One of the pitfalls of the writing trade is that anyone who has basic writing chops can spout authoritative-sounding advice about the biz, even if he doesn’t know a bare pope from a hole full of shinola. The latest specimen I’ve run across is the Cover Letter Tips page. It’s the work of one Todd James Pierce, a grad student in the Creative Writing department at Florida State University. The following may or may not be true of Mr. Pierce:
Presently I am the Assistant to the Director of Creative Writing at Florida State University, where, next year, I will graduate with a Ph.D. I also hold an MFA (UC Irvine) and an MA (Oregon State). My stories have been published in about 15 journals, the most recent being American Short Fiction, The Literary Review, and The Greensboro Review. This year, I will have stories in The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Speak, and again in The Literary Review (a novella this time). Earlier this year I won the Charles Angoff Award for Literary Excellence, and in previous years I received an IAP award and a Humanities Grant. I’ve had non-fiction anthologized in a number of books, including Southern Studies, Australia Literature, the textbook Rethinking How We Teach Creative Writing, and Salon’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (Viking/Penguin, 1999).Why the doubt? Read on. Mr. Pierce preaches the doctrine of the short three-paragraph cover letter. That’s not a bad idea in its own right. Cover letters say too much far more often than they say too little. It’s his list of eleven sure-fire tips that made me yelp out loud. Naturally, I immediately forwarded the URL to Patrick via Instant Message:
teresanh: You have to see this.He’s right. Here goes:
(tnh sends URL)
patricknh: This is a joke, right?
teresanh: It’s serious.
patricknh: This is stupid. I now have stupid all over me.
11 Cover Letter TipsRejected is forgotten, and second and third chances are common. If you resubmit the same work it’ll very likely be recognized, at which point the slush reader will think you’re clueless and lame; but if the version you’re submitting has been substantially rewritten, just say “You may recall an earlier version of this book, which I submitted to your house [however long ago it was]. Since then it has been substantially rewritten and is, I believe, a much stronger work.”
Tip One: Wait until your work is absolutely finished before submitting. You rarely get a second chance with a good editor or agent.
Tip Two: Find the right agent or editor. Find novels which are like your manuscript, then find out their agent and editor. How? Simple, call the publishers. Most are very willing to offer this information.Some are happier than others, but most are willing.
Tip Three: Worried about Paragraph Two, the personal history? Have nothing to say? Be imaginative. Why are you the best person to have written this novel? How has your personal experience prepared you for it?I have to wonder whether he got that advice from an article about how to submit work to a nonfiction publisher, where the quality of the information and the credibility or celebrity of the author are so much more important. A novelist’s primary credentials are his novels, with his sales figures coming in a close second. Prestigious awards and prior publications are nice, and will get his manuscript read with more patience than you’d give a book out of nowhere. But beyond that, great credentials only help if they’re attached to a good book.
A while back a friend at another house was sent a financial thriller written by a former financial officer of a formerly high-flying company that had taken a huge and highly-publicized fall. He was certainly qualified to write that book—but alas, his credentials were much better than his novel. The proof’s in the reading. The only real answer to “Why are you the best person to have written this novel?” is, “I wrote it, and no one else did.”Moving on now to the tip that made Patrick hit his “caps lock” key:
Tip Four: Still worried? Never published anything? Lie a little. Yes, lie. A cover letter is a persuasive document designed to do one thing: entice an editor or agent to read your manuscript. Say whatever you have to, within reason, to accomplish this. No publication credits? Write the words “West Coast Fiction Review” on a piece of paper, staple it to one of your stories, and boom, you’ve just been published in West Coast Fiction Review. Is there such a publication? Not that I know of, but it sure sounds impressive. No awards? Ask your best friend—let’s say her name is Martha Green—to give you the 1999 Martha Green Award for Outstanding Achievement in Fiction. What’s the Martha Green Award worth? Not much, unless it entices an editor or agent to read your work.DON’T EVER DO THIS. First, an editor is not going to be impressed by a bunch of awards and publications they’ve never heard of. An author with no publishing credits might turn out to be interesting. Getting in at one or two small-time publications means you can write readable prose. But a long string of penny-ante credits means you’ve been scraping bottom for a long time, and chances are this submission is more of the same.
Second, if your manuscript is sufficiently interesting to make me want to know more about you, or if I catch a whiff of BS while reading your letter, it’s the work of a moment to type “Martha Green Award” or “West Coast Fiction Review” into Google. Real awards and publications will turn up dozens or hundreds or thousands of hits. If I don’t see that evidence, my willingness to have anything to do with you or your manuscript will plummet. I’ll cease to believe without hard documentary proof that any of your other claims are legit, including your claim to have written the work in hand. Unless you’ve written a book so awesome that its manuscript glows in the dark, you are now more trouble than you’re worth. Furthermore, your name will be remembered.Third, and speaking of plummeting credibility, shouldn’t someone mention this interesting theory to Mr. Pierce’s department at FSU? I should think that at minimum they’d want him to take it off the university’s website ASAFP; and if I were his department, I’d find or make time to do a close audit of his academic career to date. One instance of falsifying data might be aberrant behavior, but when someone’s publicly advocating the practice, you have to figure it’s a habit, possibly a lifestyle.
