Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why You get Form Letters

QUERY:

Hi-ho Agent Reid:

Insincere boilerplate introduction modeled off of internet form letters segueing into the pitch for my new novel, The Madness of Method, which goes a little sumthin' like this…

No one wants to be ordinary. Least of all those who feel they're wallowing in it. And outside of a father whose death revealed a brother he didn't know he had, Hamilton Brownstone is about as dull as they come. He's not particularly educated. His mother and roommate annoy him. He works at a disco-themed lunch counter selling hot dogs. I know; hot stuff.

But he's out to change all of that.

Inspired by his intensive readings of about the author blurbs, Hamilton has decided to make himself interesting by becoming a writer. And to do so, he's modeling the process of method acting, trying to live the life of other writers whose blurbs he admires each day to channel their creativity, since he's fairly bereft of it on his own. And after several intense months of method writing, he is nearly finished with the glorious first paragraph of his revisionist historical epic, Avenging Zombie Jesus.

But even that kind of runaway success isn't enough to break him out of his funk fast enough. His mother is pressuring him to give up hot dogs as a career. His boss is pressuring him to start taking them seriously and trying to force an unwanted promotion. The pressure is on, and Hamilton's "work" is being neglected.

So, Hamilton comes to the only possible conclusion in his position: he must get himself arrested and finish his novel from the comfort of prison, since it worked so well for O'Henry. And of course, Hitler.

To aid him, Hamilton enlists the help of the only two people he trusts: the inspiration for his method writing, his actor girlfriend Tabitha, who is on a quest of personal growth and is trying to remain in character all hours of all days, and his half-brother Gardner, who won $30 million in the lottery on his 18th birthday, and has spent the subsequent time applying for minimum wage jobs to amuse himself and annoy his stepfather.

For most people, it shouldn't be that hard to get arrested. But between Hamilton's insistence that his arrest be an orderly affair with literary merit, Gardner's reckless attempts to hit rock bottom, Tabitha's attempts to keep anyone from being hurt, and a majority opinion that Jesus is far more likely to be a vampire than a zombie, things don't go smoothly. And when Hamilton is finally arrested for unpaid parking tickets, he finds jail somewhat different than he imagined.

At its core, The Madness of Method is about the collision of artistic ambition and delusion, religious nincompoopery, and the politics of fractured families. And I like to think it makes with the ha-ha something fierce.

My writing credentials include: 5 years of professional feature journalism, fiction publications in The Portland Review, Ooligan Press's Irreverant Fish, 34th Parallel, Caveat Lector, Alchemy Lit Mag, Mercury Quarterly, and Pathos Lit Mag, as well as a sold-out run of my self-published collection of short stories Secrets and Lies, and dramatic productions of three of my plays through Portland Oregon based community theatre troupes.

The full 48,131-word manuscript is available any time you like.

Thanks for your time, and I look forward to your reply.


(redacted)

--
In parting, I offer you this...

Carry a lazer down the roads that you must travel;
Carry a lazer through the darkness of the night.



RESPONSE

Dear Writer (redacted)

Insincere form rejection carefully constructed to not convey "what the fuck" segueing into a comment about your new novel, The Madness of Method, a 48,131-word manuscript.

This is writer porn. I see it a lot. Books about writers, writer rejection, disgusting and evil literary agents (although you avoided that one, I'm not sure why) even when done with an elegant literay tone, is still writer porn. Books about writers aren't my cup of tea. Other agents may have different drinking choices.

Also, 48,131 is a tad short. Like 20,000 words. I've sold books with fewer words (one of them is in the sig line below) but I've also dropped anvils from Acme on my head and I'm not doing that again either.

Your companion in jest,

J


HIS REPLY

No Agent Reid, my letter was jest, commenting on the barrage of insincere letters you agents sift through every day, and writers hate to write. Having spent most of the last year doing little but writing cover letters, and the last three years reading my share of them, it's a subject I'm somewhat familiar with. And so far agents and publishers have referred to my letters as refreshingly honest. One lit-mag even published my letter alongside a short story. You may be an important person, and I may just be a c-grade Larry Flynt, but don't try to fool yourself into thinking there was anything resembling jest in your response. It was just plain mean. Small-town cop mean. But I suppose that's agent porn. We all need a little bit of it here and there.



Well, ok, back to "not right for me"

If you want something else, you've got this guy to thank for the next couple weeks at least.

53 comments:

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

I'm not sure whether to applaud him or shake my head at him...

