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October 23, 2002

Cover Letters
Posted by Teresa at 04:45 PM *

The Onion has done it again, this time with a piece that perfectly captures a recurrent feature of editorial life: the gormless cover letter. What you have to understand is that they’re only exaggerating a little. These are quotes from some real ones:

— I think you will find this a cut above the kind of junk Tor usually publishes.

— Projected literary reviews are as follows…

— Dear Mr. or Ms. Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

— p.s. These are not my best chapters.

From an agent:
— [Title] is a book written by an author whose style calls to the less than stellar readers … those who are in a lower percentile of reading ability. This client’s writings are the filler for that market.
Somewhere towards the middle of a very, very, very long outline:
— Chapter Fifty: The backstory is now complete.
And my favorite:
— What I am sending now is an EXTREMELY DIFFERENT VERSION of a novel that I sent to Tor Books in April 2001 (it was rejected). I am sending you this altered manuscript now because THIS VERSION INCLUDES MATHEMATICAL PROOFS THAT REVEAL THE SECRET OF THE UNIVERSE and THE REJECTED ONE DID NOT. Furthermore, I made drastic changes in the story line, which is why I feel that this is worth consideration.
I actually like that one. If it should happen that mathematical proofs which reveal the secret of the universe (though not, alas, in the first three chapters) aren’t enough, he’s also beefed up the story line. I cannot disapprove.

I’m perversely fond of the bad cover letters. I collect them. They fascinate me because no matter how many I see, I still find them unimaginable: What could the authors have been thinking?

For instance, we see submissions where the author has enclosed copies of rejection letters from other houses. Sometimes they also send copies of letters from agents who’ve declined to represent them. Why do they do this? No idea. None at all.

Your basic cover letter is such a simple thing: Get in, get out, and shut up. Here’s a no-frills model:

Dear Editor:

Enclosed are the first three chapters plus an outline of my 85,000-word science fiction novel, Voodoo Robot. It is [insert here a one- or two-sentence summary of the basic setup and story arc]. This is my first novel. [OR: I have the following publication credits.] [Optionally, and only if EXTREMELY pertinent: In addition, I have the following related credentials or experience. For example: This is my first SF novel, but on the other hand I am Geoff Landis.] I also enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. [OR: You need not return the manuscript.]

Thank you for considering my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.

[your name here]

See? Dead simple. If your material doesn’t speak for itself, no cover letter ever written will make up for it. In the meantime, saying anything more complicated just gives you more chances to get into trouble.

Unless, of course, you have a knack for being charming and graceful, in which case you’re allowed. Here’s an old favorite—the other kind of favorite, the good kind—from a time when we regarded our mail with less suspicion:

Dear [Editor],

Enclosed is a copy of my manuscript, [Title], and a box of Chocolate Truffles for your enjoyment. I do not expect that a box of chocolate will make you want to publish my manuscript, but I do hope that it helps my manuscript get read faster.

Sincerely yours,

P.S. [My friend the big-name author whom you edit] says “hello”.

Perfect courtesy! Such delicately expressed sentiments! I’d be hard put to say which we admired more, the letter or the chocolate truffles; but the truffles are long gone, and the letter is with us still.
Comments on Cover Letters:
#1 ::: Gillian B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 03:30 AM:

Very funny, very sad, very true. We encounter the same strange reasoning in college and law school admissions essays: people giving way too much embarrasingly personal information about themselves, such as unappetizingly vivid descriptions of the applicant's bout with dysentery and diarrhea during his/her travels in Africa or detailed accounts of sexual misadventures. As if applying for law school were like auditioning for Jerry Springer or Howard Stern. Some of these counterproductive essays came from otherwise able, intelligent students.

#2 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 03:33 AM:



#3 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 03:38 AM:

Though it should also be noted that, from time to time, a self-consciously "artistic" and generally unreadable story is accompanied by an unpretentious and perfectly straightforward cover letter. This doesn't happen that often, but it does happen.

#4 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 07:20 AM:

Dear Ms. Hayden.

Enclosed, find my three-volume fantasy, "Ruler of The Bracelet", a breathtakingly original work. This is my first fantasy novel, but I am really Geoff Landis. Rather than clutter up this wonderfully brief cover letter, the plot synopsis is attached in appendix 2, pages 12-137.

Also enclosed are the entire product lines of Godiva, Lindt, and Lego. I've also enclosed a stamped self-addressed envelope, two recycling bags, instructions on how to build "Bordur" (the fortress of the Evil Suran from my work, "Ruler of the Bracelet") entirely from Legos and chocolate wrappers, twelve launch tickets for the (classified) launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and a bottle of 24-year-old Oban single malt scotch, and $2 Candian, not as a bribe, but just because I think the coin is cool.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Erik V. (Really Geoff, honest) Olson.

P.S. I'll never let Patrick touch your computer again.

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 07:31 AM:

Or a good story can have an awful cover letter, especially if a decent but naive author has fallen into the hands of scam agents.

Gillian, I used to work at the front desk of the Financial Aid office at the University of Washington. I heard some strange stories, but nothing on the scale you describe, so I'm equal parts envious and relieved.

Erik, what can I say? I'm wholly overcome.

#6 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 08:33 AM:

One of my problems is that I have too much empathy.

