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View Full Version : What say you regarding mentioning illness/ psych conditions, etc?



HoneyBadger
02-27-2012, 10:00 PM
I've been trying to work this out, because it's extremely important to think about queries halfway through one's manuscript... :Shrug:

If you're writing a novel the focuses on a character's cancer, and you have/had cancer, should you say that in the query?

Likewise, if you've written a novel with a bipolar/ schizophrenic/ autistic/ otherwise DMSable situation, and you yourself share that condition, should you mention it?

I can think of a fairly equal number of pros and cons for both stating it and omitting it in the query, but I can't decide which would be the most effective thing to do to get an agent to want to read more.

Drachen Jager
02-27-2012, 10:12 PM
I think if you have a DSM diagnosed mental illness then you have to consider whether you risk turning a potential agent away.

In general these sorts of things are considered much more important for non-fiction than they are for fiction. If your work is fiction, then I'd say leave it alone, the only credentials agents seem to care about is published, paid writing, and the risk of turning an agent off is too great.

quicklime
02-27-2012, 10:19 PM
a lot depends on specifics, I suppose....I had a dance instructor who had testicular cancer, which I am sure was scary for him, but they pretty much cut his testes out, took a couple lymph nodes for biopsy, and since he was clear, sent him on his way--he'd be a poor fit for writing a "woman nearly dies of breast cancer" book then...or at least, only a marginally better a fit than the rest of us.

The other thing I can see is if it is mental illness, for example, and only peripherally related...."I am uniquely qualified to write the story of Ewan's battle with depression because I have schizophrenia which tends to manifest itself, according to my shrink, in psychotic episodes of violence and posessiveness including self-mutilation, and a tendency to stalk and attempt to harm those who turn me down" could obviously affect you in a very negative, "hey, let's all lock our doors tonight" sort of way.

A lot comes down to how close you are to the protagonists' actual issue, and how unique it is. I know all about mild depression--everyone does. So that's nothing. If you had Tourettes', you might be able to really give voice to the embarassment and the sinking feeling in your guy when you say "fuckmouth cocksquirrel" to the cashier who just asked if you would be paying with a credit card....

(no, that isn't picking on those with Tourettes'; I remember hearing in neuro about a teacher who had to quit her job because she kept blurting "fuck me, fuck fuck fuck me" in class....the point was that is a very, very unusual condition, as opposed to mild depression.)

HoneyBadger
02-27-2012, 10:28 PM
Excellent.

These posts support my gut theory that one should probably try one's best to not scare the shit out of an agent, which is tricky since my book is called I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE AND WHERE YOUR CHILDREN GO TO SCHOOL.

quicklime
02-27-2012, 10:37 PM
Excellent.

These posts support my gut theory that one should probably try one's best to not scare the shit out of an agent, which is tricky since my book is called I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE AND WHERE YOUR CHILDREN GO TO SCHOOL.



I would buy that


*backs away slowly



seriously, I guess it comes down to both "How unique ARE you, really?" and "Is it in a good, non-scary way?" Assuming you truly are, for one tiny moment in one specific example, a speshul snowflake and you are truly uniquely qualified, and not because of something that suggests to the agent you will be a horrible person to deal with, then it is good. But if it is common or likely to suggest you're gonna be a pain in their ass, leave it out.

Drachen Jager
02-27-2012, 10:53 PM
Excellent.

These posts support my gut theory that one should probably try one's best to not scare the shit out of an agent, which is tricky since my book is called I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE AND WHERE YOUR CHILDREN GO TO SCHOOL.

You're scaring me, and I'm not even an agent. :)

Is that seriously the title? Fiction or non?

HoneyBadger
02-27-2012, 11:01 PM
Nooo, it's BEGGARS WOULD RIDE.

Though man, how about that as a concept, huh?

JSSchley
02-27-2012, 11:43 PM
Agreed with both already (no surprise, Drachen and QS give great advice as a general rule).

If your experiences give a good, close, and non-scary link that will lend authenticity to your book, then go for it. Otherwise, don't worry about it. Your query itself should ideally hint that you know your stuff, and whether you came across that knowledge firsthand or by research doesn't matter as long as it's presented believably and well.

Corinne Duyvis
02-28-2012, 01:12 AM
I think if the agent stereotypes you based on whatever condition you have, despite a professional query and promising book, you probably don't want to work with them anyway. One of the WIPs I'm brainstorming has an autistic main character. If I end up querying that book, I'm damn well going to mention that I'm autistic as well.

Drachen Jager
02-28-2012, 01:19 AM
I think if the agent stereotypes you based on whatever condition you have, despite a professional query and promising book, you probably don't want to work with them anyway. One of the WIPs I'm brainstorming has an autistic main character. If I end up querying that book, I'm damn well going to mention that I'm autistic as well.

