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Author! Author!

Getting possessive

October 16th, 2012

The Author! Author! community is seldom far from my thoughts, but at moments when I pass a sign like this, I must confess, I find it difficult to think of anyone else. Especially of those of you brave souls that regularly put yourselves — and your manuscripts — through the literary contest-entry wringer.

Why contest entrants in particular? Because in recent years, contest judges have found themselves doing double-takes at the type of punctuation currently blaring at you from that otherwise rather straightforward piece of advertising above in ever-increasing numbers. So, too, has the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, found herself shaking her head over manuscript submissions, murmuring, “I wonder if this is what the writer here actually meant, or if this is yet another instance of the sad decline in punctuation plaguing our society in these decadent days.”

Millie’s mutter was a mighty big hint, by the way, to those of you who did not erupt in merriment the instant you first clapped eye on today’s guest image. See it now?

Chances are, if you were a contest entrant frantic to get your entry postmarked by a deadline, you would not see it; it’s the type of typo that writers in a rush often overlook. And that’s a real shame, if the entry’s well written: I’ve never encountered a writing contest that allowed its judges to assess an entry by what its writer probably wanted to say, rather than what’s actually on the page.

Nor does your garden-variety agency typically permit its screeners to correct punctuation, even mentally, while reading submissions. That, too, is a shame, for many a successful querier or pitcher aglow with the first burst of adrenaline that comes with hearing that a real, live agent or editor wants to see MY WORK has simply glossed over this kind of punctuation as well. Strategically, that’s a mistake: even if it ever were desirable to leave Millie guessing at your intended meaning — and it isn’t, ever — it’s fairly standard for screeners to be told to stop reading at the second or third typo.

And what’s the best preventative medicine for skirting that dreadful fate, campers? That’s right: taking the time to read every syllable of your contest entry, requested pages, and/or book proposal IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Does that chorus of groans mean I’ve poked some of you in a sore spot? Or merely that you wish the Submission Fairy would wave her magic wand and grant six extra hours to writers on deadlines, purely for proofreading purposes? “But Anne,” the time-strapped moan, “I see typos in published books all the time! Surely, that must mean that little punctuation gaffes, misspellings, misplaced quotation marks and the like are no longer taken as seriously as in days of yore, when mistake-free writing was considered the mark of the literate person?”

In some contexts, you’re quite right about this, proofreading-avoiders: thanks in part to a decline in hard-copy proofreading (it’s much, much harder to catch small gaffes on a backlit screen than on a printed page), we do all see more faux pas in print than even ten years ago. Spelling- and grammar-checkers have caused a general decline in proofreading, and not only amongst published writers. E-mails are notoriously typo-prone, as are texts, and Twitter practically demands leaving out otherwise essential words, letters, and punctuation. Given the choice between speed and graceful presentation, most opt for the former.

Then, too, most of us also scan a heck of a lot more unedited writing than would have been imaginable to those whose primary reading experience was before the rise of the Internet. And don’t even get a professional reader started on how much more frequently advertising copy — like, for instance, the sign depicted above — contains typos.

All of which means, in practice, that pretty much all of us have gotten almost as accustomed to seeing writing presented badly as we have to seeing it done well. So often do signs shout things like BOBS’ LIQUORS at us (spot it yet?) that even the most grammar-savvy writer might be forgiven for occasionally placing an apostrophe in the wrong place when she’s in a hurry.

Driving past ads like this all day, it might not even look problematic at first glance. So why, as our short-on-time discussants above asked, should a deadline-facing contest entrant or excited submitter lose any sleep over a questionable apostrophe or two? Won’t it be some copyeditor’s job to catch such problems before the book is published, anyway?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that a typo like this won’t jump off your pages at Millicent, if she’s been properly trained — and if she works at an agency you would want to represent you, she has. It would also look odd to Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. And, frankly, it would drive me nuts to spot on the page.

