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  1. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    How do you describe literature in a sell-able way?

    Discussion in 'Query & Cover Letter Critique' started by amerrigan, Jul 26, 2017.

    Most pitches for books include a one sentence 'hook' and a one page synopsis.

    But how do you 'hook' literary works?

    e.g. Kerouac's On The Road's hook would be (sarcastically):

    "When a man decides to wonder around america, he has a long and rambling seemingly disconnected series of experiences that somehow manages to capture the essence of experience"

    And a secondary question - Do you think having to write something that can be described in this way is actually making us write terrible terrible 'high concept' crap instead of the powerful literary works we could be writing?
     
  2. NigeTheHat

    NigeTheHat Contributor Contributor

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    This is a bit of a guess since I haven't read 'On The Road', but from your line I'd guess you could probably do something like:

    'Burned out from the life he was told he had to live, Jack drops everything to take a surreal trip across backroad America, and as he does so reveals what it really means to be alive.'

    For the secondary question: no, not really. If your literary work is that powerful, I don't see why you can't sum it up in a good line. You're (presumably) aiming at publishers of literary works, they're not going to expect you to make your book sound like Harry Potter.
     
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  3. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Contributor Contributor

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    Possibly focus more on theme and impressions than plot and events in the book.

    Second question: Different books (genres) are written for different audiences with varying expectations.
     
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  4. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    Kerouac is probably a bad example. Today's literary market is on another planet compared to the 1950s. Hooks, pitches, and queries and designed to weed through the incalculable glut of publication submissions without having to read all the pages, which would be impossible. As for the second question I would say, no, it's not the necessity of taglines that has driven down the quality of "powerful literary works," if a decline in quality has even occurred. Publishers sell what people want to read and that's it. There are no other considerations. It's a product like anything else. The industry has no more concern over what people like to read than the auto industry does regarding the popularity of cars vs. trucks. So long as they get their consumers what they want, everyone is happy.
     
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  5. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Not sure why any writer would feel they have to write crap to sell books. Do you know how hard it is to sell a book? Do you know how much harder it is to sell a crappy book. (FYI: I do not think On the Road is crap.) I think maybe you just haven't had much experience with writing hooks of queries. This is a chance to sell yourself and your book. Think of what might hook readers if it was printed on the back of the book. A crappy hook isn't going to hook anyone. The example you wrote could be about any book. If I read your hook and didn't know what book you were talking about, I never would have guessed On the Road. People are writing great literary works all the time. I really don't think this is something that is holding anyone back from what they are writing or want to be writing. Your post kind of implies that people aren't writing and publishing great works. I don't know why you would think that. There are more good books out there than anyone probably has enough time to read and more keep coming.
     
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  6. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    And here I would actually argue that cars produced today look identical to each other and lack the personality they once had - much like the books that 'keep coming' today - there's a real sense of sameness on the bookshelves these days - nothing seems to have a new voice, or break new ground - it all seems really - - I don't know - - - 'safe' - - maybe? I spend a lot of time walking around bookshops - and I look at new releases and try to find something that feels like someone is taking a risk and trying something new - I never seem to find it - I try reading the 'award winning' books to see if it is there - but they seem overly preoccupied with awarding social justice rather than awarding literary talent these days.

    Feel free to disagree with me in the form of 'reading suggestions'.

    By the way - I legitimately wanted to hear how people who write literature query their works. I didn't post this to complain about how hard my life is or to talk about my work failing - because it isn't and it isn't. My life is gold, my work is great. No complaints.

    Think of it more as an interview question. 'Hi, people who write literature, how do you query and pitch your work? I am interested to know.'

    And in regards to my second question - - Yes, I guess I was trying to troll a little bit by using the word 'crap'. I was trying to hint at that old cliche of 'When I started writing I thought I was going to be Dostoevsky, but my publisher is making me write a Twilight clone!'

    I'll further the question without the troll.

    Do you take into consideration that 'one sentence description' of your own works when you start to come up with the idea for the book?

    And do you think that doing that at the inception stage of your writing changes the path that your work takes, and therefore transforms the finished novel into something it would otherwise not be?

    And if you wanted to write literature and you took this one sentence description into consideration, what would that sentence look like?

