A year in the middle

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

The first chapter of my novel Man in the Middle opens a year ago today.

It’s an odd anniversary to observe, the setting of a book. I didn’t start writing it a year ago today. That came later, after a bit of soul-searching if I really wanted to write a novel about the pandemic during the pandemic.

In some ways, though, I did start writing the novel a year ago. I began keeping a daily diary last March when it grew apparent that the spread of COVID-19 was going to be more than a particularly nasty flu season. The first entry on March 14 is a little over a week before the book’s time-frame. I set the novel’s opening chapter ten days later, March 24, to coincide with the timing of California’s statewide order to lockdown and shelter-in-place. I was tempted to open the book earlier, as my entries on the 21 and 22 both demonstrate the alarm rising within me, as the hard realities of the pandemic started to loom.

The early diary entries show me obsessing over the peculiarities of the then-present moment. Those were days of keeping John Hopkins University COVID-19 map open in a persistent browser tab, so I could check it every few hours. The red dots across the forty-eight contiguous states gave the effect of an America with a case of chicken pox; later I would call it a “creeping horror.” The buses running across San Francisco were suddenly empty, and in a few days most lines weren’t running at all. Downtown San Francisco businesses boarded up their windows, even the storied hotels, which normally operated with doors open twenty-four hours a day. After a trip to Costco for supplies, and witnessing panic-buying first-hand, me and several other beleaguered shoppers took the elevator down to the parking lot. A woman in the back began singing “There’s no way out of here.” At least people still had a sense of humor.

Dog running down a near-empty Geary St., San Francisco on March 17, 2020. I lived near the intersection the dog is approaching. Normally the traffic would be bumper-to-bumper. In a few days, the windows would be boarded up and the streets even more deserted.

During this time period, I jogged down the center line of Montgomery Street at 4:30pm on a Thursday—the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District, normally thronged with stockbrokers and bankers, suddenly looking like the set for a zombie movie. I also recorded having an on-again-off-again cough and running nose, which left me reeling between paranoia and chiding myself for being paranoid.

The nucleus of Man in the Middle is buried in my diary entry for March 22: “It would be funny if we emerge from our shelter-in-place hibernation four months from now and discover the rich and powerful have rewritten all the rules to further favor themselves.” (Four months from now. Ha.)

So many failures of those early weeks have been tossed down the collective memory hole. Multiple times I noted news reports of government officials from both sides of the aisle claiming broad martial law powers during a pandemic. Social network users were suggesting it was time for “appropriate” shaming of people for wearing masks—you read that right—while the media sought to pretend it never downplayed the coronavirus over the flu, or ever referred to COVID-19 by the city it was first detected in.

Months after the first vaccine was greenlighted for the general population, and after a year of lockdowns, fervent hand-washing, and face masks, COVID-19 numbers are still ticking the wrong direction. Or, they’re not. Maybe there is no way out of here.

The double-edged sword

Ally Sheedy as Allison Reynolds

In The Breakfast Club, introverted Allison dares rich-girl Claire to say if she’s a virgin. When Claire demurs, Allison says,

It’s kind of a double-edged sword isn’t it? … If you say you haven’t [had sex], you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.

This is how I feel when the question comes up about the distinction between literary and genre fiction. If you write literary novels, you’re a prude. If you write genre books, you’re a slut.

Is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. Yet, here are some true-life examples from my own experiences:

Prude

While shopping around my first novel, I got a tip that a prestigious national imprint had a new editor seeking fresh manuscripts. I sent mine along, hopeful but also realistic about my chances.

The rejection slip I received was fairly scathing. The editor claimed my book read of a desperate MFA student who doesn’t understand the “real world.” It was fairly derogatory (and oddly personal, considering this editor and I shared a mutual friend). A simple “thanks, no thanks” would have sufficed, but this editor decided it was my turn in the barrel.

Make no mistake: This hoity-toit imprint reeks of MFA aftershave. It’s not a punk-lit imprint. It’s not an edgy alt-lit imprint. It publishes high-minded literary fiction. The author list is upper-middle- to upper-class, blindingly white, and yes, many of them hold an MFA.

