Mail Woes

Another quick note, which will go a long way to explaining my e-mail woes as of late: Apparently AOL has banned the server I’m on because of spam issues (someone is spamming and it’s not me). Since my mail has apparently not been arriving to more than just AOLers, this makes me wonder how many systems from which my mail has been banned.

I don’t seem to have problems with mail coming in, but of course I don’t really know if any mail’s being dropped.

So: If you’ve been expecting mail from me and haven’t got it (especially if you’re on AOL), this is my new excuse. I’ve already told my host provider if they can’t get this cleared up and fast I’m looking for new hosting. Since I actually do work for AOL, it’s not exactly convenient not to send mail to the damned place.

In the interim I will be looking for a new mail solution. If anyone wants to gift me with a GMail account, that’d be swell.

In the meantime, if you’re going to send me mail, do me a favor and cc: my AOL account as well:

I swore I wouldn’t update again, but the net keeps pulling me back in

Oh, One Thing.

No, I’m not back. I just forgot to link to this: A short interview I did with Randy Quaid about his upcoming SciFi Network miniseries Five Minutes to Midnight.

Okay, now I really am off until the 7th.

Open Thread 1

While I’m not updating, here’s an open thread for y’all to play in, the very first on the Whatever. Remember to play nice and don’t wreck the joint. I still gotta live here, you know. See you on 6/7.

Summer Break 2004

The picture above is an excellent metaphor for my presence online through June 6th: I’ll be around, but you won’t see much of me. I’m taking a 10-day summer break, partly because it’s a holiday weekend and I’ll have family fun to experience, and then I’ll be traveling to Chicago, but also because I think it’s an excellent idea to take a week or ten days and just let my brain lie fallow, catch up on my reading and sleep and generally do nothing in an aggressive sort of way.

I won’t be entirely gone. I’ll be putting up a couple of posts a day over at By The Way. It’s that whole “they’re paying me” thing. But if I were you I wouldn’t get my hopes up that there are going to be a lot of them — it’ll basically be minimum maintenance (don’t worry; I told AOL not to expect a lot over the next week).

Likewise, I will be checking my e-mail (if only to clear out the spam so it doesn’t clog my box), but unless I’m trying to schedule a time to meet you in Chicago during Book Expo, I wouldn’t hold my breath expecting a reply until after the 6th. Also, for you Book of the Dumb 2 beta readers: I’m taking a break over there, too. Breathe easy.

Basically, to reiterate: Don’t expect to see much of me for several days.

I will say this: When I get back online, I expect I will have exciting news to share. No, I won’t provide you with any more details than that. Because I’m a sadistic bastard, that’s why.

Have an excellent Memorial Day weekend if you’re in the US (have a great weekend if you’re anywhere else) and I’ll see you back ’round here on the 7th.


Here’s what sunset looked like tonight. Just thought I’d share.

Catblogging 5/26

Ghlaghghee has been with us a year as of tomorrow, and in that time she’s gone from being a tiny ball of fluff to being a rather substantial-sized cat (as you can see from the picture above) and also from being a “he” to a “she.” Actually, she was a she when we got her, but we had been assured she was actually a he. I continue to be confused by this mix-up; sexing kittens is not as complicated as sexing baby chickens. But never mind that now.

I have to say we’re generally pleased with her as a pet. She’s loveable and active with a distinct personality, tolerates Athena well and adores both Kodi and Lopsided Cat (Rex, not so much. But Rex doesn’t like anyone, anyway). And she’s a gorgeous cat, which is always a nice bonus. Best of all, she loves to catch and eat flies, so we’ve hardly had to get out the flyswatter so far this year. She earns her keep.

Athena’s been hinting that she’d like another pet, but we’ve told her that three cats and one very large dog are more than enough for now. We’ll probably acquire a new cat once Rex kicks off, which I expect to be sometime reasonably, but then I’ve been expecting him to kick off for five years now, and he’s stubbornly hanging in there, too mean to die. I respect that, personally. It’s why he’s still my favorite pet.

Anyway, there’s your catblogging for today.

You Are Here

Here’s a link to a video for Sam Bisbee’s song You Are Here, off his most recent album, High. It’s a pretty clever video, sort of like what you’d come up with if you wanted to do something in the vein of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” but had only $83.25 to work with. Although I’m sure this cost more just in developing fees. The song’s pretty good too — I prefer the live version off his Live at Arlene’s Grocery CD, but this one works, too.

