My Greatest Strength
I recently showed one of my query letters to someone I trust.
Eh, I’ve seen worse.
And he let me know what he thought.
The Big Question
For reference, I should explain that a query letter is a written proposal put forth by an author in which he asks an agent for representation. Not all the readers of this blog are familiar with the industry, after all.
And authors sometimes seek help in writing their query letters, which is why I showed this one to a trusted third party.
This person gave me the best advice of which he was capable. There was nothing mean spirited about his reaction, although he did have quite a few suggestions I was not expecting. On the whole, the experience was highly beneficial.
However, looking back, he said one thing that puzzled me, and that, looking back, I have to disagree with.
It all boils down to one question, which he asked me after reading the letter:
The topic was narrative structure. I made a point, in the letter, to claim that I thrive on narrative structure and that the book I was pitching was structured powerfully.
And his reaction was “So what?”
His point, if I’m not mistaken, was that having a talent for structure was not impressive, or perhaps that a talent for structure was not what he believed agents were looking for. And he could be right about that. When selling a car, you don’t brag about how well-built the machine is. Instead, you show off the features—the thrust of acceleration, the gas mileage, the heated seats, the sunroof, the twenty different airbags that will explode in your face from every imaginable direction.
And most people can’t consciously recognize good narrative structure when it happens, so why bother advertising it.
Here’s the Thing, Though…
You may see the fight for publication as a kind of war. Or you might see it as a kind of negotiation.
It doesn’t really matter which, because the basic rules are the same for both. You have to engage from a point of strength. And my strength IS narrative structure.
It’s not the only thing I’ve got going for me, of course. My characters, for instance, are fun and frictive, well balanced and sympathetic. But I can’t claim that characters are my dominant strength.
If you pit my books against the books of a master character builder—say, for example, Charles Dickens—there’s no way I’m going to win that fight. Dickens’s character roster is among the most powerful ever built, surpassed by Shakespeare and few others.
As a writer, it’s important to honestly audit your own capabilities, and, honestly, I will never surpass the great character creators of my own era, much less the greatest ones of all time.
But I don’t need to surpass them. Countless authors do just fine, and go on to great success, without having better characters than Dickens or Shakespeare. These authors don’t even try to outdo them. They don’t try to become the best in the world at one aspect of writing or another. Instead, they identify the aspects of writing in which they are already the best, and they market that.
In selling a book, the rule is that the author must play to his strengths. And structure happens to be mine.
My penchant for narrative structure can stand toe to toe with the best in the field. In this respect, I am among the best of my generation. And if Dickens (whose narrative structures, across his career, were hit and miss) were to duel me in this arena, I’d beat him back to the Victorian-era sweatshop he crawled out of.
Following the advice of this third party, I removed all references to structure from the query letter before sending it out. That was a mistake. Because when it comes to narrative structure, I have something truly extraordinary to offer, and it doesn’t do any good to hide that fact.
You don’t convince people to choose you by hiding what makes you exceptional.
And it was necessary for me to learn this, which is why I still see the experience as a an overall positive. People aren’t necessarily wowed when you tell them your car is well built. But if the people in question are those who work with cars, and who understand the underlying mechanics that make certain cars better than others, you’ll find them to be a bit more receptive.
When I get published, it will be at the hands of someone who appreciates narrative structure and understands its role in making great books. That much is clear.
So, in the meantime, I need to be clear that I have what such a publisher is looking for. That’s my clear path to publication. What else can I do but walk it?
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…along quietly.”]
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4 thoughts on “My Greatest Strength”
Narrative structure is an important hallmark of good writing. If you have a solid narrative structure in your story that could be something you want to highlight in a query letter.
What you want to avoid is a bland assertion that your narrative structure is good. You can’t expect the agent to take your word for it. In theory, you could explain why your narrative structure is good, but the limited length of the letter will probably prohibit such elaboration. Better to let the agent discover the narrative structure on his or her own, and let him be the judge… he will be regardless.
But the worst mistake of all would be to make self-aggrandizing statements about how naturally talented you are at narrative structure. You would, for example, not want to claim that your narrative structure would put Charles Dickens to shame. Such statements do not make you sound confident, they make you sound inflated.
My advice: sell yourself in a query letter, but use concrete credentials and facts, like your publishing history, if you have one, or other relevant experience. Leave your opinions about yourself out.
In selling a book, much as in applying for a job, bragging is more virtue than vice.
And it’s not bragging to claim one’s narrative structure is better than Dickens. It’s like saying that your use of color is better than that of Ansel Adams, or that your use of photorealism is better than Vincent Van Gogh. Nobody will contradict you after making such claims.
The only Dickens story that had showcase-worthy narrative structure was “A Christmas Carol”. His other works tend to get lost in the woods: A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Great Expectations—they’re all a bit of a mess. The characters are unforgettable, though.
I think Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right when he said that:
“Conceit is like the unguent on a sea fowl’s feathers. Without it the plumage would soak through and the bird would fly no more.”
But with respect to that comment he also said:
“Just because I like to take a saltwater plunge, doesn’t mean I want to be pickled in brine.”
Be very careful how you brag. Arrogance is a powerful spice and more than a small pinch can ruin the sauce.