable genre option, or should I just leave well enough alone?


Nothing makes me want to set my hair on fire faster than hearing "I've tried to make the book stylistically interesting". You tell me that in a query letter, I'm reaching for the lighter fluid.

And when you say the "mystery" doesn't emerge till page 100, that's akin to saying the "the plot doesn't start till page 100".

And avoid the use of the word "literary" with "mystery". Tell me where it goes in the bookstore. That's all.

I'm gonna suggest you scan down the previous posts till you come to the one that has a bunch of crit groups and the Crapometer Annex listed in the comment column. The post title is "Miss Snark is Clueless" I think.

I have a feeling you need some readers to look at this before you send it off to hot-headed Miss Snark or her colleagues.

9 comments:

Michele said...

If the mystery doesn't start until page 100, then I don't think this is a mystery (or at least one that would be shelved in the mystery section of book stores).

If you can't move the mystery to the start, perhaps market it as the other genre (e.g. literary fiction).

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Instead of "because I've tried to make the book stylistically interesting," try: "because I naturally have a killer grasp on the English language's throat, and inadvertantly turn every sentence into a thing of beauty, I . . . "

And go from there.

Anonymous said...

Oh man..."literary mystery."

Everytime I hear that I think it's one of two things:

1. Dead body shrouded in bloated prose and high page count.

2. The writer ran out of plot, oh, about page 100 but kept going anyway.

Quit trying to "transcend the genre" and just tell a good story with believable characters in a clear manner.

Sorry I am so crabby but this kind of thinking just rots my socks.

kyle said...

Giving the author the benefit of the doubt and assuming he or she just might be the next Umberto and this is as good as "The Name of the Rose," I'm going to tell you not to panic at what everyone else is saying. Don't worry about changing the plot or picking up the pace just yet. Maybe the mystery *does* belong starting on page 100.

In that case, decide where you imagine this being places on the bookshelf at Borders: do you see it under "Literature," "Fiction," or "Mystery"?

If "Literature," say it's literary fiction with mystery elements. If "Fiction," say it's commercial fiction with mystery elements. If "Mystery," just say it's a mystery and let your prose speak for itself.

Of course that's a big leap of faith I took there, but just saying...

Dave said...

Danger Dr Smith, Danger!

Umberto Eco makes a living teaching semiotics and symbolisms. The Name of the Rose is written in three languages plus pidgen latin, it describes a period of the Catholic Church just before the schisms with Luther, and it is set accurately in history. The book takes 100 pages to set the reader into the historical setting. It has too because no one, and I do mean no one but professors and collegians understood that period and what it meant to deal with the heresies of the time. That's all rarified stuff and the genius of Eco is that he brings it down to the reader and makes it fascinating. A very hard act to follow. Can anyone with a regular education state in 25 words or less why the Franciscan Brotherhood created such havoc in the church? What the Albigensian heresy changed? Those are questions that had to be answered in the book without hurting the murder mystery.

Now if you have read The island of the Day Before or his latest, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana you will know that these books are very different novels. The translations are excellent. The books rea great reads. But the novels are not mysteries, nor are they as absorbing as Name of the Rose.

kyle said...

Well, of course, as I said that was a big leap of faith. Okay, let me clarify: a *massive* leap of faith. But there's nothing to say that an anonymous author posting here might, in fact, be utterly brilliant and blow us all away... I personally doubt that the likelihood of that despite how I started my previous post, but hey, just saying that it could happen.

My personal favorite was actually Foucault's Pendulum. That book was brilliant.

Amy said...

Oh, I don't know, I just read a PUBLISHED murder mystery novel that didn't get going until about page 200 and had lots of little gems like saying that the wife lifting the lid of the cooking pot AND checking the oven at the same time was a feat of multi-tasking the business-OWNER husband couldn't possibly approach in his lifetime! I subtitled it the "Attack of the Blondes" because every other character introduced was -- you guessed it! -- blonde! The book fell apart, for me, on page one where we discover that the first murder victim will be Paris Hilton. Okay, NOT Paris Hilton, but her clone. And, despite wearing sparkly Cartier bracelets and dressing like she just walked out of an uptown boutique, she lives in a slum. Like Paris would live in a slum. Yeah. And this book (name and title omitted to spare the poor schmuck who wrote it) was FEATURED at the library -- that's why I checked it out! Why did I continue to read 'til page 200 (after which it became a page-turner, I'll give it that)? Why did I watch "Paycheck"? It was such a trainwreck I HAD to see what the author would do next! LOL

Anonymous said...

Can anyone with a regular education state in 25 words or less why the Franciscan Brotherhood created such havoc in the church?

That can be stated in one word: poverty. The Franciscans took a vow of it; the Church, with its array of properties, had an interest in declaring a focus on Christ's poverty heretical. All of this is a red herring in Eco's book, of course, to lead us away from the real reason the monks are killed.

What the Albigensian heresy changed?

Again, simple. The Cathars were a religious minority in the French Languedoc who believed that the Old Testament was the record of an usurper God called the Demiurge, or Satan. For obvious reasons, this was a heresy and the Inquisition was created to suppress it. There were all sorts of other interesting consequences for Protestantism, but I think the one you're referring to here is the creation of the Inquisition, which figures prominently in "The Name of the Rose."

I say all of this not to show off my decidedly "regular" education, but to point out that it's condescending to think that it takes a "master" or a "genius" to present this history in a readily understandable way. There's nothing particularly easy about Eco's book. On the other hand, there are many entries in the genre of the literary mystery. One I can think of at the moment is Donna Tartt's "The Secret History," which contains bits of untranslated ancient Greek but was nonetheless a bestseller. "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" wasn't all that good, but it still was sold to a major publisher by an unknown author for a big advance. This is a robust genre, and one of my personal favorites. It probably belongs to the "literary" shelf more than the "mystery" one: think "Snow Falling on Cedars," which was certainly a literary book, but had a mystery at its center. Many people like a little erudition with their dead bodies, and there are certainly plenty of writers out there with the ability to give it to them.

BuffySquirrel said...

Then again, the last book I read about the Cathars ran 700 pages, and I never did find out what was going on.