Funny is as Funny Does

by | Jan 14, 2008 | Query Letters | 37 comments

I’ve been getting quite a few queries for comic novels lately. How do I know they’re comic novels? Well, the author tells me that they’re funny.

Look, I love funny novels! Good comic writing is extremely hard to find. But here’s the problem with this approach: if someone can’t make me laugh in a query letter for a comic novel, I’m guessing the novel itself probably isn’t that funny.

This extends to every genre. If someone tells me their novel is literary but the query letter doesn’t display quality writing, I’m going to assume the novel isn’t that literary. If the query is for a suspense novel but the description of the plot seems hackneyed or cliched, I’m guessing the novel is also hackneyed. The query letter needs to embody the underlying work.

Now, I don’t think this should be taken too far — it’s still essential to get the plot of the novel across, and whatever approach you take to convey the spirit of your project should not feel forced. A good, straight-forward, organized query letter is usually better than trying to get too far out of the box in the name of creativity — I mean, you don’t need to send me your query printed on a whoppee cushion.

But at the same time, a query letter should reflect the strengths of the underlying material. And if you have a funny novel, the query needs to be funny too.

37 Comments

  1. Adaora A.

    Hey first to post!

    Ha I didn’t know you were going to post about ‘bringing the funny’ so soon but I’m glad you did!

    This post helps very very much.

    Reply
  2. Josephine Damian

    I mean, you don’t need to send me your query printed on a whoppee cushion.

    Now why didn’t I think of that the last time I queried? lol

    Nathan, do you see lots of gimmicks in queries, and by that I mean props? People trying to stand out in the crowded slush pile? As if the rhetorical questions weren’t bad enough.

    Reply
  3. Steph Leite

    This is very true. Always good to find a happy medium between voice and straightforward-ness in queries.

    – Steph

    Reply
  4. Nathan Bransford

    josephine-

    I see less gimmicks now that I moved (or tried to move) exclusively to e-mailed submissions, but let’s just say a whoppee cushion wouldn’t be the strangest thing I’ve seen. And the harder someone tries to be outside the box, generally the more it scares me.

    Reply
  5. Bookrat

    As a writer of science fiction and suspense, I’m glad I only have to worry about being hackneyed. It would be too much pressure to write a scary query letter, or one that made you feel technologically advanced. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Adaora A.

    What if I found something in your blog (as a regular reader) which I thought could have a small laugh about in my query letter? Of course it would be in normal standard letter (obviously a personal query), would it be ok?

    Reply
  7. Emily

    Whoppee cushions… ah, brings back memories of childhood, older cousins and miserable claims of “But it wasn’t me!” Lol.

    I like this post because it makes a lot of sense… yet at the same time it is so hard to write a query and make it fit with a novel’s tone/genre. I mean, how would you make a query sound mysterious (if you were doing a mystery,) or romantic… (especially a romance) without sounding idiotic or creepy?

    I’m curious now about the gimmick thing, though. What was the weirdest thing anyone ever tried?

    Reply
  8. Nathan Bransford

    Emily-

    It’s definitely a tricky balance, which is why it’s so important to take your time, have it vetted by friends you trust and/or a critique group and make sure it’s as perfect as possible.

    The weirdest thing someone sent was a query and proposal wrapped (and disguised) as a birthday present. That scared the living crap out of me. I get a lot of weird letters and have had bizarre experiences dealing with “off” people, there’s no need to scare me further by sending me mysterious packages.

    Reply
  9. Sam Hranac

    Good points regarding making the tone somewhat match the story. I also remember an agent at a conference telling the crowd that another way to go overboard is to bring too much of the voice from the novel into the letter. She mentioned that someone who wrote a story from a child’s viewpoint, also wrote their letter like that. I think she said they actually used crayon.

    It is a fine line.

    Reply
  10. Sophie W.

    I mean, you don’t need to send me your query printed on a whoppee cushion.

    But what about a funny paper hat? Everyone loves paper hats! I bet you could find a really tasteful one, too, that compliments your orange sweatshirt.

    Reply
  11. Adaora A.

    They probably thought they would scare you into requesting a full immediately!

    Someone is looking to send you a query video emersing drunk monkeys into the plot.

