Saturday, 3 October 2009

RESPONSE TO A DELUDED IDIOT

Some of you may hate me soon. Especially newer followers of this blog or people who have just come across me without warning. (There absolutely should be a warning before entering the world of one so trenchant and crabbit, I know.) You need to understand that I genuinely care for the interests, hearts and souls of unpublished writers; you need to know that I share your pain and that I can do so from the horrible 21 year experience of suffering the same struggle until I suddenly broke through the peculiar barriers; you need to know that such was my desperation to get published that each time I used to read of someone having a "debut" novel published, I wanted to kill them, preferably with my bare hands after a substantial amount of torture.

The reason you need to know this is because you will otherwise think (in a few moments) that I am just laughing at unpublished writers. I am not. What I am laughing at is the worst of the appallingly misdirected, miswritten and misguided covering letters which still find their way onto the laptops and doormats of unlucky agents and editors. I am laughing partly because it is funny and partly because it is unnecessary  -  there's no excuse nowadays for this level of crappiness, now that good advice is out there. (Including on this blog, I venture to say  -  please see what I've written about covering letters here and here. And elsewhere, but that will do for now.)

May I now get on with appearing cruel? And will you forgive me? Please? It is all in the cause of education.

Right. Thing is, one of the perks of writing this blog is that agents and editors show me examples of the worst submissions they receive. And I feel I can't quote from them unless I disguise them a bit. Or a lot. So, I came up with a better idea. I decided to imagine I was an agent and to write an imaginary response to a generically awful covering letter.

So, I have written such a response. Every bit of it refers to an error that I have seen myself or know from a trustworthy source to have been made, mostly very often. BUT, nothing in it relates to anything you have sent me for Submissions Spotlights. Trust me: I'm a novelist. So, seriously do trust me.

Anyway, on behalf of agents and editors everywhere, here is that letter. (In a moment or three.) And for those of you who have yet to see me wax spectacularly crabbit, please sit down, get some decent chocolate out and prepare yourselves.

You should also know that I toned this down (thereby sadly removing some humour) from my first version. I preferred my first version, but I should never use humour cruelly and I should maintain where possible a professional appearance. It's very like choosing the right shoes for the occasion. Essential.

I really think I should get on with it now, don't you? Chocolate at the ready? I'm thinking Hotel Chocolat, maybe the Milk and White Fusion? Rocky Road Milk?

Dear Writer,
I am afraid that I cannot offer to represent you, even for ready money. There may be people out there who would appreciate the "special" presents you sent, but I am afraid I am not one of them. In addition, I found your offer to visit my house and demonstrate your unusual talents somewhat off-putting, especially as I do have a young family.  It is obviously sensible for a writer to have another career to provide an income, but I did find your supporting photos rather disconcerting and I suggest you restrict your personal information to relevant details.

As an aspiring writer, you made a number of errors in your approach. I hope you will not mind my pointing some of these out to you. You sneered at the potential readers of your work; you patronised an entire age group and showed your contempt of their reading power; the words "stupid" and "pathetic" do not sit well in this context; you similarly disparaged every author who has managed to become published through sheer talent and hard work; in short, you laid bare your contempt for readers, writers, and publishers. You appear not to understand the reasons why people choose to read at all and your utter ignorance of every step of the publishing process shone through as brightly as your lack of command of what I presume is your own language.
You do not need to tell me that your novel is "fiction"  -  I have yet to read a novel that wasn't. Yes, in answer to your question, I have heard the phrase "urban fantasy" and therefore do not need you to explain it to me. Nor do I need to be told what "YA" means, since that describes my specialty. Leaving that aside, "6 - 18" is not a valid age group. Please allow me to decide whether your work has film potential; moreover, I think you are being somewhat premature suggesting actors who might take lead roles in the film version. There isn't going to be a film version, really. In fact, there isn't going to be a version at all.
You have a misguided view of your own writing ability. Normally, I would strongly recommend that authors did not tell me that they had shown their work to their children and that their children had loved it; in your case, on the other hand, I recommend you do show it to your children  -  it is entirely possible that they will be able to show you where you have gone wrong. No, your book is not going to "make us rich". No, we are not going to "take the publishing world by storm". No, they are not all waiting with "baited (sic) breath" for the arrival of your grim little tale on the bookshelves. No, you are absolutely not the "next sensation in British literature". You know how on the X-Factor there are always some deluded individuals who make complete fools of themselves and can't see how bad they are? I hope you get my point.
There are certain basic errors in your letter. You should always send the first three chapters, not random middle ones just because you are "working on something even more grity (sic) and exciting at the moment and just can't face typing the first chapters". You do need to obey the rules of apostrophes and avoid street slang in a formal letter. If you halved the number of clichés in one page, you would have improved the impression you made. Slightly. In this and many other ways, you failed to display even a vague competence in written, or indeed any, language.
I confess that I did begin to read your story, mainly because I had had a hard day and needed some light relief. I was not disappointed. I called my elderly neighbour over and we displayed signs of being extremely amused for at least five minutes before we got to the hand-written bit. I thought you said you'd sent this part of your MS because it was typed? Seriously, "Sir/Madam", (to use your own phrase), your story is probably the worst thing I have ever read, and that's including during the time when I was a Year 1 teacher. I am tempted to ask that perennial question: where do you get your ideas from?