Or, as in this case, the sign. To any of us, and almost certainly to the agent of your dreams, the very sight of BOBS’ LIQUORS immediately begs the question: just how many Bobs are there in that liquid-filled emporium?

Shall I take the resounding splat of eyebrows against hairlines as an indicator that this particular question has not been dogging some or all of you since this post began? I’m not entirely astonished: although it would make Millicent, Mehitabel, and their confreres choke to hear it, a stunningly high proportion of talented aspiring writers seem never to have learned the rules about creating possessives — or plurals, for that matter. Or at least to have been schooled in them so long ago that misuse of one or the other no longer causes their eyebrows to twitch at all.

So let’s embark on a quick refresher course, not only to revivify those complacent eyebrows, but so you have some guidelines on hand during any future moments of doubt. And if that means alerting everyone within the range of my keyboard to the genuinely puzzling nature of that provocative sign, well, so be it.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do not end in -s or -z — which is to say: most nouns — just add ‘s. If Ambrose happened to own a leopard, then, Millicent would expect the text to refer to Ambrose’s leopard; by the same token, the spots decorating Ambrose’s pet would be the leopard’s spots.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do end in -s or -z — Gladys, a spaz, a passing ibis — the apostrophe goes after the s or z. So if Gladys’ pet ibis happened to become friends with Gladys’ brother Glenn, whose business partner happens to be a spaz, the ibis’ buddy’s business’ interests might be endangered by the spaz’ annoying ways.

I was expecting a certain amount of resistance to that one — and already, a forest of hands have sprouted out there in the ether. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you hand-wavers are fond of the ways of journalism. Yes, newspaper-huggers? “I can go along with Rule #1, Anne, and I remember when Rule #2 used to be common, but I see #1 applied all the time to nouns ending in -s and -z. Doesn’t that mean that Rule #2 is obsolete, and I may simply form possessives by adding ‘s to any old singular noun?”

I take your point, journalism-lovers: rarely do I pick up a magazine these days without having some well-meaning reporter inform me that the ibis’s buddy’s business’s interests might be endangered by the spaz’s annoying ways, and quite firmly, too. There’s a reason for that: in recent years, A.P. style, the style favored by newspapers and magazines, has indeed reverted entirely to Rule #1 for singular possessives. So you may expect those sources, along with online media, to slap ‘s indiscriminately on any noun. It has also become quite common for publishers of books by journalists to throw literary tradition to the winds in this respect.

And, to be fair, Millicent probably would not stop reading if you did the same: she, like the rest of us, has seen the ibis’s and similarly ungraceful possessives running amok across newspaper pages for years now. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the language in its most polished form — American English as it might appear in literary fiction, for instance — must drop one of the nicest punctuation rules we have.

To quote your mother: if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? And if half the people you knew evidently thought — at least strongly enough to put the theory into practice — that it was correct to form a plural in English by adding ‘s, instead of just an s, would you throw the rules that say otherwise off the aforementioned bridge, simply because you’d seen plurals formed incorrectly so often?

Many, many aspiring writers would, as Mehitabel and Millicent could tell you to their sorrow; judging by what’s submitted, they either do not know the rules well enough to apply them consistently or have been rendered unsure enough by the sight of rule variation that they don’t notice when their texts lapse. Even if a contest entrant or submitter is made of stronger stuff and is familiar with the rules for constructing plurals and possessives, if she does not proofread closely, she might as well be unsure of the rules.

Why? Think about it: an agency screener or contest judge can only assess a writer’s talent and skill based upon what’s on the page, right? If none of the possessive usages on page 1 are correct, obviously, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer needs a crash course in punctuation, which is not any agency’s job to provide its clients. Fair enough. That being the case, though, if two of the six possessive uses on page 1 are incorrect, in addition to the plural of fence being printed as fence’s instead of fences, could you really blame her for drawing the same conclusion?

