Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is Quirky a Good Thing?

Is it ever worthwhile to de-quirk a novel?

My book has one seriously odd character: a home-schooled narrator. The consensus among replying agents, however, is that the voice is just too "quirky". Fair enough, but now what?

Is a complete re-write in order? And a re-query to follow?

Or should I trash the manuscript, hit the bottle, and move on?
Yes, sometimes it is worthwhile to revise this sort of thing.

Quirky can be great-- it can mean charming, funny, unique. But "too quirky"... If you're getting a lot of this feedback, I would start to wonder if what the agents really mean is weird and distancing.

The right amount of quirky reminds people of themselves, their own uniquenesses. Too much, though, and you can lose your audience, especially among kids, who can be pretty judgemental about weirdness in others.

Still there are good examples of very unusual behaviors and world views that absolutely work for the book they're in... Because the author has taken the trouble to make them make sense for that character-- to show us why they have these quirks.

I would suggest that you ask yourself which of your character's quirks are serving the character development enough that it's worth going to the trouble of showing the reader why the character has those quirks... and which quirks you maybe just added for "flavor"-- as a shorthand for character development. I have a hunch that some of those quirks just aren't earning their keep in your story.

17 comments:

NanU said...

As a reader, I thoroughly enjoy a moderate amount of quirky. An excess of quirky is put-the-book-down annoying because it's the author's 'look at what I can do!' showing through.

My Nasty Romance said...

A home schooled narrator is too quirky or is it something else? My suspicion is that the likely traditionally educated editors are participating in the stigma often granted home schooled individuals. Personally, I see it as intellectual snobbery if that's the case, but I have a rather unique perspective on the topic.

I have 4 kids, 2 in public school and 2 home schooled. The home schooled kids are taught by their mom, a licensed teacher with years of experience teaching in public and private schools. The ONLY reason they're home schooled is that the school refuses to protect my daughter against a kid who kept threatening to stab her with a pencil. He had "behavioral problems" we, as parents, should have been more understanding of - or so the school administrators said. So, Stabby gets his education like he wants and we have to accomodate...

That was the digression. Here is the good news.

Now that I have some knowledge of home schooling and the communities that have been built up around the practice, if you can't sell traditionally you might want to attempt self-publishing via a PoD or somesuch and market it through the mom and pop run home school sites. Home schooled kids are starved for books they can relate to and, in my experience, spend more time reading than the kids going to public school anyway.

I definitely would not trash the book. If you want to rewrite it, that's understandable. PoD has its own stigma, just like home schooling does. And you're left doing your own marketing. But I do believe there is an audience based on what I've heard so far. You just need to find someone to believe in it.

Mike said...

I frequently get told my writing is a little too quirky by friends that read it. If you are not getting good feedback from the agents about exactly "too quirky" means in your instance, I'd get some writer friends to read it and see if they can make suggestions. They'll have a distance that you probably won't and notice things the agents are noticing.

Amy said...

As someone who was home schooled for 4 years of my life, I am tempted to be offended by the question, but have instead decided to be amused. That said, I have also worked as a public school English teacher for 6 years, and have come across all manner of wrong/strange/scary reasons for home schooling. There are two sides to every story.

So...my wondering...perhaps, if, instead of quirky, you have unwittingly created (or perpetuated) a stereotype. If your character is human, she will have quirks, darkness and light. Let the story show these in tension. We need that break stereotypes, not perpetuate them.

(and a note: it was my vehement declarations in kindergarten that I hated to read that caused my mom to consider home schooling me. And when she did, I became a voracious reader. Then an English teacher. Then a writer.)

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Terrific feedback. I agree that quirky can be a distraction. I won't name names, but two relatively popular books I've read in the last year had a very unique format/narrative. I found it wearing after a bit. I completely stopped reading one of them because it was just too cumbersome.

Marissa

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything EA said, and far be it from me to question a consensus among replying agents, but also ...