In any case, your attitude to me, your readers and the rest of humanity leaves me with the vague impression that you and I would not get along. Having said that, even if you were charming, it would not alter the more important fact: you cannot write for toffee. I suppose I should give you credit for not having sent any toffee in your submission. It was about the only mistake you did not make. If you do not know what I mean by referring to toffee, I suggest that you read the excellent blog of Nicola Morgan. She has been lucid and persuasive on the subject of the risks of toffee in submissions to agents, and her blog contains many other perceptive gems which you would do well to note. She does go on about chocolate rather a lot, which I find a little trivial, but she is still worth heeding.


Yours bleakly,

Desperelda Blogs.
There, that's got that off my chest. Of course, being a charming person who is kind to animals, I would never write such a letter, even if I were an agent, but it was fun to imagine, as long as I didn't have to imagine a real person receiving it.  Really, if you ever see anyone about to make these mistakes, please stop them. You'll be doing everyone a favour, including the poor writer.


The wonderful thing for you, though, is that such rubbish makes it that much easier to get to the top of the slippery slush-pile. So, maybe you should keep this wisdom to yourself...

Edited to add: Marion Gropen put this link to a blog post of hers in the comments below and I thought I'd add it in. A couple of the things in it are things I've scheduled blog posts for. Thank you, Marion.

33 comments:

A Good Moroccan said...

Excellent blog !

www.katherinemay.co.uk said...

I am now unbearably desperate to see that letter. Can't you leak it somewhere? Hey, no one reads my blog, we could sneak it on there...

Nicola Morgan said...

Katherine - I know, it's tantalsing, isn't it?! What you could do, not to see a letter that this reply was based on but to see another hilariously bad submission letter, is go here: http://emailsfromcrazypeople.com/2009/09/24/best-book-idea-ever/

I've seen a lot worse, though!

Nicola Morgan said...

A Good Moroccan - thank you and nice to see you here!

Marisa Birns said...

First thing I read this morning with my coffee and a very small piece of chocolate. Alas not Hotel Chocolat, since I would need someone to send me a Chocogram...

But your letter was very amusing and made me laugh out loud. I wondered, perhaps the writer was just playing stupid as a misguided ploy to garner attention and take him/her away from the slush pile? One would hope, anyway.

A small correction, and I hope you don't hate me and write me one of your letters. I hesitate to bring it up, but you don't know me or where I live, heh, so here goes: there's a typo in your post.

4th paragraph, last word in second sentence, you wrote "recieve" and I know you meant to transpose the "e" and "i".

I am a new follower, and a new admirer of your blog.

Thank you.

Nicola Morgan said...

Marisa - I certainly do't mind you spotting that typo and telling me - thank you! I have now changed it. I often don't spot typos until the post is up there - for some reason I am not good at proof-reading work on screen and also the format of a post before it's posted is extra difficult to proff-read. So, I am always grateful for anyone who can stop me looking silly or careless for too long.

