I don’t have nightmares about showing up for a college exam having not studied. My palms don’t sweat at the idea of getting onto an airplane. Spiders don’t send me into a conniption fit. But ask me what books would be on the shelf next to mine should my novel ever see the light of day? My heart palpitates. My breath shortens. I HAVE NO IDEA. And it’s not for lack of trying.
The barista next door tells me it isn’t such a big deal. I tell her I disagree. When you are on the receiving end of hundreds of proposals like agents and editors are, you have to have some sort of system of classification, of sorting the world. If your book goes into the wrong classification, if it is set up to be something it is not, well, that’s worse than serving a lukewarm soy macchiato when the client ordered a full fat cappuccino.
Oh, to be young and clueless. To be able to say with a straight face that my work would fit proudly on the shelf with Annie Proulx or Kent Haruf or Jane Smiley. Perhaps I could call it an updated version of Winesburg, Ohio. Ha! If only I were more delusional, then I could outright say that there are no direct comparables because my book is just that damn unique. I’ll bet agents and editors have never heard that before.
I wrack my brain. I do Amazon searches. I buy books written in the twenties, the eighties, the aughts, looking for that perfect fit, that one book I’ve overlooked. It could be that no amount of reading can ever make me feel well-read enough. I read transcripts of interviews in which agents discuss the subject. Whoops. Seriously, I should not have done that because right here, glowing on my screen is an agent explaining how he dismissed a writer for the sheer reason that he didn’t understand his comps.
I find a gem of an unknown novel; nope, I can’t use something people wouldn’t know off the top of their heads. Publishers need reassurance there’s a big enough audience. I find something bigger; nope, too stylized. Never compare yourself to one of the great stylists. How about saying it’s a blend of two? Nope, out of vogue. How about using an author simply because we both adore semi-colons, perhaps too much so?
Do I go for the gold? Didn’t Shakespeare write every kind of story there is? What about Dickens, yeah, it’s kind of like David Copperfield, but not at all. It’s just like Cloud Atlas without any of the futuristic stuff or historical stuff or out-and-out brilliant stuff.
My head spins. My Amazon cart overfloweth. Off to bed, where tonight, for once, I will finally remember the bestseller from fifteen years ago that really is a perfect match for mine. Or not.