While you’re still shuddering over the implications of that one, let me add hastily that the logic also tends to hold true in reverse. If your punctuation and grammar are impeccable, not only will the effort win your manuscript or entry Brownie points — always good in a competitive situation — but your pages will also enjoy the not inconsiderable advantage of novelty. To be blunt about it, so many contest entries and submissions contain incorrect possessives and plurals that those that don’t shine by comparison.

If, in addition to the virtues of solid grammar, the pages also manage to apply the elegant, old-fashioned rule of possessive formation in nouns ending in -s or -z, professional readers will usually like the writing even better. Seriously, literate old-schoolers just love seeing this old-fashioned punctuation used correctly. Indeed, amongst ourselves, we tend to complain that the only benefit of adding the extra s to words that do not logically require it is that those who have difficulty with complexity need memorize only one rule.

Hey, I didn’t say we were funny; I said we were literate. But seriously, folks, does it come as a great surprise that contest judges, especially in the early rounds, tend to be culled from the ranks of the conspicuously literate?

So your rhinoceros favors a particular pond, you might want to consider making Mehitabel happy by referring to the rhinoceros’ watering hole. (If there was more than one rhino, it would be the rhinoceri’s watering hole, but that’s a horn of a different color.) If Chaz were the rhinos’ keeper, they would be Chaz’ rhinos.
If you preferred A.P. style, however, you could also render it as Chaz’s rhinos. They would sound the same spoken out loud.

Getting the picture? This one is legitimately up to you, as long as you don’t mind causing Mehitabel to sigh nostalgically. Just make sure that the text is 100% consistent about whether a -z noun takes an apostrophe in the possessive or not.

Even if you decide to get modern on the -z question, I would urge clinging to tradition on the -s front. If the creatures that frequented that pond were flamingos, you would say that it was the flamingos’ favorite place to drink. I feel a rule coming on:

To form a possessive for a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the s. Thus, the spots belonging to more than one leopard would be the leopards’ spots. Contrary to popular belief, the Thus, if the entire Anderson family owned a leopard ranch, it would be the Andersons’ leopard ranch.

Let me state that another way, because Millicent and Mehitabel see family names and possessives mismatched all the time, for some reason. If the leopard in question belonged to just one person — let’s call him Ambrose Anderson — both Ambrose’s leopard and Anderson’s leopard would leave M & M’s eyebrows mercifully unraised. However, if the leopard were so lucky to belong to both Ambrose and Antoinette Anderson, it would be the Andersons’ leopard.

Is the BOBS’ LIQUORS conundrum starting to make more sense now? Let’s take a gander at why: if it belonged to just one guy named Bob, it should be BOB’S LIQUORS, right? While it would be gracious to give the sign-painter the benefit of the doubt, neither of the two remaining possibilities seems particularly likely. The place could belong to a person named not Bob, but Bobs, in which case BOBS’ LIQUORS would be perfectly correct. It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the store’s owners may well have intended the literal meaning here; we may well be looking at a two-Bob situation.

But if either of these turns out to be the case, I feel the inhabitants of Lake City are entitled to a full explanation, don’t you? The vast majority of passersby would read this sign as it was probably meant to read: as BOB’S LIQUORS.

Good old Bob may well be counting upon that; he may well believe, and with some reason, that it doesn’t really matter whether his potential customers walk in expecting one Bob or several. It’s not wise, though, for an aspiring writer to play similarly fast and loose with Millicent or Mehitabel’s sense of what’s going on.

Oh, you don’t think Mehitabel will dock your entry points if your punctuation choices imply that there are more Bobs running around your short story than there actually are? Or that Millicent might stop reading if the text seems to indicate a lack of familiarity with the rules governing apostrophes — if, say, a manuscript falls into the pervasive habit of forming plurals by adding ‘s, instead of just s?