A Speech Too Late

No, I didn’t watch it. I’ve stopped watching Bush speak live on the notion that since every time he speaks he seems like a bored third grader dutifully if uncomprehendingly reciting his line in the class play. I find it so aggravating I can’t actually concentrate on what he’s saying. So I skip the speechifying and go straight to the transcript. And of course the president’s speech looks fine in the transcript, as it always does. The president’s speechwriters have created the Platonic ideal of George W. Bush, the one that speaks in plain, common language about big ideas and big truths (which then has to be filtered through the actual Dubya, alas; see above comments about the bored third-grader).

The major problem about the speech as far as I can see is not that it wasn’t a fine speech, but it was delivered exactly one year too late. And the real problem is not even that it’s a speech made one year too late, but that it’s one year too late and the administration doesn’t even know it. Calling for the destruction of Abu Ghraib would have been brilliant in May of 2003. In May of 2004, it looks like a large-scale application of Rumsfeld’s recent decision to forbid US soldiers to have camera phones: A move rooted more in a desire to negate evidence of wrongdoing rather than wrongdoing itself. By all means, let us destroy Abu Ghraib; it’s a hateful place. But how much better it would have been if it could have been destroyed before we had a chance to plaster a fresh coat of hate to the walls ourselves.

(To cut away from the main thrust of this, let’s talk for a minute about digital cameras and Iraq. I have been loathe to make any comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, but here’s an analogy that works. Digital cameras are to Iraq what television was to Vietnam: The medium through which the folks back home are getting to see images of war the Pentagon doesn’t want us to see. The irony here is that the Pentagon had learned the lesson of Vietnam by “embedding” journalists, who happily lapped up the quasi-access. But as the saying go, the problem is the generals are always fighting the last war. They didn’t comprehend the damage camera phones could do until it was far too late. Banning camera phones won’t work anyway, particularly on a generation of soldiers who spent the last several years with a cell phone attached to their heads everywhere they went.)

Bush and co. have their defenders, many of whom want to accentuate the idea that real progress is being made in Iraq, in the day to day details of Iraqis getting through their lives. This idea is probably true, but the problem with doing things spectacularly wrong is a) it’s rather more newsworthy than the “good things” — which incidentally is not cynicism on the part of the news media any more than covering the damage of a 10-minute tornado instead of 16 straight days of sunshine is cynical — and b) it lends itself to a formulation of events that is not especially positive for the administration; i.e., that some good things are being done in spite of the administration’s monumental incompetence rather than through an intelligible plan. Credit for good things simply does not accrue. No, it’s not fair. However, by and large I find it really interesting when this administration or its fans complain about people not being fair.

I’ve never made a secret of my dislike for the administration, or my opinion that it’s incompetent, or that Bush, while not out-and-out stupid, is nevertheless one of the most intellectually incurious Presidents we’ve ever had (I was saying this three years ago). That’s saying something coming from the modern Republican party, which prefers its presidents genial and dim, so they will not impede the actual busy work being done by others.

But for all that I’ve doubted that Bush would be pried out of the White House in November. The GOP is simply too tenacious and skilled for that; any organization that can take George W. Bush, an Ivy League millionaire son of an Ivy League millionaire — a man who might not be able to pronounce “nepotism” but has surely benefited from it — and pass him off as a man for the NASCAR crowd is not an organization without skills. I’ve been fully expecting Four More Years for the last three, and given my own utter lack of enthusiasm for Kerry — me, a fellow who would rather dive into a wood chipper than vote for Bush — I’m still not ready to breathe easy on the matter.

Even so, and even considering the impressive strength of the GOP Reality Distortion Shield, there comes a time when even the best efforts of the spin masters can’t hide the incompetence. Let me put it this way: Bush has messed up the Iraq war so badly that he’s lost Tom Clancy. When someone like Tom Clancy is sitting there saying “good men make mistakes” in reference to Bush, think of how many of his readers — generally not tree-huggers — he’s just enabled to make the same judgment (Clancy has even less kind things to say about some of Bush’s advisors). These people aren’t necessarily going to go out and vote for Kerry — God forbid they should vote for an actual veteran and commander of men, you know — but that doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for Bush.