I *can* understand what those people were thinking, all of them, and I feel terribly sorry for them, especially the one who said "ps these are not my best chapters". From outside, publishing looks very different than from inside. People see these little marketing packages around the outside of the pages they want to read, and they think that they should talk like that to editors -- after all that must be how they want people to talk. They think their synopsis should be a blurb -- never mind the careful passive, I can remember wondering about that. It made me want to put a bucket on my head, but no doubt there are people who rise to the challenge. Suggesting all that nonsense about projected reviews probably comes from that.

The one who said "a cut above the usual sort of junk Tor publishes" didn't realise he was insulting your taste. He was thinking you'd be glad to have something better. He probably works in a factory, and he'd be only too pleased to have better widgets to put into boxes than usual, after all. He knows there are objective standards for widgets, just the way there are for novels, and furthermore he reads mostly books from some other publisher that suit his taste better. He didn't submit to them, because they don't take unsolicited manuscripts. He thinks he's doing you a favour letting you see this. He's decided you'll do. When you reject him, he's confident it's because you know his manuscript will make your others look bad. He despises you for rejecting him. Except in the middle of the night when he wakes up wondering if it maybe isn't that his genius isn't being recognised, but he can never admit that for a second.

"I'm not good enough" is quite hard for people to admit. Then again, so is "I am good enough". Which is why you get these other letters saying how the first three chapters aren't the best, and how their manuscript is terrible really. They have this one precious manuscript, and you have such power over them, and all these really good manuscripts by Geoffrey Landis, and whatever segment of their story they send it's like ripping out flesh.

I'm surprised the slush pile doesn't keep you awake at night with the psychic force of all the people thinking at you from across the country: "Maybe they'll look at it today? Please, please like it!"

What I'd like to know, though, is whether you bought the manuscript with the truffles? Or whether you did at least look at it sooner than you would have? Hmm. You'd better not answer this question in the affirmative unless you want to be buried under truffles.

#7 ::: jack womack ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 08:46 AM:

Teresa, do you still have your copy of the cover letter for the mss.: ADOLF HITLER IN OZ?

#8 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 08:52 AM:

Dear hopelessly clueless and/or borderline paranoid schizophrenic author,

We have received the manuscript of your novel, The True Key to the Workings of the Universe, and How It Affected Mr. Bert Smallways. We are pleased to inform you that it is of publishable quality. For only $1500, professional musicians in Nashville can set your novel to music and provide you with actual 45rpm discs of the resulting record!
We look forward to hearing from you.

Rod Rodgers
Song-Poem Records, Inc.

#9 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 09:31 AM:

These are beauts! But Jo makes a good point. I've saved all my rejection letters as well as many copies of early queries and I can see how experience winnowed me down to the brute short style you finally give, Teresa (it should be sold as a poster for all writers to put over their desks!). I think many writers do start with a sense of apprehension and excessive self-consciousness--usually leading to silly and nonsensical statements like the ones in these great samples.

What's depressing though (at least to me), is realizing how long the odds are against new writers even when they do everything just right. And of course, there are those little humiliations that come from the other side.

A few years back I sent a short query to an A-list agent I had read about in an article. His assistant then wrote back a brief (and grammatically incorrect) note saying yes please send us your sample chapters. Which I did promptly.

Less than a week later, the same assistant sent the stuff back unread saying in essence, we can't look at this, we're sorry, we really aren't looking at any new material right now.

So, there you are, egg all over your face, wondering, how old is this assistant and how did she get this job?

I think a great collection could be made of these queries....

#10 ::: Adrienne Martini ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 09:54 AM:

First time commenter, long time reader...

Part of my day job as an editor at my local weekly paper requires a smallish amount of slush surfing. Hopeful novelists and hopeful film critics seem to have quite a bit in common. In the last week alone, I've gotten three letters that start with a variant of: Your movie reviews suck and I could do much better. And, while we're open to criticism on the quality of said reviews, I'm not sure insulting a potential employer is really the best way to open a query.

Another perennial fave is the query that opens with a complex conspiracy theory (usually involving contrails) that details why we will never publish the enclosed. Which always begs the question--if we are truly entangled in said conspiracy, why send your 800-word book review to us in the first place?

Maybe I'm just bitter because I've never gotten chocolates...

#11 ::: Soren deSelby ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 10:46 AM:

Teresa, you may remember my favorite line ever from a cover letter:

"If you don't like this one, I have lots more just like it I can send."

#12 ::: Dorothy Rothschild ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 12:13 PM:

Oh yes, the incompetent agent's assistant. I had one who spelled my name two different ways in the same letter. This was the same one who cheerfully told me that fantasy literature was dead. Pity; I was going to offer her my great idea about a boy who discovers he's a wizard.

(So did the ms accompanied by chocolates get accepted, or were the sweetmeats better than the writing?)

#13 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 12:15 PM:

I used to know a writer who included rejection letters with his manuscripts--it seemed like a good idea at the time because they were rather encouraging rejections, not form letters. He started getting published rather soon after he stopped including them.

#14 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 12:25 PM:

So, "Voodoo Robot" is taken, huh?


Anyone got some White Out they can send me?

#15 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 01:38 PM:

I would actually buy one of those cover letter posters. I think they're a great idea.

