Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Importance of Originality

Agent Kristin Nelson is on quite the roll lately. Not only has she been posting an invaluable series of posts on her author/agency agreement, she also just had some big deals come down the way. But best of all -- she is sharing the original query letters and her pitch letters for these now-completed deals.

If you aren't reading her blog regularly you'd better have a darn good excuse, buster.

In particular, though, I'd like to direct you to the original query letter for DEMON'S LEXICON, which happens to begin with a rhetorical question. I KNOW.

So. Would I have pressed the reject button on this query letter because it started with a rhetorical question, and in the words of Kristin Nelson, the letter is "far from perfect"? Honest answer: I don't know. BUT. I will tell you what I really like about the letter, and why I don't believe I would have been scurrying for the rejection button -- the letter is very original. The opening rhetorical question is answered in an unexpected way, the relationships are presented in an interesting fashion, and you just get the sense that although this is a genre novel, this is something different.

Or, in the words of the omniscient Kristin Nelson: "It’s more important for a query concept to be original than for a query to be perfect."

I think it's very easy to get hung up on the query letter portion of the manuscript process because it's something you can control. It's something we blogging agents can be specific about and offer handy-dandy pointers and preferences and we can be biased against things like rhetorical questions, and authors can work to death on the letters and get them into shape and it's one of the more scientific parts of the process because there's more or less a query formula.

On the other hand, "Originality," "marketability..." these things are all so slippery and difficult to pin down. I know originality when I see it, but I could never tell someone how to go out and write an original manuscript. So we don't talk about it much. Well, I blogged about it once, but it tends to get lost in the query obsessive culture we've created.

My query "rules" go straight out the window when I smell an original idea. Rhetorical questions, spelling my name wrong, obviously mass-mailed... BRING IT! I've requested all kinds of manuscripts that broke my rules. I don't think it's a good strategy to break these rules because it reduces your odds, but I'm also not going to sweat a few errors when there's originality at stake.

Great writing is important, it's important to know how to jump through the query hoops and to respect that process, but there's really no substitute for an original idea and a fresh take on an established genre.

As a wise man once said: You can teach a camel to write a query letter, but you can't force him to drink from the waters of originality.

Think about it.


sex scenes at starbucks said...

I agree with the originality bit.

I just had that experience myself last night while reading for the magazine, so I got it two-fold. Solid writing, tired ideas.

This weekend, I had an agent approach me (!) after reading 10 pages and a query for a workshop. She asked me for a full. The book isn't quite ready yet, but she said she didn't care, she thinks it's a great idea. It really struck me that she was excited about the STORY, not just my writing.

And you know what else struck me? She was almost as nice as YOU, Nathan!

otherkatie said...


That query stimulated quite a brouhaha over at pubrants, didn't it? Did you read the second query she posted yesterday from Jamie Ford? That one totally jumped out at me. I loved the way he included the fact that his father grew up in Seattle's Chinatown.

Which leads me to my question...

Do you think it's a good idea in query letters to include background about yourself that shows that you know of what you write. For ex, if your novel is about Appalachian poverty, and your dad was a West Virginia coalminer, you'd want to include that, right? I'm just concerned because I also don't want to limit myself with a label or stereotype.

Thanks for your blog, btw.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, I definitely think it's wise to include a personal touch if your background has relevance to the query.

Scott said...

Kristin's blog is amazing. Almost as amazing as this one. If I had to read only two (heaven forbid), those are the two I'd pick.

There are reasons why we writers are insane. We have to obsess about everything. We spend months or years obsessing about our work. I might be talking to my wife about something important, and in addition to listening to what she has to say, I'm listening to how she says it, watching expressions and other body language, and figuring out how this character I'm struggling with might say the say thing.

Then we obsess about every word, sentence, paragraph break, line of dialog, chapter title, whatever. And we change the title of our manuscript 100 times because it's never right. Sure, we know the publisher will change it to whatever they like, but we have to have a catchy title to make it through the submission process.