That’s what Bush needs to be scared of. The speech last night was designed to shore up the support of the people who are supposed to vote for Bush anyway; I don’t know if it’s going to work. It’s a year late and $200 billion short, and thanks to those digital cameras, Americans already know the worst of what that time and money has bought us, and given us an inkling of what how much more we’re going to have to pay for it before it’s all over.

In reality, Bush isn’t campaigning against John Kerry. He’s campaigning against the Bush his speechwriters have created: The Platonic Bush, the Ideal Bush, the one of simple strong words and big ideas, the Bush we keep being assured is there. Well, he’s not there. The Bush we’ve got is the flickering shadow on the cave wall, the one that fades with the harsh light of reality. Again, the tragedy for Bush is not that he’s campaigning against a better version of himself, but that he doesn’t even know it.

Update: Wired News reports that the “banning camera phones” is a rumor, so that’s good. Interestingly, however, Secretary Rumsfeld’s comment about the camera phones makes the point I made above:

While Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may not have signed a ban on new consumer digital-imaging technologies, he did express clear concern about the unforeseen impact of such technologies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 7.

“People are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon,” Rumsfeld said.

Bye-Bye IndieCrit

I’ve decided to stop updating IndieCrit, not because I’m bored with doing it — I like finding music that other people haven’t heard before — but for the simple fact that hardly anyone visits it. In the average week, it lags behind the visitors to the Whatever by about a multiple of 30. Since the whole point of doing IndieCrit is to spotlight cool indie music, it doesn’t make much sense to sequester off the music in a corner of the empire to which people don’t actually travel.

So what I’ll be doing from this point forward is to take the music I find interesting and put it on the Whatever proper. Ideally I’ll put something up on a daily basis, but realistically (particularly in the next couple of weeks, with a mess of work as well as some travel on my part) I’ll put up something two or three times a week. It’ll benefit me, since I will no longer feel terribly guilty if I skip a day, and I figure it’ll benefit the indie artists, since presumably more people might sample their wares.

Having said that, here’s today’s: Sunset Drive, by The Speeds (their latest EP is here). It’s a slow song by a band who clearly usually rocks faster. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

Author Appearance

Let me put on my author hat for a second: I’ll be at Book Expo America — that’s a huge annual publishing industry thing in Chicago — on the 5th and 6th of June (I’ll actually be flying in on the 4th, but it’ll be fairly late and then I have to check in and have dinner with my publishers, so it’s not like I’ll see anyone). What’s more, I’ll be doing an author appearance and signing books on June 5th from 10am to 12pm at the Portable Press booth (booth #3840). The book I’ll be signing is the first Book of the Dumb.

I’m not entirely clear on whether the Expo is open to the public (I’m pretty sure you need to be at least tangentially related to the book industry) but if you’re planning to go, you know where I’ll be at least part of the time. I do expect I’ll do some wandering about the Expo — we’re talking thousands or books and hundreds of authors, which seems like a fun way to spend a day or two — so if you’re attending and want to meet up or something, shoot over an e-mail and let’s see if we can coordinate.

Other Whatevers

Look at this: There are at least two other blogs named Whatever. Here’s one, and here’s the other. Interestingly, I haven’t found another blog or online journal (or whatever) by someone named “Scalzi.” Lots of people writing online named John, of course.

Your insufferably Cute Athena Moment For the Day

Work, work, work for me today, so no long screeds about writing or marriage or politics or whatever. Instead I’ll pass along a cute moment between me and Athena, when we were in the car and I was playing one of my CDs. Athena, who does enjoy her music, piped up and made a new request, which was “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” by the Beach Boys.

“I didn’t think you liked that song,” I said to her.

“I do,” she said. “The part that goes ‘wouldn’t it be nice to live together’ is so beautiful and sad that it breaks my heart.”

Brian Wilson should be as proud as I am.

See y’all later.

Double Posts

I’m noting quite a few more double posts in comments recently, which probably has something to do with the fact that in the last week or so it seems like the comments pop-up is taking more time to upload the comment — and in some cases may not give an indication the comment has been uploaded at all. I don’t know why this is happening, but I’ll see if I can figure it out.

In the meantime: If you’ve commented but aren’t given any indication that the comment has uploaded after a reasonable amount of time, do this before you press the “post” button again: Reload the main Whatever page to see if the number of comments on the entry has gone up by one or click on the timestamp for the entry to go to the archived page, which has all the comments following, including (hopefully) the one you just added.