Merry Monteleone said...

I'm actually impressed that you read past the opening Hi-ho bit... and to be honest, I thought the whole query was a joke until you got down to the responses...

I'm also wondering how you send out a professional letter with that kind of sarcastic humor in place of respectful greeting and then find any response 'mean'...

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Janet,

I don't usually drop links back to my blog, but I thought this one might amuse you:

http://happycat7.blogspot.com/2009/01/color-me-amused.html

It's off topic for this post, though, so feel free not to publish the comment.

Me said...

Okay, porn or not, that was completely damn funny. I had to go back and read his query again and I got it. Your 'What the fuck' comment had me chuckling to myself in between writing stints. I thank you and this 'guy' for the humorous exchange.

P. Bradley Robb said...

I don't know if "writer's porn" is the term I would use, perhaps "meta" at best and a circle-jerk the majority of the time.

However, I think the response was quite fitting. You matched his tone nicely.

Michael Devers said...

1st chorus:
When I do it, it's the reasons why.
When you do it, it's an excuse.

2nd chorus:
When I do it, it's funny.
When you do it, it's mean.

jjdebenedictis said...

...I agree with him? Sorry.

He was funny (the first time around), your response seemed a bit of a slap, and he should have swallowed his defensiveness and not replied to it.

  said...

Wow, I didn't think your reply to the guy was mean at all. So much for personalizing a response and putting time into it. Maybe general is better:

Dear MAMMAL,

Thank you for your THING WRITTEN ON PAPER OR OTHER STORAGE MEDIUM, however at this time...

-Patrick

dmciii said...

Unfortunately, here is the reality of a life for any agent representing an artist. Rather than being pleased that you heard the sarcastic voice he was portraiting and that you enjoyed the method if not the content of his work, he found a way to blame the agent for his inability to move forward. Take it from the son of a theatrical agent. Its the often quoted lines to any agent representing artists.

Opening Line: "What can I do for you to get you to help me?"

Closing Line: "What have you done for me, lately?"

The only thing I can add is support. Don't let foolish responses limit your wit and personality. Most of us find your comments refreshing enough to spend our limited time (at 4 am) reading them just for the voice (and with it the wit). "Not right for me" is exactly what you said, with voice.

December/Stacia said...

Ditto Michael Danvers. You respond in the exact same tone and he says you're "mean".

Sigh.


I thought your response was cute; I thought his final response was going to be amusement. Go figure.

Anne-Marie said...

Dishing it should mean that you can take it. I think that's the first "what the fuck" I've ever seen in a rejection letter, and no, it didn't seem mean.

Joyce said...

I don't think your response was mean, either. If he's going to waste an agent's time by sending a fake/joke query, he deserved much worse than he got.

blogless troll said...

Michael Devers knows the tune.

According to this guy's second email, his first email is essentially a crank call, but it was so poorly done he needed the second email to explain it. I think porn's too generous. Sounds more like masturbation.

David said...

Gasp!

I hope he doesn't intend to ever send you a real query, after that. Not under the same name, anyway.

BJ said...

"No Agent Reid, my letter was jest, commenting on the barrage of insincere letters you agents sift through every day, and writers hate to write."

You could have told him that you don't represent literary short stories, which seems to be what he's saying his original letter was.

Now, *this* is the sort of conversation that could have resulted here, if he had had a real sense of humour:

http://keboch.wordpress.com/2008/11/09/please-accept-this-spider-as-payment/#comment-1218

Now, *that* would have been fun.

jnantz said...

I'm just proud I got the Mike and the Mechanics reference (at least I think that's who it was...tghe song is "Kyrie" I believe).

As for your response, I don't think it was a slap at all. I hope you didn't mean it that way, because it came across to me as if you took the time to match his voice in a bit of good-natured humor on your part (in recognizing the good-natured humor on his part). That he didn't get that is just funny to me. Then again, when faced with something that so obviously wastes your time like this would, I probably would have expected frothy, vehement rage instead of good-natured ribbing. So, maybe he thought that's what he got when he didn't.

Crimogenic said...

I would have been rolling on the floor laughing/crying if I got a what the fuck in response to my query letter, than again, I wouldn't be sending joke query letters to agents. Send the joke queries to your friends. Send professional letters to agents.

Sean Ferrell said...

@ jnantz said...

"I'm just proud I got the Mike and the Mechanics reference (at least I think that's who it was...tghe song is "Kyrie" I believe)."

