Hello, hello, hello, Dear Readers! Happy Monday - I hope you all had a great weekend, or at least are glad that it's over and a fresh week has begun. Today's blogpost is brought to you by a question that floated into my Twitter feed last week, as follows:
"Would really appreciate advice. Told not to mention the 3D's (divorce, death and disease) in submission covering letter. My pitch YA fantasy fiction is partly about death & comes from experience. Am I safe to mention the personal experience or avoid at all cost?"I had to read this a couple of times before I could actually decipher it, which is nothing to do with the asker's clarity of expression, and everything to do with the strangeness of the actual question. Surely I must be misreading? So I tweeted back asking them to shoot me a quick email (and for permission to include my answer in a blogpost, to benefit all). I received the following reply via my website contact form:
"The 3D's that were referred to concern their inclusion within a "pitch admissions letter".I'm not gonna lie - I'm still super confused by this. I even Googled 'the 3Ds' and 'Pitch letters' to try to find out if this is some kind of common maxim that I'm not aware of. After all, it's been a long time since I wrote a query letter to an agent, and I've never taken part in #pitmad or any of those more recent online pitch-competitions. Perhaps there was something I was missing? Well, perhaps there is, but I still can't find anything about this odd prohibition online, so I'm just going to go with my instinct and answer as common sense dictates.
The YA Fantasy Fiction I have written does deal with death throughout the story (not as dark as it might sound). As a family (myself and three children) we have been unfortunate, as are many families, to be visited by a succession of close family deaths, the majority of which were very unexpected, sudden and violent.
This was one of the reasons why my book deals (all be it in a fantasy manner), as it is something I have watched my own children struggle with.
From what I understand, some agents ask for personal experience connected to your writing whilst others have given the 3D's as something to never mention.
I am just concerned that if I dare to mention one of the 3D's then no agent is going to get beyond my initial letter."
There are two questions here, really. The first is: Should I dare to mention mention death, divorce or disease in my query letter?
The answer is straightforward. Yes, of course - if these are important themes in your work.
The point of any kind of pitch or query is to tell the targeted publishing professional what your book is about. That's what they're for. If your book deals heavily with bereavement and you don't mention that in the query letter then that query letter is no good. You can't just find and replace the word 'death' with 'cheese' and hope the reader won't notice. And if you write a query that cunningly manages to gloss over that whole death theme and somehow convince the agent or editor that the book really is about cheese and not bereavement, they're going to be extremely annoyed when they request it and find that there is no mention of Gorgonzola but much mention of grief and loss.
If there's actually an agent out there who is refusing to read any submissions which deal with these three topics - and if there really are, then they must be vanishingly rare - then that's their loss, since I'd say about 75-85% of books (not including picturebooks... probably) touch on at least one of these, and many two or more! Including most of the best and most important books. I mean, agents and editors are free to say that they're not interested in whatever topics they like - I guess - although I seems like a random and counter-productive demand.
But what's really crucial is that you're not going to want to pitch to any of these agents or editors. Your work isn't going to interest them because it's literally about the thing that they've said they don't like. So steer clear. As fas as I'm aware, the vast majority of agents and editors still don't dictate that major themes of human existence be erased from a writer's work. I've never met or heard of one, anyway. This sounds like junk advice to me. The kind of Chinese Whispers stuff that has moved so far from its real basis, if it ever had one, that it has become complete nonsense.
Now for the second part: Should I mention my own family experience with grief, and how this has influenced my writing, in my pitch?
The answer to this one is more complex, but basically boils down to: Yes... if you're comfortable with sharing that information AND CONVINCED IT'S RELEVANT.
You are not required to bare your family tragedy to an agent or editor in order to convince them that you have the right to write about death, loss and grief. If you're worried that people won't understand the authenticity of your work without that context and are forcing yourself, with teeth gritted, to justify yourself: please don't. #Ownvoices is a wonderful thing, but it is not about writers herding themselves into ghettos where only semi-autobiographical work is valued.
If you're worried that people won't understand the authencity of your work and are eager to share the context... I guess go ahead? But be sure, first, that your own experiences really are relevant to the themes in the work. I'll mention here that all of my books deal with death, loss and bereavement to some extent and in some form. My own experiences with those things have absolutely, undoubtedly, indisputably informed those stories... but the books stand on their own. No one needs to know about my family's history of suffering to read, understand, or be moved by those books.
Perhaps there are unique circumstances surrounding your own experiences and those of your children and these inspired the book in a really direct way. I can't specuIate on that. I don't know you and I haven't read your book. If you're absolutely convinced this information is vital then include it. But do so very briefly and in such a way that it's clear this is only background to the book, not any kind of emotional appeal to the publishing professional to give your book a break because of what your family has been through. I'm sure that's not what you're intending, but unfortunately people do make emotional appeals like this in query letters all the time. I even get requests like this sometimes, from people who want me to refer them to my agent, or editor, or even just publish them myself (somehow???).
These appeals are often coming from a good place in someone's heart - but it just makes the person reading their letter intensely uncomfortable and irritated because it feels like emotional blackmail and what's more, no matter how heartbreaking the story, they CAN'T do what the query writer wants and publish something purely because they feel bad for them. Once you've recieved a few letters like this, you become very sensitive and prickly about them, so be careful.
It probably won't send up any red flags if you briefly mention:
My children and I were caught up in the events of this natural disaster in this year, and lost two close family members. Following our struggle to come to terms with our own grief, the inspiration to write a story dealing with the aftermath of such devastating natural disasters was born.
After a losing three members of my extended family within one year, I witnessed my children's bewilderment and their attempts to make sense of their loss, and felt compelled to explore these topics in my book...
On the other hand, if your story is really strong and has a compelling premise of it's own? It is probably unncessary to mention the background at all. That doesn't mean it's VERBOTEN, but just that it's not likely to influence the editor or agent's decision to request your work either way. What always counts the most is the work itself.
I hope this helps! I wish you the best of good luck with your query and your journey to publication.