Welcome to the Saturday Q&A column! In it, I’ll be answering all manner of questions, beginning with whatever you want to ask me. Today, given this is the first installment, I’ve stumbled on a question that seems interesting. It draws on an article published recently in The New York Times about a copyright dispute, culminating in a landmark lawsuit, that’s risen between two authors who jumped from the “Omegaverse” into publishing — you can access the article here if you’re interested. So…
Can you trademark a trope?
Or even a series of tropes arranged into a plot pattern?
The common answer has certainly been no, and I’ll openly say that I hope it remains so. Ms. Ellis, one of the authors involved in the lawsuit, describes that while “There are moments and scenarios [in her work] that seem almost identical [to those in Ms. Cain’s work],” these moments and scenarios are generally tropes “that can be found in hundreds of stories.” Not to mention the fact that Ms. Cain, the author who initially filed the copyright claim against Ms. Ellis, wasn’t the originator of the tropes she’s used, at least not in the main.
But she was one of the first to jump from the Omegaverse (the fan-fic world in which couples “engage in wolflike behavior”) into traditional publishing. And if she wins her fight against Ms. Ellis’s lawsuit, which seeks $1.25 million in damages to compensate for lost sales and damage to Ms. Ellis’s career caused by Ms. Cain’s copyright notices, the case may set a dangerous precedent. Alexandra Alter of The New York Times suggests that if Ms. Cain is found in the wrong, “authors of genuinely original stories might find they have one fewer legal lever to protect their work.” But I would argue that considering the dangers faced by authors if Ms. Cain’s lawyers defeat the lawsuit, this is a big might, and negligible in the face of a potentially damaging legal precedent that could greatly reduce the number of authors profiting off their work. Can one trademark a trope? I hope not.
Help, I’m almost ready to query agents! Where can I get advice on my query letter?
Not here — and that I promise you. While you can feel free to email me query letters for critique, I’m definitely not the best person to ask. But there are some great resources out there for the serious writer who’s ready to admit they don’t know everything and ask for help.
Start by checking out Janet Reid’s Query Shark and read through ALL the Query Shark archives. You heard me, ALL. You won’t regret taking this step. It’ll teach you a lot about what a good query letter is and isn’t.
Next, throw your query out for critique on Reddit’s r/PubTips, where it will not be good enough for anyone. (Okay, after a few rounds of revision it might garner some praise.) Also, they may direct you to the Query Shark archives — so, if you follow my track, at least you’ll be able to say that you’ve already read them and that you’re just trash at querying. r/PubTips is filled with traditionally published authors, editors, and other industry professionals who will give you real feedback (read: harsh feedback) on your query letter and other query materials, plus they can answer all of your burning querying/traditional publishing related questions. There’s a great thread there where agented authors can slap their successful queries, and simply reading through successful queries can get some ideas into your head.
By the time you go through several revisions before the tough crowd on r/PubTips — and try not to take anything personally, they’re just trying to help — you’ll probably have a pretty decent query letter. That’s not to say that it’ll get you requests or anything! A big part of querying is researching which agents will want your book in the first place. To do that, I recommend checking out agents’ Twitter feeds, their Manuscript Wishlist, and their pages on Publishers Marketplace. You could also pick up a copy of the Guide to Literary Agents that comes out every year.
Before you send your query out, have some non-writers/non-editors/non-publishing pros read it. Ask them if it intrigues them. Ask if they’d read further. Put in a single biographical line (unless you have some serious chops that must be displayed, like a short story that was published in The Atlantic) and some comp novels (books that are similar to yours, preferably ones published in the last five years) that will show you know your market. If at all possible, personalize your query for each agent. Even a short line like, “I saw your Manuscript Wishlist and it said you wanted dark fairytales, so here is a dark fairytale,” can go a long way. At least it’ll keep the agent from thinking, “Oh, damn, here’s another query for nonfiction rock and roll when I asked for dark fairytales.”