To calm the nerves of those of you currently clutching your hearts and hyperventilating: possessive misuse all by itself is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense all by itself (although it can be, if Millicent is in a bad mood). It’s not uncommon, though, for it to combine with one or two other small gaffes to add up to rejection. Heck, I’ve known Millicents to reject a manuscript after the first malformed plural, if it fell within the opening page or two. Contest judges seldom have that luxury, thank goodness, but you’d be astonished at how often an otherwise well-written entry will knock itself out of serious finalist consideration by a typo or two on the first page. Or even — sacre bleu! — the first paragraph.

Why? Well, are you sitting down? I hope so: professional readers are paid to presume that everything on the manuscript page is there because the writer intended it to be. If the text consistently misapplies a rule, then, or simply does not apply it consistently, they tend to assume that the writer simply does not know the rule at all.

Well might you turn pale, time-strapped submitters and contest entrants. What might have started life as a typo actually can transmogrify at entry time into a reason to consider a submission less than literate — and to send the message to an agency that this talented writer would be more work to represent than someone whose work did not include such gaffes.

Why? Well, tease out the reasoning: either the writer is not aware of the rule (and thus the agency would have to invest time in teaching him something any professional writer would be expected to know), the writer is not sure enough of the rule to apply it consistently (so the agency would have to waste time proofreading his work before submitting it to publishers), or the writer knows the rule, but was simply too lazy (or, more likely, too rushed) to reread his own writing before submitting it. Whichever turns out to be the case, it means that it would be inadvisable to trust him to submit clean manuscripts, especially on a short deadline — and short deadlines crop up in the publishing world all the time. The agent of his dreams wants his work to sell, after all: it’s really in no one’s interest for her to submit his work to a publishing house if it’s peppered with typos.

She wouldn’t want to run the risk of the acquiring editor’s assuming he just didn’t know the rules. Or that he wasn’t serious enough about his own writing to proofread.

With those imperatives in mind, let’s try applying the theory to one of the great American apparent exceptions to the possessive formation rules: why is the Oakland A’s correctly punctuated?

If you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “Because that’s what the team calls itself — and proper names are spelled the way the people bearing them say they are,” give yourself partial credit. The team does in fact use the apostrophe in referring to itself. And grammar, I’m pleased to say, is on its side in that respect.

But not, I’m even more delighted to report, because the A is rendered plural by that ‘s. It couldn’t be, right? Adding an apostrophe is not how plurals are formed. That is, however, how contractions indicate that some letters are missing. In this instance, seven of ‘em: thletic. Thus, it’s perfectly acceptable to abbreviate the Oakland Athletics to the Oakland A’s.

Yet another cosmic mystery solved. Now if only we could crack the case of The Possibly Multiple Bobs. Keep up the good work!

12 Responses to “Getting possessive”

  1. comment number 1 by: Jinnayah

    Excerpted from a recent NYTimes.com Draft column:

    On their own, sentences are implacably honest…. They are what they are and they say what they say…. The trouble is that most sentences have writers, a fact that readers are well aware of…. Does the writer know what that sentence actually says? The answer is routinely no.

    Sentences are always literal, no matter how much some writers abhor the idea of being literal. In fact, nothing good can begin to happen in a writer’s education until that sinks in….

    This means you’ll need to write, and revise, as if your intentions were invisible and your sentences will be doing all the talking, all on their own. This may be the hardest thing a writer has to learn. Looking at a sentence you’ve made is like looking at yourself in the shard of a mirror. A part of you has to be dreadfully literal-minded (and impervious to self-flattery) in order to do the work of making good, clear sentences.

    And for a different tour de force spin, try the part of Stanley Fish’s column on Scalia’s legal interpretation book that starts with “…textualists do not ignore purpose.” 6 meanings of ‘draft’ and counting!

    But Anne, where are “the nicest punctuation rules we have” published, and who maintains them, and how will we know if and when one of them is dropped?

    I personally happen to feel it would be a great step towards equality to stop depriving Gladys and Artemis of possession of a supernumerary s, but there are other “nice” rules that I adore. I’m perfectly willing to play by rules I can verify (when on a proper playing field, that is) — so what is the Hoyle of punctuation?

