Thursday, November 03, 2005

Are you KIDDING me?!

Every day, I get query letters. Some days I get one or two. Some days I get twenty. There doesn’t seem any rhyme or reason. But I have to say, I’m frequently entertained. Take this excerpt:

“A mysterious, talking hedgehog bites him and sends [him] into his own past where he begins to de-age in time to right a wrong and save more than just a life....”

Okay, who’s smoking something here? The author or his character? I mean, REALLY? Is he kidding me? “A mysterious, talking hedgehog?!” What is this? A video game? Is the guy playing Sonic the Hedgehog too much? Does Sonic talk? I don’t even know.

But this gets better. The author goes on to describe his work as a “fast-paced, post-modern blend of classic detective fiction, tantalising [sic] science fiction and Christian fantasy.” Duck Harry Potter! The competition is gunning for you.

Okay, I’m not mean. Really, I’m not. Just ask my girlfriend (but not when she’s riding her bike eighty miles this weekend, because somewhere in there she’s going to blame me that she’s out there doing that!). But give me a break, okay? Could an anthropomorphic fantasy work? Sure. There are several. And I loved Robert Rabbit. But does this sound as if it works? Maybe the talking hedgehog is really a Jesus figure? After all, Jesus had a beard, right?

When you are writing your query letter, please hand it to a couple of complete strangers. If they guffaw while reading it, chances are I will too, right before I pass. And if you describe it as a blend of several genres, please keep in mind that blending several genres rarely garners you more readers. You don’t get both the detective fans and the science fiction fans. You only get that small percentage of one or the other that likes the mix of the two. For example, I can blend vodka and prune juice, but this won’t get me all vodka drinkers and all prune juice drinkers. It will only get me the constipated vodka drinkers. See the point? Blending or combining genres generally cuts your potential readership, so don’t do it. Especially don’t do in your first novel, please.

On a different, yet connected note, since I did mention Jesus, I saw a bumper sticker a while back that said “Get your religion out of my government” or words to that effect, and I’d like to afford myself of my First Amendment rights to offer a few thoughts:

I think we can all agree that we are supposed to have a separation of Church and State in this country. It is in the Constitution, right? So will someone please explain to me why this is constantly coming up? Seriously. I mean, I have no problem with “In G-d We Trust” on my money. I think most folks believe in and trust G-d. And even if you don’t, you’d trust him if you did, right? It doesn’t hurt anyone to have that on the money. Nor in the Pledge of Allegiance. I mean, is anyone trying to raise an atheist? Isn’t belief or disbelief in G-d something we all have to come to on our own, some way?

Jesus, on the other hand, is a different story. Some believe he was the son of G-d. Others do not. I am fully prepared to respect both opinions. Personally, I like Lenny Bruce’s version of events. He could have been a doctor, a lawyer, whatever. But noooooooooo, he had to be the Messiah. Well, we all know the rest of that joke. But, hey, my best friend is seriously Catholic. He reads the Bible regularly and I bet I could bring him to some bars and make some money playing “name that Scripture verse” with him. But do I need or want people making decisions for our country based on their beliefs in Jesus? No. No more than I want the new Parliament in Iraq to make decisions based on Muslim religious law.

Hey, wasn’t that ironic? On the one side, we have our government pushing for a completely secular Iraqi constitution, with no nods to Shari`a, yet back here in the United States we’re arguing over Supreme Court nominees because the religious right (sorry, but I don’t quite think it deserves the capital Rs) wants to know that whomever is nominated believes the same Bible stories they do.

I’m sorry, but I believe in Darwin. I do not believe in creationism (again, not going to use a cap here) and I think “intelligent design” is nothing but creationism in a pretty new suit or dress. Are there inexplicable elements to our world? Sure. I like to say that I believe in the Big Bang...but I just don’t know who lit the fuse. See? Plenty of room for G-d in there, right? But I work in literature and spent an entire week discussing the many different authors of the Bible in college. And let’s be serious, I work in a business where we edit all day. We cut, we add, we piece things together. Can anyone seriously believe that the King James Bible is perfect? That we should follow what is written in there verbatim? At best, the original Bible was part history lesson, part allegorical stories designed to teach and influence behavior, and part political document designed to put out the “official version” of events. Remember, history is written by those who win wars and elections. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible-thumpers in the Republican Party are so good at spin! They have a long history of it.

But when it comes to schools, there’s a desperate need to teach actual science. If we want our country to be competitive, we shouldn’t be teaching “intelligent design,” or as I like to call it, “stupidity.” We should be teaching science like geology, so we can go find some oil someplace, and chemistry, so that we can create some alternate fuels, and physics, so we can figure out how to generate energy from all that hot air in Washington.

Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Bill Maher, but I really am tired of all the religious debate in our politics. For Pete’s sake, please click and order yourself a copy of Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, by Kristin Luker. I read this book in 1987 or so, and I still bring it up as the best book on the history of the debate that I have ever read. Now, please, don’t go nuts on me and ask me if I’m pro-choice or pro-life. I’m pro-birth control. Yes, that’s right. I’m in favor of responsibly using birth control so that abortions don’t need to happen. Sure, abstinence is great, but let’s be honest, sex is addictive. So odds aren’t very good that some teen having sex is going to stop. Did you? But enough on that. The bottom line here is that we have a Constitutional separation of Church and State and I, for one, am in favor of enforcing that clearly and reasonably. A born-again president? Fine. What he does at home and on his own time is fine. But when he is making decisions that affect the entire country or the entire world, his religious beliefs have no place. And the same goes for every elected official in our government.



Bernita said...

One of my ancestors murdered Thomas a Becket over that very thing, so you can guess where I stand on the separation of church and state.
Am glad, though, that I have never queried you on my romantic thriller with the time travel twist, so I can enjoy your blog without fear or favor.

Andrew Zack said...

I can't say I know the story well enough, but since Becket was sainted, I guess he wanted the Church more involved in the State? Fortunately, our Founding Fathers didn't and wrote a Constitution prohibiting that. We DO have a separation of Church and State and that's what makes our country a (generally speaking) safe and tolerant place for people of any faith and I have no desire to change that.

As for your book, I don't do much in the way of romances, so I wouldn't have been the right agent for that.

Bernita said...

Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" has one of the best summaries on the Becket situation I've read, should you ever run across it.
I was thinking of the book's cross-genre aspect.
Is there something about the word "romance" or "romantic" that produced that kind but hasty disavowal? Does it create a prejudicial stereotype?
Perhaps I should say "women's fiction" or some such when I do begin to flog it on the unsuspecting industry.I will exempt you, of course.

Ric said...

That was a great rant - well done and well reasoned.
Out here in the great rural Midwest, where every month or so brings another challenge to the status quo. Ban Harry Potter from school reading lists, shut down the Internet at the library, stop having sex ed for the students.

I think sometimes they are just trying to wear us down, keep at it until we won't fight back anymore.
But it's still a good fight and I'll keep going, knowing there are some out there willing to say they agree in public.

I said...

I'm not quite sure what de-age in time means; I assume grow younger? Sounds a bit like Audrey Niffenegger meets C.S. Lewis.

Speaking as someone who sells books for a living, romance novels are erotic in tone and heavy on physical description; they deal with a heroine who, by way of her relationship with a man, overcomes the great obstacles or peril in her life. Like mysteries and science fiction, romance novels are separated into their own sections in the bookstore because readers looking for a romance novel (or a mystery or an SF novel) are probably only interested in that genre, and not in browsing through other types of fiction.

Women's fiction--what my wife, who reads women's fiction and used to read romance novels, calls "pink books"--are typically a lighter read, dealing with the internal monologue of a twentysomething working girl as she deals with the stresses of her life.

(Both the above descriptions, by the way, were only arrived at after extensive collaboration between my wife and myself.)

Speaking as a novelist (and one of Andy's clients), I'd say, just call your novel what it is--if it's something that belongs on the romance shelves, call it a romance; if it belongs on the general fiction shelves, call it women's fiction. Then pitch it to agents or publishers who are interested in taking on the type of book you've written. Agents or publishers who are normally uninterested in any given genre are still going to recognise a novel that belongs to that genre even if it's called something else. And even once it's published, if it's being marketed in the wrong genre, it won't be shelved in the right place to allow an audience that would be interested in it to find it.

And in closing, I would suspect that atheist parents do, indeed, wish to raise atheist children. I want to raise an atheist child--a point of contention with my wife at the moment, who is very determined to raise a Roman Catholic child.

Bernita said...

Thank you, "I".
Surprised me to see what I would term "chicklit" described as "woman's fiction."
I'm afraid mine doesn't really fit either of your descriptions, since its plot revolves around more of a Temperance Brennan/Mrs. Polifax type of character. Still, I suppose basically it is a romance.

Anonymous said...

Talking hedgehogs aside Mr. Zack, your aversion to ‘blending genres’ is curious and perhaps shortsighted. My B&N store is brimming with sci-fi mysteries and historical detective yarns. They sit on display tables up front, not lost in the category shelves. Why? Brand name authors, for sure. Authors who were nobodies once and broke out because they figured it takes a twist to crack the nut. Horror is dead because it’s impossible to put a new spin on creepy beasts. Same problem with westerns. The philosophizing hard-boiled cop is next for the remainder bin. Fiction as a whole is stagnant. Narrative non-fiction rules because certain pioneers bent a staid genre. Now, every business deal, health tip and scrap of history is being ‘novelized’ because readers want a reward for their money and effort. There’s the twist! Write something original and give the reader better than a tired category formula. Contrary to your blog, TZC represents chick-lit murder mysteries and is touting a historical/ religious conspiracy thriller vaguely reminiscent of the most inane book ever to top the lists. Granted, the popularity of Dan Brown is a mystery onto itself. What do you want? Or better, what can you sell?

P.S. For someone who hates the warmongers, you sell a lot of books about it.

LaurenK said...

i liked your blog, i liked the analogy of how we are trying to shove democracy down Iraq's throats but we are not practicing at all what we preach on our own soil. I just had enough of this bullshit and wrote some words on this too last week, check it out you will like it. Good luck

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