Agents are people, and though it may offend you, people stereotype, they generalize and they fear that which they do not understand.

I'm not saying it's a deal breaker for all, or even most agents, but if they were on the fence it could push them over the wrong edge, but it seems to me it's very unlikely to tip them in the right direction. To me that is the bar that should be used in judging whether to include information or not.

suki
02-28-2012, 02:15 AM
I'll add that if you include information about your personal experience with a plot element, it can make it look like your whole book was a vehicle for writing about your personal experience - ie, that the story isn't really about the story, but you trying to educate the reader. So, on the off chance of detracting from your pitch, I generally advise leaving it out at the query stage.

~suki

Undercover
02-28-2012, 02:26 AM
I have bipolar and most if not all of my novels are of mental illness and not once did I write in my query "Oh, and I am mentally ill too so I know how it is" type of thing.

It wasn't until after I connected with an agent that I had told her about myself. I think for fiction you should stick to the story and always be professional. If it's for non-fiction, that I can understand you mentioning it. But otherwise no, as others said, leave it out.

Corinne Duyvis
02-28-2012, 02:46 AM
I don't know--I mean, I've definitely seen the attitude Suki mentioned, but I've also seen many agents recommending putting relevant info in the bio section. Your novel's setting is country X and you used to live there; your characters plot to infiltrate the FBI and you've worked for the FBI; it features a vampire princess and you used to date a vampire princess; that sort of thing. I see this as falling into the same category. It shows you know your stuff.

Which doesn't mean that you should put it in. That depends entirely on what you're comfortable with and what you think is best. Still, if you're leaning towards putting it in, I absolutely think there are agents out there who would see personal experience as a plus.

Drachen Jager
02-28-2012, 02:54 AM
Aside from all the above points.

Isn't "Author" going to be listed in DSM-5?

If not I think agents can safely assume there's something wrong with all their clients, or they'd have chosen good, productive careers like "Axe Murderer" or "B.P. Executive". ;)

veinglory
02-28-2012, 04:22 AM
I would hope that a good agent would see a brief reference to relevant personal experience as a pro rather than an opportunity to discriminate. But then, despite what some people might say, I am quite the optimist.

Literateparakeet
02-28-2012, 12:42 PM
These posts support my gut theory that one should probably try one's best to not scare the shit out of an agent, which is tricky since my book is called I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE AND WHERE YOUR CHILDREN GO TO SCHOOL.

LOL, I can see it now...

Dear Agent,

I have written a masterful book entitled, I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE. The protagonist is a brillant writer, who takes revenge on the agent who rejected his book.

I am uniquely qualified to write this book because my court-ordered psychiatrist thinks I'm a Sociopath. He's wrong! I will pay him a visit help him see that soon.

I'm certain YOU will appreciate my work.

Sincerely,

CM

Marya
02-28-2012, 12:48 PM
A family member lives with lupus. Last year I wrote a short fiction in which the main character had to deal with an unexpected diagnosis of lupus -- the editor who accepted the story asked me how much I knew about lupus and was relieved to hear it wasn't just wiki knowledge.

HoneyBadger
02-28-2012, 05:37 PM
Excellent thoughts, everyone. I figure once representation has been offered, anything that could conceivably help with marketing would be germane.

quicklime
02-28-2012, 05:42 PM
once representation is offered, I think it is an excellent thing to discuss.....the "putting it in a query" is more iffy, because at that point they are making their mind up about taking you so if it isn't a really relevant fact then you just look like you're stretching...

shaldna
02-28-2012, 07:18 PM
I think the answer here is 'it depends'

By that I mean, if you are writing about cancer and you/family member have had cancer then that gives you a unique insight and will show you know the subject well.

Some illnesses have a stigma about them that makes people uncomfortable with them and the individual.

However, there's also an association made with certain illnesses which might make an agent or editor wonder if you are mentally or physically capable of continuing to work. For instance, if you have ME are you really going to be well for long enough to meet your deadline? Some folks loose decades of their lives to ME, and so you then become a business risk - no matter how good your book is.

It's a difficult situation and it's not easy to answer because it depends on the individual circumstances.

willietheshakes
02-28-2012, 09:12 PM
I think if you have a DSM diagnosed mental illness then you have to consider whether you risk turning a potential agent away.


Though I think most agents take sociopathy as a given for a writer.

Orianna2000
03-03-2012, 01:39 AM
However, there's also an association made with certain illnesses which might make an agent or editor wonder if you are mentally or physically capable of continuing to work. For instance, if you have ME are you really going to be well for long enough to meet your deadline? Some folks loose decades of their lives to ME, and so you then become a business risk - no matter how good your book is.