It's a Mr. Mister reference. But that's MR. Mr. Mister to you.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

If he thought your response was mean, he's clearly not a regular in these parts.

Steve Stubbs said...

I disagree with the other posters. I don't think his query is funny at all. I do think 48,000 words of that would be a disaster. There is nothing drearier than a bad joke that never seems to end. If you're kicking yourself for rejecting this one, spare your shoes. Method of Madness has to be a non-starter. Even the title is a cliche.

Belvoir said...

I get the feeling it wasn't totally a joke; there were a few glimmers of ideas there, and a lot of nonsense.

It was probably half-serious; would it have been a joke if J had said, "I'm interested- tell me more!" ?


But someone who's BLA BLA, too cool to show some respect in the greeting, -not someone any agent would ever want to work with, ever. No matter how delightfully "refreshing" they think they are.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Janet, I'm honestly surprised you bothered to extend the good grace to read such a badly-written query in its entirety. "Nobody wants to be ordinary" could have been crafted into a nice hook, but was left adrift amid the wreckage of the SS Synopsis with no actual query in hailing distance.

Your "WTF" response could have been a big favor for the auteur, had he chosen to learn from the experience.

Re: Steve's comment, yes, the title is a cliché, but that can work in satire. In the right hands, the story could perhaps be made to work. Maybe as a cult film that maintains a slightly amusing monotone for 98 minutes, but it would probably do better as a Little Britain sketch, if only because Little Britain has better writers.

"Hello, I'm looking for an literary agent for a lady writer."

Dal Jeanis said...

Actually, I absolutely loved his proposal, but his response to your in-kind rejection showed that he'd be really hard to work with.

He sent you a flip, breezy, fun query. This could easily be a Jim Carry or Adam Sandler movie. (I'd not have sent the "in parting" quote - it detracted from the style of the rest, which indicates that editing could be a problem.)

You sent him a reply in kind, with specific (flip, breezy) reasons why it didn't work for you. I understand your "writer porn" comment - I never watch movies from Hollywood about Hollywood, because they're just plain self-indulgent. I think the style and the characters of this query are a hoot, though; I would read this novel, and I could see it getting a lot of buzz, so some other agent might be very interested.

Unfortunately, his response to your rejection is a telegram from planet strange. I can't tell if he means that his query was all a joke, or what. It does show that he didn't take your specific reasons seriously, which is always a mistake when querying an agent.

BTW, there's a 1996 film by that name that was followed by a novel, so he'd probably need a new title anyway.


Ugly Deaf etc - I did both.

Hebe said...

Thanks for your blogs. They have been essential reading for me. You have a pillow of grateful readers to fall back on after a clever creepoid incident like this. We are out here sitting around with our cats purring, our laptops humming, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and sending goodwill your way.


This guy is your classic narcissistic spider type. He spins his cleverly constructed web -- his first missive. You get caught and struggle in defense -- your reply. He injects you with venom -- his reply, and then wraps you up to eat later. He wants attention: any kind, good or bad will do, and is happily oblivious to any pain he might give to others.

To him I say --Hey buddy, Wake up and get over yourself.

To you -- Do you want to know what is wrong with you ? -- absolutely nothing.


To conclude I furnish these words of wisdom --

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood - "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Elwood P. Dowd
From the Play “Harvey”

Anonymous said...

Didn't quite get what was going on at first. But your response was pitch perfect. He who jokes doesn't necessarily joke last. He didn't get it. The joke was on him.
Classic case of someone dishing it out but unable to take it in return.

Rick Daley said...

The submitter though it was mean because it was directed at him, but as Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

I thought it was hilarious!

Megs said...

I'll wager the story was a real story, and what he's been trying to sell for the past year.

The query was a joke or maybe he was trying something different, since polite and professional wasn't working for him.

But he responded to you saying his 48,000 word novel was writer porn.

Must say, I really wish that the movie makers would stop making writer and actor porn, by Janet's definition. They make it all look so glamorous and easy. And it's annoying.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Hebe wrote:
This guy is your classic narcissistic spider type. He spins his cleverly constructed web -- his first missive. You get caught and struggle in defense -- your reply.

I don't know, Hebe. There didn't appear to be much of a struggle.

As a kid, one of our summertime amusements was catching insects and tossing them into the spider webs around our house. The spider would emerge from its lair, pause a second or two, then pounce on the prey.