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 04:13 PM:

Jo, I've known you have a truly kind imagination since that post of yours during the Gene Steinberg wars where you came up with a credible and humane scenario to explain Gene's actions. (He immediately repudiated it, of course, and rudely, too; but that's Gene.)

I know I've told you the tribal folktale of editors, the one about the editor who every week gets one or even two or three stories from the same writer, and every one of them is bad. The writer's obviously trying hard, got his heart in it; but it's just never going to work for him. He doesn't have a grasp of story or a sense of language, and month after month, year after year, he shows no sign of progress. He's hopeless. Finally the editor can't stand the pity and the waste of it any longer, and instead of a rejection slip she writes him a letter: "Give it up," she says. "You have no talent as a writer. I'm sorry, but you're never going to succeed. I know you're giving it everything you've got, but you just don't have what it takes. For the love of god, do something else with your life."

Practically by return mail, she gets a letter back: "After all these years of getting nothing but form rejection slips I was about to give up," he says; "but now that I've gotten a real letter from a real editor, I'm going to try twice as hard!"

Slushpiles are radioactive with hope and desire, and we have to go through them anyway.

Reading slush letters from wanna-be writers is what makes me loathe and despise the scammers who feed on them. It's painful. Wanna-bes will believe in literary judgements and the promises of professional-quality editing made by people whose letters to them are ineptly phrased and riddled with errors. If a bunco-steerer "agency" like Lee Shore tells them that Sterling House is a swell place to get published, they won't think to look around at their local bookstore to see whether there are any Sterling House titles on the shelves. We're talking here about a degree of vulnerability that can make a passably intelligent human being take out a second mortgage on the strength of a come-on line like "We can get you published--even if you're not good enough yet!"

I refrained from quoting several spectacular cover-letter lines because the books would have been recognizable. I only quoted the one about the secrets of the universe because I could honestly say that I liked it. And for all the pains and scruples and implicit heartaches, there's still something wonderful about a line like "If you don't like this one, I have lots more at home just like it!" (Thank you, Scraps. I had forgotten that one.)

We do get letters from machine-shop guys who think we'd like to have better widgets than usual, and think their books are just the thing to do it; but they mostly tell us that everybody's going to love the book, and we'll make a million off it. The guy who said "I think you'll find this a cut above the kind of junk Tor usually publishes" also listed the years he'd gotten which degrees from which universities. It was a vastly supercilious letter. You'll be interested to know that the basis of his literary superiority was that his book had thoughtful philosophical content as well as mere vulgar swashbuckling fantasy adventure.

I'd never thought about it till now, but I'm sure you're right, and that he despised us for rejecting him. I don't despise him -- but I hadn't thought about it until now.

Re: "These aren't my best chapters" - Back when I was editing comics, I had pencillers who were showing me their portfolios tell me "This isn't my best work." When I've been teaching writing, I've had students respond to my comments about the story they sent in to be workshopped with "Oh, I've rewritten that now." There's something weirder going on there than the natural reluctance of novelists to submit only a fragment of their larger work.

As for the guy with the chocolate, I believe we rejected his book. I don't know whether it got read faster than usual, and I doubt I'll ever find out, because it was sent to an editor who would be storied for her discretion if she'd ever let drop enough information for there to be stories.

They were darn good chocolates.

#17 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 04:43 PM:

The bit about 'this isn't my best work' is a pain-dodge; if you think you're about to be unbearably rejected, you try to blunt the impact a little by categorizing the rejected thing as other than your best possible achieivement, because that leaves open the door to hope.

I deal with this by assuming that everything I write is actively bad; this makes rejection letters relatively easy to deal with ('yup, it was bad all right' being much easier than 'oh, no, they didn't like it') but it does have other unfortunate side effects.

Effective communication is *defined* (in at least some circles) as communications by means in which being misleading has an obvious cost, which is how you can know to trust it.

The easy example is the habit of some African antelope of leaping straight up before starting to run when startled by predators; what it communicates is 'I'm healthy and fit; it isn't worth the effort of actually *chasing* me to find out you can't catch me.' The downside is of course that is slows your start down quite a lot, so if you have to run after all, you have to run harder. (And if you *aren't* healthy and fit, either you don't jump -- communicating that you're worth chasing -- or you jump *badly*, and not only communicate that you are worth chasing, you've thrown away your start. This makes lying to the lion plenty expensive, which is why the lion believes the communication in the first place.)

The difficulty is that there isn't any cost to a publishing company in rejecting a potential new author *that is emotionally relevant to the author*. So from the author's point of view, there isn't any actual honest communciation going on; they might as well use jellomancy, they'd get as much conviction from that as they can derive from the information they do get.

There isn't a fix for the lopsided risk to self image -- there pretty much can't be, in a transaction between people and corporations -- but trying to come up with a fix is behind much of what produces that 'this isn't my best work'.

Antelope would like to be able to say 'I can jump higher' to the lion, too.

#18 ::: Mark Bourne ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2002, 08:25 PM:

Last year I was a judge for the the 9th Annual Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Awards, the Genre Fiction category (WD found me via my Web site). So I had to read fifty novels that (one assumes) had more often than not been rejected by, say, Tor, or else were written *for* the self-publish presses.

Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, eyeball-spinning right-wing military fantasias, gooey Cosmically Minded New Age noodling clad in the sheep's clothing of fiction, strange amalgams of two or more of the above.... My job was to answer two questions for each author: How Would I Market This Book? and What Is Good About This Book? (or something to that effect).