    Reply
  12. Anonymous

    It’s not just queries. I knew a marketing/PR consultant once who had the great idea of sending a BULLET to over a hundred media contacts along with a cryptic note about how “it is coming” and a date. He got so much pain from that bad idea that he had the even better idea of sending each contact a half case of wine for troubling them. Uh… he sent it himself without regard for the laws about sending alcohol across state lines.

    So be careful out there.

    Reply
  13. Adaora A.

    Talk about a drunken stupor. (I honestly couldn’t resist hun!)

    Sounds like he had a good idea…simply misguided…very misguided.

    Reply
  14. Colorado Writer

    I learn something every day on here. What about calling it “a humorous contemporary novel” ???

    Thanks Nathan.

    Reply
  15. John Arkwright

    Writing a good query letter just took another step toward impossible. Summarize your 90,000 words in 35 words or so AND be funny in an original way (without being creepy or unprofessional, etc.)

    Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown once said, about playing rhythm and lead guitar at the same time in his song, CHICKENSHIFT, “It’s impossible. But that’s what we’re here for–to do the impossible.”

    Reply
  16. Taylor

    This post reminds me of a classic SCRUBS episode where JD gets annoyed about his girlfriend, played by Mandy Moore, saying everything is funny instead of actually laughing at it. After he makes her cry by confronting her about it he says the classic quote, “it’s funny. She’s not saying that’s so sad. She’s actually crying.”

    More seriously though, I have heard this is also a good approach to use in books. When a character is talking don’t over do the things like “I hate you,” clarice said with a grimace. Just the words “I hate you” get across that she probably doesn’t have a positive look on her face enough. The reader should be able to tell by the words if something is funny, scary, or whatever (I think Stephen King wrote about this in “On Writing”). Glad to have a reminder that the same rules apply to query letters.

    Reply
  17. Nathan Bransford

    John-

    35 words is way too short. And it can be done. In fact, I receive good query letters all the time.

    Reply
  18. A Paperback Writer

    Hmmmm…..
    But has anyone ever tried to e-mail a whoopee cushion?

    Reply
  19. dramabird

    Nathan, what do you recommend as some of the funniest novels? We see both films and books in the categories of horror, sci-fi, drama (literary fiction), chick flicks (chick lit) … but what are the book versions of “Blazing Saddles” or “Superbad” or “There’s Something About Mary”? When I see agents list their accepted genres, I don’t see a catch-all category of “comedy.”

    Is there something inherently visual about comedic films that makes it difficult for there to be a straight-forward counterpart in novels?

    Reply
  20. sex scenes at starbucks

    I wouldn’t dare submit humor to you because you’re waaay funnier than me.

    Reply
  21. LoisLane

    This query writing business has got me beyond distraught. I have been combing the Web for help and am so glad that I have found yours among other like Ms. Snark, BookEnds, et. al., which I read daily. This last entry and its subsequent tips helped me do what I knew I needed to do in my own letter but hadn’t any ideas how to approach it in a sentence. And so much counts those first few words from you to a potential agent… it’s almost as if there is really no way one can win. Then again, so people have.

    Regarding and older post about synopses… I do know of a published author and agent who has posted the sypnopsis for her first book online. It might not be what one might want to do on their own (she suggests one page for every 10K words) but it’s a great starting point for those of us who are first-timers in this world of words… she’s published it herself, so I don’t think there are any issues with confidentiality… and that might be a good way to help each other out. If you have been published and your book is already on the shelves, why not share the winning query letter and synopsis that helped you ink your deal? Btw, the only thing she asks is that you sign her guestbook.

    http://www.karenequinonesmiller.com/Synopsis.htm

    Reply
  22. Dwight's Writing Manifesto

    GAHHHH!!!!

    “Be funny but be professional.”

    “Make sure you describe the conflict and resolution but don’t take more than a paragraph.”

    “Frontload a hook into your query, but don’t be cutesy.”

    GAAAAAHHHHH!!!

    …and you wonder why so many writers you meet at conferences twitch and tic, Nathan.

    Reply
  23. Travis Erwin

    Timely, I am writing a funny novel and I only have the vaguest of notions how I want to craft the query so the tips will be handier than a …

    Okay, I’ve sat here for ten minutes trying to think of a great metaphor to highlight just how witty I am but my imagination seems to have sagged just when I needed it the most. Now I know how an impotent man must feel. No wonder Viagra is such a success.

