Monday, May 31, 2010

On the Comparison Trap

If there is one question I hate, it’s, “To what other books would you compare yours?” “Or what other books is your book like?” Agents and editors often ask writers to describe their novels in terms of other published works. In addition to finding this question difficult to answer, I believe it poses a couple of traps to the writer seeking representation.

First, comparing a well-known work of fiction to your own implies a certain level of hubris that might be thrown back at you. (You , my dear, are no Jane Austin.) But it hardly makes sense to pick something so obscure that the agent or editor is unlikely to have read or even heard about it.

Second, let’s say you can come up with a comparison. Now you have to justify how your story is unique. If it’s sufficiently different, then maybe the comparison doesn’t hold. A query letter is not the right place to offer these kinds of explanations, yet it is the place one has to sell oneself sufficiently to get read.

One way of dodging this bullet is to say, readers who like X will enjoy Y. Here, the comparison is implied rather than outright, but it’s still a comparison with all its attendant perils.

Of course, there is always that trick, popularized in the movie, The Player. My book/screenplay is Gone with the Wind meets Catcher in the Rye. The advantage of the analogy is it takes the focus off the direct comparison by splitting it between two targets. But how will the agent/editor know what aspects are most salient about the analogy? Is it the genre of the books we chose, the point of view, the time period, the overall tone, the plot, the themes, etc.?

Is the story in the above analogy a coming of age tale about a young Confederate soldier, who, feeling that his life is pointless as he watches his old way of life being destroyed, goes AWOL , taking his baby sister with him? Or is it a contemporary novel, set in the South, about a day in the life of a headstrong, but wealthy teenage girl, who leaves home and ends up in the middle of a gang fight? The possibilities are endless.

However, as an exercise, the analogy game is thought provoking. So here’s my attempt.

My novel about a young woman who loses her moral compass in Japan is kind of Memoirs of a Geisha meets Lost in Translation. Both books take place in Japan. With the former it loosely shares the overall plot told as a first person narrative of being about a naïve young woman who must learn for her livelihood the ins and outs of entertaining and pleasing men. However, Memoirs is set in an earlier era, the protagonist is Japanese, and she appears to have little choice about accepting this lifestyle. My novel is more contemporary (set in 1981), the protagonist is American, and she freely makes her choices.

Like my story, Lost in Translation highlights the complexity and challenges of being an American temporarily in Japan. Although my novel has its light moments, its overall tone is more dramatic than satirical or humorous. In addition, the protagonist in Lost in Translation is a middle-aged man; mine is a young woman.

How would an agent interpret my analogy? And what if they make different assumptions than the ones I’ve posed? Will they feel disappointed or worse, misled? Am I in danger of descending into absurdity? Will the agent pass if my analogy seems too far-fetched?

So as I construct the dreaded query letter, might I be better off just bypassing the comparisons and trusting that my story will entice on its own? There’s an original idea!

Friday, May 21, 2010

On a Letter to My Classmates Who Didn't Come to Our Recent High School Reunion

Dear Classmates:

When I tell people I went to my high school reunion, I get a variety of reactions. Most are surprised a) that my school has regular reunions and b) that I actually attended. And not just once in a lifetime but every five years. Reunions have become one of my life markers. I look forward to them—as does my husband! Since you are someone who for one reason or another has not participated in a reunion (or not for a long time), I wanted to share some thoughts about why you might want to consider (or not fear) coming to the next one.

Time waits for no one. As Chris, our exchange student who flew all the way from Munich for more than one reunion, put it. “We are not getting any younger.” Sooner than we’d like, there will not be that many opportunities. We’ve already lost more than our share of classmates.

We are all adults now. We’ve had lots of practice playing at being grown up, and it shows. Those cliques from high school? Erased. Those embarrassing or humiliating incidents? Forgotten. That adolescent meanness? Gone or replaced by guilt for slights or traumas caused. The personalities are largely the same, and the voices may trigger some unpleasant memories, but the rough edges are gone. And someone you didn’t think even liked you may remember you as being a friend, or tell you why they admired you or envied you. If you have demons, come bury them for once and for all. You’ll be glad you did.

No one was immune from problems. It seems that just about everyone had their issues. Now we have names for these things. When we were growing up, we didn’t have the labels for or the understanding of dysfunctional or even abusive family members , eating disorders, ADD, social phobias, homosexuality, or any number of other concerns that may have made our lives a living hell at some point because it seemed that no one (and maybe not even ourselves) understood.

It’s about now not then. Reunions at this stage of life aren’t so much about reminiscing (though a walk through the main building will catapult you to another time) as about finding out where people are now.

None of us is Peter Pan. Those few extra pounds? The gray hair or the bald spots? The wrinkles? All there. I thought we looked great, but then I’m older, too. You’ll blend right in.

Families are whatever we make them. Sure, many classmates got married and had kids; some also got divorced, lost spouses to death, lived with partners, loved people of the same sex, stayed childless, lived alone, bred horses, or smothered their pets with love. We were the generation for whom the rules changed, thank goodness.

We were lucky. No matter what indignities or traumas were a part of your adolescence, or even if you felt you got a raw deal from teachers, or you didn’t try your hardest, you have to admit that overall you got a great education. And it was a bargain compared to today’s private schools. Although the faces of the staff are no longer familiar, the values of the school remain.

We are a damn interesting bunch. Including those of you we haven’t seen. We are entrepreneurs, poets, farmers, doctors, teachers, cheesemakers, grandparents, artists, beekeepers, volunteers, sailors, potters, travelers, writers, inventors. One of our classmates has even been on Oprah. The best part is that you couldn’t predict a lot of what we’re doing now from who we were then. So many surprises! And more to come. You don’t have to have fit any traditional model of success to fit in.

We went through a lot together. Some of it heartbreaking (the accident). Some of it fun (our class language). Not all classes have a bond. And maybe you aren’t feeling it. But it’s there. You have to come to sense it. As someone put it, “The older I get, the more important I find it is to stay connected to the people who I knew way back when.” Several of us stay in touch in the years between reunions thanks to the Internet.

You were missed. Yes, we do wonder what happened to the folks who weren’t there—all of you! And aren’t you just a little curious about us?

Mark your calendar—May, 2015. No excuses.

Faithfully yours,