Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Your Book is Not a Rose by Any Other Name!

If there is one thing I hate in the querying process, it's comparative analysis. There is nothing worse than the annoying task of comparing my manuscript to published novels. It is something I personally have chosen to avoid, but still, there are some agents that list comparative analysis in their submission guidelines.

Now I'll be honest here. Even when they request this, I ignore it.

Why? Well, I hate comparing my novel to some existing work, and not because I think my book is "so cool and unique." On the contrary, I get the idea behind the request. The agent is wanting to get a better feel for the book. However, writing the comparison is, by definition, fraught with peril. Take my novel The Ledger Domain for example. It's a novel about a girl who goes to school to train to become a magical spy. There's action, suspense, and romance... it's a lot of fun.

Still, when I begin writing a comparison, the heart of my book falls flat. What do I say? "It's Harry Potter meets James Bond?" Doesn't quite capture it, does it? Sounds kinda lame, and besides, I can't use either of those. Comparing your work to a big name is a huge no-no, because obviously, since I've made that comparison, I surely think I'm the next J.K. Rowling or Ian Fleming.

(I don't, for the record.)

So, I need to find something rare enough that it's not bragging but not so obscure that they haven't heard of it. Great. That'll be easy. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Hmm... Ok, how about a book series I recently discovered? "It's like Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series, but with magic!" (Ally Carter is a bestseller, but not necessarily a household name.) How dumb is that comparison? Besides, it's not really true. Ally Carter's series is about a girl who goes to a girl's school that trains future spies. Yeah, that much is similar. However, the actual feel and plot style of that book is way, way different. Carter's series is a lighthearted romance about a girl using her spy skills to get a boy and handle normal high school experiences. My book is much darker, with sinister shades, international crime syndicates, and threats to our way of life. It has romance, yes, but that isn't the main purpose of the plot. It's a far cry from "The Gallagher Girls with magic."

The problem with comparative analysis is that when I mention The Gallagher Girls, I'm not just calling forth the premise to your mind. I'm also calling forth the feel of the book. It's what those boring literary theory types call "semiotics." Derrida tells us (oops, did I expose myself as a boring literary theory type?!) that a word doesn't boil down to a single, specific meaning. This is because there are so many varying potential meanings and relationships to the word (this is Derrida in a too-confining nutshell, but hey). With books, it's the same. The Gallagher Girls is more than just a plot premise. There are themes, characters, voice, and style. All of these elements come to mind as part of what The Gallagher Girls means to you (assuming you've read the books).

Does that mean that you can't use a comparison in your query? Definitely not. It can be a good thing, especially if your book's premise isn't simple/clear. Your book about "the rambling adventures of a boy in dark-yet-ordinary world of monsters who are just like us" might be better understood as "an darkly humorous cross between Percy Jackson and On the Road."

I'm just saying that, if you're going to attempt it, be sure you're aware of the pitfalls and do your best to avoid them. Clearly demonstrating the "voice" of your book is always important, but when you're using a comparison, it's crucial.

This is in response to a comment below. I could have just responded in the comments, but it is something I wanted to mention in the blog anyway.

When an agent makes a list of "submission requirements," that doesn't necessarily mean you must give them everything that is exactly on that list. Now some people may be saying, "Yes, it does!!!"

You're wrong.

The agent is listing what they would like to see. If you leave something out, you just need to weigh the cost/benefit. There are reasons to use comparisons and reasons not to use them. Honestly, leaving that out isn't like leaving out, say, a good explanation of who you are. The latter is a standard part of a query letter that will make your letter look less professional if you leave it out. A comparison is what I call a "would-be-nice." If an agent is going to write you off for that... do you really want that type of agent? After all, if the agent's main concern is how a single book fits perfectly within the current trend, then they aren't likely to be concerned about representing you for the long haul.
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