If you don’t see evidence of your post going through, go ahead and hit post again, of course.

Also, if you do accidentally doublepost, don’t feel you have to add in an additional post apologizing for the double post. I assume they’re accidental and won’t hold them against you, much.

Someone Who Wouldn’t Benefit From Tips For Stupid Criminals

Oooh, how embarrassing: I wrote up one of my Book of the Dumb entries and accidentally put it up here instead of the Book of the Dumb blog. Well, I guess if you had an RSS feed you might have seen the whole thing, but the rest of you will have to wait. It’s been expunged. Sorry. Go back about your lives; nothing to see here.

Todd Pierce Responds

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.

Book Cover

So, this is what you’ll be looking at when Old Man’s War comes out later this year:

Very classically science-fictiony, no? And I mean that in the good way, not in the bad “breasty heaving centaur-women” sort of way. The artist, incidentally, is Donato Giancola, who everyone tells me I was lucky to get, and of course I agree. He’s worked on books by Steven Brust, Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Heinlein, and Mike Resnick among many other authors far more published than I. I don’t mind having this in common with them.

I’d actually seen the artwork before and as I noted then, it was interesting to look at because for the first time I had could see what my main character actually looked like. Didn’t have that before. I think he looks pretty good. Not exactly sure who the people in the background are supposed to be, but mentally I’ve assigned the the roles of two of the book’s characters. The only thing I’m slightly confused about is the presence of what looks to be an unlit lightsaber on my guy’s belt. I’m not complaining. I want a lightsaber; I assume my character does too. Who wouldn’t?

Overall, very pleased. I’ll be even more pleased when I have a copy of the artwork in my hands, wrapped around a book. Patience. Patience.

Cover Letters

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has unsheathed her mighty Hammer of Editorial Whackination and is applying it liberally to one Todd James Pierce, a writer who has issued what TNH believes (and I for one concur) is some spectacularly bad advice on the topic of cover letters. Among the very bad advice: Lie about your writing credits, and be sure to accompany your submission with a phone call.

If you’re a writer or would like to be one, I commend you to TNH’s dissection of all that is truly stupid about this advice (her posting also has a link to the bad advice in question). The reason you should trust TNH on this and not Mr. Pierce is simple: TNH is one of the people cover letters get sent to. Her husband Patrick concurs that Pierce’s advice is bad (with the immortal line: “This is stupid. I now have stupid all over me”) and as he’s Senior Editor of Tor Books, that’s two veteran front-line cover letter readers against one somewhat deluded cover letter writer.

TNH’s evisceration is complete enough that I’ll not replicate her efforts here, but I do want to call out the one piece of “advice” from Pierce that I think is well-near criminally wrong, excerpted below:

Tip Four: Still worried? Never published anything? Lie a little. Yes, lie. A cover letter is a persuasive document designed to do one thing: entice an editor or agent to read your manuscript. Say whatever you have to, within reason, to accomplish this.

Uh, no.

First reason, as TNH notes: There’s this thing. It’s called Google. It allows an editor to fact-check your ass in 30 seconds or less. Now, it’s understandable that Pierce may not have heard of it — this whole InterWeb thingy is new-fangled and all — but be assured that whatever editor you’re attempting to scam has.

Second reason: It assumes editors are incompetent, which — surprise! — by and large they are not. If you don’t think an editor knows all the major and most of the minor writing awards applicable to his or her genre, you’re an idiot. Here’s what’s going to happen if I submit a manuscript to a science fiction house and note on my cover letter that I am the recipient of the prestigious William Booth Award for Science Fiction Writing, which doesn’t exist. First, the editor is going to say, I don’t know this award. Then there’s the quick Googlefest to confirm the William Booth Award has been pulled out of my ass. And then there’s the sound of my manuscript getting plonked, because why would an editor want to work with someone whose very first communication was full of lies.

Third reason: It’s disrespectful. In this particular case, what you’re saying to an editor is you’re stupid enough to fall for this, and conversely I’m clever enough to pull this off. You’re probably wrong, and if you’re right, you won’t be right forever. Read TNH’s comment threads and you’ll note that literary types and the people around them don’t need much of an excuse to pull out their knives. Also, of course, and apropos to point number eight here, people never forget people who disrespect them. Lie to an editor, and for the rest of their life, any time your name pops up in their consciousness, it comes with a sticky note attached, one that says Big Fat Liar. Also, it’s a small business. Word gets around.

