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February 5, 2004

Nudge note
Posted by Teresa at 11:16 AM *

Received today from Sandra Macdonald, written inside a “Happy Anniversary” greeting card:

Dear Manuscript,

Just a brief not to say I think of you often and hope you are enjoying your sojourn in Manhattan (or perhaps Brooklyn, or some unknown borough…)

Bright lights! Big city! All those other manuscripts waiting so hopefully in piles, on shelves, on chairs, in corners—be patient, dear manuscript. A year is not too long to be apart. Perhaps one day we’ll meet again, or I’ll see
(Here the preprinted words “…and many, many more!” have been carefully crossed out, and a small annotation written in saying “well no, not really!”)
your SASE, or hear a whisper of your fate at Boskone. Until then I’ll think of you fondly and continue to wish you well— Yours,
Your author,
It’s been handed round, and admired, and put up on the wall. We’ve dug out the manuscript, too.
Comments on Nudge note:
#1 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 12:01 PM:

Should I ever have occasion to inquire about a manuscript, I will strive to emulate the grace, courtesy, and effectiveness of this note.

#2 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 12:08 PM:

... that's just sheer class.

#3 ::: Glen ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 12:12 PM:

I have never seen a nudge note so worthy of emulation before.

#4 ::: des ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 12:27 PM:

My PhD supervisor had a paper in the submission queue at a journal that he used to send birthday cards to. I don't know if it helped, though.

#5 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 12:31 PM:

Charmingly done, and an excellent example to balance out the ones in that other thread.

#6 ::: Catie Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 12:35 PM:

*laugh* Bravo, Sandra.

#7 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 01:01 PM:

*takes notes*

Of course, I'm expecting my first upcoming novel query to be returned with a note, written in crayon on re-purposed newspaper, that reads in its entirity "NO WAY".

But in the happy circumstance that I actually exceed the expected response time significantly enough to re-query, I'll try to remember this as a good example of how to go about doing so.

#8 ::: Emmet ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 01:08 PM:

The existence of such things as witty and effective nudge notes is a revelation to me; still don't think I could bring myself to send one, the particular value of shyness I'm lumbered with makes anything that feels like nagging basically impossible in this context, but I shall bear in mind this example of it being possible to do so and get a positive reaction.

#9 ::: BetNoir ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 01:11 PM:

How utterly charming!

Oh, how I wish my doctor authors were half as lucid in their inquiries.

That just made my day.

#10 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 01:19 PM:

Mea Culpa. I once wrote a polite but irritated letter to a magazine editor (no names here) that he had just won my award for the longest time that any of my fiction had ever languished in a single office.

To my shame, he wrote back that the story had been published years ago in his magazine, and that he had sent a check and copy of the magazine to my business address, which the Post Office had bounced.

Turns out that my office then was actually a Boeing Aerospace Company office I had while on contract at JPL, and the Boeing secretary had bounced the mail without telling me. Also had plane tickets and other crucial things returned to sender.

I eventually got the check, apologized to the editor, but still have no copy of that magazine. Nor was I able to be timely in submitting it to annual anthologies. But NOT the editor's fault.

My story, by the way, involved an American assault on Baghdad, which inadvertantly uncovered magic coins stamped by the King of The Jinns, and so the Pentagon was now searching for a Magic Lamp. As good an explanation as any as to why we really did attack Iraq...

#11 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 01:25 PM:

Of course, I'm expecting my first upcoming novel query to be returned with a note, written in crayon on re-purposed newspaper, that reads in its entirity "NO WAY".

Which still beats "HA!" Which in turn beats -- I don't know, a dead frog?

#12 ::: Sandra McDonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 01:47 PM:

(Blushing) I'm glad it was received well :-) I know you and Patrick have good senses of humor, Teresa, but everyone has a bad day now and then...

I was actually in Manhattan one weekend last November, and as we ate lunch at South Street Seaport I could hear my manuscript's siren song. . .it called to me, tugged at me, a tangible presence across the streets and buildings, not just as a box of pages but also as the bundle of hope and expectations and hard work that I'd wrapped and mailed off last year.

My goal is to one day be published by Tor--if not this novel, maybe the one I'm polishing up now, or the one I'm going to write this autumn, or the one I'm going to write next autumn...eventually everything will work out exactly as it should. That's what I believe. Even so, and even though I used to boss around seaman recruits and whip unruly computer students into shape, I'm sometimes too shy to query in person at cons, or even by email. I'm working on that.

#13 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 01:56 PM:

Gardner Dozois likes to tell of the time his manuscript came back in the SASE, having been literally vomited upon.

And I've had a bootprint on a SASEd ms.

1984 redux: visualize a boot stamping on a human story, forever.

#14 ::: Jimcat Kasprzak ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 02:27 PM:

I can envision the vomit, or bootprints, on manuscripts being the inadvertent result of people in the editorial office just being a little too spirited at the wrong time.

I can also envision such things being perpetrated deliberately.

And, finally, I can envision such stories being, let us say, embellishments.

Can our real-world publishing liaisons tell us which is more likely?