What a long, strange summer that was. But the gig paid well and was, in its way, fun and highly educational. Apparently I was great at it -- the WD head in charge sent me an *extra* paycheck weeks after the first arrived, totalling 150% of what I'd contracted for, because... well, I'm not sure why exactly, although my guess is that I devoted a healthy, long response to each question no matter how Truly Cosmically Awful the book was, while my fellow judges did less.

Anyway, some came with dreadful, sad, goofy, loopy cover letters, or past rejection slips, and in one case a plainly phony endorsement from "Quentin Tarantino," who, "he" claimed, was eager to secure the film rights and make the novel a sure-fire blockbuster.

I gained an enlightened appreciation for those who read that kind of packaged hopes&dreams daily -- and because they HAVE to. But I never stopped silently saluting those fifty writers who, no matter what, finished their book. (And some of these were biiiig books.)

I'm glad I did it ... once.


#19 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 12:04 AM:


Did anyone else get this one?

Date: Wed, 16 Oct 2002 04:03:24 -0700 (PDT)
From: augustine ogwu
To: [assorted fans; mostly filkers]

I'm a writer of science fiction and fantasy. A
publisher based in London approved one of my books for
publication two years ago but I had to call off the
deal when I realised they are vanity publishers. I
have finally taken the decision to publish my novel,
War of the Immortal Kinds, both in print and as an
e-book. It is the first real fantasy novel ever to be
published by an African and I do hereby request your
financial support for the publication.
War of the Immortal Kinds adeptly depicts a Fantasy
world governed by unearthly powers and the mystic. The
work is also a celebration of nature and humanity in
which the impotance of friendship and the pleasure of
a life without material possessions was emphasized. I
assure you that your support won't be a waste. The
book will surely hold the world spellbound. I will
soon open a website where a short story, Beyond the
Blue Sky, can be downloaded.
Augustine .k. Ogwu

#20 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 02:08 AM:

A book -ineptly- depicting a world governed by unearthly powers and the mystic would, of course, be non-fiction.

#21 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 09:03 AM:

"The work is also a celebration of nature and humanity in which the impotance of friendship and the pleasure of a life without material possessions was emphasized."

This sentence alone...never mind the lack of tense agreement; I wonder which word was intended by the misspelling 'impotance'? It's either a really sappy or a really pessimistic book!

#22 ::: Soren deSelby ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 10:54 AM:

The other thing that "these aren't the best chapters" is about is that Tor, and many other publishers, insist on seeing the =first= three chapters. So many aspiring writers feel compelled to note that the book =gets much better=. They don't understand that virtually =all= books get better somewhere after the beginning. Well, books should, anyway.

#23 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 11:28 AM:

They don't understand that virtually =all= books get better somewhere after the beginning. Well, books should, anyway.

Amen to that. Candidate for another poster: "When you've finished your first draft, go back and dump the first 50 pages and mark page 51 as page 1..."

#24 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 12:13 PM:

This is really helpful, actually. When I finally Write My Novel (tm) - and of course, I feel I have a book in me and should write it - I'll be able to write a cover letter that at least has gorm.

#25 ::: Emmet O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 02:37 PM:

I think part of "this isn't my best work" is the not unreasonable hope that the chapters on which one is now working have at least the potential of being better than whatever one has actually submitted. I can see falling into that reaction in the state of heightened nerves that writing a cover letter brings. Not just poor self-image, but also the kind of thwacking down guilt that comes from feeling one is imposing one's work on Real Professional Editors. It's quite reassuring to see these examples of the worst the slushpile can hold and think that one may, after all, not be as bad as one thought one was. [ There was an old Gene Kerrigan article about this, in the defunct Irish political magazine Magill, of which I wish I could remember more; the last line was ".. and please excuse the manuscript being in green crayon; they don't let us have pointy things in here." ]

Telling when a rewrite is making a positive difference is an ability distinct from other aspects of wordskill, and I'm not finding it an easy one to learn, but at least submitting things seems to have worked as a piece of mental judo to defeat the obsessive urge to polish and polish and polish ad infinitum. Changing something one has already submitted would strike me as downright rude, barring exceptional circumstances.

#26 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 03:00 PM:

So, Teresa, do you ever get someone's "first three" chapters and find when you get the full MS that they've "rewritten" it and those are now chapters 11, 17, and 26?

#27 ::: "Christopher Hatton" ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 06:15 PM:

This is really helpful, actually. When I finally Write My Novel (tm) - and of course, I feel I have a book in me and should write it - I'll be able to write a cover letter that at least has gorm.


Ooo, I'm an idiot! I posted that to the wrong thread! Teresa, could you throw that away, please?

I will now send my short stories to Teresa, and my novel to Gardner.



#28 ::: Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 08:11 PM:

Graydon: Oh, is that what the little woodland bunnies are doing when I walk the dog? Not that it would do them a blind bit of good with Sarah, were she off lead, since what she gets from bunnies isn't crucial calories but The Thrill of the Chase. Demonstrating health, speed, and a slow start are all to the greater good of the game.

