Crappy cover letters

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott (Zboralski, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Anne Lamott is the author of nearly twenty books and numerous short stories, but she’s best-known among writers of all stripes for her essay “Shitty First Drafts”. Her pitch-perfect rumination on the writing process captures the messiness of penning books, short stories, plays and scripts, all of which start with a shitty first draft:

This is how [writers] end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. … Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.

If I might borrow some of Lamott’s magic, I’d like to a coin a corollary to her term. If the story-writing process starts with a shitty first draft, it ends with a crappy cover letter.

To bust ass to write a great story and then summarize it in a paragraph or two is the tragicomedy of the author’s endeavor. It’s reaching a marathon finish line and having the judges inform you there’s one more mile to go for good measure. As with Lamott’s first drafts, my cover letters are initially shitty, but they are so insubstantial I prefer to view them as merely crappy.

A one-page single-spaced cover letter has to satisfy seemingly a half-dozen tasks at once: Introduce the work, summarize its contents, establish the writer’s bona fides, suggest the writer’s past successes without dwelling upon them, demonstrate the writer is committed to the craft but is someone the editors can work with when revision time rolls around, and most of all, that the work being submitted is perfect for the publisher’s needs and will sell like hotcakes (if that’s their goal; it’s not a given.)

Hence as I’m writing a crappy cover letter to an editor, a voice in the back of my head whines: Can’t you just read my manuscript?

This is my theory why writers generally loathe to tell strangers about their work. (“Oh, you’re a writer? What do you write?”) Standing before someone and explaining a book in twenty seconds is essentially ad libbing a cover letter in audio-book form. When I’m telling a person about my work the same voice in the back of my head whines: Can’t you just read my books?

Whether submitting to a major New York publisher or a twee not-for-profit literary magazine, cover letters don’t merely summarize—the writer has to sell the story in one or two short paragraphs, even if the intention is for no one involved to make a dime. By and large writers are horrible salespeople, hence, crappy cover letters.

(This may be why so many writers love Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s a peek into a bizarre alternate universe no writer would want to inhabit—but damn is the dialogue sharp and the situation taut. Always be closing.)

I recall one published writer whose counsel for success was Write your cover letter first. His bright idea was to make sure your novel can be summarized in a sellable way before writing the novel itself. (Is your cover letter crappy? Write different letters until one is good, and then turn it into a novel.)

I’ve never done this so I can’t advocate for it. Personally, I think it’s kind of crazy. I have to write a novel before I know what I should have written.

I have scant advice to offer a writer confronting the challenge of whipping up a cover letter for their latest story. Know that you’re not the only writer who hates this final mind-numbing step. One option is to limit your cover letter to your credentials and pray the editor reads your story cold. (I’ve done this with short stories to mixed success; I sincerely doubt it would work for a novel.)

Like Lamott’s first drafts, your first stab at a cover letter will read like crap. So, walk your cover letter through a similar process as any short story or novel: Take your time writing it. Put it through several edit passes. Ask your writer friends to critique it. Hell, pass it out at your writing workshop if they’ll allow it. Remember, writing is an iterative process.

And when you think it’s ready to send…let it sit on your computer for a week or two. Trust me, when you return to it fresh later you’ll spot all kinds of problems you missed before.

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Greatest rejection letter of all-time

Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1953Recently I picked up Robert Silverberg’s superb Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction, an unfortunate title for a remarkably sturdy book. Part memoir, part writing guide, part anthology, I’d recommend it to every writer whether or not they’re interested in science fiction as a genre or pursuit.

Silverberg mingles his breezy autobiography of struggling to get published as a young man in the 1950s with nuggets of practical writing advice he picked up along the way. All of this package is humbly offered to the reader. Even when penning the book in 1987, Silverberg remains in awe of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein (“our Great Exception in almost everything”), although by that time Silverberg’s name was mentioned in the same breath as those masters, and more.

Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951Science Fiction 101 also reprints thirteen classic science fiction stories from authors like Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Robert Scheckly, Vance, Pohl, Aldiss…the table of contents reads like the short list of first-round inductees to The Science Fiction & Fantasy Hall of Fame. Alongside each story, Silverberg comments on why it impressed him and what he gleaned, offering hard, complete examples to his writing wisdom that so many other guides lack.

It’s fair to compare Science Fiction 101 to Stephen King’s On Writing. Both books are a bit more practical and pragmatic in their advice than loftier musings on the craft, such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I suspect Gardner would peer down his nose at writing advice from Silverberg or King, which is too bad. Anyone who can forge a lifetime career with pen in hand deserves to be listened to and considered.

As a young man, while sweating over a typewriter struggling to earn publication credits in the science fiction magazines of yore, Silverberg also earned a degree in English Literature at Columbia University. He applies some of that study here, coming up with incisive observations about storytelling I’ve not seen made before. Offering advice on how to build a story, Silverberg does something wonderful and avoids the conflict word. I’ve discovered “conflict” is off-putting to some young writers, possibly because it suggests violence or supercharged stakes or overwrought emotions. Instead, looking back to the ancient Greeks, he frames story as propelled by dissonance:

Find a situation of dissonance growing out of a striking idea or some combination of striking ideas, find the characters affected by that dissonance, write clearly and directly using dialog that moves each scene along and avoiding any clumsiness of style and awkward shifts of viewpoint, and bring matters in the end to a point where the harmony of the universe is restored and Zeus is satisfied.

It’s not the final word on how to write a story, but it’s a surprisingly serviceable start.

Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1951Silverberg’s candor and generosity to the reader is so no-nonsense, he even reprints the rejection notes he received while canvassing science fiction magazines with his early work. Big-name writers usually dip into their rejection stack for the wrong reasons: to settle a score, or thumb their nose at those who stood in their way years past. Here, Silverberg reprints rejection slips that served to make him a better writer, admitting how he deserved them, and how he was often too young to take their advice at face-value.

My favorite rejection letter comes from H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. Galaxy was a bit before my time (I grew up reading Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction). but Galaxy was well-known to me merely by its reputation. Galaxy was a “serious” science fiction magazine, known for avoiding the lewd subject matter and titillating covers the other science fiction magazines lured in readers with. (I’ve included a few of Galaxy‘s best covers here. The Internet Archive has a remarkable collection of back issues, covers and inside matter, that’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in science fiction’s past.)

Galaxy editor H.L. Gold sent Silverberg this rejection in 1956, when Silverberg had already broken into the field and was padding the back pages of science fiction magazines:

You’re selling more than you’re learning. The fact that you sell is tricking you into believing that your technique is adequate. It is—for now. But project your career twenty years into the future and see where you’ll stand if you don’t sweat over improving your style, handling of character and conflict, resourcefulness in story development. You’ll simply be more facile at what you’re doing right now, more glib, more skilled at invariably taking the easiest way out.

If I didn’t see a talent there—a potential one, a good way from being fully realized—I wouldn’t take the time to point out the greased skidway you’re standing on. I wouldn’t give a damn. But I’m risking your professional friendship for the sake of a better one.

Robert Silverberg was 21 when he received this remarkable letter, perhaps the greatest rejection letter of all-time.