#15 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 03:05 PM:

The word around this wee corner of the industry is that the worst we've ever sent back was one with red wine on it. Coffee is more likely. All by accident. Bootprints, would be very unlikely; sock feet and fluffy slippers are more the normal editorial footgear around here. I can see how a bootprint might accidentally wind up on a ms in an office of more assertively shod publishing types---editorial assistants and other members of the junior editorial staff frequently don't get large desks, and things fall off a lot. Senior editors get larger desks, but I've seen several alleged desks that looked more like paperslides waiting to happen than work surfaces. One day editor X looks for the slip of paper with her son's best friend's mom's phone number on it, and WHOOSH! paperslide! And we all rush about collecting the mss, which, freed from the unbearable weight of subsequent accumulations of paper, have covered the floor, denying passage to any booted editor trying to get to the bathroom. And some poor hopeful's ms gets decorated.

Or the editor may really not have liked it. In this shop, my first scenario really is more likely.

#16 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 03:26 PM:

Of course, I took the bootprint as unnoticed accident. And Gardner Dozois can defend his claim; as I am neither a coauthor with him nor attorney for him...

There's also the uncomfortable matter of feeling that one's manuscript kills markets or editors. I've had a story go to three successive markets that died before acting on said manuscript. And several editors die while marking up my manuscripts, once most sadly by Terry Carr, with said mark-up snailmailed to me by Robert Silverberg (who was clearing up the office afterwards) and that specific copy vanished in the mail. Terry and I'd been neighbors in Brooklyn Heights, also within a couple of blocks of Leo & Dianne Dillon.

And I'd shaken hands on a deal to be John Brunner's Film/TV agent, at the Glasgow Worldcon, and had celebratory dinner... only to have him die of a stroke later that night. After our business dinner, I'd dragged him to another table of writers, and so the "I had the Last Supper with John Brunner" stories so proliferated as to have Locus disregard them all.

#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 04:12 PM:

Stomp on them deliberately? Why bother? We can reject them and they'll go away. All the manuscripts and galley pages I've seen stomped, or burned, or nailed to the wall, or tied to a weight and thrown into deep water, were books under contract that were going through the pipeline. Our Managing Editor's office used to have a dartboard on its wall -- but of these matters I may say no more.

A footprint on a manuscript means it was sitting on the floor, or possibly on a desktop, and while it was sitting there somebody stepped on it. More rarely, it may have formed part of a stack that someone used as a stepstool to reach a high shelf, but manuscript stacks aren't usually stable enough for that to be a good idea. A coffee ring means I was drinking coffee while I was reading it.

You want to know the other side of that one? When the author's been smoking heavily the whole time they've been going over the edited or copyedited manuscript. Every page smells of smoke. No help for it. Chain-smoking while going over one's pages is an inalienable auctorial privilege.

Re barfed-on pages: People get sick, and we don't have a lot of spare room. It's another one of those things you ought not take personally. However, before I mailed them, I think I'd get in touch with the author and ask whether he wanted them back in that condition.

#18 ::: Melody ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 04:34 PM:

*makes note: do not eat with or read anything by Jonathan Von Post. May be rather hazardous to one's health*

wait - I read his post here . . .does that count?

*re-reads* oh, okay. As long as I don't mark it up . . .

#19 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 04:36 PM:

My high school sophomore year English teacher, Smilin' Bill Novak, had a habit of writing "NO" or "Don't waste my time" across wrong answers. In bright red ink. I'm still nervous about querying in part because of that. It's far worse than a bootprint.

Of course, I also fear that I will go to a signing for my first published book somewhere down the line, see Smilin' Bill there, open my book to sign it for him, and find that he has already written "Don't waste my time" across the title page. Silly, I know, but there it is.

My Japanese prof in college had a story about a time squirrels got down his chimney when he had a stack of homework. "We did not have this problem in Japan. And the thing about squirrrrrrrs," he said, "is. Ahh. They pee, you see." He decided not to turn the papers back to the students in that condition. Smart guy. That's probably a lawsuit in today's academic climate.

#20 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 05:04 PM:

Note to Self: Mark all sent-out manuscripts disposable. Send SASE only for rejection slip (or, in my dreams ha, check and acceptance letter). If they barf on the rejection slip, that I'd take personally.

#21 ::: DaveHD ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 05:59 PM:

Teresa wrote: Re barfed-on pages: People get sick, and we don't have a lot of spare room. It's another one of those things you ought not take personally. However, before I mailed them, I think I'd get in touch with the author and ask whether he wanted them back in that condition.

I can just imagine getting that e-mail from Teresa. I'd open my mailbox to see tnh(at) has sent an e-mail with the subject line: "Your Manuscript." I'd barely be able to double click for the excitement. A personal message from "tnh" can only contain on offer to buy. In fact, in the time it takes that damn thing to open I'd be dreaming of the mid-five-figures (it is my first book after all, the big money will come down the line.) And frankly, the money doesn't really matter, 'cause all I needed was a foot in the door, once published, this thing is gonna win a Hugo, a Nebula, hell, is it too early to start thinking PEN. And everybody knows you make the serious green on movie deals.

"Dear Mr H----D----"
It's personalized! Sure, she spelled my name wrong, but everybody spells it wrong. We'll make sure they get it right on the dust jacket.

"I'm sorry for the long delay in responding to your manuscript."
Not a problem, Teresa. I understand these things take time. I know full well that all the bean-counters down in marketing care about is their damn P&L spreadsheets, sales-projection charts, and marketing strategy meetings. What's two and half years when Art is eternal. I'm sure you'll be quicker on the next one.