    Favorite punctuation rule to puzzle through: punctuation inside v. outside quotation marks

    Favorite forgotten distinction of meaning: envy v. jealousy (hint: jealousy is used correctly in Othello

  2. comment number 2 by: Anne

    That’s the $64,000 question, Jinnayah, and one that’s been intriguing literate people for a long time — how do we know when the language changes and, perhaps more importantly, when not recognizing a common change as proper? Kurt Vonnegut suggested an intriguing answer : we should all be continually watching the work of the language’s best writers, to see what pretty things English is up to these days. (He airs this view across his writing, but his most direct discussion of language formation comes in a dictionary review, of all things, published in Welcome to the Monkey House.)

    I have to say, I prefer this answer to the notion that there should be a single authoritative source of rules. I get that it would be easier if there were, especially now that so many writers glean their guidelines from the Internet, but to my mind, one of the strengths of English, at least literarily speaking, is that good writing is ear-dependent. That means, from an editorial perspective, that figuring out what works and what doesn’t is often a conversation, rather than a series of barked orders. If you felt that Gladys’ human dignity would be inherently impaired by constructing her possessives differently than, say, Steve’s, I would be inclined to talk about that on a whole-book basis.

    But then, I’m not a fan of burdening writers with too many barked orders; anyone who works with manuscripts for a living has seen ostensibly harmless writing truisms run horribly awry. All too often, grammar rules become blurred with style suggestions, causing creative writers to censor some of their more interesting constructions. So giving a single source the power to trigger that outcome…

    Incidentally, my apologies about how slowly your comments tend to post. My site’s spam filter tends to be wary of comments with multiple outgoing links, for the exceedingly simple reason that spam comments usually contain a dozen or so.

  3. comment number 3 by: Jeff

    So, I can no longer rely on Strunk & White? With a few exceptions, they suggest always adding ‘s even with words that end in s.

  4. comment number 4 by: Anne

    You’re quite right about the current edition, Jeff, but you’d be surprised at how many folks who read for a living never stir an inch without their tattered, decades-old Strunk & White at their elbow. There are those that feel that it went downhill after Mssr. White went to meet his well-deserved reward.

  5. comment number 5 by: Jinnayah

    Strunk & White’s title is The Elements of Style. So given that we’d prefer to avoid that “grammar rules become blurred with style suggestions, causing creative writers to censor some of their more interesting constructions,” and given that Strunk’s <a href="http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk.html#1"1918 edition (before White’s contributions) specifies

    Thus write,
    Charles’s friend
    Burns’s poems

    can’t we say it’s always been one resource among many, albeit more renowned than most?

    After all, Anne, it appears you must have gotten your conviction of that a Charles claims possession with no more than an apostrophe from another source.

    (Yes, I admit that’s a rather peevish comment of mine, but, hey, not only did you file this entry under more than one “pet peeve” category, but two of my grandparents were named Charles and Gladys.)

    I very much like Vonnegut’s answer, with a strong recommendation that aspiring writers hew conservative just for the simplicity of not setting off alarm bells.

    About “bad aging” in revisions of classic books, though, I can say it’s quite important to rely only on editions of The Joy of Cooking from 1975 or earlier. The recent editions seem much more “impress a large dinner party” focused, which is so not what this most lay-friendly of titles should be all about.

    Naturally, the ultimate not-to-be-superseded edition is the Authorized Version of the Bible, which, like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, even in its inaccuracies is definitive. The NRSV is a good study Bible, but nothing just sounds right like the King James. In NRSV Jesus recruits disciples with “I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17) which just sounds creepily Soylent Green, in contrast to the magisterial–and politically incorrect–”I will make you to become fishers of men.”

  6. comment number 6 by: Anne

    I don’t think it’s at all peevish, J: that was a good catch. And come to think of it, it’s entirely possible that my preferences on this point have been unduly influenced by my editor mother’s being so adamant about it — her maiden name ended in an -s.