But, apropos of the thread itself:

Teresa sez:

"If your material doesn't speak for itself, no cover letter ever written will make up for it. "

If LASFS legend is true, this turns out in very rare cases to be false. Mike Shupp, so the story goes, sent his WITH FATE CONSPIRE to Del Rey and had them turn him down flat. He did not rewrite the novel at all, but sent it *back* to Del Rey with a rewritten cover letter explaining why they should publish the book. And they bought it. And four more. So what everyone wanted to know was, what the heck was in that second cover letter?

#29 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 09:34 PM:

Jack, I still have the cover letter for Hitler in Oz -- but would you believe the thing is currently on submission to Tor, and therefore I ought not talk about it?

John, you're a good writer, and you're doing all that can be done with work and talent but not luck. Still, luck can change, and I hope it does soon.

Adrienne, we get the conspiracy theorists too. I'm wondering whether we aren't partly to blame for your superfluity of would-be reviewers. You know those scam ads in the backs of magazines about how you can make money reading books? When we're obliged to disabuse people of the idea that they can make $100 a pop doing readers' reports for us, one of the alternate options we suggest is that they might see about doing book reviews for their local paper. I hereby apologize, and promise to stop doing that.

Stefan, I didn't make up "Voodoo Robot", but I forget whose foo-title it is.

Mark -- sure, I'll salute people who finish writing novels; but I'll also salute people who build model railway layouts, paint detailed canvases on historical themes, and compose formal song cycles. There's a deal of typing goes into writing a novel, and it undeniably requires perseverance to finish one. Beyond that point, though, beyond the physical act of writing the thing, you're in the territory of calling spirits from the vasty deep; and the question is (as ever) whether they'll come for you.

#30 ::: Vicki Rosenzweig ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 10:40 PM:

I have another theory, though not nearly as entertaining a one. Where do most people hear about, and even practice, cover letters? Job hunting. And we keep being told, not only that a resume must have a cover letter, but that the cover letter is your real chance to get the attention of the person you're writing to, and convince them that you're the right person for the job.

In those letters, you're supposed to tell them why you're particularly cool. With a novel, there's no other place for the job experience and such that some people mistakenly think will convince Tor to buy their novel, so it goes there.

This doesn't explain the really weird ones--no sensible person, looking for a job in an office or factory, would say "These eight other companies didn't want to interview me", let alone "you won't hire me because you're part of the Great Conspiracy"--but it does explain why people don't let the chapters and outline speak for themselves. They've been told, somewhere, that "you must have a cover letter" and that the cover letter is how they'll get you to read those three chapters of novel.

#31 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 10:40 PM:

Jordin, do you mean that's real? You actually got that in the mail?

Ulrika, I'd like to know the answer too -- even if it turns out the whole thing's just another urban legend of the writing tribe.

David, if someone can write chapters 1-3 and make me want to read more of the book, and have those same chapters also be nos. 11, 17, and 26 of a coherent but longer work -- well, that'll probably be interesting, and I'd like to see it. If it's not interesting, a full-length manuscript can be rejected just as fast as a partial plus outline.

It's different if you have a contract. Established authors have been known to turn in works that have only a residual resemblance to the books that were discussed when the contract was signed. This happens. Not only do tales grow in the telling; they sometimes do three and a half somersaults in midair and come down wearing a different costume.

After that, things get complicated.

#32 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 12:35 AM:

I know I could probably get Tor's submission guidelines and whatever, but just out of curiosity: what about synopses? Are you supposed to send them? If not, do authors send them anyway?

I'd think the author would like you to know how the rest of the story goes, and you'd like to know if the ending is final and crushing or uplifting but leaves room for a sequel. ("Trilogy, trilogy!" >BANG!

#33 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 12:47 AM:

I alternate between *really* enjoying seeing some of the horrible cover letters that get sent in, and sympathizing with the people who wrote them.

Well, *some* of them. Or at least a few of them. Actually, most of them I can't really bring myself to sympathize with. I completely understand the various explanations of "this isn't my best work"; what I do *not* understand is thinking saying it in the cover letter is anything other than completely stupid. I understand thinking your work is a cut above the usual drek Tor publishes, I do *not* understand saying such a thing.

It seems to me that many of the bad examples have in common an inability to see what it looks like from the other side -- what the editor the cover letter is addressed to will get out of it. Is it *that* hard? There are lots of red-flag things that are easy to spot -- saying something *bad* for example. "The usual drek Tor publishes" That's clearly saying something bad. Then you have to examine it closely and wonder if there's *any way* it could be taken wrong. Anybody who can't figure out at least *one* of the editor they're addressing selects Tor books, and that working for a lame company is embarrassing, is hopelessly lacking.

Thanks for the model cover letter. I like the old standard "Enclosed is my novel. Please buy it." myself. Not enough to write a novel just so I can use it, though. (Especially since Teresa makes a clear case that a *little* more information than that is actually appropriate, even if I don't have previous credits or social connections to exhibit.)

#34 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 01:42 AM:

Christopher, the general request is for chapters and synopsis (the word "outline" is often used, but I've seen people take that to mean the kind of "outline format" they learned in high school, with Roman numerals and lettered and numbered subsections). Short form for this is a "partial." The main reason for the synopsis is to establish that the author has -somewhere- in mind for the story to go.

The usual advice to first novelists is to finish the book before assembling the partial. Avoids certain circumstances which shall not be discussed here but which will, of course, appear on the final.