"During the editorial review process, your manuscript was placed on a credenza near my desk."
Yeah baby, not out in the hall with all the slush losers. Tor knows gold when they see it.

No. Damnit. Don't use that word.

"Unfortunately, I suffered a sudden onset of a stomach flu and attempted to vomit into my trash can."
Whew. Thank god. The misfortune is hers, not mine. But why the hell do I care? Just make the offer.

"In my haste, I missed the trashcan and barfed on your manuscript."
Nasty. Does that mean it was on top? It's okay, I'll attach a .txt and a .doc file to my reply. They'll need that in production anyway.

"Given the condition of the manuscript, I would like to know if you want it returned or would considered it disposable. Yours. TNH"
What does that mean? Did she even READ IT? That can't be the the last line. Where's the rest of the email. What the hell happened to my offer. Damnit. They owe me a deal. This shit wouldn't happen if I had an agent.

I'd knock off an angry reply, though I have no doubt that before I could hit the "send" button, all the vowels would disappear. Even if that didn't happen, I hope I'd have the good sense to delete it. Abandoning the last of my dignity I'd respond with a wimpy:

Dear Teresa,
Thank you for your note. I hope you're feeling better. Please dispose of the manuscript however you see fit. If required I'd be happy to send a replacement.
Sincerely, DHD

It's not all bad though, I'd least I'd have an "in" at conventions: "Hey Teresa, I'm the guy whose novel you barfed on. How you feeliing today?"

#22 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 06:00 PM:

"Dear Author -

Your rejection letter has been cunningly engraved on one of the scales of the large and robust fish contained in this sealed vessel. Based on historical data concerning transit times from our offices to your place of business, the Post Office's laudably cautious practises in handling packages which slosh, and the present temperature of the vessel, you may wish to consider extrapolating the specific contents of the letter."

Utterly pointless level of effort, even it was just an unlabelled large can of past-sell-by Polish plums, but a deliberately unpleasant rejection letter would be very easy thing to do.

Heck, all you'd really have to do is demand an apology for darkening your door with drivel.

(Me? Overly imaginative tendency to worry about the probable reception of manuscripts I've submitted? Whatever gave you that idea?)

#23 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 06:33 PM:

DaveHD - if the writing you submit is as funny as your comment, I predict a good future in the humor biz for you. I particularly liked I have no doubt that before I could hit the "send" button, all the vowels would disappear.

Thanks for posting the comment. Unfortunately, it doesn't suit the needs of the house at this time. :-)

Hey, you're a DHD. You don't happen to have 38 arcane symbols tattooed on you, do you? :-)

(Do people leave one F out of your name, so that it means 'court roof' instead of 'high hope'? Or do they misspell it some other way?)

#24 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 06:46 PM:

Okay, you people (by which I specifically mean DaveHD in this case) really need to stop making me giggle at work.

I take no responsibility for the fact that I'm reading this at work. Nope! All your fault!!

#25 ::: Rachael HD ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 07:11 PM:

A teacher friend of mine was grading sketch-books on a car trip and they got in an accident. She was injured a bit, spent time in the hospital, and eventually another teacher picked up the sketch books and handed them back to the kids. When she returned to class the kids all stared with wide eyes: the brownish stains on their sketch books had frightened them into good behavior. She didn't get around to explaining that she had been drinking cocoa until the good behavior wore off.

I occasionally get a sketch book that smells like an ashtray, I can't stand it! You are much more understanding than I Teresa.

#26 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 08:40 PM:

It's an author's ineluctable right to chainsmoke while workinng on a manuscript.

Sometimes it's not the author.

One friend of mine, a severe asthmatic, has been known to have difficulties with mss that come back from the copyeditor reeking of tobaccoo smoke.

#27 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 08:46 PM:

I had a manuscript at DAW for over a year. Toward the end of that time, I visited MZB in Oakland for some function. She said, 'don't be polite, they've had it too long! Contact so and so and tell 'em I told you to ask."

I got it back shortly thereafter, with a 'does not fit our needs at this time" printed rejection note. AND a nice crunchy crust of sugar/creamer/coffee drool all over it. And long enough ago that the original had been typewritten, then copied at Kinkos.... at least no NY roaches road back to KC...

#28 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 08:52 PM:

Rachel HD:

"A teacher friend of mine was grading sketch-books on a car trip and they got in an accident."

Sounds to me (although a real event) like a sick joke.

Q: Why did the teacher get injured while driving?
A: Because the teacher was Grading on the Curve!

#29 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 08:55 PM:

dammit, that would be rode....

#30 ::: Jenny Bannock ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2004, 08:57 PM:

Dear gods. I wish I'd thought of that. I've only been apart from my MS for a week or two, and already I miss it dearly.

Uhm...on another note, I think I made a mistake on my cover letter. Teresa, will I get laughed at (or scoffed at) because I addressed the letter to Mr. Hayden, not Mr. Nielsen Hayden? *sheepish* I thought the name Nielsen was his middle name...until I found this blog and realized my mistake.