    The general hook structure of: 'When a character discovers that A, they go on to do B, finally discovering that it was C all along' doesn't seem to feel right to me for some reason - - thoughts?
     
  7. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    I don't, no. I suck at writing hooks, blurbs, and queries.

    Depends on what A, B, and C are. If they're interesting then maybe? You'll have more than one sentence to query your work (maybe 300 words or so) and the publishers usually work out the tagline anyway, so I wouldn't worry too much about a single, golden sentence.
     
  8. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    Using the word 'interesting' is kind of what I'm discussing - - when it is a book that is high-concept then you easily have the 'interesting' already at the forefront of your mind - - but when it is a book that's more high-end - it's hard to be confident that your version of A B and C satisfy the 'interesting' and are not coming across just as pretentious - or when you have a book that is more subtle and immersive how do you go about SELL SELL SELL for the book?

    In fact - is pretentiousness really okay? I think so - we are writers - which is instantly associated with pretension - but we are generally made fun of and made to feel guilty about our pretentiousness - through comedic mockery and cliche - and I feel as though the general public's 'eye-rolling' at our pretension, which makes us try to be less pretentious when we interact with 'normals', would also lead us to weed the pretentious out when we try to sell our works to others.

    Actually, now you mention it, maybe it IS just the tagline I'm asking about here, not the hook or query at all - as I'm not currently trying to query any literature, perhaps this is the real problem I'm dealing with and trying to find an answer for - when I look around the bookshop, I pick up a new book and read the tagline and it is generally the main thing that leaves me feeling like the book isn't satisfying this strange desire I currently have.

    I think I'll name my desire: 'The desire to read currently released pretentious books that a writer would read'.

    Oh, btw - I picked On The Road as my example because it was a notoriously difficult book to get published - so I thought it would be a good puzzle-example to figure out how this would have been done.
     
  9. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    internet error double posted
     
  10. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Wait. Are you calling On The Road high-concept literature? Um... well... Listen, we can all read Balzac, but that doesn't make us snobs or pretentious. Neither does being a writer. I often find that reading and writing can humble me. That would be the exact opposite as you, it would seem.
     
  11. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    Oh no no no - I'm saying that other people perceive US as snobs and pretentious - regardless as to what we think of ourselves - and I'd like to point out that they do consider sentences like 'I often find that reading and writing can humble me' as an example of this very pretension.

    I am talking from the point of view of 'owning pretension' - not as a negative thing. I actually like being considered pretentious. It makes me feel like I'm better than people - a feeling I very rarely feel.

    And also, I'm talking as if 'high concept' and 'literature' are two separate entities. Not the same thing - for example - Transformers 5 vs Les Enfants Terribles
     
  12. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I don't think you have a strong grasp on the literary scene and you certainly don't know me well enough to call me pretentious. That was kind of a jerk move.
     
  13. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    ..
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2017
  14. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    ..
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2017
  15. izzybot

    izzybot Transhuman Autophage Contributor

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    I don't have my glasses on and thought this said "I suck at writing books," and it took reading the rest of the post for me to even question it.

    Anyway ... I don't even write literary fiction, I have absolutely nothing useful to add to this thread. Good night folks.
     
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  16. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    Haha... I suck slightly less at those.
     
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  17. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I agree with @TWErvin2 - the line should focus on what's unique/intriguing about the work, and for literary fiction that won't likely be plot.

    I'd start by figuring out what your book's strengths are. Deep themes, lyrical prose, a profound message... okay, those all sound really boring to me, but I assume people who look for books with deep themes, lyrical prose and/or profound messages wouldn't agree!. Then once you know what the selling point is, write it up.

    It's been a long time since I read On the Road, but I'd probably start with looking at the themes of freedom and longing, and the quest for self-knowledge, the free-form prose, the kind of non-militaristic patriotism... then maybe I'd try:

    Sal Paradise left home searching for himself; instead, he found America, in all its ugliness, beauty, and truth.​

    or

    Sal and Dean are universal adventurers searching America for its spirit, its freedom... and themselves.​

    or something less hokey. Obviously it would be good to get more narrative voice into those, but I'm not going to try to imitate Kerouac's prose, not while I'm sober!