    As you say, though, definitive is in the eye of the beholder. I’m a big fan of writers’ (there I go again!) mulling over advice from multiple sources, weighing it, and deciding for themselves. I’ve just seen too many editors bellow at otherwise perfectly charming manuscripts over this particular point.

    Your fishers of men point made me giggle, coming after the large dinner party comment. In my formative years, my parents (neither of whose first names contained any -ses at all, although I do have a brother James) were great throwers of arty dinner parties; I grew up shuffling and reshuffling place cards, while they lectured me on how to maximize conversational possibilities. My mother also had a sharp eye for who would be likely to be flirting with whom: her term for agreeably chatty women who could be relied upon to make even the most tongue-tied of male guests happy was, believe it or not, fishers of men.

  7. comment number 7 by: Jeff

    I desperately need your opinion. would this:
    “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”
    be a good hook—

    for The Wizard of Oz?

  8. comment number 8 by: Anne

    It’s not a bad Hollywood hook (n literary circles, a hook is not a one-line pitch, but a grabber at the beginning of a manuscript), provided that what you’re pitching is the thriller version of The Wizard of Oz — kind of a fun idea, actually. However, it could be improved. The term surreal is radically overused, far too much so to convey a specific impression; an actual description would have a greater impact here. Hollywood hooks tend to work best if they are specific, rather than general. Which is why it’s rather surprising that this pitch left out the single most powerful image most readers remember from the opening of the book, the twister.

    As written, too, it contains a notorious Millicents’ pet peeve, and then. In this context, as in many others, the and is logically redundant; if you were willing to add a comma, you could simply say and then. I’ve also heard from many pitch-hearers that they like to hear the protagonist named.

    I have a third, more industry-based reservation as well: while the phrasing is clever here, people in publishing tend to twitch automatically when they hear a cliché. Stop me before I kill again may no longer be very common, but it has been around long enough that not everyone would respond positively. As folks in the industry like to say, they want to see a writer write, not repeat stock phrasing. When in doubt, then, I always advise going with original word choices.

    So while this pitch is good, I’d be tempted to add more memorable details and steer clear of even the slightest vestige of a cliché. Perhaps something like this:

    Snatched by a twister and whisked off to a land inhabited by little green men, pre-teen Dorothy slaughters the first person she meets, then teams up with three outcasts to hunt down an old lady who collects flying monkeys.

    It lacks the twist on the familiar of the original, but you must admit, it is quite a bit more memorable.

  9. comment number 9 by: Jeff

    How about comparing things to known books/characters/people?
    Gark is an Othello-like character who is a Balrock from the dark planet of Mooria, but when he is mislead by Rago, a world-weary John Malkovich type character, he eats his wife Dessie (a dead-ringer for a young Demi Moore) as well several thousand people from the Italian peninsula, before throwing himself into Mt. Vesuvius. The final third of the book considers the last days of Pompeii, and includes many pictures I took on my cell phone when I visited in 2009. This section is better than all former books about Pompeii (including the several published since 2006 that I didn’t bother reading) because I called upon the spirits of the dead, and heard their stories first-hand.

  10. comment number 10 by: Anne

    To answer this with any specificity, Jeff, I would really need to know the context in which you are looking to apply this Hollywood hook. Are you planning to be trapped with an agent in an elevator with ten other pitchers, so each of you will only be able to sputter out a sentence before you reach the next floor? Are you planning a verbal pitch at a conference, which tend to last 2 or 3 minutes? Are you intending to use it as the first line of a query — or (shudder) as the first paragraph, as some templates recommend?

    Generally speaking, though, it’s usually a mistake to make non-literary allusions when speaking to literary people. The practice of referring to a Actor’s Name type comes from the movie industry, not the publishing industry. It’s also always risky to presume that someone who does not deal with film for a living will have the same mental image of an actor of diverse talents and long career as you do. Even if Millicent happened to be picturing the same, say, five-year period in Moore’s career as you are (unlikely, as Millicent might well have been in nursery school during part of that period), literary folks have a nasty habit of assuming that writers who take narrative shortcuts like this don’t have the strongest descriptive skills in the world, if you catch my drift.