Tip Five: Don’t take this too far. You can get away with some small lies. It’s best not to say you’ve been published in, say, The New Yorker, if you haven’t. Editors and Agents may ask about that.Not “may”. Try “will”. We may not even have to ask. For instance, I automatically doubt any claims of publication that don’t mention the title and publisher. There may exist an author who thinks those aren’t relevant or interesting details, but I have yet to meet one. In general, it’s best to just tell the truth. Cover letters only matter a little. Manuscripts matter a lot.
Tip Six: Never, never, never list the word count. Not even on short stories. It’s says, HACK, in bold letters. It is a lie perpetuated by Writer’s Digest Books. No one cares about the exact word count. Editors and agents can see that a 300 page manuscript is, well, a 300 page manuscript.Is he insane? Of course you should mention the wordcount. Three hundred manuscript pages from Darren Rhett Bird, who uses proportionally spaced type in a small point size, and scants his margins and leading, contain between two and two and a half times as many words as the same number of manuscript pages from Joan Skriftlode, who prints out her pages using twelve-point Courier in a canonical manuscript format. This variability undoubtedly accounts for our otherwise inexplicable habit of saying WE WANT TO KNOW THE WORDCOUNT.
Tip Seven: If you talk about your own life, make sure it is related to your manuscript. No one will care if you’re a Tennis Pro and Mother of Three, unless your novel is also about these things.True. Mostly true. One or two sentences can’t hurt. Don’t get cute about it, unless you’re really good at cute.
Tip Eight: Call. That’s right, Call. Introduce yourself. Be confident. Let them know your work is coming. It’s the surest way to get out of that slush pile and on to a desk. Too afraid to call? Write out what you want to say, call AFTER HOURS, leave a voice message. It’s not as good talking to a real person, but hey, it’s better than nothing.The surest way? Say what? Calling in advance is an irritating waste of the editorial department’s time, and will do nothing to get you out of a trade publishing slushpile. Leaving a message after hours is even more clueless. I can’t imagine where Mr. Pierce got this idea, unless he’s been taking advice from someone who secretly hates him. There is one significant effect this might have. Because you’ve phoned to say something about a submission, someone may write down your name and the title of your book, and pass the note on to the slush readers. They’ll be puzzled—why did you say you were phoning again?—and will stick the note up on their bulletin board. When your manuscript crosses their desk, they may remember that there was something-or-other they were supposed to remember or do about it, and will set your manuscript on the Inscrutable Problems stack for later diagnosis. Some slow afternoon—of which there aren’t many—they’ll have a go at the Inscrutable Problems stack, and will look at your manuscript again. They won’t be able to tell what the problem was. They’ll set the manuscript aside for later. After several cycles, they’ll either figure that any manuscript that’s been around this long should be returned to its author on general principles, or they’ll move on to another job and the new slush reader will run your manuscript through several more Inscrutable Problems cycles before it gets so old that they return it to you on general principles.
Tip Nine: Do not—I repeat—Do not include postage for the return of your whole manuscript. A large, SASE with five bucks of stamps on it says, Shove it back in here right now. Instead, enclose a letter sized stamped envelope suitable for a letter only. This encourages the editor or agent to at least write to you. (But, as always, really good news comes with phone calls! Letters, for the most part, mean bad news.)Only a grass-green newbie would think we need any encouragement to send back your manuscript. The pertinent phrase here is “default option”. A large SASE with full postage means you get your manuscript back. A letter-size SASE means you get a standard rejection letter and we throw your manuscript into the recycling bin. Neither option increases your chances of getting a personal letter.
Tip Ten: Mention only one or two manuscripts, at most, to any editor or agent. If you say, I’ve got seven more novels just like this, it tells the editor or agent, Hey, no one’s wanted the other seven.It depends on the manuscript and the author.
My Last Tip: Send a whole lot of letters out. Cast a big net. Expect rejection. Don’t worry when you get it. Keep sending out more letters. …This sounds like advice for sending out query letters. Cover letters are sent out with manuscripts. If he doesn’t know the difference, he doesn’t know how to submit his own work, much less advise others on how they should submit theirs.
If you have a friend who has an agent, ask that person to recommend you to their agent. That’s the shortest way to the front of the line. If you don’t have such a friend—or let’s say that agent nixed you, too—consider attending a Writers Conference which agents and editors will attend. That’s another short way to the front of the line. Be persistent. Be prepared to shell out a lot of bucks at the post office. …If he’s sending out cover letters and manuscripts this indiscriminately, he may need to read up on simultaneous submissions.
I can think of no one—and, to be honest, I know a LOT of writers—who has found a book contract after only a few months of submitting.I can think of quite a few, though it’s not the way to bet. It’s a frustratingly slow process, and we ought to speed it up. But trust me: these tips Will Not Help.
You know what’s really scary? A half-hour’s plonking around on the web would probably net me four or five pages of advice that are at least this bad. Let the writer beware.