Reading agents' descriptions of what they want, or what they've recently acquired, can sometimes be discouraging for the querying writer. A number of agents will describe their wish-lists in terms like "utterly compelling" or "literally can't stop reading" or "most [over-the-top-adjective] ever" or a host of other dialed-to-eleven phrases (which of course I can't remember now that I'm called upon to retrieve them). Now, some of this is just the endemic hyperbole of people who are, after all, in marketing, albeit in a more palatable form than the typical Dilbert cartoon. Being extremely enthusiastic about books is their job
. But it can still be a bit of a downer to be told that success requires "the most overwhelming, superlative, non-stop, unsurpassed, fate of the world, ultimate ultimate ultimate!!!!!" when what you've written is a good solid book that tells a story people will enjoy enough to buy it.
Don't get me wrong; Highway of Mirrors
is a damn good book. The characters are interesting, the plot is solid, and if you like that style of writing, you'll like the writing style. ;-) If you like your espionage as "detail, not grand vision" (to quote Le Carre), I think you'll enjoy it. It is not, however, the most ultimately ultimate ever, and it's not trying to be.
Frankly, I find that sort of eleventy-billion storytelling tiring, and I don't want to read it, let alone write it.
Part of the problem is that I used to work in IT. Okay, that may be effect rather than cause, but the point is, I don't go in for extreme endorsements. "I think this will work for you" is a lot safer statement than "This'll be perfect! You'll love it!" when you're the one who's on call if it isn't
perfect in every way. ;-) It's not that I don't think an aspiring novel needs to be good; it needs to be very, very good indeed. It's just that a book that earned that kind of hyperbolic praise from me
would actually be fatal to mere mortals at ten paces. Frankly, I don't even sound like that when I'm describing Bujold, and I think Lois McMaster Bujold is pretty much the best writer ever, full stop.
And that's where I run into trouble with this sort of book-enthusing. But I realized recently that I was looking at it wrong, or rather, filtering it through the wrong lens. Because that sort of exaggerated amplification isn't just on the acquisitions end; it's part and parcel of the whole book-marketing industry. You see it all the time with blurbs and advertisements: the latest thriller is always "edge-of-your-seat" (heck, just look at the name of the genre); the latest romance is always "heart-wrenching" and "pulse-pounding". Every character is always the most or the best or the newest, every plot has a never-before-conceived twist, every setting the richest detail ever described by humankind. Book blurbs are just like that. Can you imagine the disappointment of a publisher receiving a blurb that merely says, "It was a good read"? Hyperbole is the industry standard.
("Blurb", incidentally, can mean either the back-cover or jacket-flap summary/pitch that tells you what the book's about, or the quoted endorsements by people whose opinions you're supposed to care about. You'd think an industry based entirely on words could have come up with different ones for these two different things, but no.)
Consider, for example, the back-cover endorsements of The Cuckoo's Calling
by 'Robert Galbraith':
"The Cuckoo's Calling reminds me why I fell in love with crime fiction in the first place." - Val McDermid, bestselling author of The Vanishing Point
"The private-eye novel is not dead. It was merely waiting for Robert Galbraith to give it a firm squeeze, goosing it back to bold new life. Fans of hard-boiled crime are going to go cuckoo for this one. I haven't had this much fun with a detective novel in years." - Duane Swierczynski, Shamus and Anthony Award-winning author of Fun & Games
The next one was partially lost under my library's UPC tag, but "...next outing. Strike is so instantly compelling that it's hard to believe this is a debut novel. I hope there are plenty more Cormoran Strike adventures to come. A beautifully written debut introducing one of the most unique detectives I've come across in years." - Mark Billingham, author of The Demands
"Robert Galbraith's debut is as hard-bitten and hard-driving as its battered hero. The Cuckoo's Calling scales the glittering heights of society even as it plumbs the dark depths of the human heart. A riveting read from an author to watch." - Mike Cooper, Shamus Award-winning author of Clawback.
Now, I quite liked The Cuckoo's Calling
. The writing style was engaging, and I zipped along happily through it without flagging, despite it being a fairly sizable tome. It was a book I kept wanting to get back to because I was actively enjoying the process, not just because I wanted to get it done -- a rare thing for me, these days. The main characters were interesting, and the variety of secondary characters and locations gave it a nice sense of depth. The ending could maybe have stood to be a bit better supported, but it's not like it sprang out of nowhere. I'd read more.
But those blurbs?
Well, I liked Strike, but I wouldn't say he was "instantly compelling". It took me a few pages to settle in with him -- which is not in any way a criticism! After all, I'd just met the man. "Most unique...in years"? He's got some interesting background that's well tied-together and skillfully fleshed out through the course of the novel, but it's not like he sprang fully-formed and unprecedented from the forehead of Zeus. I don't claim to be up on all the latest trends in Mystery, but we all know there are no new ideas, and that goes for character traits as well as plots.
And then there's the genre trappings. Is The Cuckoo's Calling
really "hard-boiled crime"? Maybe I just don't properly understand what that sub-genre means, but there's no Sam Spade here. I'd just call it a detective novel. "Hard-bitten and hard-driving"? Well, Strike's been knocked about by life a bit, and he does have a quiet dedication to seeing justice done. But he's hardly "hard" in the sense that those phrases conjure up for me, which is foaming-at-the-mouth-obsessive and totally lacking in a life outside of the case.
As for "the glittering heights of society" and "the dark depths of the human heart" -- well, I can see what aspects of the story that blurb-writer is getting those from, but that's not how it was presented in the book. They're just people, y'know? Some a little silly, some petty and venal, all pretty much wrapped up in their own lives regardless of how much money they've got to wrap themselves in. All that scaling and plumbing sounds frankly exhausting. Not at all how I want to spend my leisure reading time.
To be honest, I don't know if blurbs in general work for anybody. They certainly don't work for me. The only one of the four that sounds like a book I'd like to read is Val McDermid's; the rest would actively put me off. And I say that having already read the book, and knowing it's good.
I'm pretty sure we all read the same book. But you wouldn't know it from comparing their descriptions to mine.
And that's the thing to remember when you're looking at what an agent wants -- or what any industry pro or other advice-giver tells you you must have to get published -- and it all sounds like every book must be the ultimate apogee of human acheivement, never to be equaled or even approached before or since, so stimulating that you'd better have a cardiac team standing by while you read it. Yes, they want to be excited about your book. Yes, it has to be good -- really good. There's a lot of competition out there for not very many spaces, and this is in no way a manifesto to let quality slide. But "quality" doesn't have to mean "the most extreme eleventy-billion OMG ever!!!!!1!!!" The next time you see something like that, look at it the same way you'd look at a blurb on an already-published book. And adjust your interpretation accordingly.
And then submit your good solid story that's well-writen and engaging without being exhausting. Because I want to read it, damn it.This entry was originally posted at http://lizvogel.dreamwidth.org/100567.html because LiveJournal has broken posting on my browser. Comments accepted here, but please comment on Dreamwidth if you possibly can.