I can think of a moderately well-known author of thrillers whose early stuff I rather liked, but who later got into a habit of really interesting opening chapters followed by an almost random series of events, leading up to a less than dynamic conclusion. I assume that this person could still do good partials, but lost interest (or something) when the advance check cleared.

#35 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 05:00 AM:

Teresa: Yep, the "African SF Writer" spam actually showed up in my inbox a couple of weeks ago. I was, umm, bemused -- even if it were a legitimate offer, who in their right mind would send money to help someone they don't know self-publish a book? Even if it is better than that junk Tor publishes :-)

I can't be certain that it wasn't someone's idea of a clever Nigerian Spam parody, but if so, I don't see anything that definitely gives it away.

#36 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 08:56 AM:


Hey, I'll trade you two "why you must put me on
Worldcon program" letters for a "why you must
publish my novel" letter... ;->

#37 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 09:29 AM:

John, thanks, and let me just say duhhh. In fact, duhhhh-EK. I was assuming it was an outline outline, with the Roman numerals etc. I had no idea how to do that for a novel. I've tried to do that for a story, and gotten garbage.

I feel really stooopid. But now I will know that if I have any idea how the novel goes, I can write an outline.

I'm paranoid enough that I wouldn't do this until AFTER writing the novel, though.

#38 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 03:04 PM:

Laurie, I'd love to see them. Are they reasonably anonymous, or can they be made so?

David, that's it exactly. I can sometimes imagine thinking these things, maybe even writing them in a fast first draft. It's the lapse of judgement involved in sending them that's fascinating.

(Just to get this out of the way: I too have suffered a few lapses in judgement in the course of my life.)

Some of them write gormless cover letters for the same reason they write gormless books: They aren't very good at thinking about how the performance looks to someone in the audience.

On the other hand, it's possible for a talented wanna-be who's written a good book to stress out at the prospect of actually submitting the thing, and suffer a debilitating attack of multiply recursive self-consciousness, which eats up every scrap of processing capacity and so impairs their judgement. That is: A good book can have a bad cover letter. (And a bad agent can have a good client. There is no escape.)

Come to think of it, it's not unusual for professional writers to go through a little season of anxiety and strange fears when it's time to turn in a finished book. One of my authors reliably gets into a tiff with me that lasts a few days and then evaporates as though it had never happened, which is indeed how I regard it. Probably the commonest manifestation is a bout of wondering whether their new book isn't just a big pile of moose poop that'll ruin their careers forever the minute it's published -- assuming, that is, that the publishing house doesn't take one look at it and order the author to never darken their doors again.

The truest account of the life of the author is Edward Gorey's The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel. The pertinent bit just now is where he wonders whether it wouldn't spare everyone a great deal of embarrassment if he just threw the manuscript off the Embankment.

#39 ::: Mark Bourne ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 03:07 PM:

Teresa said: "Mark -- sure, I'll salute people who finish writing novels; but I'll also salute people who build model railway layouts, paint detailed canvases on historical themes, and compose formal song cycles...."

Yep. I'm with ya. What struck me about many of those writers was the untethered *passion* there on the pages. Now, in just about every case that passion might have been better channelled into, oh, model railway layouts or starting another political Third Party or divining fortunes with cat litter. And most cases that passion -- to reveal the SecretsOfTheUniverse or the writer's Sensitivity or some Truth about Humanity or the Coming War With China -- could be simultaneously riveting and unnerving. I'm sure you see it all the time, but that was an eye-opener for this boy.

So by "salute" I mean the same unspoken nod of (quirky admiration?) I can give to the streetcorner evangelist who has what it takes to stand on a crowded sidewalk wearing an Anti-Brain-Rays tinfoil hat while trying to tell everyone about the Disney-Cheney-Area 51 Connection. If that ain't passion mixed with a balls-out bent for public speaking....

Lots of those writers were one keyboard away from standing on a crowded sidewalk wearing a tinfoil hat. I'd enjoy having a cup of coffee with them, but I don't know if I'd want them in my house for dinner.

Anyway, if I learned nothing else, it was that here was proof, as if we needed more, that proper use of the common comma is a dying art indeed. (I'd thought that when I was a high school English teacher that I'd fixed that problem. Damn.)

#40 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 04:02 PM:

Gosh this is so much fun. I want to beg Mike Ford to have my children but it's probably too late for that. Jordin: How come you get all the good spam?

Jo: You are one of the absolute nicest people I know. And smart and funny too. Egad!

Teresa: Thanks for making all this possible. Perhaps you could do an entry soon on surviving Seattle weather? I haven't seen the sun for more than a week now and I'm getting very twitchy. Of course, in fairness, part of that week was spent in Ireland and London.


#41 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 04:25 PM:

Dear Editor:

Along with my manuscript, IT IS COLD HERE SO I WILL WRITE A NOVEL, I enclose a box of moose poop. The store said they were out of chocolate truffles, and the moose did not mind. I am sure you will agree that it is the style of the thing that really counts.

#42 ::: Rachel Brown ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 08:02 PM:

I have a file called "Psychoville," which contains the choicest cover letters and synopses I received during the four or so years I was with Castle Rock and the Jim Henson Company.