And that submission process. We obsess about the list of people to submit to. Then there's the perfect query letter that we're told we have to write, but an imperfect query letter will trump ours if the book sounds more interesting to the agent. And don't even get me started on a synopsis. Actually, we have to write more than one, because some people want a page, some people want three, some want "short," and some don't specify what they want.

Then we start having success with our queries, but our requested partials are rejected. Obviously a problem with our openings. So we go back and obsess again over the first chapter, which we've already redone 50-100 times. But if the first line/first page/first five pages aren't perfect, we're sunk.

And even if we do everything right, the odds are still against publication, mostly because no matter how well we follow the rules, there are so many places where a story can go wrong. Plus, the people we submit to have moods, energy levels, and personal preferences because they have the nerve to actually be human, which means everything can be done by the rules, but there's an intangible *something* that has to be there too, and there's no rule we can follow to produce that.

Most writers are a bit wacky to begin with. The process puts us over the edge, but once we start, we can't quit. Why? Because we become obsessed with getting published by a very tough industry.

Not complainin', just sayin'.

Heidi the Hick said...

Well I don't know about you, but I actually can lead a horse to water and make him drink. What? That's not what we're talking about? Sorry.

It's just that Scott there pretty much nailed everything I was thinking! Very telepathic of you, Scott!

I have been following PubRants and I'm fascinated by what I'm learning there. (I'm attending Blogiversity.) I think I have to write a query that's precise, efficient and correct...AND has a bit of personality, voice, and uniqueness to it. I don't even know if uniqueness is a real word. But I got it and I need to use it.

Conduit said...

The more I chip away at this writing business, the more I feel that trying to apply formulas or methods to anything is no more than an exercise in futility. There are certain things that are universal and immovable, such as general etiquette and common sense stuff (e.g. don't fill your query envelope with glitter, or call a Miss a Mister). But over and above those basics, I'm not sure there's a definite way to go about anything.

When I think back to Miss Snark's last Crap-o-meter, our beloved Empress spelled out a kind of road map of how to structure a hook. Of course, it seemed every other hook that rang her bell was nothing like the structure she spelled out. Likewise, over at Kristen Nelson's blog, neither of the two successful queries follows anything like the kind of formula I (and I'm sure many others) have been struggling to stick to.

When I try to rationalise what I really love about, say, a favourite movie, song or book, I can list tangible things I know I like about it. But that's really not enough. My favourite movie of all time is Billy Wilder's The Apartment. I know the crackling script, the layering of bitter and sweet, the balance of light and dark, the glowing personas of the leads, the gorgeous set design and photography, all these things add up to make it a great movie. But what takes it above that, and makes it something that's stayed with me since I was a kid?

I don't know. But obviously something about it speaks to me on a level beyond my understanding.

And I imagine it's the same for agents and editors, or anyone evaluating creative work. A piece of writing could tick all the right boxes - plot, conflict, character, voice, skill - but it takes something to connect at a gut level. Clearly the two queries over at Ms. Nelson's spoke to her on some level that went beyond all those how-to guides and do's and don'ts that we all slavishly stick to.

And proper order, say I, because if books (or any other media) could be formulated by a set of guidelines (do A, B and C, and it'll be good), reading and writing would be a very dull endeavour.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

If you aren't reading her blog regularly you'd better have a darn good excuse, buster.

Uhm... How aboooout: Because she said she's never sold a book written by a man? Or because she said she's only signed three men in her career and couldn't sell them? Is that reason enough?

Or maybe because every time she's posted the query letters which sparked her interest, I had a Whoa, we must be very different people moment?

Goodness knows that I appreciate her honesty. Saves me a lot of time and postage.

Susan Sundwall said...

Scott - Yikes! You title your chapters?? All of my chapters have the same title . . uh . . Chapter, but then I have a different number for each one.Maybe that's okay? Great, now I have something else to obsess about. Thanks a lot. :0)

Scott said...

Susan - I write for kids and kids like chapter titles. But here's the thing: I'm terrible at titles. I have trouble remembering titles of things I like, and even more trouble coming up with memorable titles for my own stuff. So I definitely think about scrapping chapter titles. All the time. They're hard. You have to capture the essence of the chapter without giving anything away. Maybe I should go back and redo them all *again*...