And I hold an MFA too, so perhaps the criticism is spot-on—except I wrote the bulk of novel before I set foot in grad school. I didn’t aim for it to be a literary masterpiece. I wanted to write a page-turner. It’s categorized as literary fiction because it’s not mystery, science-fiction, fantasy, romance, Western, thriller, or YA/New Adult. Write a story about a character and his family, and it’s not merely literary, you’re trying to “be literary.” Who knew?

In my novel, the main character has grown up in a town of physicists who design and perfect weapons of mass destruction—this is the actual childhood I experienced. I thought it would be a good read. (It is a good read.) My character is snarky, sarcastic, crude—and at times, he can be a right asshole. The technical background of the novel is, as they say, ripped from the headlines.

This seems pretty real-world to me. I thought I was writing a funny novel with an unusual setting and situation. This editor took it upon herself to declare I’m actually a Raymond Carver-esque hack penning quiet stories of bourgeois desperation. And that I should stop being that writer.

So, there’s the rejection slip telling me to quit being literary, even though that’s a categorization I never asked for. And it came from a literary publishing house. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

Slut

After Amazon published my second novel, I began to sense a change in the attitudes of many of my writer friends. At first it was slight, like a shift in air movement when a door in the room is opened. Gradually, though, the emotional tension grew to the point it could not be denied.

I wondered if the problem was one of jealousy. My book had been picked up by a large company, but Amazon was not what you would call an A-list publisher (back then, at least—times have changed). And, they only published my book in digital Kindle format. I had to rely on CreateSpace to offer a paperback edition. The advance money was not huge, and the publicity not so widespread. It all seemed pretty modest to me, and I thought my friends would recognize it as such.

My novel is set in an alternate universe where human reproductive biology is tweaked in a rather significant way. This book is obviously science-fiction. Since the protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl, it neatly fits into the YA slot as well.

And I’m comfortable with those categorizations. I grew up reading Asimov, Bradbury, Silverberg, and other science-fiction writers of the Golden and Silver Ages who laid so much groundwork for the genre. More importantly, I wanted to write another page-turner, a real unputdownable book. From the Amazon reviews, I think I succeeded.

The tip-off for the issue with my friends was when my wife asked one of them if she’d read my new book. The answer was a murmured, “I would never read a book like that.” This from a person I counted as a friend, and had known for ten years.

Before this, I’d heard her repeat the trope that all genre fiction is formula, as mindless as baking a cake from a box of mix. I always let it go, for the sake of harmony. Now it was being thrown in my face.

The funny thing is, one Amazon editor told me she felt in hindsight my science-fiction YA novel was not a good fit for their imprint. They were more interested in “accessible” genre fiction for their readers, and that my work was—yep—too literary. It’s a trap.

Tease

When Claire refuses to reveal if she’s a virgin, bad-boy Bender suspects she’s a tease:

Sex is your weapon. You said it yourself. You use it to get respect.

Between being a literary author and a genre writer, there’s a third way: The literary-genre writer. These are the teases. They write genre fiction, but make it literary to get respect. And, often they do.

Examples of teases are Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, Cormac McCarthy, and Margaret Atwood. Much of their work is patently genre, but they are received and analyzed with the same awe and respect reserved for literary novelists.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say these writers prove it’s possible to write literary-genre fiction. I don’t think that’s true at all, though. It only proves that authors accepted into the literary realm get to have it both ways: They avoid the stigma of genre fiction while incorporating the high-stake dramatic possibilities genre fiction offers.

Consider another literary-genre writer: Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote science-fiction, but his books are rarely shelved in that section. Hell, he even wrote a diatribe about how bad science-fiction writing is (Eliot Rosewater’s drunken “science-fiction writers couldn’t write for sour apples” screed). Yet, Vonnegut is rarely, if ever, permitted into the same circle as Atwood or McCarthy. There’s something “common” about Vonnegut. Only at the end of his life was he cautiously allowed into the literary world. Some still say he doesn’t belong there.

