Thursday, May 20, 2010

Themes in Queries

I love a good, academic literature class. A class that dissects the thematic elements of a novel, its narrative and character arcs, or, better yet, a discussion that posits a novel's significance in a particular cultural or political landscape is more stimulating than a piece of dark chocolate. Seriously. (Ok, sometimes, at least.)

It's likely that many authors consider themes when writing their manuscripts, also. There are "issue" books in YA and middle grade--books that focus on divorce, drugs, peer pressure, etc., just like the infamous after-school special. But even outside of "issue" books, themes crop up when discussing and pitching all kinds of fiction: YA and adult; commercial and literary. I see the touchstones of these themes in query letters--words like "loss," "self-discovery," "grief," "journey into manhood," etc.

Now, if you were worried that I was going to add ONE MORE THING to your query checklist, have no fear. I don't think theme needs to be mentioned in a query at all. You can scratch it off your list. That being said, if you feel it's important to mention theme in your query, give your query letter a few extra double-checks before you send it out.
  1. Does your mention of theme add a unique element that you can't add through plot or character description/summary/pitch?
  2. Or does it rely on clichéd, broad tropes to do your dirty work instead of the fresh, specific language of your story, your plot and your characters?
If the latter, that is, if you're assuming that clichéd theme words will get your query letter in the door and close the sale while your good, special manuscript words are all hanging out together at home taking a nap on the recliner, make a new assumption. Herd those words you've got in manuscript form together, and send them out on the door-to-door sales calls. If you want to send them out in tandem with your theme words, they might make a good team--just don't send those poor theme words out all alone in their dusty grey suit hugging a battered briefcase filled with used tracts. It's a lonely sight to see at your doorstep, and it looks just as lonely in an agent's email box.

The best themes are subtle and incite conversation, maybe in class, over a post-dinner port, in book club, or with your critique partners/agent/editor while revising your manuscript. So be a little judicious in employing theme in the query letter. Otherwise, an agent might think that your manuscript has a didactic tone, not an engaging plot, and you might not get a chance to have the discussion about theme during revisions.


Ben Spendlove said...

I love the "all alone in their dusty gray suit" image. Made me smile. I've thought a lot about thematic elements, especially when I was having trouble dealing with "issues" like sex and religion. (Um, in my writing, that is.) Turns out that it works best for me not to deal with them at all, per se. The themes that really matter to me make their way into my writing unnoticed. Same goes for symbols. I'm glad I don't have to rewrite my queries. (Though now I feel compelled to scrutinize them, anyway.)

Elaine said...

I echo Naomi's comments 100%. I would also add that simply throwing out a few thematic words won't substitute for a query that gives an overview of the plot. Remember we're looking for novels, and regardless of the themes, there must be a compelling story. Sadly I've seen too many queries that I had to reject because at the end I had no idea how the story was set to play out.

Loree Huebner said...

Thanks for your valuable advice.

It's really hard to put your plot into a paragraph or two query. Most times the story doesn't sound as compelling as it might be, but we cross our fingers and hope it gets your attention.

You gave me some great tips to think about. I'll keep working on it to get it right before I send it out.

Thanks again.

Alice said...

Thanks for the querying tips. It's sometimes hard to know what to include and what to leave out. Theme is something I've never purposely included in my query letters. Maybe it's slipped in accidentally. I guess either way it's okay. I've enjoyed reading your posts and learned a lot from them. I look forward to reading future posts.