Introducing character detail; querying agents about a book
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: September 9, 2008
|It seems clunky to explain relationships or basic information, such as age or occupation, when first introducing characters. Is there a way to avoid this? |
You want to orient the reader quickly so that the realities of a situation are clear. Sometimes the direct approach is best, particularly when there are two characters in a scene. The reader will be looking for clues as to the nature of the relationship and to withhold them can cause confusion. The key is to avoid telling too much all at once, like this:
Jean, a sixty year old veterinarian, and her husband of three years, who is newly retired, sat by the window at Luca's in the heart of downtown Denver waiting for their braised lamb.
Too much information sounds forced. Instead, focus on the most important details. In this case, I'd go with the relationship, but it depends upon the nature of the story. The other details—if they're necessary—can come later:
Jean and her husband sat by the window at Luca's waiting for their braised lamb.
Labels aren't the only way to convey this information. John Cheever's "The Enormous Radio" starts out this way:
Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached
by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.
The pairing of the names—Jim and Irene Westcott—lets the reader know this is a married couple. Stacy Richter's short story "The Long Hall" begins like this:
It's so boring where we live that a certain percentage of high schoolers have gone completely berserk—late night partying, stupid driving, sex antics, smoking, and drinking—a lot of kids are doing it, not just Shane and me.
Immediately, the reader knows Shane and the narrator are close and that they're high schoolers. The narrator continues: "But when we first moved here, I thought this was the most beautiful place in the world." That they moved together suggests they're siblings.
Putting the character directly in action can also accomplish some of these important basics. Annie Proulx's "The Mud Below" begins like this:
Rodeo night in a hot little Okie town and Diamond Felts was inside a metal chute a long way from the scratch on Wyoming dire he names as home, sitting
on the back of bull 82N, a loose-skinned brindle Brahmacross identified in the
program as Little Kisses.
Proulx doesn't need to label him a cowboy. She just puts him on the bull and lets him ride.
I'm new to publishing and I've noticed some writers send queries to see if a publisher wants them to write a book. I thought that writers were supposed to have the whole book already written and send that. What's right?
Generally, fiction writers should have their book in great shape before seeking representation or publication. This means it has been written and revised. But you don't send that out as a first correspondence with agents and editors. Instead, you send a query letter, which is a document that encapsulates the entire book and your credentials in one enticing page. (Two, at the most, but one is better.) If they're hooked by your query, they'll ask to see a sample of the book and, perhaps, a synopsis. If that sustains their interest, they'll ask for the whole manuscript. Many agents and editors won't sign an author—particularly a first timer they haven't heard of before—without seeing the whole thing, which is why you want to have that polished manuscript ready to go.
For non-fiction, you don't need a complete manuscript at the ready. As a matter of fact, agents and editors often prefer to start with a proposal, which is a document that describes the nature of the project in depth. Proposals often include a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book, a description of the market, and details about why you are the writer uniquely situated to write it. Proposals tend to be significantly longer than query letters as you're essentially laying out the foundation of the book. Still, you don't necessarily start off with the proposal. Many agents and editors of non-fiction prefer the query first, and will invite you to send a proposal if they want to see that. Both the query letter (for fiction and non-fiction) and the proposal are complex documents. It's worth getting your hands on reference books to get more details and see samples before writing your own.
--Posted Sept. 9, 2008
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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