Let’s start with a confession: I’ve been discouraged lately. Not just because I wrecked my car, or because I have awful PMS, or because my job has me encountering poop more often than a proctologist moonlighting as a zookeeper. It’s the socially-conditioned things that have me down–assumptions I and many others hold about what it takes to be a successful writer. I suspect I’m not the only one who flounders amid these sorts of defeatist attitudes. That’s why I’m about to br-br-break ’em down.
For four years, I taught SAT/ACT essay writing. It was ball-achingly dull. Standardized tests, you see, require a very specific, very rigidly-formatted style, the type of writing you’ve had tattooed on your cortex since sixth grade. The hook. The thesis. Three body paragraphs offering supporting evidence. The conclusion. The arrival of a team of paramedics who attempt to resuscitate you after you shoot yourself in the face to avoid ever again having to write something so boring. I didn’t love teaching it, and the kids didn’t love learning it, in part because it bears so little resemblance to any of the writing you see in the real world.
Think about it: when was the last time you read an op-ed piece that went like this?
Recent scandals within the VA health system have shocked American sensibilities. Eric Shinseki, the United States Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, should step down. He should do so for the following reasons: he is incompetent at his job, he needs to give someone else a chance to lead, and he has dumb taste in shoes. I will now expand upon these points with concrete supporting evidence.
Or a novel that began like this?
Margaret had grown weary of her quotidian existence. She was weary for the following reasons: her boyfriend had dumped her, she had too many student loans, her IBS was acting up…
Et cetera, et cetera. I understand why we all learn this style growing up. It’s tight, cogent, and easy to understand. It emphasizes the need for concrete supporting evidence (a need that loads of adults and the entire Fox News team have yet to internalize.) It prevents our nation’s middle school students from trying to argue in favor of euthanasia by writing about the time they ramped their BMX bike off a sick jump (that’s a thing middle schoolers do, right?) In short, it’s effective, if desperately, desperately boring. Fortunately, as we grow older, we learn how to bend the rules to make our writing more engaging.
But just how far will the rules bend? Surely some writing rules are sacrosanct–never to be broken under any circumstances? After all, professional writers are always rattling off lists of definitely-dos and absolutely-don’ts. Those lists must mean something.
Well, no. Not really. Your writing needs to make sense and keep the reader interested, but everything else is surprisingly flexible. Here are some of the rules that popular authors have broken, are breaking, and will continue to break for the foreseeable future.
You would be hard-pressed to come up with a more heartbreaking scenario.
A writer spends two years crafting the best novel she’s capable of writing. After much toil and travail, her abstract transhumanist coming-of-age young adult police procedural is polished and ready for submission. She queries agent after agent, only to receive form rejections in return.
Then, one day, someone says yes.
Dear Ms Kamarajian, the agent writes, I read your manuscript, Super Robot Cops, with interest. I believe you’ve written the next Great American Novel. It is my pleasure to offer you representation. Welcome to the Not-a-Scam Literary family.
In my opinion, your manuscript needs no further polishing and is ready to move to market as is. Please submit the nominal administrative fee of $2000 so we can get the ball rolling.
Our hypothetical author is over the moon. Someone wants to publish her work! And really, what’s two-thousand dollars here or there, if it means she can make her writing dream come true? She takes out a second mortgage, calls in some debts, and sells her guinea pig into slavery. She submits the “administrative fee” and waits.
Untold eons pass. The sun grows cold. Humanity moves underground, sliding slowly into degeneracy as social order breaks down. Ms Kamarajian is still waiting for word on her novel. She will wait forever. Ms Kamarajian has been had.
How Do I Avoid This Scenario?
In the Internet age, scam artists lurk around every corner, waiting to ensnare the gullible, the desperate, and your grandma. (Mostly your grandma. How many “tool bars” is she going to download before she figures it out? Christ, Nana.) Most of us know to cast a wary eye on Craigslist ads and YouTube comments. Yet when it comes to finding representation for our novels, we are strangely deferential to perceived authority. Part of it, I think, is that we just want to get published so bad. The other part is straight-up failure to research.
Here are some sites to help you do just that.
A popular aphorism holds that, to master any creative endeavor, you have to practice for 10,000 hours.
Think about the implication: you have to work for 10,000 hours before you produce anything worthwhile. That’s 10,000 hours of sub-par product. 10,000 hours of goofy writing that will never see the light of day. 10,000 hours of performing so badly in your chosen field that your own mother gazes upon your efforts and declares: “I have no child.” What a stark concept!
I don’t know about the cut-and-dried 10,000-hour requirement, but I agree with the general sentiment. Anyone who has ever gotten good at something spent a lot of time being very, very bad at it. Perhaps writers should bear that in mind before indulging in their characteristic fits of depression–not only is sucking not shameful, it’s actually necessary. By extension, that feeling you get when you look back at your earlier work and want to jump into a wood chipper–that’s also necessary. (The feeling, not the jumping into a wood chipper. That’s almost never necessary. Though far be it from me to pass judgment on your lifestyle choices.) It means you’ve gotten better.