I also kept an entire screenplay which a muscle-bound guy thrust into my boss's arms at the gym, causing my boss to give it to me and beg me to find something tactful to say about it. I read him a sample bit of stage directions:

"Candyii walk into the bar. She smel good."

And a bit from the introduction (!) which was spelled better than the screenplay:

"Illegal tycoons here everywhere. Psycho mercenarys also here but for actions of illegal tycoons. When illegal tycoon on streets...."

My boss switched gyms.

Anyway, that file is packed as I'm moving, but I well recall the cover letter which featured a large color copy of Batman's Robin, apparently because the author's name was Robin.

And the synopsis from Tokyo:

"Ship is bumped by a dust. Doctor clones all die."

There was also a cover letter from Tokyo:

"Movie is about agony of life as clone human. We all understand such agony."

And there was the cover letter I found this morning under the bed, which quite properly began with a logline, or one-sentence description of the entire screenplay:

"Ace pilot Jack Banner attempts to stop a group of terrorists-- including his ex-wife Miles Standish-- from dropping a plague bomb on Los Angeles."

I'll leave the bomb jokes to you...

#43 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2002, 10:10 PM:

Mr. Ford may or may not know that the individual elements of moose poop are quite frequently of a size, colour, and texture that could make a hasty mis-identification for a chocolate truffle not entirely inexplicable.

Me, I'd try chocolate elk if I could figure out how to get it there in a presenatable state.

#44 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2002, 07:21 AM:

T, I should some day. I have saved them (especially
the ones who insisted on trying to argue, in a
depressingly E-mail archive called "the idiot file").

Apparently Brenda Clough is planning to write an
article for the SFWA newletter to try to educate
writers about the financial realities of conventions
and especially Worldcons. Perhaps you should do something similar on how to write a cover letter.

#45 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2002, 09:51 PM:


I was assuming it was an outline outline, with the Roman numerals etc. I had no idea how to do that for a novel. I've tried to do that for a story, and gotten garbage.

I hear you. In spite of great confidence I've built over the years about writing cover letters, I must say that outlines and synopses still petrify me. Especially considering that, with some agencies and pubs, this is what they mainly look at now.

#46 ::: Dorothy Rothschild ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 08:37 AM:

Very glad to hear that established writers are also traumatized by synopses. They give me the heebie-jeebies. I'm not sure why, come to think of it...any suggestions? (On why they are frightening in general, I mean; no one need probe my psyche, unless they find that sort of thing amusing.)

#47 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 08:53 AM:


Very glad to hear that established writers are also traumatized by synopses. They give me the heebie-jeebies. I'm not sure why, come to think of it...any suggestions?

Yes. Start with Teresa's superb insight, posted in the side column of Patrick's page, "Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature."

If you've done your job, and got that force of nature down on paper, what you're basically being asked to do with a synopsis (for agents who are too busy to read your ms?) is take a sledge hammer and smash the thing into a pulp, pick up a reduced number of pieces and in two pages rebuild—not your force of nature at the heart of the story, but the literary convention that may have inspired it. Yes, it is an anti-climactic chore. But it has to be done.

That's what it feels like to me. I'm exaggerating somewhat, but you get the idea.

(Perhaps another thread some day can discuss the ways in which the act can be good for writers in spite of the trauma!)

#48 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 08:55 AM:


I forgot to say thank you, as always, for your wisdom.

Dorothy, thanks for calling me an established writer!!

#49 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 01:12 PM:

Re the fear of synopsizing, my guess would be that the synopsis is the book denatured of all style, characterization, pacing, imagery, and other things that a lot of people stiill believe are fairly important to the Total Novel Experience.

And there's the old party game of making any story sound moronic by synopsis. "This Danish guy decides his uncle's a slimeball and figures to kill him, only he doesn't." "A guy writes a book about a poet, but he doesn't like his subject very much, so he mostly writes about himself and what a cool guy he is." (Hint: the work referred to is not by Harold Bloom.) "Marcel Proust goes to the bakery and everybody gets indigestion." "There's this Palliser family, and boy, do they go on."
There are, inevitably, Stupid Synopsis Tricks that people try to use to cover for the inherent problems of the form. "And then something really wonderful happens." "Scenes of rapturous beauty go by in quick succession." "Suddenly the plot makes sense."

It is also surprisingly common to see variations on "this book is worth a bazillion dollars and if I give away the really brilliant idea you will just steal it from me, so you have to send me a huge check and it has to clear before I will really show you the book." Yes, I have really seen these. For some of the amounts demanded, I would only have to get away with delivering a rewrite of HMS ULYSSES once to be fixed for life.

I suppose we are about to see a delugette of "This book is about a book where if you read it you will die in seven days. The great thing, is, you see, the reader finds out that he is reading the book that makes you die in seven days. This is all my own idea and I did not get it from anywhere else. The book is called THE DING-DONG."

#50 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 01:19 PM:

I'm sure it's just the synopsis effect, but the plot of THE DING-DONG sure rings a bell.

#51 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 02:48 PM:

Bob, I agree. Maybe our Hostess can explain it.

#52 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 02:59 PM:


For some of the amounts demanded, I would only have to get away with delivering a rewrite of HMS ULYSSES once to be fixed for life.

I do miss Alistair MacLean....

