Monday, August 30, 2010

The Query Letter: The Death of the Dickens?

As I started to ponder the #queries question, I started to ponder on the query letter in general. I don’t know the actual history of the query letter (my strenuous two minute Google search sadly ended in failure), but I imagine that it started when aliens came down and waved a magic wand over every sleeping agent to magically cause them to all require an introduction to manuscript submissions, so they could toss it out the window immediately without having to read 500 pages in before realizing: oh, I don’t like time-travel books.

There’s obviously no one way to write a letter. It is the bane of every submitting writer’s existence to come up with the perfect form-letter-that-also-sounds-personal. Researching all these different wants, personalities, likes and dislikes…

It is undeniable that it is a very time-saving process for agents, and that it is an invaluable practice for authors. Being able to sum up the book not only prepares the author for that inevitable, “so what’s it about?” question, but it also allows him or her to finally sit down after months or years or decades of sweet, hard labor and realize…oh whoops, I just re-wrote Harry Potter.

But is the time saved and the practice gained worth the cost?

Most agents (myself included) insist that the Classics would of course still have been published today. Fine writing is fine writing no matter what.

But I have to wonder. If Charles Dickens had submitted a query and the first 50 pages of David Copperfield to me, what would I have done?

It wasn’t until the very end of my forced reading of that book that I realized the pure genius of it; it is a beautiful character study. Every single page is necessary to flesh out his characters. But 50 pages in?

Dear Charles,

Thank you for thinking of me. I really appreciate your patience in allowing me time to consider David Copperfield.

While I was very impressed with your writing, I’m sorry to say that David Copperfield was just not for me. I found the pacing a bit slow, and worried that there just wasn’t enough going on to really break it out in today’s tough market. The length also gave me pause.

I’m sorry I couldn’t have better news; I wish you the best of luck!


So what do you think? Are today’s literary geniuses being overlooked, or just transformed into more commercial and ADD-friendly authors?

Because again, there’s no doubt there are some absolutely amazing authors today. And writing styles/tastes do change over time. I personally don’t feel we're missing any genius. But do you?


  1. Great post, Natalie. Yeah, starting a book with "I was born," might not get far today! So I'm glad he lived when he did, because I LOVE Dickens!

    I was thinking of other classics that begin with less than a bang. I wonder what's caused the change in how a book must open and unfold? Is it reader impatience? I thoroughly enjoyed the Count of Monte Cristo, but put a word count like that in a query today . . .

    Enjoy your blog!

  2. Such an interesting question! I think that styles and taste do change a lot over time, and that there's a reason why classics wouldn't necessarily get published today. That doesn't mean they're not still classics, and still awesome, but they're products of their time and I do think, in small part, that's why we love them.

    I also completely agree in that I don't think anyone's genius is necessarily being overlooked. I think perhaps some ideas and styles are harder to sell, which means that an author would have to work harder to find an agent/publisher who gets the vision than an author with a more commercial idea might, though. But I do believe that good writing is good writing, and even if it's not as commercial a piece, if the author is tenacious enough it will find its home.

  3. I think things have changed. Weren't a lot of novels written as serials and paid by the word? I think entertainment was more relaxed then as well. People didn't have all the things we take for granted today (the Internet, ebooks, movies, etc.) that are available for immediate gratification. :)

  4. Hush, there is nothing in my last novel that accidentally resembles Dementors. Nothing, I tell you...

    I think that some of the classics would struggle today, because they reflect a different time and place, a different world view. Imagine querying Tristram Shandy! (That could be quite fun, actually - what about a competition to write queries for classics?)

    Are we missing out on the classics of today, though? Probably a few, the same as a few were probably missed a century ago. I don't think any system, including the query system that's currently used, can capture every worthy piece that's out there. It depends, as Meagan said, on the author being tenacious, and on the author being able to frame their work in a way that's appealing -- whether that's marketing it to a paid-by-the-word newspaper, or sharing their story with an agent looking for new clients.

    I think the current system works well, much as I'm currently loathing beating my query with a stick until it takes on a form I can send out into the world.

  5. Hahaha -- what a hilarious post! I've had the exact same thought with Dickens and modern publishing... I'm still not sure BLEAK HOUSE would make it through. In fact, there are many classics that, though brilliant, require more patience and time than the average modern reader is willing to give. PORTRAIT OF A LADY, WIVES AND DAUGHTERS, or IVANHOE come to mind.

    That said, there are also many classics that would definitely beat the modern query process. Like, I think WE, HEART OF DARKNESS, CANDIDE, anything by E.M. Forster, or anything by Jane Austen all have opening pages that suck you in.

    This is a really interesting topic, Natalie. It got me thinking. :) Thanks.

  6. today's lifestyle is fast-paced in everything. from the internet (immediate access to whatever we want) to cell phones and even (GAH!) fast food. it has changed everything, from the way we think to our own personal level of patience. most americans are not willing to wait for anything....including waiting for a story to grab us.

    it's sad, though. because i do think many great new authors are being passed up, not only for the need of a fast-paced manuscript, but also for market conditions and demand.

  7. Unfortunate I do think today, that most of the classics would be overlooked because "we" as a society demand/want instant gratification. We want to dive into the water head first and get a shock rather than wading in gradually and feeling the subtle variations of temperature.

  8. I think in times gone by books were the main for of entertainment and if you were going to spend your money on one you wanted it to last. A lot of books these days can be read in less than two days, one if you're quick. And with more choice widely available why struggle through 500 pages to get to the bit you enjoy?

  9. I think something to consider too is that Dickens and Dumas published much of their work serially, which changes things like how we see word count. Think of it like American television, if it's a success the writers are challenged to continue that longer.

    Today's books are sold to the public like movies, as a complete product.

  10. I think we are ignoring/rejecting some great writers. Simply because a writer isn't also a good marketer/query writer does not mean his work is bad. I think many writers would rather concentrate on their work, not be bothered with salesmanship.

  11. It's kind of funny - in, you know, a sad kind of way - but YA has ruined me for adult books. Since I write and read YA almost exclusively, I have a really hard time getting through some adult books now. With all the adults reading YA now, I wonder if they're experiencing the same 'frustration.'

  12. I neglected to include the point that YA gets right into the story without taking those 50 pages to set things up. I'm sure you all got that though. ;o)

    Then again, there are authors like Jody Picoult, for example, who are wildly popular and take all the time they want to tell their story.

  13. Great Post . . . and good to know that David Copperfield gets better. I have picked it up at least 5 times in the last year to read (because I know it is a classic and is supposedly wonderful and great) BUT it is just so honking BIG! :-)

    Thanks for being so open and honest in your thoughts. I am not quite ready for the query process but am definitely interested in the discussion. Have a great weekend!

  14. I think that it's important to look at the subject in reference to the times. Why do classic writers take such length in describing characters...settings...etc? Today you can describe India to me in a couple of sentences, and I will have a full and rich picture in my head...but how? After all, I've never been there. It's because today we have travel shows on TV and the Internet. Back then it was important to go into great detail and length when describing something because there was a large chance that the person reading the book would have not seen that place...and possibly never would. I think that's why today we can get to the point a little more quickly. Does that make us bad writers? No...just great writers of OUR time.

  15. As someone who STILL hasn't gotten all the way through David Copperfield (although I love Great Expectations), I laughed out loud at this post.

    I'm reading Persuasion right now, and I've been thinking the same thing - what would happen to Jane Austen if she had to query today? I'm afraid her novels wouldn't be considered very "high concept" by today's standards. But then I think about what makes it a book that has stood the test of time - characters we absolutely love and care about. I guess it's a balance.

    Anyway, loved the post!