I have a proposal for everyone: let’s stop being ashamed of our crappy writing. Hell, let’s revel in it. Let’s dig out our ancient manuscripts, hold them high and declare: “I wrote this piece of crap! Look on it, ye mighty, and despair!” Because you came by that piece of crap honestly. You sat down, opened your computer, and spent hours making the best piece of crap you could possibly make. There are plenty of people out there who are too scared to make their own piece of crap, but you made yours. And you know something? That’s awesome.
My Piece of Crap
In the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I present the single crappiest manuscript I was able to find buried among my old school books.
When I was 13 years old, I wanted to write “edgy” “grown-up” stories about “exciting” car “chases.” There’s nothing I can say that will make the following passage okay. Just know that, in a story that also included six juvenile delinquents hiding in a porta-John, off-color references to Britney Spears, and an underage mother giving birth in the woods, this is basically the least stupid thing that happens.
I touched on some of these in my last post, but I thought it would be nice to have them all in one tidy list. These are a few of things you absolutely cannot do in your query letter.
“What do you mean, cannot?” you say. “What, am I gonna get arrested?”
Let me assure you: yes. You will be arrested and fired into the sun. Tread lightly, friend.
What Not to Do in a Query Letter
1. “I’m the next big thing, baby!”
Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t; it’s not your determination to make. Confidence is great up to the point where it shades into megalomania. Knowing writers as I do, I suspect this kind of self-flattery is an effort to conceal deep-seated self-loathing. We hate ourselves, we writers. Every one of us. Agents and publishers know this, so any declarations of greatness (or assurances that you’re going to make the publisher like, so much money) are going to come across as really phony. And also obnoxious.
2. “My mom read this story and she loves it!”
Slow down there, Motherboy. Your mom has to like your writing, just as she has to like you. Mothers are not the most objective audience, so their opinions don’t track much with publishing professionals. You shouldn’t use your mother as a reference. Similarly, you should avoid mentioning commendations by your father, sister, brother, grandma, best friend, or parole officer. In fact, you should probably reconsider including the opinions of any of your “first readers.” A publishing professional will either be interested in reading your manuscript, or they won’t, and it doesn’t really matter what a complete stranger thinks of it.
3. “I’m an aspiring writer. Maybe this manuscript isn’t that good, but I tried my best.”
Ho boy, you went in the complete opposite direction, didn’t you? Come on, kiddo, there’s hundreds of degrees between self-eulogy and telling the agent you hate yourself. I definitely understand the urge to self-deprecate–I’m from the Midwest, after all–but your query letter isn’t the place to do it. Don’t talk yourself down. Don’t describe yourself as an “aspiring” writer. You wrote a book, didn’t you? You’re not just “aspiring;” you’re the real deal. Chin up!
4. “Have you read my manuscript yet? I sent it to you like, five weeks ago!”
No one likes a pushy pain in the butt. Slush piles reach mammoth proportions, and it can take months for yours to rise to the top. Agents and publishers are people too. They don’t want to do business with a diva any more than you would.
5. *stuffs glitter into query letter envelope*
I wouldn’t even mention this, except that I’ve heard horror stories from multiple literary professionals. Shockingly, this is something people actually do. You want your manuscript to stand-out, but preferably in a “this is some really solid writing” way, rather than a “Lisa Frank just sneezed all over my hands” way.
Writing a fiction manuscript is a long, hard road—and it only gets harder once you’ve finished! Then comes the editing, the re-working, the sending out of your newborn piece to those all-important “first readers,” more editing, more re-working, crying yourself to sleep, editing, editing, editing, promising the Dark Ones dominion over the post-human world if only they’ll let you be done already, editing, crying, and maybe a nap.
Assuming you’ve cut and prodded your manuscript to within an inch of its life, the next logical step is submitting it for publication. Maybe you’re planning on sending it to a literary agent, or maybe you’d like to apply directly to a publishing house. Either way, there’s one thing you’ll probably need: a query letter.
Most agents and publishers are so inundated with manuscripts that they have stopped accepting unsolicited work, so you need to ask permission to submit. A query letter is the industry-standard way of asking permission. Because it’s so important, and because so many people are in need of genuine guidance on this topic, I’ll set the sarcasm aside for this post.
…well, I’ll try anyway.
Step One: The Heading
Depending on your age, you may never have written a formal letter with a proper heading before. Heck, most letters these days, my own included, start with something like Hey bbz! or Yo, sup! or I humbly come before His Satanic Majesty to beg forgiveness. None of these are appropriate ways to launch a query.
Ideally, you want to include the date, the name of the person whom you are querying, their place of business, and the name of your novel (in all caps or italics). There’s a right way and a wrong way to execute this.