Re the letter writer wanting to draw attention to himself - yes, this is often the reason for silly covering letters. And, as you say, it's misguided.

Sulci Collective said...

Family sized Aero bar poised... But unbroken into as I nod sagely at each bubo succinctly lanced with laser precision.

"each time I used to read of someone having a "debut" novel published, I wanted to kill them" - I recommended an online friend (who I have never met in the flesh) submit to a small Imprint who had asked to see my full MS but then knocked it back and he's landed a deal. So I want to kill myself instead. Where once a sharpened feather quill might have done the job, short of belting myself with my laptop the writer can no longer give him/herself a poetic send off.

Better just carry on with the writing then.

Thanks for the blog I'm going to big it up on Twitter if that's ok. And that Aero's still there for the taking after lunch

bookwitch said...

Wow.

It was Earl Grey, on its own. Could have done with a biscuit, but they were all gone.

Marion Gropen said...

You may want to take a look at an old post on my blog, called "Things Newbies Say," and the comments that follow.

Some of them are about authors, others are about newbie publishers (or perhaps you didn't know that baby publishers can be just as clueless?).

You may not have known that old hands in our world are even tougher on clueless publishers than on anyone else? Oh, trust me, we are. (After all, a bad publisher is taking down authors as well as making his/her own problems.)

helencaldwell said...

Ha! What a fun start to the weekend, thank you! I do always feel so bad for those hopeless, deluded X-factor contestants but somehow I can't seem to summon up the same sympathy for a deluded writer. Anyone who sneers at their potential readers deserves to be taken down a peg or two. Well done for being the one to do it!

Nicola Morgan said...

Lovely, Marion - I'm about to add your link into the post. Thank you! And in your piece there are also a couple of other things I've just blogged about for scheduled posts over the next fortnight. (I'm doing a series called "Myths about writing".)

Sarah said...

That must have felt ridiculously good to write, Nicola. Thanks for a great start to my Saturday.

Seymour said...

I used to work as a journalist in the features dept of a woman's magazine and the covering letters were equally cringe-worthy. Once, after her idea had been rejected, somebody re-submitted the same idea under a different name but using the exact same format, typeface and address! Some people don't learn from rejection.

Rebecca said...

Hilarious! Thanks for posting this.

Ameris said...

That letter is dead-on. Thanks for sharing. :-) I find myself getting increasingly aggrivated with unpublished writers who refuse to research and learn and give the rest of us--who actually do our homework and attempt to write well--a bad name.

I've heard the advice countless times to unpublished writers, "Never give up." While this is all well and good, the advice really should be, "Never give up, and always be willing to learn."

Ameris said...

And also--I've subscribed to this blog several times, but it's still not emailed to me. Am I doing something wrong? I subscribed to Rachelle Gardner's blog as well, and that is emailed to me every time she publishes a new entry. Any help is appreciated!

Nicola Morgan said...

Ameris - mm, I'm not sure if this will help but: to be honest, I'm not sure that "following" a blog automatically does that (certainly, the blogs I follow don't, and I have to confess that makes me wonder what the point of "following" is, other than to express loyatly, which is lovely but not useful to you. (Maybe someone else can answer that??)

BUT, I do know that one way to get automatic notification of new posts is to subscribe (free!) to the RSS feed. To do that. look at your browser bar while you have my blog open at the main page (so the URL appears as www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com without anything extra tagged onto the end) and then you'll see an orange square with 3 curved lines on it. If you hover the mouse over that orange icon, a thing will appear saying "subscribe ..." - click this and then follow instructions.

helen, Sarah, bookwitch and Rebecca - glad you enjoyed it!

Seymour - unfortunately, I believe you!

Sulci - ouch: I hope that online friend was duly grateful. I can imagine how you felt. Re bigging my blog on twitter - of course! The only thing I disagree with you about is Aeros - too much air and not enough chocolate...

Catherine Hughes said...

Hey Nicola!

I loved that post; it really cheered me up.

Maybe we should have a competition. Why don't we see who can design the worst query letter ever - see if anyone can come up with something even more 'out there' than what you've already seen.