Scott said...

Or maybe kids don't care about chapter titles. Jeez. How am I supposed to work this afternoon when I'm worrying about chapter titles and whether I even need them? Thanks, Susan. Thanks a lot.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't remember reading that, and her most recent sale was written by a man. And her blog is amazing.

Isak said...

As for what conduit and Scott were saying about formulas and no formulas... I think there's got to be some merger between the two. I can best make an analogy from an episode of The Simpsons (feel free to roll your eyes) where Homer is trying to make a pit barbeque and fails miserably. The blueprints are fine, but in the end it's a mess of concrete, brick, and metal. In his frustration, he whacks the abomination murderously with a shovel, making it more unrecognizable until an art collector strolls by and declares the thing brilliant 'outsider art'.

Since there is no right answer, maybe we all need to follow a certain set of blueprints, let our emotions run wild with them, and some hapless agent will take notice of those personal struggles through what we create. I guess, for lack of a better term, this is Zen.

Linnea said...

Now that I know query rules can be bent into pretzels I'll be much more relaxed about the whole process and just write one that pleases me and hope it pleases an agent.

Anonymous said...

And her blog is amazing.

Kristin's blog provides a lot of information to writers, but I think Bookends LLC provides more and of better quality.

And Kristin is very nice and charming, but Nathan is funnier and more entertaining.

Amazing? Hmm. Beholder, eye.

otherkatie said...

Scott: I just started an obsessive compulsive thread over at Verla Kay a couple of days ago about chapter titles. haha funny timing.

For me it's hard to contemplate consciously breaking the query letter formula that I've learned at blogiversity (heidi, i saw you on campus the other day) because I don't have publishing credits, an MFA, or referrals.

It's like we're all in an apple pie baking contest, and the judges tell us over and over how to do the crust properly, slice the apples properly, and then they say, "And the winner is...this chocolate cake! Mmmm isn't it delicious?" And it is. But what about...this pie...oh well.

Sophie W. said...

I love Kristin Nelson. Sometimes her impeccable manners make me regret growing up inside the Beltway, and therefore being a complete pain in the bum.

I think Nathan is right on the money (as usual) about the originality bit. People forget that ultimately, this business is completely subjective. Kristin did a piece on her blog about authors she passed on who were published eventually. This should be a must-read for any aspiring author.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Good to know! (Translation: " 'Bout damn time!")

I checked out of my religious observance of her blog over a year ago, largely based on that assertion: straight from her keyboard to God's ears... back in the day.

I clicked the "big deals" link Nathan provided and they were both female authors. Not sure which guy you were talking about, but I have no doubt you are correct.

Ms. Nelson is a generous woman with a blog which I'm sure is helpful to many.

Nathan Bransford said...


I clicked the "big deals" link Nathan provided and they were both female authors.

Jamie Ford is a man.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Well, there you go!

That should balance out her client named Hank Phillipi who is a woman (and quite a handsome woman at that!)

Tammie said...

What Scott said was right on the mark.

Writers are a wacky bunch.

I guess, just know the rules - and then bend and twist them.

otherkatie said...

Nathan, I know you are a busy man, but please please watch the video Kristen Nelson just posted on her blog. High-larious.

Anne-Marie said...

Someone asked in yesterday's post how important the first line really is in the larger scheme of things. Is it possible for you to enlighten us about this? Thanks.


Nathan Bransford said...


Sorry about that! I meant to respond.

A great first line is sort of like a great title -- it can definitely catch my eye but it's not a be-all end-all. The entire novel has to be wonderful, and there are plenty of wonderful novels with unmemorable first lines.

Marlene Dotterer said...

I think I got it.

Find the rules.
Follow the rules.
Except when you break the rules.

It's like the song says (with apologies to Billy Hill):
You've got to win a little, lose a little
Yes, and always have the blues a little...

Jeanne said...