One time, a neighbor kid caught one of those monster grasshoppers - the ones that are like five inches long - and we offered it to our biggest spider - which spanned less than one inch. The spider felt the vibration of life in its web, emerged, paused for a half a thoughtful second, then retreated into its lair. The grasshopper, when it felt it was time, hopped away, tearing much of the web with it.

That's kind of what this reminds me of...

ryan field said...

He shouldn't have replied.

Sarah Jensen said...

I have to admit that I didn't finish reading it until the WTF comment. I then went back.
I don't think it was a joke until after the fact. I bet the book is written and other agents might get similar queries.
But if it was, at least I laughed. Mostly b/c of J's response, but I laughed.

Elissa M said...

I found the query humorous. The rejection is sublime. His response? Clearly, he's not half as smart as he believes himself to be.

BJ said...

"We are out here sitting around with our cats purring, our laptops humming, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and sending goodwill your way."

Well, not all of us supporters are doing that. Some have dogs. And pasta. But we *are* sending goodwill. Oh, and our laptops are humming, too.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

What to say that hasn't already been said? This just reminds me of a lifetime of standing next to middle-aged guys who think they're funny.

Note to all middle-aged guys out there: you're not.

BJ said...

"Note to all middle-aged guys out there: you're not."

Note to self: Don't get any older. There seems to be some proof out there that a sense of humour withers away with age.

Or is it already too late?

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Note to self: Don't get any older. There seems to be some proof out there that a sense of humour withers away with age.

Nope. Can't happen.

If you have a sense of humour, you don't age.

I don't think I'm funny, but I have been told I am. And I think it was meant in a good way...

Nancy Coffelt said...

I'm so sorry that you had to put up with this.
But I'm also so glad I got to read your post because it makes me feel SO much better that I wasn't the only one today that had to put up with someone else's thin skin thinly disguised as humor.

Steve Stubbs said...

Megs: "Must say, I really wish that the movie makers would stop making writer and actor porn, by Janet's definition. They make it all look so glamorous and easy. And it's annoying."

Oh, Megs, let's just go ahead and tell everyone the truth. The secret is already out anyway. Writing and acting are both glamorous as all get out and they are so easy it is disgusting. Can you believe people actually get paid for this?

And to think, some people actually work for a living.

If they only knew.

Helen DeWitt said...

Well, I already KNOW I'm out of it. Because I can remember seeing the trailers for Mamma Mia and thinking, oh, God, this is so embarrassingly awful, destined to be a flop, why did anyone think this was a good idea? Last time I looked, the film had beat The Titanic at the box office...

Anyway, this actually sounded like a book I would happily read. Which puts it in the same class as Atkins' Quanta, Matter and Change (blurb: has all the wit and panache of Atkins' Physical Chemistry) - a snip at £39.99. In fact, it would not surprise me at all if the book, in all its 48K-word glory, turned out to have all the wit and panache of Peter Atkins' Physical Chemistry (which is probably underperforming Mamma Mia at the box office).

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Queriers...
If Janet slaps you, you turn your cheek and say, "Thank you, Ma'am. May I have another?"

If she slaps the other cheek, you say, "Thank you," then turn and present your backsides.

If she slaps your backsides... she wants to play!

Haste yee back ;-) Middle aged plus a few and not as funny as he thinks! But damn good with dogs... I've got an eight week old puppy trainin' me to stay up all night... (come 3:00 AM, I'm cross-eyed eating doggie treats), fact, Jack!

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Helen, I actually saw "Mama Mia". Yes, it was awful, but had some fun splashed in, and I loved Pierce Brosnan doing his best to sing with a voice he doesn't quite have. The quality of the performance is a secondary consideration when the performer knows how to sell it.

But on the present subject, I see several elements missing from "The Method of Madness" that would guarantee publishing success:

1) The protagonist, in addition to working in a disco hot dog stand, should be a former wrestling coach.

2) The protagonist, in addition to his other difficulties, should suffer from an obscure sexual disfunction.

3) The manuscript, in addition to 30k additional words, should be written by John Irving.

If those three points were addressed, I likely would still not purchase or read the book, but a lot of other people would.

Hebe said...

"One time, a neighbor kid caught one of those monster grasshoppers - the ones that are like five inches long - and we offered it to our biggest spider - which spanned less than one inch. The spider felt the vibration of life in its web, emerged, paused for a half a thoughtful second, then retreated into its lair. The grasshopper, when it felt it was time, hopped away, tearing much of the web with it.