I remain unconvinced it’s the sophistication of a novel itself that moves it into the upper literary tiers. I can point to plenty of books supposedly in the literary strata that are not exceedingly well-written or insightful. Something other than an airy quality is the deciding factor.

The success of a handful of literary-genre writers doesn’t open doors, it only creates a new double-edged trap. An author who pens a literary-style novel can claim it’s literary. See, he added his book to the “Literary Fiction” section on Amazon! But does it mean he’s a member of the literary world? Not at all. There’s something else holding him back.

The trap

The literary/genre distinction purports to explain every aspect of a story: Its relevance, its significance, its quality, its audience, even the goals of the writer when they sat down to write it. Nothing in this world is so simple.

There’s a smell about the literary/genre divide. It smells like class. Literary is upper-class, and pulpy genre is for the proletariat. This roughly corresponds to the highbrow/lowbrow classifications. We even have a gradation for the striving petty bourgeoisie, middlebrow.

(Even calling a novel “middlebrow” is treated with disdain—a lowbrow attempt to raise a genre book to a higher status. It’s easy to fall down the literary/genre ladder, but difficult to ascend.)

I definitely believe the Marxist notion of class exists, both abroad and here in the United States. What I don’t believe is that a work of fiction is “of a class.” Books are utilized as a marker of class—tools to express one’s status. Distinctions like literary vs. genre communicate to members of each class which books they should be utilizing…I mean, reading.

Amazon says new Kindle replicates experience of holding real book cover in public

This is not the most original thought, but is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. And I don’t want it to be simple. As with food, the best reading diet is varied, eclectic, and personal.

Note the real damage here. If a writer writes the books he or she wants to write, and puts their heart and soul into making it the highest-quality they can for their readers, all that hard work is instantly deflated by the literary/genre prude/slut highbrow/lowbrow labels.

And if a writer introduces genre conventions into their literary work, they’re a sell-out—a prude tarting it up for cheap attention. And if the author of a genre novel tries to achieve a kind of elegance with their prose and style, they’re overreaching—a slut putting on a church dress. You use it to get respect. We’re punishing people for being ambitious.

I’ve said it elsewhere: People will judge a book by its cover, its publisher, the author’s name, the number of pages, the title, the price, the infernal literary/genre label, its reviews, the number of stars on Amazon—everything but the words between the covers. You know, the stuff that matters.

The latest at Always Be Publishing

If you’re a writer and not checked out my Substack newsletter, Always Be Publishing, you might give it a go. Since I last wrote about it here, I’ve released a few more posts on writing and publishing in the digital age.

Recent topics include

You can find a list of the posts I’ve made so far at the archive. If you’re interested in a free subscription to receive new posts straight to your inbox, here’s where you can start.

“Always Be Publishing” at Substack

I recently started a new site at Substack, a blog platform with email subscription service. I call it Always Be Publishing.

What’s it about? Why did I start another blog? Some answers are in my introductory post:

Always Be Publishing is about the business and practical side of being a self-publishing writer.

Six years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed about offering advice to anyone about self-publishing, other than “You might look into it.” Today, I feel more confident about what I know and what I don’t know. I’ve also learned from the various mistakes I’ve made.

That’s why I started Always Be Publishing. It’s for people interested in the independent publishing revolution, but don’t know where to start, writers already self-publishing and seeking perspectives on how to grow their readership, and people who are looking for encouragement to keep writing and not give up…

You can find a list of the posts I’ve made so far at the archive. If you’re interested in subscribing, here’s where you can start.

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive”

Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert

One bit of writing lore I’ve heard many times, and always attributed to Gustave Flaubert:

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive.”

I’ve written before on my skepticism of writing lore. It often follows a pattern: Some nugget of keen insight for writers to follow closely, attributed to a big-name writer to burnish the saying with a little authority. Certainly this pattern is being followed with the “three senses” quote.