Either way, this whole submission process has been very enlightening. At least I can promise that my MS won't smell like cigarette smoke. :D

#31 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 12:33 AM:

Dave HD: Yep, you can never tell what'll make a good in. I started a conversation and a possible friendship with, "Oh! You're Teresa's barf buddy!" Hee.


#32 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 03:16 AM:

Jonathan--Sounds like a story idea.

Coffee on a set of proofs means I was drinking coffee while I read it. Ditto for tea, soda, fruit juice, milk, water (doesn't stain, but can wrinkle the pages), beer, wine, and whiskey.

Tomato sauce on the pages mean I was reading it while I ate, probably a sign that I enjoyed reading it enough to do that. or it could just mean it was near the stove at some point while I was cooking.

Muddy paw prints mean that a certain cat, whose owner walks him on a leash then lets him sit on the bench next to me, walked on it. This, unfortunately, is cats' preorgative, and inclination. If there's cat fur, the cat sat on the pages. Cats like to do this even more than they like to walk on them.

Muddy shoe or boot prints on the manuscript mean I left it on the floor and probably stumbled over it. they do not mean I stomped on it in fury.

I don't recall whether I've ever barfed on a manuscript, but I may have. I've been known to work in bed even with a stomach upset, so I believe at some point I may have missed the conveniently placed bucket and had a few wild drops get on the pages.

I've certainly sneezed sloppily on more than one manuscript.

Big chunks of pages creased mean I was carrying it around in my pack and it gut scrunched around.

Pages soked with aftershave lotion mean I had it in my suitcase when I flew somewhere, along with a bottle of aftershave. The cargo area wasn't pressurized, so the air inside the bottle made it burst, soaking a lot of stuff with sweet-smelling lotion. That's my theory, anyway--it may have been homeland Security's doing.

If there's blood on it, it's probably a paper cut, an on-the-job injury that unfortunately happens much more often than I would like. I have one on my right thumb as of this writing, and it hurt when I got it.

If some pages are entirely soaked with coffee, it means that one morning my slightly psycho ex-girlfriend (an old one, not the current slightly psycho ex-gf), who I foolishly was sharing a summer house with, made the mistake of picking a fight with me just as I was having my first big mug of coffee, and in her fury tried to grab the coffee out of my hand, getting a good bit of it on her clean white shirt, but mosto of it on the proofs.

#33 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 08:11 AM:

Graydon wrote:

"Your rejection letter has been cunningly engraved on one of the scales of the large and robust fish contained in this sealed vessel. Based on historical data concerning transit times from our offices to your place of business, the Post Office's laudably cautious practises in handling packages which slosh, and the present temperature of the vessel, you may wish to consider extrapolating the specific contents of the letter."

Thank you for triggering bad memories, Graydon. I work for the Postal Service, and one of my customers was once sent a package of smoked fish. Home-smoked fish. INADEQUATELY home-smoked fish.

By the time that package got to my station, it had already been triple-wrapped in plastic by workers at the mail-pricessing plant, and it still reeked, and leaked driblets of toxic waste all over.

I was, to put it lightly, looking forward to giving it to the customer and never seeing it again.

The customer wasn't home. Which meant I had to leave a notice slip and carry the package around with me until I got back to the station at the end of the workday.

We're required to hold notice-left parcels for ten days, waiting for pickup. We put the parcel in one of the rolling cages and put the cage outside on the farthest corner of the loading dock. Big help, although whenever the doors to the dock were open, the stench would waft back into the building.

The customer never picked up the package. So it got marked up as unclaimed, and sent to the mail processing plant for returning to sender.

Unfortunately, the pacage had gotten so soaked in rotten fish juice, inside the layers of plastic, that the return address was illegible. So the sweeties at the processing plant sent it back to my station for another attempt at delivery to my customer.

#34 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 08:57 AM:

Right now, I can't be bothered to care about rejections.

I apparently got into grad school.

What the hell am I thinking, going for a master's degree with 2 kids.....

Who cares. I just find this stuff really cool.

#35 ::: Elric ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 09:27 AM:

There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, that James Michener's first book had been sitting in an editor's home office for some time, quietly nesting in a box. The editor's cat jumped into the box and expressed an editorial opinion on the ms. The editor was so chagrinned that they bought the book rather than explain what the cat had done to it.

#36 ::: Mur ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 10:34 AM:

New here, and loving the blog and the comments.

But I have a question - everything I've read about submissions says you shouldn't do anything special to make yourself stand out. No colored paper, no UPS second-day, no stickers or cute comments on your envelope, and nothing special in your cover letter.

Are nudge notes allowed to be more creative, or is it just the fact that it was surprising that made it special?

(this is not to be a slam against the author - good for her for getting your attention - but I was just curious)

#37 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 11:22 AM:

Congrats Bill Blum! Good luck in managing it all, and kudos to you for doing what you find "really cool".

#38 ::: Holly M. ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 12:00 PM:

It's good to know I'm not alone.

JVP, I too have had agents die on me while they were reviewing my stuff. I too have had small publishers go belly-up while considering my submissions. I hear this is not uncommon, but I still wanted to send a letter of condolence when I got the news!

I, too, have submitted things to Tor and had them vanish into the ether (although that particular MS was later resubmitted to Anna G, who viewed, praised, and reluctantly turned it down, so at least I got some feedback on it). Baen has had one of my MS's sitting around for I think four years now, but I imagine that one has gone to the big dumpster in the sky. Anyway I revised it.