As for the “make a phone call,” let me tell you a story. When I was an editor, I specified no phone calls. So on the rare occasion that someone did call to follow up, what I would do is chat with them amiably and then when I was off the phone I would go and find their submission and stuff it into the SASE and send it back unread. Because they failed. You must follow directions. That’s why they’re called “directions.” I had and most editors have hundreds of submissions from people who have followed directions. All of them deserve more consideration than someone who can’t or won’t.

Both of these examples of “advice” go to the heart of why much of Pierce’s advice is rotten: It’s not actual advice, it’s a list of tricks designed to game the system — to cheat your way through. Well, as a writer, here’s the thing to know about the editorial submission system: It’s not designed for you. It’s designed for the editors, to make their jobs easier. Is it fair? No, but so what? The editors are the gateways to money and publication. It’s their ball, bat and field. They set the rules, and if you want to play, you have to play by their rules. It’s simple.

Every attempt you make to game the system makes the editor’s job harder. In the entire history of the world, no one has ever wanted to work with someone who makes their job harder. Sometimes they will, if the reward is substantial enough. But in the case of writing, you gotta remember: It’s a buyer’s market. Sure, you’re brilliant. But there’s a guy over here who is brilliant and who doesn’t make the editor’s job harder. Guess which one the editor is going to go with.

Here’s how I would write a cover letter for a manuscript. Assume, please, that usual addresses and contact information are attached, and that I have done the research to know the name of the editor and the submission policy (which in this case we can assume has said to send the entire manuscript):

Dear [Editor’s Name]:

Hi there. I’m John Scalzi. Enclosed you’ll find the manuscript for [name of book], a novel. It is approximately 98,000 words. I’ve also included a chapter synopsis.

I’m a full-time writer and author of fiction and non-fiction books. My most recent novels are Old Man’s War (Tor Books, 2004) and The Android’s Dream (Tor, 2005).

I’ve enclosed an SASE for your comments. Please feel free to recycle the manuscript.


John Scalzi

And that’s pretty much it. I’m a big believer that the cover letter exists to present minimal factual information that doesn’t go out of its way to prejudice the reader concerning the actual manuscript. It says who I am, what I’ve sent, my relevant track record, and how to get hold of me. That’s all it needs to do.

What if I didn’t have previous publication? I imagine I’d say “this is my first novel” and be done with it. Lying won’t do me any good (see above) and if it does turn out to be good enough to be published, wouldn’t I be covered in the glory of hitting one out of the park the very first time? There’s no shame in admitting you’re starting out.

Don’t lie. Don’t be tricksy. And for God’s sake don’t make an editor’s job harder. Be confident that your writing stands on its own merits. Ultimately, if you lie in your cover letter, what you’re really saying is that what you’ve written isn’t good enough to make it on its own. It’s a bad message to send to editors. It’s a bad message to send to yourself.


The Wall Street Journal has an article today about the latest tactic some doctors and hospitals are using to bring down the costs of lawsuits and insurance: Saying “I’m Sorry” and actually meaning it (here’s a link to the story outside of the site). It seems that if people think you’re genuinely sorry for screwing up, they’re less inclined to sue the pants off you — and also (or so the article would make it seem) even if they do sue, juries are less inclined to award massive damages. This tactic, of course, runs counter to the long-established “never apologize” doctrine which states that any admission of wrong-doing is an invitation to a big fat lawsuit.

The problem with the “never apologize” doctrine for me is what it assumes: that most people are venal moneygrubbers who rejoice in malpractice because it means they finally get to graduate from the doublewide. What doctors and hospitals in the story are finding out is something that’s obvious to anyone who lives in the real world: People care less about money than they care about respect and truth. Fact is, you don’t apologize to people you don’t respect — we’re talking a real apology here, not the pro forma “I’m sorry that some people felt distressed” sort of apology that makes the rounds (which is somewhat more insulting than no apology at all, since it implies that the person is sorry you’re an idiot for wanting an apology). When a doctor or hospital doesn’t apologize for legal reasons, the psychological message people get is: We don’t respect you (and there’s nothing you can do about it). I doubt there’s a better way to get most people to lawyer up than not to show them the respect they think they are due.