    The point is, the plot isn't likely what's going to sell a literary work. Figure out what will sell it, and then talk about that.
     
  18. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    No, pretension is not okay. Pretension is bullshit. A pretentious book, by definition, would be making excessive, unwarranted, or affected claims without any substance to back them up. I don't read books like that. I drop a book at the first sign of pretension, and great prosaic authors don't do that (Morrison, Atwood, McCarthy, Marquez, et al). I get that certain aspects of the "general public" might deride the full deck of literary fiction (or all books in general) as being pretentious, but fuck them... they aren't going to be buying the books anyway, so that's a non-factor for me. I wouldn't sweat an inability to sell scungili salad at McDonald's either.

    I don't mean to harp on Kerouac--I know you only picked it as an example--but interpreting older books through the tastes of modern readership is impossible. Kerouac was a pioneer for his time but that 1950s milieu of a middle American frontier is unrecognizable today. The same goes for The Catcher in Rye now that kids drinking, swearing, and screwing is no longer noteworthy (and I doubt it was back then either, but people weren't used to reading about it, I guess). Does that make them pretentious today? Maybe. It's been awhile since I've read them, but I could see how a modern readership would think the claims were unfounded or affected now that their context is passing out of living memory.

    You seem to think that books are getting "dumber" as we move forward, and you're probably right to a certain extent, but it's too hard to separate taste from accessibility when it comes to reading. Literacy used to be a privilege of the elite and a tool of oppression. There's a reason the church controlled education in Europe for as long as they could. And why educating or teaching slaves to read was forbidden, or why women and minorities were excluded from higher education as a matter of policy for so long. This wouldn't have been as relevant for Kerouac as it would have been for the 19th Century classics, of which many seem pretentious as hell today because we're not interpreting them through the aristocratic mindset of their initial readership.

    My attitude is the more people who want to read the better. And if they like reading "safe" fiction then good for them. I got no beef with that. This is America (for me, at least, and much of the literary market): if you're willing to spend the money you get to buy what you want, and there's plenty of options as far as books go. Sure the general public exhibits some ovine susceptibilities to marketing and persuasion, but that's the game.
     
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  19. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    I think you've hit the problem that I was trying to deal with when I brought up 'pretension' - if you are going to try to send out a novel and you don't talk about it in terms of the face value plot-line, which is what most people say to do when sending out a novel, and instead you write 300 words that basically says 'I've written a book that has deep themes, lyrical prose and profound messages' then you can't help but come across as pretentious.

    As Potvin says, the crux of pretension lies in the notion that nothing exists to back it up. I'd argue that - even if something does exist to back it up - BUT nobody sees this evidence - then it still becomes read as pretension.

    If an artist makes claims of genius in a forest, but nobody is around to see the masterpiece fall, does it ever actually prove their worth?

    While the manuscript is sitting at home, not being read, and you are claiming that it is a brilliant piece of writing that should be published, then, until you are given the opportunity to prove that it is true, you will come across as a pretentious git claiming that you've written a brilliant piece of writing.

    I was asking if it is okay to make these claims. If agents/publishers roll their eyes at these claims. If they want you to avoid them. And I was using taglines as evidence to discuss this. I don't see these claims being made in taglines on book covers. Perhaps they appear as quotes from 'reviews' - but you can't quote reviews when you haven't been reviewed. My conclusion was that I think it should be okay to take the risk of being thought of as pretentious, but I didn't know if this was really true.

    In any case, when I say I don't mind being thought of as pretentious, it is because it has a double meaning these days.

    When someone calls another person pretentious in every day dialogue it generally means something along the lines of 'he likes to sit in coffee shops all day writing in a notebook; watching only movies that are black and white and have subtitles; going to art galleries and talking about the great use of line' - regardless of whether or not you are the head writer of the highest selling newspaper, or just some first year university student, and doing these things - you will be thought of as 'pretentious' by other people. I was saying that this kind of use of 'pretentious' could actually be a compliment, and could be okay - maybe - and in this light, maybe agents and writers would connect on this 'pretentious' level - and I tried to present this as evidence to support that it might be okay to write a pretentious sounding pitch.

