Queries, Titles, and Writing on Unpopular Topics
January 31, 2012
I’m finally at the point where I should start querying my novel: I polished the prose, I took out “plot-device Rachel,” I strengthened the antagonist, etc. And now I realized I have a HUGE PROBLEM.
My title, GOD IN PLAID PANTS, no longer works, and I’m at a loss for a new one.
Origins of the title: back in college, I was paired with my lovely friend, Andrea, as a creative writing partner in our freshman honors lit class. In that class, we were assigned to read a bunch of 20th-century classics, we took “Socratic walks” with the professor and the rest of the class on nice days (don’t ask me how he got away with that one, but I suspect the answer is “tenure”), and, most importantly, we had to produce 95 pages of prose before the end of the Spring ’95 semester. As writing partners, Andrea and I traded pages back and forth. We also became great friends (and later roommates, and still later we were in each others’ weddings).
Since my 1995 manuscript was a YA romance, Andrea and I talked a lot about our high school crushes. At some point, Andrea talked about a guy in her high school who thought he was “God in plaid pants.” And I loved it! I thought it would be perfect for my YA romance with a guy who may or may not be genuine, may or may not be totally arrogant, but who is definitely super hot.
Fast forward fifteen years. I started writing a new YA novel, also a romance. I borrowed the title from the earlier book because it seemed to fit–you never know if the boy in the story is genuine. But, as I plotted it out, got to know my characters, and really got into the writing, I realized that the subplot was way more interesting than the fluffy romance of the main plot.
I revised, making the relationship between the protagonist and her sister the key element. Now, already we see a problem with the title, since neither of them are God in Plaid Pants. But wait, it gets worse.
In the novel, the narrator and protagonist, Athena Graves, starts off her sophomore year assuming that her younger sister Helen will be just fine in high school. But someone in their (Catholic) high school starts a rumor that Helen has had an abortion over the summer, and pretty soon the situation spirals out of control: Helen is kicked out of the school’s pro-life club and turned into an “example” by her school’s guidance counselor, and ambiguously pro-choice Athena tries to help Helen at the risk of alienating her two best friends, Melissa and Sean. (Melissa was a volunteer clinic escort over the summer, and Sean’s girlfriend may be behind the rumors, but he doesn’t believe Athena.)
OK, so here we have a plot which takes place in a Catholic school, and it’s about abortion rumors. Suddenly, a title like God in Plaid Pants seems to have a religious agenda. And that’s so not what the book is about. In fact, it has no religious or political agenda. It’s deliberately ambiguous because it’s narrated by a 15-year-old, not a politician or a preacher.
However, title problem is something I only realized after sending out a round of queries to test the water. Gah! Now I need a new title and I’m completely drawing a blank.
And finally: Unpopular Topics in YA: I’m pretty sure abortion is at the top of the list, because most of the time people don’t agree on it, and it’s so easy to sound like you’re preaching in one direction or the other. I’ve tried very hard not to do that, since my characters are not me and they should and do talk like teenagers. Also, they don’t all agree with each other, and none of them are “right” all the time. But it’s still hard to convince agents of that in a query letter and a short writing sample.
In addition to abortion, my book is set in 1992, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I know this too is an issue: I’ve read several agent blogs that warn that you look ooooooooooold if you set something in the 1990s. And if I were doing it because I love the ’90s (which I do) or because I’m a scholar of ’90s pop culture (which I am), that would be a legitimate issue.
However, I have a very good reason to set it then and there (though, yes, it is my hometown). In the summer of 1992, when Helen supposedly had her abortion, Baton Rouge’s only abortion clinic was the site of Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Purpose,” which aimed to shut the clinic down. Throughout July, thousands of anti-choice protesters clashed with police and pro-choice protesters, who struggled to keep the clinic open. It was an extremely volatile time, and that volatility trickled into diocesan high schools, each of which had a “pro-life” club, like the one Helen gets kicked out of. Stanley Ott, the bishop, wrote a statement supporting Operation Rescue, and Woody Jenkins, one of the local politicians who worked with Operation Rescue, was a yearly speaker at my school. Abortion was the topic at my school, and rumors like the ones that affect Helen would have been certain social death and, if believed by adults, potential cause for expulsion.
All of this is to say that I’ve thought long and hard about the time and the subject, and I know it’s going to be hell of a time getting an agent, let alone selling the book.