Scott - I love your post on why writers are insane. I'm going to make my husband read it so I can reference it whenever I'm having a wacky writer day/week/month. (no more blaming PMS)

Tammie said...

Okay now I had to run back to Pubrants to catch the video post.

Way funny.

I swear Kristin and Nathan have me checking in at least 3 times a day with fear that I will miss something.

You two make writing fun!

Other Lisa said...

Hey, I've been trying to get my camel to write query letters for months now. I've had no luck at all.

Do you think I'd be better off teaching him to write synopses?

Angelle Trieste said...

I read all agent / editor blogs and I must say I really like reading BookEnds, Pub Rants, and Nathan's blog, not necessarily in that order.

Nathan - thanks for discussing the query since my CPs and I had some discussions about it. Some seem to hate the query because it isn't technically perfect, but I thought the idea was interesting enough to get a partial / full request. :)

Chumplet said...

The structure of a query can change so much through the submission process. When I wrote my first query for Bad Ice, I sent it to a number of agents first, then worked up the guts to submit it to Evil Editor. I had a good laugh over the way he totally trashed it, then used his suggestions for my next version.

Soon I received a couple of requests. Good. But not good enough. The query I finally settled on didn't get me an agent, but it got me a publisher.

Apologies to the agents that got the crappy version.

katemoss said...


To weigh in on the chapter title debate... You should definitely keep the titles. I used to transcribe children's books into Braille and if I left out a chapter title on accident, it was the first thing I heard about from the kids. There were several of them who would always stop to think about the title and get excited about the chapter ahead.

katemoss said...

Besides, it's one more thing to tinker with on a day when the words aren't flowing!

Anne-Marie said...

Thanks, Nathan. You pretty much said what I figured.

Susan Sundwall said...

Definitely keep obsessing with those chapter titles. If they're as well thought out as your "reasons why" post, the kids will love it. I'm trying to move from kids to adults with my first comedy crime cozy. Kind of a comicozy. I only hope I don't self-destruct in the process.

Carrie said...

I agree that it comes down to the conecpt. I think it was Theresa Nielsen Hayden who said that your chances of getting published are pretty good if you have a good hook but pretty wretched if you don't. I'd say the same applies to finding agents and I've found it to be true. Look at Jamie Ford -- tons of agent interest and very unique hook.

I never did find an agent for the first book I wrote (lame hook), but with my most recent I had multiple offers of representation (and even got past Nathan's critical eye at the query stage).

Scott said...

My comment yesterday seems to have struck a chord with people. That's pretty cool.

So I've expanded it somewhat and put it on my own blog,

Come by and check it out, if you want to.

getitwritten_guy said...

In your comments, you've done a great job of describing submissions as a type of 'black box' process. Maybe that's what really drives us up the wall.

bran fan said...

The problem with overly-workshopped, overly-polished queries is that they are too "perfect," they seem cookie-cutter and a little ho-hum. Like an Ikea desk, it is functional and even sleek but little else. What you really want is an antique rolltop desk with all those nifty cubbies and real wood drawers and who cares if it has a few nicks and dings? Adds character!

JaxPop said...

The process to be respected is a moving target to be sure. I wonder, with this surely being the case, why writers would ever 'mass mail' queries - but then, I don't buy lottery tickets either. The comments from Scott & Conduit get right to the heart of it - very well said gentlemen. The tone of frustration is there but so is the ring of commitment. Fight on fellas! Dwight - I reached the same conclusion (not being negative here) about the Nelson Agency. Kristin's blog is awesome & I'm sure that they do a wonderful job - but it's still a matter of agent preferences. Since I write YA - I have FORCED myself (sympathy for agents inserted here)to read quite a bit of it. Some of it has been quite good, maybe even terrific. Much of it has been pointless, plotless & poorly written (with dialogue typically being the worst of it). THAT is when I question the system.

David L. McAfee said...

One should note that just being original is not enough. Some very original ideas never make it past the query stage. Either they aren't right for a particular agent.

Sara said...

It's like any artform, I think. You have to know what the rules are before you can break them.

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