I have some issues that sometimes prevent me from writing or making deadlines, and so I was terrified that I would never be able to sell anything if I was only ever going to be offered a multi-book deal. I couldn't agree to such a contract in good faith, knowing that I might not deliver. But when I asked about this here at AW, I was told that while I might be offered a multi-book deal, I could probably negotiate for a one-book deal with an option for my next book, meaning if/when I produce another book, the publisher would have first crack at it.

Seems a better option than signing a multi-book contract if you know you have an illness that might prevent you from fulfilling that contract. Or are you saying that most agents/publishers won't consider this?

Corinne Duyvis
03-03-2012, 02:13 AM
Seems a better option than signing a multi-book contract if you know you have an illness that might prevent you from fulfilling that contract. Or are you saying that most agents/publishers won't consider this?

That definitely seems like the best option to me. As to whether how feasible it is, I honestly couldn't say. It might be a question worth asking on agent blogs or #askagent on Twitter. FWIW, though it's no doubt going to be more difficult for you, I think there should be plenty of understanding agents out there. It's all about communication and making your abilities and limitations clear before you enter into any contract.


For instance, if you have ME are you really going to be well for long enough to meet your deadline? Some folks loose decades of their lives to ME, and so you then become a business risk - no matter how good your book is.

It's impossible to make sweeping statements like this. Plenty of people with disabilities manage to juggle a writing career and their deadlines just fine (as far as ME specifically, Stephanie Burgis comes to mind). Whether something is a business risk should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

I mean, I have no doubt some agents would go, "Oh, this person has X condition, that makes them unreliable--no thanks." I'm just saying I don't think it's justified or fair :p

HopeWelsh
03-03-2012, 05:44 AM
From what I've read recently on Query Shark, it seems like she doesn't want to know what one has--and in some queries she reviewed--she specifically states that it's fiction, and that people that write things they are experts in sometimes hinders the writing.

Personally, I think I'd leave things like illness out--at least in an initial query.

Brigid Barry
03-05-2012, 03:03 AM
My two cents:

I write about what I know in my novels. Horses especially. I don't have a veterinary degree or manage an equine facility and the horses aren't really enough of the plot. Senor Psycho (my antagonist) is severely messed up in the head but even that isn't enough of the plot to warrant putting in the mental health info.

If you suffered from or treated people with PTSD and you wrote a novel about someone recovering from PTSD that's different I think. But it would have to be the main plot for it to be relevant.

Look at it this way too. I am talking to a friend of mine who is a child and family therapist regarding some topics in my next book. I wouldn't put in my query "And I talked to my BFF who has a license in child therapy, etc".

If someone asks what gave you a particular insight, tell them. But I wouldn't advertise in a query.

There is a person that wants to tell an agent in a query that he is gay because he feels it relates to the novel (and will give him a lead on other authors). It's all TMI.

CAWriter
03-05-2012, 07:29 AM
I would hope that a good agent would see a brief reference to relevant personal experience as a pro rather than an opportunity to discriminate. But then, despite what some people might say, I am quite the optimist.


I think it really depends on what the personal experience is. I'm working with a wannabe writer right now who is dealing with some issues himself. He presents himself as a professional in a particular industry, but if he spilled all the stuff he's dealing with his professional credibility (and his credibility as an expert in his field which is the basis for his writing) would be shot. He is better off keeping his personal struggles to himself and drawing on other expertise for credentials and credibility related to his subject matter.

And there can be the 'scaring off' factor too. Certain issues can translate into heavy hand-holding/rescuing/talking down off ledges/or damage control. Once an agent has committed to a person and their project, they are very likely to develop a genuine concern for their client and be willing to do what it takes to ensure everyone's success. But sometimes, to know all of that in advance might make someone reluctant to take the chance.

I think you want to get past the introduction phase to the genuinely interested phase before you reveal much more than the fact that you can write and you have a deep understanding of the subject matter.

KalenO
03-05-2012, 07:48 AM
Agents are people, and though it may offend you, people stereotype, they generalize and they fear that which they do not understand.

I'm not saying it's a deal breaker for all, or even most agents, but if they were on the fence it could push them over the wrong edge, but it seems to me it's very unlikely to tip them in the right direction. To me that is the bar that should be used in judging whether to include information or not.

To present an alternative angle, it might not be a dealbreaker for agents, but how they handle it could be a dealbreaker for you, the author. There's so much focus on getting an agent, that writers tend to forget that the query process is as much for them as it is for agents. The writer needs to be as happy with their agent as that agent is with their manuscript, and to that end, if you have a relevant reason for including personal information that could cause an agent to stereotype or reject you, why not include it? Saves you some time and angst if they are the type to generalize and fear what they don't understand, rather than have to deal with it later, after you've had the joy of having your manuscript picked up for representation.