Monthly Archives: July 2010

Writers get no respect

I’m writing a book. You’re writing a book, too? I’m not surprised. It seems that everyone and their uncle has written, is writing, or wants to write, a book. I say good luck to all of you. Now that I’ve been at it for a while, I understand how hard it really is to do. I’ll hazard a guess that most writer-wannabes will never get farther than, “It was a dark and stormy night,” even though they could, if they could just find the time.

I’ve worked with words my entire adult life. As a marketing person I’ve written all kinds of things; web pages, brochures, white papers and press releases. I’ve compressed countless pages into PowerPoint presentations, and incorporated oodles of questions into FAQs. I’ve edited technical manuals and books. Why, back in the day, I even wrote copy for print ads (remember when software was advertised in magazines?). These activities never seemed to increase my cachet with upper management though. Why? My observation is that business people (in high tech) don’t view the ability to write as a talent. At best, it’s a commodity service. After all, they can write. They could have done that ad, press release, brochure, what-have-you, if they had to. You learn how to write at a young age, there’s really nothing to it.

I contend that artists don’t have this problem. Most of us readily acknowledge our artistic limitations. I would never claim that my ability to draw a stick figure puts me in the same league as Picasso (although some of his stuff is downright childish). If your special talent involves drawing, painting, or designing with Illustrator, you’re probably consistently praised for your work. I always found it particularly galling when I’d present a finished piece, something that incorporated my copy and the designer’s artwork, to the boss, who would look it over and say, “Looks good.” Looks good? Did you read any of the words?

If they did read the piece at some point in the process, it was inevitable that they would spend time re-writing it. These were important people, with lots of important things to do, who still, apparently, had time to spare to do a quick rewrite. On one memorable occasion, I used the word ‘massive’ in a press release. The CEO and I went round and round in an email exchange arguing the relative merits of that word. I finally wrote, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Massive is the word I want to use there.” His response, “Oh, okay.” He just liked to dust it up with the writer – because he could.

Software developers never have this problem. One thing that high tech business honchos know is that they don’t know how to write code. I should have listened to my mother and learned how to program. Then if I said, “I’m writing a software program,” the response would be, “Yeah? How about those Red Sox?”

The end is just the beginning

There’s a lot of advice on the Internet about how to sell your manuscript. However, like everything else you find in the only library I know that doesn’t use the Dewey Decimal System, you have to consider the source before deciding whether or not it’s good advice. After you’ve done your information triage and think you’ve mastered the basics of breaking into publishing, it’s time to add your own common sense to the mix. That’s why I’m giving myself the luxury of writing about sending out my very first query letter, even though those in the know suggest you avoid blogging about your writing.

The rationale seems to be that if you’re blogging to promote your publishing aspirations, editors and publishers will be put off and count it against you. Common sense, however, dictates that if someone in a position to help you with your career is actually reading your blog, you are so far ahead of the competition that you might as well consider yourself a success and retire.

The first order of business when trying to sell your manuscript is to write what the business calls a query letter. This is like the cover letter you send with your resume. The resume may be chock full of applicable experience, but if the cover letter is poorly written, the resume may never be seen. That’s thirty years of experience tossed aside because you forgot to proof-read the cover letter, or you used the wrong title for the recipient, or were too personal, or too aloof, or who knows what else.

The same goes for the manuscript that you’ve worked on for the past year, or years. The rule says that you need to describe the story in three sentences. Those three sentences need to convince someone to read the first three chapters of the work you’ve slaved over for what seems like forever, no matter how long it’s been.

You’d think that would be easier for me than for most, since I’ve spent my entire adult career creating elevator pitches for software. An elevator pitch is a description of your product that you can share in the length of time it takes to go from the first floor to the top, in an elevator, in a short building. It turns out that a YA novel about a pregnant teen is actually harder to compress into three sentences, than enterprise software that lets your databases speak a common language. But with a little help from my friends (thanks, Lisa), I’ve done it.

They say that editors and agents get multiple hundreds of submissions a week. Of those, they read a handful of query letters, and of those, a subset of introductory chapters. It’s hard for me to get too exercised about the possibility that they’ll make it to my blog and ding me for writing about the process.

Today I put my first query letter in the mail. I’m proud of myself for having come this far. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m my number one fan. If no one in a position to publish it loves it, well, I won’t love it any less. And I certainly expect to find a way for you to buy, er, read it someday, no matter what. But don’t start saving yet. This may be the end of my first manuscript, but it’s the beginning of a process that could take a couple of years. I hope you’ll stick around.

To pledge, or not to pledge

There’s been a big brouhaha in my town lately about whether or not it should be mandatory to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. The high school student leading the charge, to make reciting the Pledge mandatory, has gotten quite a lot of coverage for himself, and our town, in the local press. Not surprisingly, it appears that there already is a law concerning this very subject, the upshot of which is that it’s up to each school’s principal to decide whether or not time is allocated for this activity. While I am impressed by any young person’s willingness to hustle on behalf of a strongly-held belief, I get nervous whenever this subject comes up.

‘Round about third grade, I stopped reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t honestly remember why. It could have been that it was the mid-sixties and there was something in the air. Or maybe I just didn’t like being told I had to say it. Whatever the reason, the school didn’t like it, so they called my mother. I don’t think my mother cared very much one way or the other, but the call from the school coincided with a visit from my beloved New York grandmother. She cared very much. I thought she would be proud of me, but alas, that was not the case. She was very, very disappointed.

I don’t, however, think anyone was unduly surprised. I started actively questioning authority at a young age. I wasn’t capricious; I was vigilant. I asked for clarification when things were unclear, or the authority figure contradicted himself. I pointed out inequities in portions, time allotment and seat assignments. I refused to be blown off if I didn’t understand something; I held the communicator responsible for making herself understood. This persistent behavior led to my being voted ‘Most Argumentative’ of my senior class in high school (which had, as I recall, upwards of 800 graduates). I was flattered to be singled out, but I didn’t see myself as argumentative. Apparently we didn’t have a ‘senior superlative’ for ‘hyper-vigilant.’

When I was little, it’s possible that my unwillingness to recite the pledge was driven by my early doubt about the existence of God and, therefore, I objected to saying the Pledge. My stance as an atheist was solidified when I was twelve. In response to my assertion that I didn’t believe in God, my Hebrew School teacher told me, “You’re too young to know what you believe.” If there had been any doubt in my mind before, that clinched it, I became a full-blown atheist.

My grandmother passed away right before I graduated from high school. To this day, I feel a small twinge of guilt when I think about her response to my third-grade rebellion. Painful as that memory is though, I wouldn’t do anything differently today. I still tend to stand quietly during the Pledge of Allegiance, worrying about how the rest of the world perceives us, and wondering if God really does exist. But I fully support your right to recite the Pledge. The fact that you and I can agree to disagree is what it’s all about anyway.