Remember how I told you that it is ALWAYS a strategic mistake assume that the readers of your queries and submissions know ANYTHING about the subject matter of your book prior to reading your work? No? Well, allow me to refresh your memory.
As I pointed out in my August series on manuscript revision with an eye to how an agency screener tends to read, authorial assumptions of readerly understanding can water down the intended impact of a manuscript. Obviously, this is true when the assumptions in question are inherently offensive to the reader — stereotyping, for instance, has taken down many a promising submission — but it is also the case where the text proceeds on the assumption that the reader has certain specialized knowledge of the underlying subject matter of the book.
In other words: it’s never a good idea to assume that an agent, screener, or even lay reader has ANY background that would free you from the necessity of explanation. (True of editors, too. But of that, more later, when I get to the part about ME, ME, ME.) Again, the question recurs: how sure are you about who will be reading YOUR submission?
You cannot always rely upon an agent’s background knowledge — even, amazingly enough, when the phenomenon in question is fairly well known. Just as you can’t get away with presuming that any given reader (again, read: agent, editor, or contest judge) will share your political or social beliefs, you cannot legitimately assume that the agent you covet WASN’T brought up in a cardboard box at the base of a mineshaft in an unusually warm part of Antarctica.
So while it’s already a poor idea to include too many pop culture references because they date your book, it’s also not strategically wise because your reader may not recognize them.
Partially, it’s a poor idea because you can’t be sure that the person reading your manuscript will be in your age group (or ethnic group, or sex group — that sounds racier than it is, doesn’t it? — or bridge club, for that matter). Your submission may as easily be read by a 23-year-old recent Columbia graduate with a nose piercing, eight tattoos, and an immoderate admiration for Benito Mussolini as by a 50-year-old Democrat in Armani.
At many agencies, in fact, the screening process would entail your work being approved by both. (In case you’re not aware of it, at a major agency, the agent herself is almost NEVER the first person to read a submission. Yes, even if she requested it from someone she met at a conference. It’s not at all uncommon for a manuscript to need to garner two or even three positive reviews from the screening pool before landing on the agent’s desk.)
Obviously, then, it would not be the best strategic move to make your work inaccessible to a reader outside your own age group — yes, even if you are writing a book SPECIFICALLY for readers in your age group. Screeners and editorial assistants tend to be young, so they might well need an explanation of, say, the quotidian effects of menopause.
How young, you ask? I don’t mean to scare those of you on Social Security, but practically the only editorial feedback I received on my memoir from the callow stripling assigned to it by my publishing house was flagged cultural references. The two that stick in my mind: next to Dacron, he had scrawled, “What is this?” and next to Aristotle, he had written, “Who?”
I’m just saying.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but for the benefit of those of you new to this blog, allow me to emphasize that age assumptions can be especially disastrous in contest entries: I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve screened as a judge that automatically assumed that every reader would be a Baby Boomer, with that set of life experiences. As a Gen Xer with parents born long before the Baby Boom (my father had first-hand memories of hometown doughboys marching off to World War I; my mother’s elementary school best friend was carted off to a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II), I obviously read these entries differently than an older (or younger) person would.
More to the point, as would a judge in her late 60s — or 70s, or 80s, as often they are. Being a contest judge takes TIME, especially for those stalwart souls who are first round readers. They need to be able to read and comment upon dozens of entries within a short window of time, so contest judges tend to be either extraordinarily dedicated volunteers who are willing to forego sleep in order to help out, people like me who have extremely flexible schedules, or — and this is far and away the largest potential group of volunteers — retired people.
Thus, like the Academy Awards, the average age of a first-round contest judge tends to fall in the charmingly graying range. Which — I hate to say it, but it’s often true — tends to place those who write for Gen Xers or Gen Yers at a competitive disadvantage in the average contest. Yet another reason it’s a pretty good idea to make sure that any piece you enter would read well for ANY English-reading demographic.
Just as with your submissions to agencies, you never know how old your readers will be.
Ditto for concepts, cultural phenomena, professions, etc. — and ditto fifty times over for phenomena that do not routinely occur on the Eastern seaboard. Many things are beyond the average Manhattanite’s ken. So if your protagonist is an Alaskan fisherwoman, it’s probably a fairly safe bet that an agent in NYC will have little to no idea what such a person’s day-to-day life would entail, other than that there is probably a boat involved. Possibly a net as well.
However, it’s not always as simple as that: for all you know, the agent of your dreams’ older brother spent half a decade on just such a fishing boat (it was right after our Jimmy ran off to follow the Grateful Dead for a couple of years, but the family doesn’t talk about that, unless someone asks about his missing pinkie finger.) And, wouldn’t you know it, Jimmy was an unusually prolific writer of letters home. While he was on the high seas, he was clinging to a miniscule desk below deck, scribbling away like Mme. de Staël, giving your agent a crash course in all things fishery.
And this presents a genuine dilemma for the writer, doesn’t it? You have to be prepared for both complete ignorance and intimate familiarity with your subject matter. The trouble is, of course, is that before you submit, you have absolutely no idea which.
In order to succeed in this business, of course, you will need to accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you mail it to an agency. If your romance novel about cruise line captain happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced food poisoning mid-cruise (just before the mambo tournament, too!) and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do to assuage her dislike. Similarly, if your self-help book on resolving intrafamily discord is screened by a reader in the midst of a three-year fight with her siblings over Grandma’s estate (she promised the figurines to everybody, apparently), no efforts on your part can assure a non-cynical read. And, as long-term readers of this blog already know, a tongue just burned on a latté often spells disaster for the next manuscript its owner reads.
All you can do is concentrate on what you can control: clarity, aptness of references, and making your story or argument appeal to as broad an audience as possible.
That being said, I have another truth to spring on you, so brace yourselves: everything I have just told you about dealing with agencies and contests is roughly 47 times more pertinent — and more important — when dealing with an editor at a publishing house. But of that (ME, ME, ME!), more tomorrow.
In the meantime, keep up the good work!