#53 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 03:36 PM:

I think Ms. Rosenzweig's theory that many aspiring authors are misled into writing the sorts of cover letters they might write for a potential job and submitting those along with their manuscripts. They can't really believe that somebody reads *everything* in the slush pile. After all, potential employers often just glance at resumes. These aspiring authors figure that in order to get the editor to read their submission, they need to write a memorable cover letter. This doesn't explain why some of them are insulting -- Jo did a reasonably good job of second-guessing on that count, but might explain the "secrets of the universe" [hi, Jo!].

When you're applying for a job, and you're entry level, and golf-course fairway green, you *know* that your resume looks like umpty-gadjillion others the potential employer will have seen; the cover letter is your *only* chance to distinguish yourself, show your style, explain the mysterious gaps (what *was* the candidate doing between 1999 and 2001, and be memorable. Sometimes, after seeing countless resumes disappear into the Void, one becomes a bit reckless in one's attempts to be memorable, to stand out, to demonstrate that one understands the uses of the semi-colon, to not just disappear.

"So," reasons the aspiring author, "if it works for the kind of Cover Letter I know, then maybe it'll get my manuscript noticed, and they [the submissions editors, those mysterious, all-powerful creatures] will like it enough to Give Me A Chance (oh, please!)".

They don't realize, or don't believe that somebody really does read all that slush, and that if they can't demonstrate their abilities in three chapters, then a quirky epistle won't help. Three chapters is a lot more than three pages in a resume.

Ms. Rothschild, and Mr. Hatton:

Various colleagues (editors more senior than I) recommend John Wood's _How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters_ as a guide for the aspiring author. I haven't read it (I'm no sort of author), so I can't add my endorsement; however, I'm passing the title along, as I do trust those who recommended it.


I suspect Chocolate Elk would be no more prejudicial than truffles, and much less easily confused with moose droppings. If you made my Elk Error #2 (Elk fudge), that might survive air travel. It might also be impounded at the border as a substance that ought to be controlled. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to concoct or mail Elk Error #1 (Elk sludge). I've never tried sending it anywhere, but I'm almost certain it would be messy.

#54 ::: Dorothy Rothschild ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2002, 06:42 PM:

Does this count as a forum yet?

Thx to all for information and advice. In spite of my loathing of synopses, I quite enjoy writing cover letters and queries; in fact I'm sending off three tomorrow. (Not quite the 'here's my blood and sweat' of an MS submission; I've been hired to write theater reviews and have to make nice to press officers.)

I suppose one problem with a synopsis is: if I could have written it in two pages well enough to make reading the entire novel unnecessary, I would have written only two pages in the first place.

#55 ::: James Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2002, 01:59 AM:

The synopsis is ten pages single spaced, present tense, in which you tell your best buddy about the really neat movie you saw last night, including choice bits of dialog, really smashing scenes, and how it all turned out.

#56 ::: Alter S. Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2002, 08:22 AM:

I have to say, this conversation is forcing me to consider adding a package of Inexplicable Israeli Snack Foods when the current novel is finally ready to go out.

I'm also tempted to use the actual working outline as the outline in the submission. That's probably a bad temptation, though. (Scene 29: Another Damn Character.)

#57 ::: Chip Hitchcock ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2002, 04:31 PM:

DDB and Teresa both point to a lack of empathy in many of the cover letters. I'm not surprised by this; writing a book doesn't require empathy. (T notes that's needed for a good book.) From everything I've heard (this is one of the many things I haven't tried) it requires one thing: a long time alone putting words on paper. Some of the people who can do this are going to have aloneness as their primary aptitude, however much this clashes with millions of years of evolution as a tribal animal; it's not surprising that some of them are sufficiently self-willed that they can't imagine how they look to other people.

There are other things people can do that are easier to do for less-sociable people; computer programming is the obvious one. (I've seen references recently to Ansparger's (sp?) syndrome, a sort of borderline autism believed common in programmers.) Running a program is a serious reality check; most of the other arts require more materials than a stack of paper. Is there anything that can be (not must be, can be) as unconnected to the real world and as inexpensive as writing a book?

#58 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2002, 06:32 PM:

An example to support an affirmative answer to Chip Hitchcock's last question: pure mathematics.

#59 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2002, 10:22 PM:

Observation by a scam "literary agent" in Donald Westlake's DANCING AZTECS (paraphrased):

It had become obvious to him that, all over America, people had thrown down a book, stormed out of a movie, or stood up dazed in front of the television set, and announced, "I can write better than this!" It was amazing how many of them were wrong.

#60 ::: Derryl Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2002, 02:08 PM:

Posting late here, due to school stuff: When I worked at the Public Affairs Bureau, we handled all the photographers hired for gov't work, as well as bought or leased photos for stock files. One fellow kept sending my female boss letters in tight psychotic scrawl about the aliens that visited his neighborhood.

Included in the envelopes were pictures of this guy: in his 50s, skinny with longish grey hair and a beard, like an aging Shaggy, in the Badlands of Alberta, naked as a jaybird except for his shoes and socks, pointing out just where the aliens were in the pix (the rainbow effect you can get from a certain filter, or else just pointing the damn lens into the sun).

And I remember once, when we put out SENARY so many years ago, getting a series of poems from a guy, as well as a typed list on legal paper, or 150+ titles he had published, including something that included the subtitle "Theater of the Absurb". "Absurb" became our by-word for quite some time after that.

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