The Right Way
5 May 2014
Ms. Gloria Brooks
Mega Rad Media Group
Re: LOVE IN THE TIME OF ECZEMA
The Wrong Way
5 May 2014
Lady Jade Butterface
mega RAD media grp
Get the person’s name right, and tack a “Mr.” or “Ms.” on the beginning. This is the easiest part of the entire letter. Whiffing it will bring nothing short of humiliations galore.
Step Two: The Hook
If you’ve ever had a high school teacher harp endlessly on the importance of catching the reader’s attention at the beginning of a piece, then you know what a hook is.
(Note: If you are picturing that thing Batman uses to swing between buildings, please stop. That is a grappling hook. We are not talking about grappling hooks. PLEASE DO NOT ATTACK AGENTS WITH GRAPPLING HOOKS.)
Different writers have different ways of approaching a hook. Some like to start with a cold-open of sorts: Imagine you’re locked in a laundromat, and all the washing machines come to life and there are leprechauns!
Others—if they’ve been lucky enough to meet the person they’re querying—like to mention that fact: We recently met at the Anti-Marmite Convention. In the midst of your heated scree against Marmite and all the irreparable harm it has caused you, you happened to mention that you work in the publishing industry.
If you haven’t met the agent or publisher in person, don’t despair! I find it useful to read up on the person I’m querying and use what I learn in my hook: I read in Publishers’ Marketplace that you are interested in high-concept middle grade pre-Raphaelite post-modern humanist crime procedurals. Subsequently, I read [insert names of books the person has represented or published], which I enjoyed very much.
Let’s take a look at the right way and the wrong way to do a hook.
The Right Way
Dear Ms. Brooks,
A few weeks ago, we met at the 11th Annual Greater Des Moines Area Writers’ Conference. I spoke to you about my novel, LOVE IN THE TIME OF ECZEMA, which I have recently completed. Previously, you represented Rob McRobert’s debut novel, ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGITUDE, a work that I love and that is thematically similar to mine. Based on this similarity, I thought you might be interested in taking a look at my manuscript.
The Wrong Way
do you think about foot? have you ever seen the foot in the place the foot is not belonging? i have writing book about foot, name of book is FOOT. please read and RT
Hello and well met, gentle readers. Welcome to my writing blog. Things are still under construction around here, which means they aren’t looking as pretty as they eventually will. But that’s no reason for me not to provide you with gripping content, eh?
I assume that my readers are, by and large, aspiring writers. Therefore, it seemed appropriate to begin my blog with a list of some of the most common advice doled out to novice writers, with examples of how to work it into a piece. Do get comfortable and keep your hands inside the car as we embark on this Wacky Writing Wadventure.
1. Good writers write what they know
This rudimentary piece of advice has always fascinated me. Who could have guessed that Tolkien knew so many dwarves, or that Asimov hung out with so many robots? I like writing genre fiction, but as I have no personal experience with dragons, galactic empires, or mystic prophecies, I guess that’s off the table. Here are the things I know about:
-Disney channel original movies, 1996-2004
-The Bush administration
-The merits of stadium seating
Of these, meth-heads seem most likely to yield an interesting story. Also, I know the most about them, because I live in suburban Detroit. Let’s give this meth-head story the old college try.
Of Mice and Meth-heads
Mere minutes before the bus arrived, a crackhead stumbled into the shelter and sat next to me. His clothes were ragged and his affect was in tatters. I couldn’t help but stare. When he peered back at me, I hastened to avert my gaze.
Shit, I thought. He’s seen me looking. There’s no escape now.
2. Be meaningful/unexpected
The writer David Hale once advised: “Write only when you have something to say.” Don’t even think about writing for fun or keeping a diary to work through your issues. Proper writing has to be dripping with meaningful personal and/or sociopolitical commentary.
Additionally, you should be unexpected. Shock the reader. If your reader doesn’t have to take a handful of nitroglycerin pills halfway through the story, you haven’t done your job.
With those two rules in mind, I continue my story thus:
Drawing himself up, he addressed me. “Madam,” he said. “I was not always as you see me now. Once, I was a promising medical student with an eye to the horizon. My fall from grace was emblematic of certain social ills which, I think you’ll agree, are both important and ripe for discourse.”
Shit, I thought again. This is very unexpected.
To ease my awkwardness, I glanced down at my smart phone.
“Ours is an impersonal age,” the crackhead announced at once. “Though technology affords us the illusion of unprecedented interconnection, it has, in fact, separated us from one another. We are bereft of each other, just as sinners are bereft of God as they burn in the seven levels of Hell as described in the works of Dante Alighieri.”
The reason this works is that you would never expect a meth-head to be intelligent, much less to possess a working knowledge of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. By subverting your expectations, I’ve put you on the back foot!