Thursday, November 09, 2006

On Paper

Yesterday Noël posted this in comments, and made me laugh:

I'd love to see an article on how cranky, misanthropic introverts should handle learning to sell their work.

If that isn't the story of my professional career . . .

Here's the main thing: when I was a cranky, authority-hating teen who pretty much pissed off everyone including my schoolteachers -- publishing parodies of them in the underground school newspaper probably didn't help -- I learned a valuable trick. In person I was a disaster, and often landed in detention thanks to my lack of interpersonal skills. On paper, however, I could be anyone I wanted to be. I only had to invent a persona to do the talking for me.

This is not to say you have to lie about who you are, what you write and how you'd like to get it published. The content stays the same. It's all in how you deliver it.

Let's say I have a short story that I want John Smith at Fiction Magazine to consider for publication. I'm in a bad mood tonight, so I'm naturally inclined to write the sub like this:

Dear Mr. Smith,

Enclosed is my short story,
Cranky and Introverted, for your consideration. It's the story of an author struggling so much to fit in with the publishing herd that she kidnaps an etiquette teacher. I'd appreciate a response within the sixty days as per your guidelines as I have other editors I'd like to query. Let me know if you have any questions.

Sincerely,
PBW


No matter how well the story is written, this query letter will likely get it rejected. John Smith is going to interpret the tone of this letter, and the tone shrieks I've got a chip on my shoulder, this industry sucks, you've got sixty days and hey, don't waste my time. Why would he interpret it that way? Maybe John Smith's had a bad day, too. Maybe he expects the deference, or just doesn't want to deal with someone who would write a letter like this.

Now, the same letter, but with one of my personas writing it:

Dear Mr. Smith,

Enclosed please find my short story,
Cranky and Introverted, for your consideration. It tells the tale of a writer in desperate need of professional polish, and the etiquette coach she kidnaps to help her shine. Thanks for this opportunity, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
PBW


The letter sounds a bit more friendly and inviting now, right? That's because the persona writing it was Friendly and Inviting PBW, who likes editors and wants them to like her and hire her and send her lovely big checks, not the evil Screw the Industry and You Too Pal PBW, who is presently popping ibuprofen for the tension headache that appears to be drilling into the gray matter behind her right eye.

The only technical difference between the two letters is that in the first I hit him with a reminder of the sixty day turnaround and in the second I didn't. I try never to give an editor a deadline; it's presumptuous and always sounds a little obnoxious.

If you're not comfortable with creating and using a persona on paper, then I'd recommend simply being as polite and professional as possible. An editor or agent will likely respond more often to a serious, courteous pitch than one that burns off their nose hairs.

There is more to cover on this topic (like what to do when you have to actually meet John Smith in person) but as most of the job is on paper, this is about 95% of the battle.

9 comments:

  1. Great comparison, PBW. The distinction in those few little words can make all the difference in the overall tone of a letter. With no body language to convey a tongue-in-cheek comment or even a dry tone, we have to think about how the structure of our words might come across when read on paper.

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  2. Excellent post, S. Just what I needed to hear, although the real me sneaks out when it comes time to submit - and I come across as a bit shy and hesitant.

    I've been lucky the editors I've sent work to have been gentle and encouraging in their rejections.

    Once I've beaten Nano into submission - oh, wait, that's the bloody wreckage splattered in the corner with my whimpering muse - I'm going to try submitting again. This time using 'someone' else.

    Thanks, S.!

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  3. I've always found it to be really weird that I have a completely different voice when I sit down to write a "professional" letter - I'll re-read it and wonder who the hell Andria is, because I am not that sweet or polite.

    It works, though! *-* I just had to send a note to a contest, asking why I had yet to receive my Honorable Mention certificate, and I kept it sweet and thanked them, instead of what I really wanted to say (Look, it's been over a year; how freaking hard is it to put a piece of paper in the mail?!). I got back an apology for the lateness and a request that I submit another story soon, as they'd like to see me win the contest.

    I may not KNOW this sweet, polite person who writes my letters, but she, at least, knows what she's doing. *-*

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  4. Thank you; that's reassuring. It's good to know that most of it only involves expressing yourself on paper. I can do that - I'm a writer :) It's dealing with people in person, and trying to work around the fact that I have a really hard time understanding body language, that I worry about.

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  5. Patrice wrote: With no body language to convey a tongue-in-cheek comment or even a dry tone, we have to think about how the structure of our words might come across when read on paper.

    Exactly. I also think one of the trickiest things to do in a sub query is to use humor effectively. Laughter is the great unifier, and I love using humor in letters, but I rarely do with strangers. You can't know if the person on the other end has a functioning funny bone, and a lot of people in publishing don't. :)

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  6. Jaye wrote: I've been lucky the editors I've sent work to have been gentle and encouraging in their rejections.

    With some rare exceptions, I think most editors are. Even when they're up to their ears in the slushpile, they keep in mind how tough it is for a writer to submit the work for consideration.

    We should always return the favor by imagining how hard it is for them to pen those personally-written rejections. That's a job I wouldn't want to have.

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  7. Andi wrote: I may not KNOW this sweet, polite person who writes my letters, but she, at least, knows what she's doing.

    Sometimes I suspect there's a wormhole between here and the Bizarro Publishing World, in which my query-writing persona lives. She's a delicate lady who wears pink twinsets, matched pearls and bathes in something manufactured by Estee Lauder. I suspect she's working on her latest chicklit opus, My Darling Man Manolo. She's probably a size 3, too, the bitch.

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  8. Zoe wrote: It's dealing with people in person, and trying to work around the fact that I have a really hard time understanding body language, that I worry about.

    That's always been the toughest part of this job for me, too, and one I avoid now. I am not particular charismatic in person unless I'm teaching, and then only with kids. I learned a few things about how to conduct myself when I worked in the corporate sector, but I'm never comfortable doing the authorial stuff in person.

    What I have found via my return to a strictly private life back in 2002 is that you don't have to be a public figure to have a writing career. Huge relief.

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