    Its fine for you to harp on Kerouac, I mentioned it so that it could be discussed. I wasn't saying Kerouac was bad or pretentious; and yes, I was only using it as an example of a novel that would be hard to query, and one that faced a challenge in being published - but when you talk about the relevance of the contents to today's readers - and Catcher - I think you open up another can of worms type problem faced by literature these days.

    It almost seems easier, or even wiser, to write literature set in the past. As a vague example, Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road To The Deep North won the Manbooker prize in 2014 - My vague example is that perhaps it was able to use more literate language due to the flexibility of period and setting.

    If you were to write Catcher set today, and tried to deal with the issues it deals with, then you'd probably accidentally end up writing an episode of Degrassi [or an episode of Skins, if you want to talk more award winning shows]. My point is, it becomes TV.

    - - But if you write something set in the period of Catcher - - well anyway - - you get the picture. And I've written way too much in this post already.

    I'm not sure that I think books are getting 'dumber' - I've studied literary history, and I think the ratio of 'dumb' to 'smart' books are about the same - - you've always had to sell pop to survive.

    Although, wasn't Catcher considered a 'dumb' book at the time - i.e. one that was considered to be filled with sensationalist filth that was aimed at selling as many books as possible by appealing to the outrage of the masses - and didn't it only became literature later on?

    And On The Road had a similar thing happen with the sensationalism of the obscenity trials - -
     
  20. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Potatoes again? Supporter Contributor

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    Time and history are filters. We have the image of the past being a "Golden Age" of (writing/music/art/culture) because the good stuff is all that has survived, at least in the popular consciousness, but there's always been plenty of crap out there. Take music, for instance. I was born at the beginning of the seventies, but I like a lot of music from the 60s and 70s. There are a lot of artists from back then who created songs of pure genius, but on more than one occasion, I've gone and listened to the rest of the album, and, well, there's a reason for greatest hits albums. I'm not putting down the completists, but even very talented musicians can turn out some awful tracks, just as very talented writers have off-novels, and that's not even covering the Stacy Qs of musical history, or the pulp novelists of the early 20th century, or the Greek playwrights whose shows closed after one night.

     
  21. NigeTheHat

    NigeTheHat Contributor Contributor

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    I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you're not dissing Bike when you've got virtually the entirety of A Saucerful Of Secrets available...
     
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  22. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Potatoes again? Supporter Contributor

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    Let's just say that Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun holds up better.
     
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  23. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Potatoes again? Supporter Contributor

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    Except for the ducks at the end, of course.
     
  24. Myrrdoch

    Myrrdoch Active Member

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    Those mo*$erf^%$ers.
     
  25. Foxxx

    Foxxx The Debonair Contributor

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    I don't come across "pretentious" being used a lot in everyday dialogue but I'll chime in.

    My dad doesn't think it's pretentious for me to sit in a Starbucks most days with my earbuds in, writing. He just thinks it's stupid, because his life growing-up was completely different from mine: It's entirely because of the sacrifices he made, taking 9-5 jobs and never missing out on overtime, doing everything from farm-hand work as a kid, to working his way up the chain at a carwash until he was a low-level manager, going to college and working full-time (unlike me), going through the trouble of learning how to be a butcher just to find out that technology was going to make him irrelevant, returning to school to learn other trades and finish some degree related to management, "babysitting adults" as he put it for a hospital where he met my mom, and finally after a short stint of being a handyman / electrician is now a truck-driver for Chrysler working on his retirement-

    all that so I can afford to follow my dream, something he didn't, and maybe couldn't, do.

    Anyway. By definition I thought pretension included "trying to impress", which gives me a hint that if something is pretentious that means it's dishonest. Fake. Phony.

    If your work really holds the importance you claim it does in the tag-line, query, or whatever, it will show in the work. And if when you're writing you're not worried about impressing but are rather concerned with telling a good story that you truly believe has a genuinely good message or meaning to share, I fail to see how this is pretentious except in the eyes of others who don't understand for one reason or another.

    So yeah, I've never heard of writers or artists in general being pretentious. I've certainly heard them being called dreamers, or simply frowned upon by people who choose to slave away at a factory job and despise seeing a person trying to break the status quo.
     
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2017

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