I, too, have had MS's returned to me with shoeprints on them, and I think that more than anything made me realize just how much slush sits in editorial offices.

#39 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 01:21 PM:

Bruce --

Apologies to your memories. (though no apopologies for laughing at your account!)

I was riffing off of a story about the parent of someone I knew through a church youth group, who had send a friend a fish (and a lot of floor sweepings) through the post while in college.

#40 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 03:23 PM:

Robert L.: "Sounds like a story idea."

My son thought I was nuts when I told him, while driving him to his college classes this morning. But one possible ending of the Killer Manuscript story might be:

Dear Saddam Hussein,

As a big fan of your two novels, and the publishing entity that you used for them, please accept for your consideration the enclosed novel manuscript, which I have entitled "Death to the Infidel!"...


But I was laughing while executing a "California Rolling Stop", aka "Pasadena Pause", and got a traffic citation this morning for running a stop sign. I told the motorcycle cop the truth, while he checked my registration and proof of insurance, and waited for patrol car backup. Then I asked if most of those he stops also tell him the truth. "They almost all try to lie to me," he said, grinning.

My son pointed out an ad on a bus-side for Starsky & Hutch. Then my son said: "Good thing it was yesterday, not today, when I brought in those three Japanese swords for my class presentation..."

#41 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 05:30 PM:

An editor with a strong cat allergy told me that working with Rita Mae Brown's manuscripts literally made her sick.

#42 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 06:32 PM:

DavidHD, if I need to phone a writer who's submitted something to our slush pile, the first thing I say after "Hello" is that I'm not calling to buy their book (unless I am). I'd have to be a complete sadist to delay that revelation when I could hear the hope and vulnerability in their voices.

"Would you like another copy?" and "Hi! I'm the guy whose novel you barfed on" are both good approaches.

Graydon, I gather you've never submitted anything to Crank!?

Bruce, I'm glad you guys at the PO are so meticulous about the rules, but please tell me you at least thought of surreptitiously throwing it away.

Elric, what are the odds that the unexamined manuscript that gets pissed on by an editor's cat will turn out to be a bestseller, win a Pulitzer, get made into a Broadway musical and then a movie, and stay in print for decades?

What I can easily imagine is that the manuscript languished unread because its cover letter identified it as a collection of hitherto unpublished short stories by a never-before-published writer: kiss of death. I can also imagine that the editor would be anxious to get the pissed-on manuscript out of her house. And since this was back in the days of one typescript copy plus one or two carbon copies, when ruining someone's manuscript was a much bigger deal, the logical way to deal with the catastrophe would be read the manuscript ASAP and send the author a nice long thoughtful letter that would make the accompanying news easier to bear. If what she found herself reading was Tales of the South Pacific, that's surely a piece of redeeming luck.

I'm always made uncomfortable by stories like that, and by aspiring writers' enthusiasm for them, because they only work if the book in question is something like Tales of the South Pacific or Confederacy of Dunces or The Fountainhead. It's never [insert title of wretchedly bad book here]. It's never even a passably good book that finally gets bought, achieves modest sales, and goes out of print.

I ran across a battered old paperback copy of Tales of the South Pacific when I was a kid, and started reading it out of curiosity. More than thirty years later, I can still remember those stories. The market for WWII stories isn't what it was when that book first saw print, but if that manuscript landed on my desk right now, I'd want to buy it. Mind, we still wouldn't call it a short story collection. I don't think that paperback did either.

If you want a depressingly realistic version of that story, I've heard tell of an editor at another house who once bought a book because s/he/it had kept the manuscript too long and then lost it, and was too embarrassed to say so to the agent. Thing is, when you buy a book, you're entitled to ask for another copy of the manuscript, so the editor never had to make the admission. This isn't folklore. The teller identified the house, the editor, the author, and the book. Funny thing, though; all that information has discreetly vanished from my memory, leaving only the recollection that it was a well attested story. It wasn't much of a scandal anyway; the book was passable, if uninspiring.

Mur, there's a lot of weird advice out there about submissions. It's like the story of Epaminondas. Everyone's solemnly instructed to avoid the previous guy's errors.

The cheaper varieties of express mail have one thing going for them: you know your package has been delivered to us. There's no point in using anything faster and more expensive. We receive two kinds of express mail. The less frequent sort comes from our authors when they're delivering their latest manuscript, returning a copyedit or galley pages, and generally transacting business. The other kind is unagented manuscript submissions. If you look at the photos of slush linked from my original post, you'll see how common such packages are.

We see a lot of stickered envelopes, but we don't think much of them either way. They're just there. Doesn't matter. Frivolous or cool stamps sometimes get noticed, but it doesn't count toward liking the book. Using pastel paper for your cover letter is okay, but make it a standard letter, and don't use any colors you wouldn't use for a business letter.

Sending a manuscript on colored paper is always bad.

#43 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 06:55 PM:

Teresa -

Why, no, I have never submitted anything to Crank!

I now have this profound sense of whooshing noise, and would fain enquire after the possibility of your elaborating upon your remark.

#44 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2004, 07:38 PM:

Arthur D. Hlavaty:

There's a pussy in the Rubyfruit Jungle?