I have one ms that I love, love, love. For a couple of years it was my favorite thing I'd ever written. A few people who read it for me loved it as much as I did. The highest praise came from my English professor brother: "YOU wrote this?"

But most people thought it was too odd. My excellent critique group suggested changes to make it more normal. Some of their suggestions I used. But I've stopped submitting the ms. I think it's a good book, but it's not for everyone. Not for most people who would usually be the audience for my work. And it's not going to be the first thing I get published.

My Discworld said...

I appreciate the distinction between flavor and character development. A good reminder.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Maybe you should get yourself a brutal beta whose brain you can pick and ask for an outside perspective on what about the narrator makes them "too" quirky. Tell them upfront where you need help.

Stop sending queries for now, see if you can't address the issue, and once the MS is shiny and back from the woodshed, try again.

Anonymous said...

Holy crap what a great answer, EA.

This is such good advice for non-quirky characters, too. A character's POV still has to serve the story not get in the story's way.

STARGIRL is the only book I read where I just hated the "quirk." It was so hard to care about someone who was that clueless that I ended up hating all the other characters too. But that won a Printz or something didn't it? So what do I know. :)

Nora Weston said...

Hi! This is great advice. I've had to accept a few of my favorite characters were simply too quirky and they were trashed, killed...never to be heard of again.

A few others received much needed makeovers and they survived to make me proud. Authors really do have to ask that question. Quirky can be good...as long as readers can relate to the character.

Take care,

Nora Weston

myimaginaryblog said...

In response to some of the above comments regarding homeschoolers, I don't think we can tell whether the problem is agents' and editors' prejudices about homeschoolers, an overly stereotyped character, an unlikeable character, or something else without seeing the manuscript. That said, personally I suspect that "too quirky" means difficult to relate to.

I agree with Marissa that sometimes quirky can be wearying. I thought the narrator's constant interjections in The Book Thief were cutesy and annoying, and if I were his editor I would have asked the author to get rid of that device and to streamline that content into the narrative. I did persevere with that book because of its reputation, and did find it to be a moving and compelling story. But without good word of mouth, I wouldn't have gotten past the first annoying chapter or two.

(This comment brought to you by a formerly-homeschooled literature snob.)

myimaginaryblog said...

P.S. One way to keep a quirky character might be to relegate him to a more minor role, so they can provide comic relief or some other distraction without the reader having to spend every minute of the narration in his company.

Janie Bill said...

It seems all characters are quirky, because all people act according to hidden memories and feelings. Providing the motivation of the character, and sharing his unfortunate experiences creates a sense that the reader is a friend with which the character can confide. Character depth, so to speak.

Anonymous said...

It's certainly possible that the quirkiness is a problem--that it seems unnecessary to the story, or annoying rather than charming, or there's some other issue.

But it's also possible this is a ground-breaking book. It is very hard for such books to find a publisher willing to take on that risk. Success with such a book usually means surviving a lot of rejection first.

And then, readers will either jump on the book because it's fresh and unexpected, and they'll make it a phenomenon. Or else they'll stay away because they don't know what to make of it.

These are the risks of working in a creative field.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Oh hell, I eat two bowls of Quirkies for breakfast... how else could you come up with a character who ask his Mom. "Can I go swimming?"

Mom says. "Sure, but don't go near the water!"

So, the kid spends his summer pretending to swim by scooting across Ole' Man Beatie's lawn on his belly.

Haste yee back ;-)

Deana Birks said...

Wow, I didn't read all the other responses, but as a homeschool mom, I think the problem is that making the homeschooled kid quirky is just a bad stereotype, plain and simple. Quirkiness works but stereotypes are lame. One of my homeschooled kids is "unique" but not because he's homeschooled; he has autism. My other son is indistinguishable from public schooled kids.

JM Blevins said...

Quirk away. The best books I remember and enjoy the most are those with quirk abundant. If it's well-written, it's going to find an audience. Not everyone wants the same from a book.

Actually, I want to read about a home-schooled narrator that isn't a stereotype, now that you mention it. It sounds like a really interesting character.