Because I’m a firm believer in not saying anything to anyone’s back that you won’t say to their front, I e-mailed Todd Pierce (the fellow whose very bad cover letter advice I wrote about here and Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote about here) to let him know he was being whacked upon. Here is his reply in full:
It’d be great if you could post this on the various newsboards of which
you are a member.
My basic advice is this: do whatever it takes to give yourself the courage
and permission to put your work in the mail when you, as an author, feel
your work is finished. Is it foolish to claim your work has appeared in
Plowshares, The New Yorker, GQ, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review
when in fact has not? Yes, of course it is. No doubt. You will be
caught, called out, and look foolish. And if anyone is curious, I’ve
never lied on any cover letter I’ve written. But if creating a very small
literary review with your friends, naming it, and then, in some sense,
“publishing” it, helps give you the courage to send your work out on a
larger scale, do it. No editor is going to publish a book simply because
a short story appeared in a very small journal of which you are an editor.
But might an editor look at the sample pages? Maybe. Possibly. In my
world, everything depends on the quality of the writing, the clarity of the
story. There is no substitute for this. But if there are people out there
who don’t think that dirty deals–of insider favors, etc.–don’t go down
on a daily basis in New York publishing, you are foolish and haven’t been
following publishing closely at all. One of my greatest pains in life is
the realization of the sheer number of insider publishing contracts inked
in New York where the books published depend on favors and friendships,
not on the quality of the writing in question. Work on your writing.
Love your stories, your characters. Write the best damn novels you can.
And then do what you can so that these novels will have a life in the real
Hope that helps,
It was good of Pierce to respond, and for that I thank him. Now, of course, I’ll offer my thoughts.
What he’s saying here is different than what he was saying in his tips for cover letters: He’s not saying to lie about your publishing track record (which is good), he’s saying to go ahead and start a literary review of your own that also just happens to publish your work (and the work of your friends). I don’t think it’s a bad thing to start one’s own literary review — I encourage it, if you really plan to do it, which means fearlessly critiquing each other’s work and opening up submissions outside your circle of pals and also keeping at it for a year or more. But if the literary review in question lasts exactly one issue and has only one story and a circulation of your small circle of friends, it’s not really a literary review, now is it. At best, it’s something akin to a writing workshop for you and your pals and at worst it’s just a cynical literary circle jerk.
And you really are doing it only for you. And as a practical matter, these teeny tiny credits one sees fit to manufacture are of questionable value to a professional editor. Speaking as a former pro editor, when I didn’t personally know of a market in which someone claimed to be published, I assigned it a value of zero, i.e., listing it made no more or less difference than if the writer noted he or she was previously unpublished. I can’t speak for other editors, but I suspect most feel the same; they have a solid grip on the markets, large and small, that matter for their own place of publication, and if your created market isn’t one them, then for the purposes of the editor the value of your having been “published” there is negligible.
And as TNH noted, listing your own personally-created literary review can actually hurt:
If your manuscript is sufficiently interesting to make me want to know more about you, or if I catch a whiff of BS while reading your letter, it’s the work of a moment to type “Martha Green Award” or “West Coast Fiction Review” into Google. Real awards and publications will turn up dozens or hundreds or thousands of hits. If I don’t see that evidence, my willingness to have anything to do with you or your manuscript will plummet. I’ll cease to believe without hard documentary proof that any of your other claims are legit, including your claim to have written the work in hand. Unless you’ve written a book so awesome that its manuscript glows in the dark, you are now more trouble than you’re worth. Furthermore, your name will be remembered.
I’m all for ginning up confidence to submit material, but here’s the thing: You don’t practice for your driving test by constructing a car out of cardboard boxes and pretending to drive down the road. You certainly won’t convince the driving instructor you’ve been on the road. Creating a fake literary journal is very much like creating a cardboard car, and like a cardboard car it doesn’t actually ever get you anywhere, and is unlikely to get you what you want.
If you want to gain confidence in your writing and submissions, do something practical: Get into a workshop, create a blog or online journal where people you don’t know can see your work and comment on it (even if the comments are negative), and submit to small but legitimate publications you won’t be crushed to be rejected by, but which will be of actual value if your work is accepted.
To sum up: As a practical matter, listing fake or quasi-fake credits on a cover letter is unlikely to do you any good and might in fact have an opposite effect. Personally, I’d list only pro credits — i.e., publications where you got paid in some form. Additionally, creating quasi-fake credits may give you a short-term psychological boost but ultimately is unlikely to be of real use to you as a writer. You’re wasting your time with unconstructive confidence-builders as opposed to constructive ones.
From the letter, it’s clear that Pierce believes that the publishing game is rigged in favor of people who know people, who are (in this context) the luckiest people in the world: “if there are people out there who don’t think that dirty deals–of insider favors, etc.–don’t go down on a daily basis in New York publishing, you are foolish and haven’t been following publishing closely at all.”
Well, you know. Yes, some people get work through the fact that they know someone. This is true of all fields: Replace “New York publishing” with “Hollywood filmmaking” or “Nashville songwriting” or “Silicon Valley VC funding” or “DC lobbying” or even “Florida vote-counting” and it still works marvelously well. Some people get where they are by knowing people.
But some people don’t. Some people get where they are by their work being good. I never deny that I have been extraordinarily lucky in my career to date, but that luck has to a very great extent been predicated on the work I’ve done. I didn’t know anyone at the Fresno Bee when it hired me to become its movie critic; I got the job because they could see my work was good. My non-fiction agent sought me out because he liked my work; I had no one introduce me. I started getting work from AOL because people there saw my writing online; for the first year I did work for them, they had no idea what I looked like. My work got me my gig as National Music Writer for MediaOne — another example of working with people I never actually met. My work there in turn got me my gig at Official PlayStation Magazine, because an editor there liked my writing; I didn’t actually meet him face-to-face for a couple of years. My work — not connections — got me through the door with the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader people, for whom who I do the Book of the Dumb series. My writing landed me the two-book deal at Tor; before Tor made the offer, I could not have picked either Patrick or Teresa Nielsen Hayden from a line-up, and I’m sure the converse was also true.
There have been times where my personal connections paid off in work, sure. But it’s been more of the case that it was the writing. As it is with any number of writers; I’m lucky, but I don’t think my story in its broad strokes is ultimately that unusual.
Point here is: Even if publishing is peppered with insider dealing (or whatever), if you have talent and you do the work, you have a good chance. Not a sure deal. But even all those “insiders” don’t have that — personal connections will get you work one time, but if you can’t back it up with the work, well, then you’re going to get shown the door. Who you know is ultimately inferior to what you can do. I believe it, because that’s what’s worked for me.
Todd Pierce and I agree you should do what you can to be confident and to get your work out there. What we disagree is on what is useful and practical, and that, I believe, is predicated on our different perspectives on publishing. He sees it as a place where the personal supersedes the professional; in my experience it’s been the opposite. Of course, we may both be right. Publishing is a big field; it looks different from where you stand. If you’re starting off as a writer, what you want to ask yourself is which of these perspectives (among all the rest) best suits how you want to approach your career.
Obviously, I think you should lean toward mine. It’s more fun. And less likely to trip you up in your cover letter.