There are lots of other places you can get querying info, too, so definitely don’t take this list as a be-all end-all. In the end, a good query letter should be the icing on a very delicious cake, the cake being your story. Your bio and comp novels are like sprinkles and fresh fruit — not totally necessary, but very good to have. Still, if the cake’s not good, the icing’s not going to cut it. So spend as long as possible focusing on the cake and then make sure to get the icing spot on, since it’s your gateway. But the cake always matters more.
Check out Jane Friedman’s The Complete Guide to Query Letters for more info. You can also check out the query letter examples on Writer’s Digest, like this one. And there’s much, much more! But don’t get overwhelmed, and definitely don’t give up. If you write a good story and a readable, rational query letter, you’ve already beaten the odds.
What sports are getting up and running after their COVID-19 hiatus?
Ah, a question close to the hearts of all sports fans, myself included. I bet you didn’t expect this one after a lengthy discussion of publishing!
So in terms of where you can tune the TV this Memorial Day weekend, my top pick goes to the German Bundesliga (football/soccer league), which started up last weekend. I’ve also been on a steady diet of UFC, given that it was one of the only sports on for a while. I think I was mostly watching replays, though, since I don’t do pay-per-view.
If your tastes are too refined for combat sports, you might try ESPN’s tennis series — just a bunch of tennis players playing round-robin all day long, without commentary, without ballboys and ballgirls. The NHL, for the hockey fans among us, will be returning at some point for a 24-team, conference-based playoffs. As for American football, I haven’t heard.
While you’re watching whatever you’re watching, check out my new Good Eats page and eat something good! There’s not much on there yet, but the list will grow.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading a couple things (not specific… books is a better word). First off, I’m reading He Was a Boy Who Smiled by Michael Stoneburner (a self-pubbed novel), and I’m loving it so far. It’s the sort of open, truthful testimonial that I’ll benefit a lot from reading especially as I’m working on an open, truthful testimonial of my own.
Second, I’m reading The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, a very celebrated nonfiction work about the flu pandemic of 1918. I’m reading this mostly because of its connections to the current pandemic, but also because I like books about diseases. (Check out my post Crisis in the Red Zone, 12 Monkeys, and COVID-19 for more about another book on disease.) This one seems interesting so far, and it’s also revealing to me the scale of the 1918 flu pandemic. Hint — it was much larger than the pandemic we’re involved with now.
Last but not least, I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I have read before. This time I mean to proceed directly into her 2019 sequel The Testaments. I’m already over halfway of the way through The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that reads easy as pie.
What inspired you to write This is Not a Sad Story?
I thought I’d save a good one for last, all right? This is Not a Sad Story is my new tell-all true life story, presented here on the blog in serial form. Episode One came out this Wednesday — give it a read if you haven’t had the chance.
Since I started promoting This is Not a Sad Story, a few people have asked me what inspired me to jump from fiction to autobiography. It does seem, admittedly, like a large jump.
The truth is, I’ve wanted to share my life story for quite some time, because I feel that I’ve gone through some things that others might gain insight from reading about. I know that that’s a disturbingly vague sentiment, but I honestly feel that through sharing my story, I might help someone who’s going through some of the same things I went through.
Multiple people have also told me that they’d like to read something about me and my life. This might have been where I got the idea in the first place. I also noticed, here on the blog, that some of my best posts featured personal anecdotes and little stories about myself that I enjoyed writing — and that people seemed to enjoy reading. When I decided to rebrand the blog about a month ago, I decided pretty quickly that I was going to make This is Not a Sad Story — tell-all and confession and true story of my life — a main tenet of the “new” blog and its purpose. It’s a pillar piece, if you’d like to think of it that way. People learn from experience, so shared experience is good for all of us. Here on the blog, I’m hoping to create an atmosphere of sharing. Sharing, after all, is often synonymous with learning.
And I hope you’ve learned something today in this Q&A. Didn’t mean to rhyme there, it just happens sometimes. If you have a question — about anything, and I mean anything — feel free to shoot me an email, or reach me via the Contact Us page. I will try to address any and all questions in the next Q&A, which will come out next Saturday. Until then, keep your eyes peeled for posts coming in the next week — a more comprehensive review of what’s coming will be provided in the roundup tomorrow.