    Reply
  24. sruble

    I get the idea for a humor query, but what about a query for a graphic novel?

    If it’s an email query: Should you include a link to a sample on your website?

    If it’s a snail mail query, should you include a character sketch on your letterhead?

    Hmmmm …

    Reply
  25. Nathan Bransford

    sruble-

    In that case a link would be fine, but make sure the query stands on its own as much as possible.

    Reply
  26. Erik

    Humor seems impossible to maintain over novel length, to me. If you look back in history, commic operas and plays are usually about 90 minutes, but tragedies … well, Henry IV was a two-parter.

    But what about a dry humor and general sense of other-worldliness that comes across as comic relief as an essential element to a novel? Carl Hiaasen comes to mind as a first approximation.

    Have you ever had a query reflect that spirit well? What caught your attention?

    Many thanks. I’m considering a memoir despite a pledge on the contrary that I’d never do it.

    Reply
  27. Ryan Field

    Suppose a writer is pitching erotica? Should the query letter be erotic?

    “A good, straight-forward, organized query letter is usually better than trying to get too far out of the box in the name of creativity.” …Aside from the cliche, this is the best advice an agent could offer.

    Reply
  28. Anonymous

    Nathan is a “query only” agent, but it’s worth considering that there are plenty of other agents, including ones who have sold a lot of books, who report that they prefer to read the first paragraph rather than the query because they find it a better guide to the quality of the submission.

    Their submission guidelines will tell you to send them a couple pages or even chapters rather than just a query letter.

    If you write a great 80,000 words but don’t have the ability to boil them down to a single paragraph you might just be a novelist rather than an advertising copywriter.

    In that case, find an agent who will look at your first page(s). There are quite a few of them out there.

    Reply
  29. Nathan Bransford

    anon-

    I have no doubt that there are other agents out there with other submission styles, but you are faintly suggesting that there are good authors out there who would be unable to condense their work into an effective short description. I fail to see how that is possible. An author is going to have to provide some sort of a short description SOMETIME in the publishing process. Might as well start practicing.

    Reply
  30. Anonymous

    (The same Anon again)
    Nathan,

    Some agents pride themselves on being able to create those punchy brief descriptions after they’ve read a book and fallen in love with it. They consider it part of their role in marketing the book.

    I didn’t make this up–it’s something that quite a few agents have discussed in online discussion groups over the years.

    Some agents with long track records have said publicly that their experience is that query letters don’t give them a good enough indication of whether the book is worth reading. Others feel the way you do.

    The point is that if a person isn’t doing well with agents who only review query letters, it might be worth trying a couple who read the first page(s). If those don’t elicit a response, then yes, there is a problem, but at least then the author knows the problem is with the book itself, not the query letter.

    Reply
  31. Marti

    “Hmmmm…..
    But has anyone ever tried to e-mail a whoopee cushion?”

    Yes, they put it in the enclosed S.A.S.E.
    (A standing joke of Nathan’s, of e-mail queries that say they enclosed an S.A.S.E.)

    It seems that humor of any sort is very difficult to find representation for. I’m a member of “Southern Humorists” and at the message board, I hear very talented writers bemoaning the fact that they can’t get published.

    Reply
  32. Nona

    And if you have a funny novel, the query needs to be funny too.

    Sorry to disagree, Nathan, but I’d have to say that the person who follows this advice is probably “trying too hard.” And by that what I really mean is, “not trying hard enough.” Okay, I’ll explain.

    You need to put all of your humor into the book. And I mean, ALL OF IT. So much that there’s none left for the query letter. So much that you are wrung out of funny. Positively sick of it. Like if you’ve ever made a five course sit-down meal or even a batch of chocolate chip cookies. By the time you’re done, you’re so sick of the cookies that you can’t even look at them. Good writing is like that.

    When you can’t stand to look at the manuscript even one more time, you’re probably ready to start querying. And you can write a straightforward query letter without feeling guilty about it. Or if you absolutely must, get a friend who’s read the book to write the funny query bits.

    Put all of your effort into the WORK. The rest is superfluous.

    Reply
  33. Anonymous

    I like Nona's comment. Do you have a literary query letter?

    Reply
  34. Anonymous

    I like the other anonymous person's comment "you just might be a novelist rather than an advertiser" or something to that effect. My novel is a dark comedy. A literary novel is hard to reduce to a few sentences.

    Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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