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Coming of Age

Kim and I were recently having a discussion about the phrase “coming of age,” a phrase we’ve always seen a lot of in query letters. I said I thought the phrase was off-putting, making me think of books like Bright Lights, Big City, while Kim liked the phrase, comparing it to books like Bad Haircut by Tom Perrotta and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges.

After hearing Kim’s thoughts on the books she thought of as coming of age, I started to think maybe I could like that phrase more. Interesting, isn’t it, how trying to explain your book can turn someone off only because their definition is different than yours?

Jessica

Category: Blog

27 comments

  1. Interesting?

    Actually, it's extremely frustrating.

    You do your darnedest, learn all you can, follow all the rules, get tons of requests for Partials and Fulls, and get feedback which indicates the publishing professional made quick assumptions based on her own experiences with the subject matter, or lack thereof, and you wonder

    is there any point in trying to explain?

    Uh, no, you've been told it's pointless. No means no. Move on. Write another novel.

    Well, I did and I just hope those who read the new one realize there's a difference between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes and the experiences of teens with it as opposed to mature adults. (((sigh))) Otherwise, no one will 'get' this story either.

  2. The phrase "coming of age" is as slippery as the language describing the genre that falls between "literary" and "commercial" fiction. Upmarket fiction? Upmarket women's fiction? (Most readers are women.) Is my novel literary accessible? Literary lite? User-friendly literary? Is it "quality" fiction? That sounds like a judgment rather than a genre. Well, it's all that and "coming of age."

    I'm doomed.

  3. "Coming of age", the term:it's six of one, half a dozen of another. I'd say a good phrase is worth two in the book of cliche's.

    Seriously I am shocked that would not consider "coming of age" the bane of a writers existence, a cliche'.

    Since today is the first day of the rest of my writing life and because my query is one of the mighty 600 cluttering Jessica's inbox I will state respectively that regarding my masterpiece, all looks yellow to a jaundiced eye.

    Remember, you query readers that there are two sides to every question and if you want to be popular, take both because easy street is a blind alley.

    Regarding 'coming of age' no question is so difficult as to which the answer is obvious.
    So to the rest of us who fear the delete key, remember that the journey of a thousand words begins with a single keystroke.

    WOW…that was fun !
    I haven't thought that hard in a long time.
    Have a nice day !

  4. I agree with you, Jessica. It is interesting how trying to explain your book can turn someone off because their definition is different than yours. That's the way life works, or to use a cliche for the anon commenter, "that's the way the cookie crumbles." It's also why you should query widely until you find an agent who "gets" your work.

    People's perceptions are like water to fish and air to birds. It's the stuff of being human. Why would anyone expect an agent NOT to use their perceptions as they prevail their slush piles? What else should they use, pure intellect? Writing is an art, not a science. It's subjective, which may be frustrating, but resisting the way life is produces only frustration and futility.

    (Stepping off soap box.)

  5. I think the lesson from this is that you need to pitch your book in the most specific way possible.

    I happen to love "coming of age" novels, however I get a TON of queries that are described as "coming of age." And after a while it becomes frustrating, because really it tells me nothing about the book. It's not a "hook", it doesn't reflect a tone, and it doesn't signify a certain kind of audience. So why use it?

  6. 'Coming of Age' simply sounds less pretentious than 'bildungsroman'. I would like to write some 'Coming of a Certain Age' fiction. 😉 But it's really just a genre, isn't it? I don't like thrillers, so if I were queried with a thriller, I'd think Tom Clancy and military hardware and could possibly miss something amazing like "Silence of The Lambs".

    Yes, we can't help but drag our whole life's history into every value judgement we have to make, which in publishing is pretty much EVERY judgement we have to make.

    Coming of Age is just a genre, perhaps a subgenre. I don't find it a cliche, I love that sort of thing.

  7. Interesting–I'm not big on that phrase because it's overused–so it immediately reads as corny to me. I might like or dislike the story the phrase is describing, but the use of "coming of age" in a query or synopsis would read as lazy and clichéd writing to me. I'd assume the book was the same–dull and clichéd. There must be a better way to describe what the author's story is about, right?

    PS Word Verification "boaticon." Is that a nautical emoticon?

  8. i hear coming of age and i think catcher in the rye, the virgin suicides, speak… i agree with who ever said it's really a subgenre, and it's one i actually enjoy for the most part. obviously bright lights big city does sort of come under that heading too but it's like anything else- good and bad.