In this case, though, my skepticism is firmly tucked away. This is one bit of writing advice that’s well worth following (and not because Flaubert supposedly said it).

“She had learned from Flaubert”

Let’s start with that “supposedly” qualifier. I’ve been unable to locate a direct quote of Flaubert making the three-senses pronouncement in any variation. All roads in my search lead to an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.

Already the lore around the three-senses maxim is being chipped away. It’s not make a scene come alive, it’s make an object real. The three senses are described here as “three activated sensuous strokes,” an odd phrasing. It could be construed as indicating the object’s three sensory details do not have to originate from different senses. (For example, an old beat-up table might be described with three different sights: the paint color, the length of its legs, and the shape of its surface.) And notice how the unnamed writer “believes” the three sensuous strokes are connected to the five senses—in other words, she is reading into Flaubert’s maxim rather than paraphrasing it.

If he uttered the maxim, of course. A Google search for Flaubert and the original “three sensuous strokes” phrase always leads back to this passage by O’Connor. As mentioned, searching for Flaubert and other variations of the quote, including the most famous version above, don’t pan out either.

What’s more, O’Connor’s unnamed writer friend “learned from Flaubert” this bit of wisdom. There’s some ambiguity here. It could be read as saying the writer had discovered this technique by studying Flaubert’s work, rather than receiving it directly from him via an interview or essay.

And that’s probably what happened here. The unnamed writer is most likely Caroline Gordon, a Southern novelist and critic who tutored Flannery O’Connor. Gordon’s How to Read a Novel returns repeatedly to Flaubert and his techniques for making a novel come alive, which she calls “Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”:

Flaubert never told you what a flower, for instance, was like. Instead, he tried to give you the illusion, by the use of sensory details, that you could not only look at the flower he was presenting for your admiration but could smell it and feel the texture of its petals.

Caroline Gordon

She continues with effusive admiration for Flaubert’s techniques, particularly his use of narrative distancing: One passage away from his characters to observe their situation, then moving in close for intimate details, and then moving into their interior to plumb feelings and thoughts. Gordon plainly admired Flaubert’s writing. It makes sense she would have passed on the “three sensuous strokes” observation to O’Connor.

In other words, the advice “Use three senses to make a scene come alive” may not have sprung from Flaubert or O’Connor, but Caroline Gordon. What’s more, she was discussing objects and not scenes, although I think the generalization is forgivable.

As much as I believe in the three-senses maxim, this is why writing lore—and lore in general—deserves questioning.

Why it works

Provenance aside, I’ve taken the accepted maxim to heart in my own writing. Unlike other writing lore I’ve come to question, the three-senses maxim has served me well, both in making scenes come alive, and in making objects seem real.

I first heard it over twenty years ago—attributed to Flaubert, naturally—during a writers conference at Foothill College. Those years have given me time to take advantage of this advice and ponder why it works so well. Why three? Why not two, or four, or all five senses?

If a story limits itself to two senses, it will likely focus on sight (the most dominant of the human senses) and sound (because sound—dialogue—is our primary means of communication).

A novel of nothing but sight and sound may be compelling in subject matter, but readers will feel locked out of the book’s world. (“You almost aren’t present.”) Scenes will play out as heads talking to each other. Objects will be nothing but photographs displayed from afar for the reader to observe. A very short story may be able to sustain this, but it takes a special kind of novel to keep this up.

By employing three senses, the dream-vision of the story becomes less boxed-in and more nonlinear (“Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”). The other senses—taste, smell, and touch—have less communicative power, but are evocative to the reader. They’re not as cerebral and more bodily.

Naming a paper bag of popcorn identifies the object. Allowing the reader to smell the yeasty aroma, or taste the melted butter, or feel the heat of the kernels through the paper like small coals: These details inflate a flat object into a tangible thing. Imagine the possibilities of foiling expectations with sensory details: The popcorn smells of cigarettes, for example, or tastes soapy for some reason.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

This is why I think the three-senses rule works: It almost always forces the writer to break away from sight and sound, which dominate the story’s telling, and activate the other senses. The story evokes an experience rather than catalogs a series of events.