#45 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 03:07 AM:

Bruce (and apropos submissions in general): Teresa's heard this story before, I believe, but: An old college roommate has worked as a clerk for the Postal Service for years. His station included the old New Yorker offices, so it would handle all the magazine's submissions. One day a piece of mail, presumably someone submitting a story, turned up from somewhere in Florida with a neatly flattened tree frog stuck to the envelope. A long debate ensued: Was this merely a hapless frog that had bumbled into the sack of mail and been squashed? Or had the sender put it there deliberately? (The USPS workers were, I'm sure, not in error to think that an aspiring author would be capable of such a stunt, either to get attention or in anger.) Or perhaps the dead frog had escaped from a shipment of live frogs, thus belonging in the Loose in the Mails section? Or, since it was attached to the letter, was it thus definitely part of the piece of mail? I'm not sure what the outcome was, but it apparently took quite a while for a decision to be made.

#46 ::: adrienne ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 09:28 AM:

Re: dead tree frog in mail.

Perhaps the letter carriers were hoping that, during their debate and delay, the frog would decompose, peel off, and cease to be their problem? Or, perhaps, the USPS should hire a regional philosopher who could travel from station to station to ponder such quandries?

#47 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2004, 09:04 PM:

Sad mss stories.... Once upon a time, in the bad old days when we typed drafts, read them, then revised and retyped them, I tossed my drafts into a paper box. For whatever reasons that are vague to me now. (I think at one time, once I started selling, Jim might have suggested we could use the drafts for charity auctions....)

Well, unknown to me ( we had a renter there... long story not told here) the male kitty I had developed a terminal bladder/kidney infection. When we emptied the house, we discovered he'd been using that box as an alternate litter box.... ick. Talk about your editoral expression.

Earlier in our lifetime, same cat killed, thankfully, my old Smith Corona Electric Typewriter with the "auto" return ... you'd hit a button and the carriage would return... and jump the typewriter 1/4 inch left. I HATED THAT TYPEWRITER! (I had it from the time I was 16 to about 35). We went away for a weekend, I was in a hand-writing portion of working on a long work so I didn't bother the damned typewriter for a long while. When I turned it on again, it warmed up, started smelling like cat pee, then went Zap! and quit working. Fortunately it didn't take a circuit or wall plug.... Got my only electronic word processor after that, then a Mac...

#48 ::: Karen Junker ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 03:52 AM:

I got a manuscript, with rejection letter, in the mail from Publisher once. Only, I never submitted it.

They must have thought I was nuts.

I'd sent the entire documentation for what amounts to a lifetime of Girl Scout badges to one of the newer religious groups I was writing about. I paid my membership dues and planned to go through their study course, get my certificate of completion and then have the background to write about them with some knowledge.

While gathering my documentation, I wrote a manual for their study course, since the instructions were so poorly written, but this angered the leader of the group (how could I have known she wrote the damn thing?) so much, she gathered it all up and sent it to one of the other leaders, who worked at Publisher at the time. The mailroom thought it was an unsolicited submission, so it must have sat on someone's floor for a couple of years before they kindly packaged it back up and returned it to me.

I wrote the article, it appears on a university's website for the study of new religions. But I assure you, I would never submit copies of my college transcripts and expect anyone to take it seriously as literature. Of any kind.

#49 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 04:56 AM:

I now have a "Top n" list inspired in part by this thread and the Slushkiller one:

The Top n Things worse than getting a form rejection.

Additions or revisions are welcome. Rotten tomatoes are not. :)

#50 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 02:56 PM:

Holly, I can't speak for another house, but my understanding is that while it might be difficult to pin down the location of a manuscript that's been four years at Baen, it hasn't necessarily gone into a dumpster.

Graydon, the Crank! form rejection letter I once saw took up an entire page of (I think) ten-point type. The only check-off I remember well enough to quote was the first one. I can't duplicate its exact wording, but it went something like "You've obviously never bothered to read an issue of this magazine, because the kind of writing you've submitted is a kind we never publish." There were quite a few more like that.

Bryan was ruthless about submissions. He took his rejection forms with him and processed the slush for Crank! while standing up in the Post Office.

Robert: Thank you. I had forgotten the story about the tree frog, and the philosophical debate it prompted. Naturally, my impulse would be to stick a query flag on it and ask whether it was intentional.

Paula, stories like that are legion. Sometimes the dog really does eat your homework. Back in my hardcopy days I lost significant chunks of writing to Somebody Or Other Who Will Not Be Named, who tidied it into the garbage without looking at it or asking me about it. Chip Delany lost a notebook's worth of the original draft of Dhalgren, which he was writing longhand. Doyle and Macdonald lost a lot of their early work to tropical insects in Panama. Then there are the classic horror stories from the days of handwritten manuscripts, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his disinterred libretti. The first version of T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom was misplaced by the Reading railway station, never to be found again. John Stuart Mill's servant mistook the manuscript of Thomas Carlyle's book on the French Revolution for wastepaper, and threw it away. Both had to be completely rewritten by hand, from memory -- in Carlyle's case, with an announced publication date closing in on him. And there's always the example of Franz Josef Haydn's wife Anna, who more than once cut up his musical scores for use as curling-papers and cake-pan liners.