That's kind of what this reminds me of..."

Very Interesting JEQ.....
I dont' know about Janet but in my own web encounters it would be nice to be characterized as a large thread rending grasshopper rather than than a fly. However, since we all seem to caught in the duality of space and time, I'm thinking that whether we are cast as predator or prey the important thing is how we choose to play our role. One could try for both, as in the biblical, "wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove." -- or go for the Buddhist, all is one, " No blame" routine. As for me I would like to be a butterfly that floating above it all and seeing the danger lands on a branch to let the sunlight illumine my iridescent wings. Unfortunately as I was reading in a twilight-like moment just before I read the new posts:

"Out flew the web and floated wide"

Cricket, Spider and Web are the givens. Smart or pleasant, clever or nice, love or fear are the choices. Not that I'm always a great choice maker myself. Spider - Fly...... been there, done that.

All this is strictly my own imperfect, limited, individual, cat and grilled cheese sandwich laden, POV. :>)

annerallen said...

Why knock writer porn? I'd read it. I just read an article saying there are more of us writing novels than reading them. So why NOT publish wish-fulfillment novels about aspiring writers? Might get some more folks to go out and buy novels instead of wasting agents' time.

behlerblog said...

This is a prime example of "voice" gone horribly wrong.

BJ said...

Dogs are great trainers, aren't they? My dog has me trained to give him a treat every time he goes outside to do his business. Oh, and to rub his little rump, stomach, or ears by turning that particular body part towards me. He's such a control freak.

And thank you, Mr. Quist. I feel a lot better now! (Note to self: laughter = immortality.)

Haste yee back ;-) said...

BJ...
So true. All these years of evolution expressed in this dog and me. And I thought I had the *superior brain.* Now, two freezin' nights ago, yup 4:AM, I'm stumblin' around our backyard trying to get, Bay, (the dog/puppy) to pee. I make my way to our large wooden fence, he follows and watches. I piss on the fence, thinkin' he'll get the idea. Nope, he just looks at me and I couldn't help but think he's thinkin'
"Dude, it's freezing out here. We're both dead tired and you just took your dick out and peed on wood! Hey, okay by me. But, I'm a dog. I don't wear clothes and mine's out all the time. I'm stuck with this situation. What's your excuse?" Bay turned, sniffed his chew toy and trotted to the back door!

My lesson learned, we retreated to the inside and warmth!

Haste yee back ;-)

BJ said...

LOL Haste!

I think Janet's querier could have used the good sense of a dog. Dogs will play and won't stop until they're tired. Then they simply lie down, happy.

Dogs don't go out of their way to make enemies.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Dogs don't go out of their way to make enemies.

Unless, of course, the dog was a fearsome pirate in a previous life...

This Sunday, Emer Morrissey is back.

And she's barking mad.

Hebe said...

Thanks Jonathan, That was a super cool link!

Christopher Johnson said...

There's such a fine line between cleverly arch and seriously annoying. He began with the first and ended with the second. Then the whining began . . .

My Vancouver said...

Dear Janet,

When I was fourteen, I wrote a cover letter (for part time work) which looked something like this. I thought I was very clever for "grokking" Heinlein, Ginsberg and Hesse---and really DIDN'T want to work at the mall after school.

I think you replied in a moment of sentimental weakness.

Reisa Stone

Indigo said...

Sounds to me like delusions of granduer; then again I'm not published, what do I know.

It seems if his manuscript was hot to be sold, there wouldn't of been a note of almost desperation in his query letter.

I truly can't see how the in your face approach would ever work. Just my humble opinion...(Hugs)Indigo

C.J. Redwine said...

Actually, I found your response to be the very picture of restraint. Nary a shark tooth in sight, only one WTF, when any reader knows you were muttering it under your breath the entire time, and absolutely NO literary smack-down issued for the sheer arrogance of thinking you'd enjoy having your time wasted (time you COULD have spent putting Barbara Poelle in her place) reading a joke.

Jessica Milne said...

O_O
O-O
o-o

That was interesting, to say the least. The opening scared me, quite frankly. The plot idea-- get thrown in jail to have some peace and quiet-- is also interesting, but writing about writers is basically acting as actors. It works in some situations (Kiss Me, Kate), is likeably odd in others ([title of show]), and sometimes just fails to accomplish what it wants to.
Like this.

I disagree that you were mean. What were you supposed to do when you recieved that? =/