  9. Anon 8:14 here.

    I draw comfort from knowing that my current novel falls in a genre which is very popular. This means a LOT more agents represent it, which means the odds of the query landing on the desks of those who are familiar with diabetes is a lot more favorable.

  10. It is frustrating that different words & combinations of words evoke varying feelings in people. But it is also what we as authors are all about, playing with words until we get it right for us and hopefully at least one agent and publisher.

    There is no reason to apologize for the way you feel. It is our life experiences that change the way we see things. Which Jessicca's conversation with Kim just changed the way she saw the phrase "Coming of Age". Weird isn't it, how such little things can effect your life.

    Personally I am glad that we all have different opinions, because I know I'm not good enough to compete the top notch writers if we all had to write the same style.

  11. It is frustrating that different words & combinations of words evoke varying feelings in people. But it is also what we as authors are all about, playing with words until we get it right for us and hopefully at least one agent and publisher.

    There is no reason to apologize for the way you feel. It is our life experiences that change the way we see things. Which Jessicca's conversation with Kim just changed the way she saw the phrase "Coming of Age". Weird isn't it, how such little things can effect your life.

    Personally I am glad that we all have different opinions, because I know I'm not good enough to compete the top notch writers if we all had to write the same style.

  12. So, the lesson here is to query with a hook, tell something about the story itself, not take up space with a pat phrase, and let the editor agent read the hook and think "ah, what we have here is a coming of age story, or a mystery with romantic elements, or an urban fantasy." In other words, we don't need to categorize the story, just write it. : )

  13. 'The Query Rule Book'

    Amendment # 579

    Jessica finds "Coming of Age" off-putting—most of the time—verify her mindset before using it in your query.

    Amendment # 580

    Kim likes "Coming of Age"–as long as the query is specific; however, you'll incite her frustration if the cliche is overused in her inbox. Check with her before using it in your query.

    —So much clearer now. Thanks.

  14. I get why it would be off-putting to hear it over and over, but I LOVE coming-of-age books. To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, immediately springs to mind, but also–did anybody read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri? She does an awesome thing by making it the coming-of-age stories of both a mother and her son, and they're coming of age at the same time: her as an awakening in adulthood, and him as a teen/young adult.

  15. Interesting?

    Well initially I thought 'no, its not interesting: it's a little scary'; I could easily use phrases that I thought were descriptive rather than clichéd.

    However, after some thought and other peoples comments (!), I realised a query would be so much better without containing anything even closely resembling a cliché. Every phrase would be new and the writing would stand out from the other queries. I would also have to show the story instead of the describe the story.

    So now it will be 'interesting' to write a query without anything like 'coming of age'. Which will also be good for my writing in general…

    So thanks!

  16. This industry is subjective.

    That is a fact and one that will never go away.

    Agents and editors are people with their own set of likes and dislikes.

    The only thing an author can do is write the best query they can and send it out. If Jessica hates it, maybe another agent will love it.

    Then once you get an agent, an author will experience that all over again trying to get the book published, one editor will hate, and maybe another will love it.

    Then when the book is published and on the shelf. One reviewer will hate it, another may love it.

    Then you'll find a bunch of readers hate it, and a bunch of readers love it.

    Get used to it.

  17. Beautifully stated, Vivi.

    I've seen that.

    Sometimes it *feels* like we're expected to be psychic. The only solution I know of is to query widely.

    And what Vivi said.

  18. I thought "coming of age" was a recognised genre or category.
    No, it's not very specific, but neither is Romance, Spy, End of the World, History, Literary etc. etc.
    It just gives a general indication of the type of story.
    So I'm surprised it would be a turn-off for any one professionally involved in the publishing industry.

  19. Bildungroman.

    Question: how much of a problem would it be if I queried an agent for a science fiction bildungroman? Or a fantasy bildungroman? Or a name-your-genre bildungroman?

    I got so tired of writing bildungroman that I started copying and pasting it.

  20. Two summers ago I went to the Highlight's Foundation Summer Workshop at Chatauqua. I met up with 7 exceptional writers and/or artists. We sat around a table, read a sample of our work out loud and then discussed it. One writer read a picture book. We all saw different things in our minds…I was the only one who thought the m.c. was a T-Rex…The thing is, what we saw/heard came partially from our experiences and expectations.

  21. "I got so tired of writing bildungroman that I started copying and pasting it."

    Which is why I misspelled it every single time. Bildungsroman.

    And, little as I like to use internet-speak, it's appropriate here. *facepalm*

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