Friday, July 21, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: Explosive Slush

Editor's note: I apologize for the lateness of this "missive." Mr. Writing Person was spot on time as usual, but I got back late from a computational intelligence conference in Vancouver, and then had a devil of a time getting away from His Eminence Person so I could actually edit. He kept grilling me about Canada, and I have no idea what it was all about, but I'm sure we'll find out eventually.

In today's Ask Mr. Writing Person, we talk to Georgia Snow, from Dripping Springs, Texas, who has never learned how to put glitter and nitrogen triiodide to good use when submitting her unsolicited manuscript to a publisher. We'll fix her up right quick. [Ed: By golly, we'll fix her for life.] Here's Georgia:

Q. I've finished my story, and I'm ready to send it off to publishers who take unsolicited manuscripts. I've heard I should print it in 12-point Courier, double-spaced, with one-inch margins and put it in a manila--

A. Grasshopper, that is the very worst thing you could do.

Q. Really?

A. Really. To see why, you need to understand the process. Your unsolicited manuscript will be sent directly to the slush pile, which is kind of like an elephant graveyard, except it's full of unwanted manuscripts.

Q. It's where manuscripts die?

A. Most of them.

Q. I don't want mine to die.

A. Then listen carefully. The people who decide which manuscripts die and which don't are called slush pile readers--usually junior editors with nothing better to do than drink whiskey and sift through mounds of manila envelopes, searching for something exciting. They have the most boring jobs of anybody on the planet, aside from those poor schmucks on Hollywood stunt crews who blow up the blue air bags. You know why? Because everyone sends them boring manuscripts.

Q. I don't want them to think mine is boring.

A. Then you need to make it stand out. I think the best way to illustrate how to do that is to tell you a story about a manuscript that almost made it.

Q. Oh, goodie.

A. Years ago, when I was still an illiterate Philistine, I worked for a publisher as a gopher. Mostly, I licked stamps. But I worked in the slush pile room, alongside a couple of very canny slush pile readers, Lem and Clem. Here's a conversation I overheard one day, as well as I can remember it:
Lem: Gee, Clem, I'm sore disappointed today.

Clem: You got it, Lem. Every manuscript I seen so far this whole week is in 12-point Courier, double-spaced, with one inch margins, stuffed in a manila envelope with a polite cover letter detailing previous publications, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Lem: You'd think they'd of caught on by now and seen through our ruse.

Clem: Yep. Not one of them has a lick of brains, Lem. My hopes in this generation is dashed right to pieces.

Lem: Remember that one that came with corn starch and a letter that said "YOUR'E DEAD" inside it? That was a doozy.

Clem: Not near as doozy as the one with the ticking alarm clock, Lem. Those was the days, man. Those was the days.

[Someone knocks on the door.]

Assistant Editor: Hey, Lem! There's a guy here in the lobby wants to see you, wearing nothing but a bikini and a Darth Vader helmet!

Lem [getting up]: Sounds promising, Clem. Just a sec.

[Lem leaves, returns after a minute. Assistant Editor follows wheeling a dolly with a single eight-foot package wrapped in black construction paper.]

Lem: Lookeeee here! A real doozy!

Clem: Finally, Lem, my life is exciting again. Lemme open it. You got the last good one.

Lem: Sure thing. Here's a stool.

[Assistant Editor leaves with the dolly. Clem climbs onto the stool and pulls out a switchblade. He cuts the top of the package open and looks down inside. A deafening BANG! follows. Purple smoke drifts up from the package. Glitter rains down on the floor.]

Lem: You okay, buddy?

Clem: Will you check that out! A glitter bomb!

Lem: Yeah, Clem, your face is right plastered! I got high hopes for this one!

Clem: Yessir! I'd of never thunk of mixing glitter with nitrogen triiodide!

Lem: Genius! Does it got a cover letter, Clem?

Clem: Yes, Lem. Lemmee grab it down for you. Here you go. Read it aloud, if you would.

[Clem hands Lem a piece of magenta card-stock paper.]

Lem: "Dears Lem and Clem." Hey! That hairy Darth Vader out there knows our names!