When Patrick was a young editor, he had an agented manuscript submission that sat on his window ledge for months. He knew exactly where it was. So did I. So did everyone. Patrick's naturally tidy, and his office wasn't awash in manuscripts the way it is now. This particular manuscript was in an out-of-the-way corner, and there was no reason for anyone but him to touch it. Then, just when he decided to return it to the agent, it vanished without explanation. The window hadn't been opened; indeed, I doubt it could be opened. Nothing else in his office had been touched. But the manuscript was gone.

He told the agent. It shouldn't have been a problem; she'd have kept her own copy, and be out nothing more than the cost of copying the one she'd sent to Patrick. But alas, she'd somehow omitted to keep a copy in reserve. She got in touch with the author. You guessed it: he hadn't kept a copy either. The entire book had vanished into thin air.

Who was primarily at fault? The agent. Patrick was only responsible for that copy of the manuscript. The agent was responsible for the book.

Karen, your story about getting a rejection on an unsubmitted book made perfect sense to me. In the context of a publishing house, any substantial yet inscrutable document would be assumed to be a submission. If it didn't get thrown out for lack of a SASE, the junior staffer handling it would send it back to whatever name and address looked likeliest to be the author's.

If someone ever needs a plot device that results in the McGuffin document's getting untraceably remailed to a third party, after a decent interval to let the excitement die down, putting the third party's name and address on a SASE and submitting the McGuffin to a large publishing house should do the trick.

Tina, that's a very funny list -- I just put it in the queue for Particles -- but may I emit one small squeak of protest at the last item in it? I do try to remember to only use examples that are unidentifiable (except to the authors).

I've slipped up on that a couple of times, and while I'm not sure that anyone else noted them at the time or remembers them now, they weigh on my conscience. For one thing, I don't have the right to do that. For another, I'd hate to have writers get the idea that sending something to me is an invitation to public ridicule.

Writers have creative imaginations.

It's hard to know where to draw the line. If you want to hear editors stumble over it, sit in on a discussion of the badness of books and how they go wrong. Concrete examples are sure to creep in -- partly because that's the easiest way to explain certain things, and partly because we'll be thinking about that information in terms of patterns of literature and how books work, not as specific submissions and authors we've dealt with.

The rejections and complaints I quoted in "Slushkiller" were fair game because they'd already been put online by the authors themselves. I'm not saying it would have been impossible to write that piece if didn't exist, but it did make it much, much easier. I'll give the site this much credit: some of their interpretations may be clueless, but at least they're giving people the chance to see a varied collection of real rejection notes. That's a net increase in public knowledge.

#51 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 03:49 PM:

Teresa, I certainly didn't mean to imply that you would identify people unless they had already outed themselves, and I just added the word 'anonymously' to that item to hopefully make that clear.

Glad you found it amusing overall. :)

#52 ::: Audrey Estock ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 09:20 PM:

Wow... That has to be the sweetest note... Not to mention a very effective one. I now must make a mental note to send something similar if ever I have a manuscript that I have sent to a publisher and haven't heard a peep about for over a year. =D

#53 ::: tomb ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2004, 10:17 PM:

This reminds me of Lise's umbrella that ran away from her in Birmingham, and then sent her poctsards from around the world.

#54 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 12:00 PM:

Teresa (and anyone who's already read this) -- I've reworded that item again:

"Your stumble across an informative, entertaining, but extremely pointed
post on Making light about the realities of the publishing world, and one of
the nameless negative examples bears a striking resemblance to your
synopsis or query."

Teresa, I think that covers your concern, and should make it clearer for everyone.

#55 ::: Zack Weinberg ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 01:14 PM:


If someone ever needs a plot device that results in the McGuffin document's getting untraceably remailed to a third party, after a decent interval to let the excitement die down, putting the third party's name and address on a SASE and submitting the McGuffin to a large publishing house should do the trick.

And then, the publishing house decides to print it; hijinks ensue. I would be tempted to write this story from the point of view of the editor who has to deal with the unexpected incursion of MIBs.

#56 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 01:36 PM:

Writers have creative imaginations.

Some, alas, only when their unimaginative story has been rejected.

#57 ::: Karen Junker ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 07:58 PM:

Teresa, I don't mean to offend, but you think a lot like the loony leader of a certain cult. Mine was not the only diary she mailed to Publisher. She also sent the my name to the Missionaries, several mailing lists, the sisters of St. Jude, and other zealous groups who either mail you a lot of stuff or visit with alarming regularity, despite a note on your door that says 'apo pantos kakodaimonos'.

I haven't figured out a way to reduce her to a fictional character. Think Attila on crack. I like the editor's perspective idea, though in reality we'd need to include commanders of military bases, radio and TV evangelists, other cult leaders and the members of a secret pagan militia formed to rid the world of scum like me, some of whom harrassed me through three or four moves and name changes. Multiply this by the number of people who irked her and you get the were lost, families were broken up, shrinks in several cities around the world were able to put their kids through four years in a good college.

Life is too robust for fiction.

#58 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 08:39 PM:

Karen Junker: "Teresa... you think a lot like the loony leader of a certain cult."

Which cult? Or does that lead into even more uncomfortable areas?

There were people who influenced me who had, to a lesser of greater extent, a "cult" about them.

