STATUS: Groan. It was not a good Colorado Rockies weekend. Still, it was thrilling for them to to be in the World Series at all. Was it too much to ask that they win just one game?
What’s playing on the iPod right now? HELLO EARTH by Kate Bush
Since I’m in a serious mode after Story Of A Girl, let’s move on to the hardest type of novel to pitch well in a query letter— literary fiction.
Now why do I say this is the hardest to pitch? Because literary fiction, typically, isn’t driven largely by plot elements, unlike most genre fiction. More often than not, the focus is on character development. Now that doesn’t mean that literary works can’t have a high concept to drive it but often that is secondary to what is to be explored.
However, I highly recommend that if you write literary fiction, you find that catalyst or event that launches the story because every work of literary fiction does have it.
For example, what is the event that happens in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD that forms the direction of Scout’s narrative?
What is the event in CATCHER IN THE RYE that sparks Holden’s narrative?
See what I mean? It’s there and it’s up to the writer to spotlight it.
Since we aren’t writing in the 1950s, let’s take a closer look at a more contemporary literary novel such as EVERYTHNG IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer.
From the Front cover flap:
With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man – also named Jonathan Safran Foer – sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war, an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.
As their adventure unfolds, Jonathan imagines the history of his grandfather’s village, conjuring a magical fable of startling symmetries that unite generations across time. Lit by passion, fear, guilt, memory, and hope, the characters in Everything Is Illuminated mine the black holes of history. As the search moves back in time, the fantastical history moves forward, until reality collides with fiction in a heart-stopping scene of extraordinary power.
An arresting blend of high comedy and great tragedy, this is a story about searching for people and places that no longer exist, for the hidden truths that haunt every family, and for the delicate but necessary tales that link past and future. Exuberant and wise, hysterically funny and deeply moving, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is an astonishing debut.
Now let’s analyze it:
1. It is 7 sentences.
(I want to emphasize a point here. When I give query pitch workshops, I invariably get a participant who says that their book is “too complicated” to sum up in such a short space as one paragraph. Needless to say, I always give an eyebrow raise as a retort. A lot of novels are “complicated” and yet we still manage to create short but enticing blurbs to draw readers in. There is no such thing as “too complicated” if you focus on what launches the story).
2. The first sentence tells us why the story is happening. We have a young man searching for his past.
3. The next sentence is hilarious but it actually achieves a couple of things: 1) it tells us who will accompany Jonathan on this journey, 2) it sets the tone of this literary novel, 3) then it touches on some themes with “quixotic” and “unexpected past.” This sentence is working hard and getting the job done.
4. The next paragraph tackles the unusualness of the unfolding narrative structure. (Not sure what else I can add here because this is a tough one. You can’t hide it if you have a unique narrative frame but you need to describe it in such a way that it won’t be off-putting. I’ll leave you to decide whether it works here or not. I do have to say that when I receive a query that states the novel is in “stream of consciousness” form, it’s an auto NO for me—but I like my literary novels to at least slant toward commercial and “stream of consciousness” screams otherwise. Not every agent feels that way though.)
5. The second to last sentence highlights the themes the author is going to explore (and we can relate to such as the “hidden truths that haunt every family”). For me, the last sentence is what the publisher hopes readers will see in the work. If you were pitching in a query letter, I would leave that out. It’s okay for a publisher to say the novel is “exuberant and wise” but I’m not sure a writer could say that about his or her own work without sounding like a dork.