Dear People I Submit My Work To;
You don’t know me, but you’ve read my handiwork, or at least the part where I make an honest attempt to spell your name correctly. That’s a lot of your job: to read my writing, judge it, and finally click a button that either sends my dreams back to where they came from or gives me that spark of hope.
Over the years, you’ve given me a lot of advice on how that introductory letter should look, and I’ve revised my work accordingly. Turned long to short, dull to pithy, and sent it back time and time again. It’s been great. I’ve learned a lot about not only what you want, but who you are.
Oh yes, haven’t I just learned about you.
And how is that?
Most of you, my dear agents and editors and publishers and assistants, probably don’t even read my whole letter. But I read your entire website, page by page. Short and long, pithy and dull. All of them.
And now, for all my learning, I’d like to give you something back.
Call it a love letter from the discard pile. A little help from me to you, agents and publishers, editors and assistants.
First, let’s talk about your website. Specifically, your submissions page. Oh, submissions pages. The place where you tell me that you are looking for “excellent writers” or “only the best work” or “exceptional pieces.”
You know how annoyed you get when I say I write “fiction novels?” That is how I feel when I see that you are looking for “amazing talent.” Is there a single agency or publisher who professes to want mediocre faire? We know you want the best; it’s a given.
And that’s all we generally know about your desires, because everything else you mention is far too often vague. Useless.
Yes, yes, I know you don’t want to write something on your page that allows for even the slightest chance that the Next Great American Novelist will pass you by. But saying, “I want novels that move me” isn’t helpful unless you’re hoping I wrote something in the shape of a lever. Ditto for, “Work that engages my senses” or, “Shows passion.”
And here I thought you wanted to be bored stiff! Oh, wait.
At the risk of invoking that gif from Hercules, I’ll say on behalf of all writers: we know. We get it. We get the point. But I think my stuff is amazing, so you probably haven’t deterred me from sending my awful manuscripts that are full of crap you hate. In fact, you’ve encouraged me to.
You know what I as an author love to see on your websites? Lists of what you don’t want. I can probably twist your dreamy ideals to fit any novel in my repertoire, but if you say “no YA,” smack, I got it. Or “no abuse stories” or “I hate sarcastic protagonists.” Those are all specific enough to help me without making me go, “Gosh, is my story full of heart or not?”
Because I guarantee you, whether we’re talking my adult literary stuff or my kid adventures, it’s all full of heart and passion and senses engagement, and those two stories I mentioned are vastly different. You haven’t helped yourself by being vague—you’ve given me a new label to stick on my manuscript.
So far, we’ve talked about what happens before I submit my work for your approval. Now let’s talk what’s the final step in the submission process for the vast majority of us: the inevitable rejection.
You all are very fond of comparing the submissions process to dating: it’s all about the fit. And I agree, entirely. But what you sometimes forget is that before we ever get to the chemistry bit, before I even send that first winky-face, I’ve already scanned your profile. I’ve looked at whether you prefer TV or movies, take-out or home cooking, and—oh yeah—whether you think there’s ever a situation where someone owes another person sex (in writing-website terms, that means you demand exclusive submissions and take more than a week to reply.)
I research, and check, and finally, I send you my letter. Will I get a red heart back?
You know, and I know, that chances are the answer is “No.” I send a letter, you go, “What utter crap, I don’t want this.” Fine. Now what do you do next? Do you, dare I say, tell me you don’t want my manuscript?
Let me tell you, the answer should be, “Yes.” Yes, you should tell me. You should take the extra ten seconds and have the courtesy to say, “Not for me.” Send the form letter.
Now, I’ve heard all the reasons you don’t: it takes time, and you have so little! So very little time. Maybe this adds on ten seconds to every letter you reject, and you have hundreds! Why should you have to do this? This is your precious time! Time that we demanding authors of mediocre work that does not move you in a literal or figurative sense are stealing from you.
I literally just spent three weeks composing a letter to you that boils down to, “Please, for the love of god, read my book.” I combed through your five-paragraph impassioned speech about how you want only stories that “invoke feeling” to make sure my manuscript would fit your desires. I triple-checked your name spelling, read through every biography on your website twice, and then, and only then, re-read my letter for the 281st time.
I gave you my time, freely—perhaps begrudgingly—but nevertheless with fervent hope in my heart. So much time. Time, because I’m sure as heck not earning money off my writing during the query process, that I stole from myself.
If you don’t have time to take ten seconds to send that form that says, “No,” consider closing your submissions.
Because literally, that email can be one word: “No.” It’s rather rude, but you know what? I’ll tell you, my dearest agents and publishers and editors and assistants, I’d rather hear a short “no” than deafening silence. Silence begets hope, and false hope is simply cruel. Are you a cruel person?
Not all dates work out; most of them don’t, except for the lucky few who happen to lock hearts in starry-eyed love a half-step out of high school (the equivalent of drunken bonding at a writer’s conference). The rest of us fumble around, polishing ourselves up again and again, hoping against hope that this time will be different. In the world of writing, unlike dating, we do get second chances when we become better at our professions. We may submit again and again.
Yes, some people abuse the system. Some people also abuse people, but we don’t stop saying hello because of them. Maybe you don’t want to reply because too many mass emails have come to you saying, “Dear Agent.”
Heavens above; I’ve never heard “Dear Author” before. I address you as Mr. and get an email back calling me by my first name. The respect, all too often, doesn’t work both ways.
That says a lot. Mostly it says a lot about you. Does it say the things you want it to say?
My dear agents and editors, publishers and assistants, I hope I have helped you today. My words were meant as a friendly reminder that authors are human too. When we send our writing your way, it is only in hopes that we will see it published, not to annoy you. We do so because we believe you are a good fit. We do so because we hold you in esteem.
Now it is your turn to show us that while our writing may not meet your criteria, your rejections to it are to our work, rather than to us as fellow people. You are more than words on a website page, and we are more than emails in your inbox. Of course we’d like to be a voice down the phone or a contract on your desk, but not all relationships can have such a happy ending. For now, we will settle for being treated as fellow professionals.
And in return, we’ll do our very best to stop sending you “fiction novels.”