On the other hand, EVERY religion began as a cult, though very few cults become religions.

I don't know anyone who thinks just like Teresa, but do find cult leaders interesting... from the proper distance.

I think that the scientist has been sentenced to death recently, who made the poison for the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that left 11 dead and 5000 injured. That was a cult, with a sciencefictionish core ideology.

Certainly there's a "cult of Tolkien." I was in "the cult of Feynman." Many mathematicians are affected by "the cult of Pythagoras." Modern Philosophy derives from the "cult of Plato" and the "Cult of Socrates" (the two overlap). And there was a "cult of Wittgenstein." So that's part of why I ask...

#59 ::: Karen Junker ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 10:04 PM:

Okay, I take it back...only in the one tiny area of how amusing it might be to mail someone's writing to a publisher without the writer's knowledge is there any overlap in the thinking of our hostess and any cult leader I have known.

JvP - 'kay, here's the thing...I know what cults are, I like, respect and admire quite a few of them (or their members, ideas, leaders or what have you). I worked for years to gather materials for a huge archive on new religions, so I'm not an anti-cultist. Some of my best friends are in cults. I'm glad you are someone who speaks up on behalf of the cult because as we know, they so often get bad press. I can't really name the particular cult for two reasons. One, I'm not changing my name or moving again. Two, there is a more than slight possibilty I made the whole thing up, just to have something to talk about.

#60 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2004, 09:31 AM:

Jonathon Vos Post wrote:
Certainly there's a "cult of Tolkien." I was in "the cult of Feynman."

Surely you're joking, Mr. Vos Post?

( sorry, had to do it. )

#61 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2004, 04:48 PM:

Bill Blum:

"Surely you're joking, Mr. Vos Post?"

Good one:)

I was at a funeral last month, and one of the speakers emphasized that this was exactly the same graveyard as where Feynman and his wife were buried.

Doesn't that sound like a cult?

If they were waiting for Feynman to tunnel out of the grave (quantum tunnelling, one presumes) then it would be on the way to a religion...

For me, being in the Cult of Feynman had a bad effect on my work habits. I tried to party a lot, and do world-shaking work in a day or two each month. He could do it. I could not. It wasn't until Graduate School when I finally buckled down and applied real study discipline.

As did Stepehn Hawking. And isn't there a Cult of Hawking? Culthood helps explain selling 6 million hardbacks of a book (A Brief History of Time) that few can completely understand...

#62 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2004, 07:43 PM:


Culthood helps explain selling 6 million hardbacks of a book (A Brief History of Time) that few can completely understand...

Whaddaya mean? I understood that book. I understood that Stephen Hawking is waaaaaaay more smart than I am. Almost as smart as I thought I was when I was 13 . . .

#63 ::: Rebecca Lizard ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2004, 12:54 AM:

This comment is a bit late, but I just found the thread.

I've never been very good with the metal fasteners on manila envelopes, and several times while returning manuscripts at the poetry magazine where I work, I've cut myself and bled all over the rejected poetry.

I always wondered, kind of guiltily, what the authors though when getting their MS back. Two editors disagreed unusually violently about whether to publish the work? It was so awful, the slush reader had to commit hari-kari on the spot?

#64 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2004, 12:43 AM:

Rebecca, you know you'll never think of as many explanations as they'll come up with, and that some of theirs will leave you gaping in astonishment.

#65 ::: JMKagan ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2004, 08:55 PM:

When dinosaurs roamed the earth---and before I lost it in our house fire---I had a Peanuts cartoon I used as a nudge note. In it, Snoopy was atop his doghouse and at his typewriter....

This isn't verbatim but it's as close as I can make it remembering back to the 'seventies and early 'eighties.

All the balloons were what Snoopy was typing out. Panel by panel and in quasi-quotes:
1. "Dear Publisher, Yesterday I sent you my novel."
2. "Today I waited all day for you to come and make me rich and famous."
3. "You did not show up."
4. "Were you not feeling well?"

For a quarter back then, I could xerox this at the top of a page...under which I would type, "Dear [So-and-So], I'm not in Snoopy's league but, uh, does eleven months' wait mean you didn't ever get my [name of ms.]?"

Yeah, I was shy enough to wait 11 months to hear back. But the Snoopy cartoon got me phone calls with feedback that helped me improve my writing.

#66 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2004, 11:41 AM:

Excuse me for a minute while I go off-topic:

(JMKagan: Hi! I like your books! And that's a great cat picture.)

Okay, I'm done now.

#67 ::: JMKagan ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2004, 12:03 AM:

Sandra: That's purely lovely---but may I call your attention to the fact that you're one month shyer than I was...?

Rebecca (I think it was you): I've gotten mss. envelopes returned bloody. But, as I don't see the mail first and my guy drops mine on the kitchen counter where I'll find it when I come out of my den, I always assumed one of the mighty hunters in our household had eaten something atop it. Now I feel guilty. I've bloodied myself often enough on those fershlugginer envelopes that it should have occurred to me some poor slush-pile reader had done the same and that I'd caused 'em grief well beyond the awfulness of the ms.

I thank you and Dapper Sam thanks you. I'm blushing furiously but Dapper Sam's a shameless exhibitionist, so there's nothing easier than getting a good picture of him...;)

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