Clem: Makes me feel all fuzzy inside, Lem. Keep going.

Lem: "I am a aspiring novelist. At present, I am taking care of my aging parents and my wife's aging parents and their really aging parents and at least five generations back, and we all live in a old He-Man lunchbox in the middle of an airport runway."

Clem: That's just a-tugging at my heartstrings, Lem. Hey, lookee here! Darth Vader sent us food!

Lem: Why, that's just great, Clem! I always like treats from strangers! What is it?

Clem: Well, I dunno if it's ezactly edible, cuz it's... well, he's soaked his manuscript in mustard and chicken gizzards! Shucks if that ain't tops!

Lem: That's just sweet, Clem. I can overlook if I can't eat it if it's just so gol-darn clever. Should I keep reading?

Clem: Yes, Lem. It'll take me a fair while to clean off the first page.

Lem: "I brang you my manuscript myself--"

Clem [halting in his wiping]: He done used subjugular normative form! Color me impressed!

Lem: Yessirree! "I brang you my manuscript myself, because I need to get published, because I need the money desperately. If you do not accept this manuscript for publication, I will stalk you both until you have to change your names and move to Venezuela."

Clem: He must really like us, Lem.

Lem: Got that right. Here's the rest: "I demand that you read this today. Sincerely, Darth Vader's Mom. P.S. I think you'll really like the story. It starts getting really good in chapter 20."

Clem: Well, I just can't wait until chapter 20, Lem! Hey, I gots this first page cleaned off. Guess what? It's just a photo pasted on!

[Clem hands another page of magenta card-stock down to Lem.]

Lem: What do you know. That looks just like the guy out in the lobby! You think this is an autobiography?

Clem: I think so, Lem. This second page--wow!

Lem: What is it, Clem?

Clem [leafing through pages and pages of damp card-stock]: This whole entire thing is printed on magenta card-stock in 24-point Comic Sans! No wonder it's so tall! And--oh, golly, the whole durn thing is in all caps!

Lem: Is your hopes in this generation restored, Clem?

Clem: You bet. I can't wait to read this. Darth Vader's Mom really made this manuscript stand out. [Scans the first page.] Yes, Lem, this is Darth Vader's Mom's autobiography. Listen to this opening paragraph: "I AM DARTH VADER'S MOM. I WAS BORN A LONG TIME AGO AT A HOSPITAL ON CROISSANT, AT THE CENTER OF A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY. DEPSITE WHAT YOU MAY HAVE HEARD, HE GOT HIS FORCE-CHOKING FROM ME."

Lem: Well that just sucks on its own, Clem. But taking into consideration the packaging, I think I'm a-hooked. I can't wait until chapter 20.

Clem [looking panicked]: Oh, no, Lem!

Lem: What?

Clem: I got my hands on a self-addressed, stamped envelope! Stop me, Lem!

Lem [grabbing Clem]: No, Clem! Keep your filthy mitts off them form letters!

Clem [struggling, breaking free]: I can't stop it, Lem! I gotta fill this out and stuff it in the envelope!

Lem [breaks down, crying]: Oh, Clem. Oh, Clem, we was so close...

Clem [handing the envelope to me]: Here, gopher boy. Stamp this and send it off. I'm a-going to wash my hands till they bleed.

And they rejected it.

Q. How sad.

A. Slush pile readers have a strange, otherworldly compulsion to stuff rejection letters into self-addressed, stamped envelopes. It's an addiction not often talked about outside of publishing, but now you know: no SASE goes into your submission.

Q. So what happened to the Darth Vader guy?

A. Oh, he hung around the office for a few days and then left. Lem and Clem were quite keen on getting stalked by a hairy guy in a bikini and a Darth Vader helmet, so they were fairly disappointed. However, they did hang his picture up in the slush pile room.

Q. Do I have to actually show up with my manuscript like the Darth Vader guy did?

A. If you want the most consideration, you do. Second best is to send your manuscript postage due. That immediately demonstrates to the publisher how much your manuscript is worth.

Q. I think I can do that. Thank you so much!

A. You're welcome, dear Philistine. Don't forget the mustard and chicken gizzards.

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