Wednesday, September 05, 2007

When Sheep Stampede

Strayed Sheep,
William Holman Hunt, 1852,
Tate Gallery, London.

All it needs is for a person of influence (read agent or editor) to articulate a personal taste about the submission process and within days it becomes a canon cannon, fired off hither and yon all over the place.

Agent Nathan Bransford, for example, does not care for queries that begin with questions - questions usually described as "rhetorical".

If I were an agent, I wouldn't either - I'd prefer a query to get to the point immediately without oratorical flourishes.

But I have noted that other agents, on occasion, have indicated that the question form of introduction is quite acceptable in their eyes. And Nathan has emphasized, more than once, that this is his taste and not a universal standard.

Further in these instances, a short 'n dirty definition soon makes the rounds - one that asserts a rhetorical question is one that doesn't have an answer.

Oh, sheepshit, Batman.

A rhetorical question is a pursuasive device that does not require an immediate answer from the listener. It is not intended to evoke an reply, rather to create anticipation, interest, a suspense. It has also been defined as a question that won't take Yes for an answer.

A rhetorical question is like the lights going down in a theatre, like a trumpet to open an assembly, like an "all rise" in a courtroom. Its purpose is to give notice - to emphasis the importance of what is about to come down.

It is a technique that demands you shut up and sit down and give the poser time to lay out his answer. Which is why, in query terms, the device might be considered a rather unnecessary, mind-game, preliminary.

The real question is not type, but taste.

And sometimes, a question is just a question.


Robyn said...

If a tree falls in the woods, would Freud care?

Just another reason to research agents/editors before you submit, I suppose.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

It never would have occurred to me to put a question in a query. I don't even like:

Would you care to see a partial?

But I'm not markety at all.

Seeley deBorn said...

I found I sided with that agent when we did the query letter contest at Romance Divas. I hate opening with a question.

As a device it may work for a hook, but when you read the damn things all day...

Rhetorical questions may not take "yes" for an answer but after reading/judging 4 or 5 entries my reply to every opening question was "No"

(word ver: diamint - expensive and freshens your breath too!)

writtenwyrdd said...

I wouldn't be likely to open with a question, either. But I wouldn't toss a query if it began with one.

Good point about rhetorical questions. They serve a function, and the canon-meisters forget the function of language and its subtleties all too often in their quest for the One, True Answer.

Bernita said...

Definitely, Robyn.
Especially valuable when they admit to their personal foibles and fetishes.

Same with me SS. I view queries as a declarative exercise of the "Here it is" variety, and questions sans dire.

Exactly, Seeley!

"the One, True Answer."
A common virus, it seems, Written.

Church Lady said...

I enjoyed reading Nathan's and EE's blogs where they both dealt with this issue.

I, for one, need to smacked alongside the head with the ONE true answer. I bow to its singular correctness. I miss the cluegun. Where's the cluegun, damnit?!

Although I make mistakes aplenty, I wouldn't open a query with a question. I think it's too hard to pull off, and I wouldn't want to take a chance.

Bernita said...

Some agents don't mind "the question," Chris. Some even suggest it.
To me it's a form of hem and haw.

Charles Gramlich said...

Game playing in a nonfiction format, such as a query, doesn't do much for me either.

Dave said...

I was one of those against the rhetorical questions.
I just think that it's advertising copy. It's great for getting attention but it doesn't put the reader (and in this case screeners, agent assistants and agent themselves) into the book.
One of my many jobs before I retired was taking technical writeups of scientific research and putting those words into common language a high school graduate could understand. I have a facility for explaining complex science to people. I don't know why, but I do. I don't say that happily, I hated that job. I just despised doing it.
But that is exactly what a query letter is - reduce your 80K words down to 200 (or so) and make it reflect the plot, your style and the tone of the book. I think a rhetorical question wastes some of those words.

Writers pride themselves on picking the right words for their novels. You, I and they take hours to write the proper dialog, the perfect opening, the quintessential climax. Why do these same writers cheap-out and write a cheesy rhetorical question to begin their query?

Take Hellboy's question - What Makes a Man a Man?" - The movie used it as voiceover to guide the story, the book used it as a theme. Can a Hellspawn understand the true nature of human compassion and love? Works great for Mignola's cartoon character.

But would we describe Camus's The Stranger as "Can a man without a soul find compassion in the world?" Or would we describe the great love story Doctor Zhivago as "Can a man and woman find love in the winter of the Soviet Union?" Or even the (much maligned) Da Vinci Code as "What would you do if you discovered the greatest secret in the world?"
Hell no! We wouldn't. These stories are more than simple cartoon fables. They deserve better. That's why I don't like Rhetorical questions.

Sorry for the soapbox. Me and my 20 mule team will haul ass back home (wink)...

Josephine Damian said...

I think the point N8 is trying to make is: Spare him the melodramatic flourishes and just tell him: genre, word count, who the main character is, what their problem is, how do they solve it, and how are they changed at the end.

Query letter space is precious; don't waste it on the superfluous.

FYI: I read "Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maass. He says in thriller queries, he always sees the phrase about the main character being "haunted by demons from his past."

I went straight to my WIP's synopsis and deleted that phrase!

If agent says: "Don't do that", I for one am willing to not do that.

Bernita said...

Nor me, Charles. Let's just get to the point.

"I think a rhetorical question wastes some of those words."
I agree, Dave. And I don't think much of them in elevator pitches either.

Thank goodness, Josephine, it's one of the most over-worked query cliches.
Makes me wince.
I was so tickled when December/Stacia took it,turned it inside out and made them actual demons.
I'm just saying that even though I agree entirely with Nathan about rhetorical openings, it is not gospel, and neither should it be used, sometimes incorrectly, as a flail on critique boards.

writtenwyrdd said...

I agree with Dave, the rhetorical question does potentially waste some of the precious space to be used in selling your story.

However, sometimes it works. Just so long as it works, I don't care how they write something.

Kate Thornton said...

LOL! Too funny! When I do Guess The Plots for EE, I almost always include the ol' chliched rhetorical question as the opener.

"In a world eclipsed by madness, can young Cornelia Flakes survive a night of canasta-playing zombies to find true love? Or will her handsome prince turn out to be...Too Tired To Deal? Also a weredingo."

It is the old formulaic two sentence grab 'em by the scruff of the neck, then drop 'em plot synopsis from High School Book Reviews. I'm so used to doing it now, I might do it for real...

Bernita said...

And as Dave mentioned, Written, such openings tend to read like advertisements (Do you have sexual disfunction?/Have trouble with constipation?/Want healthier, more vibrant skin?) - but obviously people buy the products.

Kate, that example is also too funny...!

raine said...

Agree, it may waste some of the precious query space, and I don't think I've ever done it--but I can see a relatively inexperienced author using it, since we're all told to try to 'hook' the agent/editor right away.
Of course, reading dozens of them a week would drive me to a Buddhist monastary...

The Anti-Wife said...

I have learned so much from everyone by the time I have something to query I shall send all my potential agents into query nirvana.

"Oh, sheepshit, Batman."
I intend to blatantly steal this phrase and use it often.

Bernita said...

And anytime now, Raine ( if it hasn't happened already )I expect to read an agent say that any query that opens with a Whosit "meets" Whatsit, will go dfirectly to the round file!

It seems businesslike is safest and best, over the long haul, AW.