While I don’t think four or five senses in a scene is necessarily too much, doing so consistently will over-inflate the story with picayune details. I’ve tried it on occasion, only to cut much of it later as excess fat weighing down the scene. Three senses seems to be the sweet spot.

Flannery O’Connor saw all these problems when she wrote “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”. After mentioning Gordon’s lesson on Flaubert, she cautions,

Now of course this is something that some people learn only to abuse. This is one reason that strict naturalism is a dead end in fiction. In a strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement. [Emphasis mine]

Keeping the number to three helps limit the writer to selecting only the most essential details, rather than flooding the reader with a surplus to create a sensory shotgun effect. It’s “the essential that creates movement.”

And, yes, there are exceptions to all of the above I’ve discussed. Fiction writers who seek hard rules to follow militarily will soon discover surprises and disappointments. Familiarity with proven techniques, and knowing when to deviate from them, is what separates art from assembly-line manufacturing.

O’Connor’s caution also reminds that the purpose of sensory detail is to invite the reader into the story rather than have them observe it. Sensory details are not the story itself. They are subordinate to the characters, their motivations, and their decisions. Use three senses to make the characters’ world come alive, but only alive enough.

How Marcia Lucas (and smart editing) saved Star Wars

Marcia Lucas
Marcia Lucas

Among fiction writers, the editing process is notoriously dreaded as drudge work, but revision is where the magic happens. It’s where a struggling, plodding story is shaped into the author’s vision.

Recently I discovered “How Star Wars was saved in the edit”, an impressive and succinct video on the high art of film editing. It demonstrates revision so well, it should be required viewing in creative writing courses everywhere.

That’s right: Creative writing. Even though it regards film editing, almost all the techniques described have application in revising fiction.

To clarify, I’m not talking about the Star Wars story line. The formula behind Star Wars has been so imitated and overdone over the past forty years, there are few morsels left to claim as one’s own. Narratological analyses of George Lucas’ little sci-fi flick are bountiful, as are the reminders how he borrowed much of his structure from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. All of this is well-trod ground and not what concerns me here.

What “Saved in the edit” highlights is a criminally unknown aspect of Star Wars‘ mega-success: The role of Lucas’ then-wife Marcia in sculpting the movie’s rough cut into a blockbuster. If Marcia Lucas had applied her formidable editing talents solely to the movie’s heart-pounding conclusion (the rebel attack on the Death Star), she would have deserved the Oscar for editing she eventually received. Her contributions went far deeper, it turns out.

Ordering scenes

I’m most interested in two of the video’s sections. The first is the explanation of intercutting (or cross-cutting), starting at 6m50s in the video. Intercutting is a film term referring to a specific editing technique. For fiction, a more general (and blander) term would be scene ordering.

Marcia Lucas and her fellow editors crispened the first act by reordering scenes to better establish the story and get the audience involved. Since viewers are able to fill in blanks on their own, the reordering allowed for the removal of entire scenes, keeping the story line brisk and taut.

Revising scene order is the author at her most godlike. She is rearranging the events of her dreamworld like a child building up and tearing down sand castle turrets. Scene reordering requires bold moves and wide peripheral vision. It’s not about word choice and tightening dialogue, it’s asking if each scene is in the right place at the right time—or even if it should be included at all.

(Another visual medium that uses visual cuts effectively is comics, a topic I’ve explored before.)

My latest (and, as of today, unpublished) novel offers a personal example of scene reordering in my editing process. My early chapters were a mess. The main character was traveling quite literally in circles. An early reader (and good friend) pointed out the wasted time and lack of energy in the first act.

Although I like to make a rough outline when I write a novel, I don’t organize down to the scene, or even the chapter. After hearing my friend’s criticism, I went through the draft and produced a rough table of contents. Each chapter was listed with a brief one- or two-sentence summary of its major plot points. (A writing notebook, even a digital one, is a good tool for this task.)