    I’m confused, though, why a pitch for a story that is apparently fantasy, and thus fiction, would mention book structure (the last third of the book, this section), photographs (which adult fiction generally does not include), or a comparative market analysis (such as it is) at all. The latter two might be relevant in a book proposal for a nonfiction book, but using a short pitch or descriptive paragraph in a query to discuss structure is not appropriate for fiction. It doesn’t tell Millicent what she needs to know in order to request the manuscript — it’s like describing A CHRISTMAS CAROL as

    It’s in the third person, and it would appeal to buyers of holiday books unlike any other. Oh, and there are ghosts.

    All of these things are true of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, but they don’t really give a solid impression of story, do they? Also, people who work in publishing tend to harbor a profound suspicion of writers who review their own work, especially when the reference implies that the comparison covers every other book ever published on the subject. All that tells Millicent is that the writer is not very familiar with the other books on the subject. In any case, showing how your book is different and better from similar books is always a safer plan than just stating it.

    It’s worth remembering, too, that the goal of a brief book description is not to tell the whole plot, but merely to give a sense of the premise, the protagonist, and central conflict. You might find some of the posts in the QUERYPALOOZA category helpful in this endeavor.

    If you are committed to using a Hollywood hook, you also might want to check out the posts under the HOLLYWOOD HOOKS category on the archive list. You’re quite right that Hollywood hooks often do contain references to pop culture (“It’s JAWS meets LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE!”), but there’s more to the style than that.

    (About which you’ll find several blogs under the HOLLYWOOD HOOK category on

  11. comment number 11 by: Jeff

    thanks. I guess what I was really wondering is whether to use movie/literature/popular culture references to describe a book in a pitch, query or synopsis (if it is appropriate in any of those settings). I probably confused the issue in my question. It seems like it could work as a shortcut, but then an agent might think it is derivative. For a real example, I could describe part of a plot as: “Imagine if Princess Leia got past the blockade of Darth Vader and met Obi-wan, who was more of a buff Ewan McGregor than old Alec Guiness, and he didn’t have that unfortunate vow of celibacy hanging over things.” I think anyone who is familiar with Star Wars would get that setup, and could internalize it better than if I started from scratch. BTW, my book isn’t SF, and I only thought of the analogy after I had written it. I suspect you could do the same thing with almost every novel–relate it to previously published works, but with a twist.

  12. comment number 12 by: Anne

    Oh, I see, Jeff. You’re quite right: you could probably draw an analogy like this for many fiction plots, but you would run the risk of seeming derivative. And in this particular example, you would also run the risk of having your work miscategorized as fan fiction.

    The main reason I would advise against using the analogy for your book is that it is not science fiction, and not merely because a screeners in a non-SF-representing agency are less likely to respond to it. It just isn’t done to describe fiction in one book category by comparing it to a story in another. Agents and editors think of fiction as belonging to a single category, you see, read by an already self-identified group of readers. They know how to market such a story to those people. So while you could, I suppose, safely draw a parallel in a pitch or a query (but not in a synopsis) between your story and a major bestseller in the same book category, it would merely confuse them to start talking about a storyline based in a completely different genre.

    Based upon the examples you used, I have another reservation about this tactic: in both examples, you’ve used an actor’s physical attributes in order to convey a character’s. In even the briefest book summary aimed at the publishing industry, that’s going to be considered a rather lazy descriptive tactic. I get that you’re trying to convey a lot of image in just a few words here, but since every syllable an aspiring writer submits to an agency, even in a verbal pitch, is a writing sample, it’s usually much more in a book’s interest if the words in question don’t rely upon the reader/hearer’s already-formed mental images. Trust me, it’s worth the page space to provide original description.

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