It gives me hope, really, it does!

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - I've already done that competition, before your time as a reader of this blog! I will now go and find it and put a link to it in the list of amusing posts ...

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - it's here: http://helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/2009/04/and-winner-is.html or click on "Worst covering letter comp results" in the list of "amusing but pointful" posts on the right

Thomas Taylor said...

'...as brightly as your lack of command of what I presume is your own language.'

Ouch!

I can't help but be reassured by this though. As you said yourself at the end, it helps keep the competition down if some are still machine-gunning themselves in the feet (and as long as it's just the deluded X factor types, I refuse to apologise for saying that).

And there seems to be so much competition! Why is everyone writing for young teens these days? That's the most exacting and intimidating readership out there.

steeleweed said...

I think you should have sent the response.

Of course, I don't suffer fools gladly - or even glumly, as John Masters put it.

Donna Hosie said...

Is there anyone else who looks back to their first ever query letter and just wants to cry with shame?!

Ebony McKenna. said...

Oh yes, the worst cover letter competition. I seem to recall doing quite well in that (huzzah!)

Fabulous post, Nicola. Sadly, this will not be the last dill to ignore all the good advice on the webs and think they know better than everyone.

I think we all do it, to some extent. Or at least, I used to. I thought I was being clever and different and instead I was just being a total nuisance. However, this was more than ten years ago when it was a lot harder to get ready access to great information. I read many how-books as guides, but they were 2/3 years out of date.

But at least I was reading a lot. I have a strong suspicion most of these deluded letters are from people who don't read anything. Ah well, I know I can't offend them because they won't be reading my book anyway :-)

DanielB said...

Donna - yes, me for one. I sent... gulp... random pages. On... three colours of paper!!

(Recoils, hands protectively over head.) I know, I know!

In my defence, I was 17...

Nicola Morgan said...

Donna - I've blogged somewhere about how I once .... ooooh, no, I just can't say! Oh, all right - I sent a covering letter in rhyme. Yep. Really. In a curly fake-handwriting font, too. With pictures of herons.

Ebony - "clever and different" - yes, that's what we all think in those moments, don't we? How will I stand out from the crowd? Well, the answer is simple: be good, professional and sane. Hardly anyone's doing that.

Robin said...

Hard to believe anyone would put even one of those bloops into a query letter. Oh, the struggle for a 'voice' (as Marisa Birns suggested) and how it can send you mad.

I think my query letters must be fairly ok - they have prompted requests for 3 chapters several times. I then sent out sets of random chapters, not realising what it said about me and my MS. Dang it. But I am learning, slowly. One day I'll make it to the other side of the minefield.

BuffySquirrel said...

What I hate is when someone quotes our guidelines at me and tells me how their story meets them.

Eh, I'll decide that, thank you!

JaneF said...

Vicious but fair. I like it.

That crazy person's query you linked to - I bet that book actually gets published by someone.

CDominique said...

I love this post simply because it tells me what not to do. That being said... do you have time to attack my query letter? I would be honored if you would rip it apart.

Nicola Morgan said...

CDominique - oooh, the temptation of being allowed to "rip it apart"!! Hmm. Normally I don't read and comment on people's work, because normally the last thing they want is to be ripped apart. However, if you really do want to email yours to writingtutor@hotmail.co.uk then please feel free! You might also want to consider a Submission Spotlight - look for details under that label/topic.

JaneF - you are probably right, I'm afraid!

Robin - good!

BuffyS - good point

behlerblog said...

Ah yes, one more blog post I was in the midst of writing into the dumpster. Probably a good thing since I lacked the strength or intestinal fortitude to cover all that territory. Brava, Morgan. The beagle sends you chocolate martinis.

Leigh Russell said...

What an amazing amount of information. I've just begun on twitter and am confused and befuddled, sadly my normal state of mind in this real world - which might explain my frequent retreats into fiction. I am going to make this blog a 'favourite' on my google tool bar so I can return to it at regular intervals and try to understand and absorb your guidance in tiny, mybrain sized chunks. I hope I begin to understand something about it before it all changes.
Thank you very much for all your advice.