Thinking of his complaints, and referring to my makeshift table of contents as a guide, I “re-cut” the opening chapters and produced a sleeker first act. Sections of one chapter were lifted and dropped into another chapter. Events were shuffled to tighten the story, sharpen focus, reduce transitions, and get the story on its legs. Thousands of words wound up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. It was worth it.

Marcia Lucas and George Lucas
Marcia and George Lucas

Ordering beats

My other interest in “Saved in the edit” regards the first meeting between Luke and Obi-wan (11m50s in the video):

Originally the scene started with Luke and Obi-wan watching the princess’ message, then they play with lightsabers, and then they consider to go help her.

The editors realized how “heartless” this scene played out due to the lag between hearing Leia’s holographic plea and discussing whether or not to help her. They reordered the scene by opening in medias res to make it seem the two have been talking about Luke’s father for some time. From there,

  1. Obi-wan shows Luke the lightsaber,
  2. they watch Leia’s message,
  3. and then they argue about flying off to help her.

It’s a simple change, which is kind of the point: Sometimes vital edits are not complex or massive, but surgical and subtle. What’s more, notice how this edit did not require re-shooting the scene. All the elements were in place, the problem was their presentation.

The new ordering creates an emotional cone. The tension starts low with exposition (Luke’s supposedly-dead father, a forgotten religion that tapped into a mysterious cosmic “force”). The stakes rise in pitch as they watch Leia’s plea. A tension point is reached when the old man in the desert tells Luke he must drop everything and travel across the galaxy to save a princess.

If you find a scene you’re working on meandering or feeling aimless, consider how the tension rises within it. Is it building, or is it wandering around?

In play-writing, the basic unit of drama is called a beat. A beat consists of action, conflict, and event. Marcia Lucas improved the scene with Luke and Obi-wan by unifying a beat that had been split apart with the lightsaber business:

  1. Action: Obi-wan wants Luke to learn the Force and save the princess;
  2. Conflict: Luke has to stay and help his uncle with the farm;
  3. Event: Luke refuses Obi-wan’s call and goes back to the farm.

Not all edits are rearranging action/conflict/event. If you think of a scene as a collection of little beats, sometimes revision is moving the beats around, much as scenes can be reordered.

One sin I’m guilty of is opening a chapter with the character in the middle of action or a conversation, then dropping to flashback to explain how the character wound up in this situation, then returning to the scene. It’s a false and inauthentic way to start chapters in medias res.

How to correct this? Sometimes by moving the flashback to the start of the chapter and rewriting it in summary. Often I drop the flashback and assume the reader will catch up on their own (as Marcia Lucas did by opening the Obi-wan scene in the middle of the conversation). Each edit is situational and requires a film editor’s mindset. Simplifying scenes is the core of powerful revision.

These editing skills really should be the stock-and-trade of every novelist and playwright. Yet I’ve never seen a book on writing fiction explain these points as ably as “Saved in the edit”. It’s unfortunate it takes a YouTube video on the making of Star Wars to lay out the power of editing in such a lucid and compelling way.

Writing a book is like being an all-in-one film crew. The author is director, screenwriter, editor, and casting agent. The author plays the roles of all the actors. The directing and writing and acting is the fun part, or at least it can be. But editing is where a manuscript goes from a draft to a novel.

Further reading

For more on Marcia Lucas, I suggest starting with her biography at The Secret History of Star Wars. It details the shameful way she was written out of the history of the movie after divorcing George Lucas.

“Marcia Lucas: The Heart of Star Wars is another fine YouTube video, focusing more on her career and her role with other 1970s films you’ll recognize, such as Taxi Driver and The Candidate. It also does a nice dive into Marcia Lucas editing American Graffiti into the phenomena it would become.

Marcia Lucas’ influence on Hollywood and film editing is still felt today. The Beat‘s “5 Editors That Broke the Hollywood System” are all women, including Marcia Lucas, even though the article is not specifically about women in film history.

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.