This is true in other ways as well. Over the last ten years I’ve been pulled over several times by cops for driving like a bat out of Hell; I’ve been ticketed exactly once. It’s certainly not because I’m a hot chesty little number in a tight t-shirt. I’m pretty sure it’s because, when they ask “Do you know why I stopped you?” I say “Probably because I was speeding. You got me. Write me up.” I think they’re simply so delighted I don’t try to pull the “my speedometer isn’t working” routine or otherwise lamely avoid responsibility, or treat them like a jerk because they did their job and caught me violating a law that they reward me with a stern warning and let me go about my business. Heck, even the guy who did write me up thanked me for being honest.

I’ll give you another example. About twice a year we need to have shingles replaced on our roof — we live in a windy place and a few of them go flying every time there’s a particularly big wind. We’ve used various contractors and the service ranges, as does the price. I was here when the most recent contractor drove up in his truck, and I was frankly delighted to see that he had one of those beards generally associated with the Amish.

The guy was a Mennonite, and the SOP for a Mennonite is: If we don’t do a job to your satisfaction, we’ll keep at it until we get it right. It’s part of their ethos and so deeply ingrained into it that Mennonite (and Amish) home contractors aren’t required to show proof of liability insurance by the state of Ohio. So I was reasonably assured right off that the fellow would do a good job and would also not try to rip me off (correct on both counts, as it happens). And I knew if something did go wrong, he wouldn’t try to duck responsibility. He’d say sorry and he would make the good faith effort (literal on his part) to make it right. That works for me — and I’m pretty sure I’ll have him work for me again too.

Are we on the precipice of a new age of American responsibility, where people routinely say “I’m sorry” and mean it? I doubt it. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though. And I wouldn’t be sorry for that.

Just Checking

Me: So, gays and lesbians have had the right to marry in Massachusetts for more than twelve hours. How’s our marriage doing?

Krissy: (Pause) Does the statement beforehand have anything to do with the question?

Me: Well, you know, some people think that gays and lesbians being able to be married threatens marriage. I just wanted to check, you know, to see if our marriage was in danger. Is it?

Krissy: No. Not unless you do something really stupid.

Me: So you’re saying you haven’t felt the waves of threatenation emanating from Massachusetts.

Krissy: I did not feel a ripple. Had I not watched the news or read your Whatever I wouldn’t have even known.

Me: So, what you’re saying is that you still love me.

Krissy: The mostest.

A Quick Note to About-To-Be Married Gays and Lesbians

I have married nine people. One of them I am married to; the other eight I have married to each other (two at a time). So I have some experience on the whole wedding and marriage thing. Please allow me the honor of sharing some of it with you.

Remember to breathe.

It’s all right if you stumble over words during the vows, but don’t screw up the name of your spouse.

If you feel yourself crying, go with it, but remember to sniffle strategically — tears are endearing in a wedding ceremony, a runny nose less so.

Don’t lock your knees.

The old saying that if the ring gets jammed as you slip it on it means it’ll be a troubled marriage is a contemptible lie, so don’t let it worry you. But strategic use of talcum powder wouldn’t hurt.

You will almost certainly have trouble focusing on anything but the face of your beloved during the ceremony; that’s why there’s a third person up there to direct traffic.

Even if you’ve written your own vows, you’ll barely remember what you say. So don’t sweat most of the words. It’s the “I do” that counts.

Speaking of which, I think it’s always better to say “I do” than “I will.” You’re going to be married in the future, but you’re getting married now.

But remember, it’s your wedding. Anyone else’s opinion about what the two of you should do or say during the ceremony is strictly advisory.

When you’re told to kiss your spouse, do it like you mean it.

Be aware that this last piece of advice will be almost entirely unnecessary.

When you plan your wedding, try to cover all contingencies. When the one thing you forgot could go wrong does go wrong during the wedding itself, accept it and keep going. Weddings are often imperfect, like the people in them. It doesn’t mean they’re not still absolutely wonderful (like the people within them).

Before the ceremony, pee early and often. I know. But look, you want to be up there with a full bladder? You’ll be nervous enough.

Some people don’t think you should invite your exes to the wedding. But I think it’s not such a bad thing to have one person in the crowd slightly depressed that they let you get away. They’ll get over it at the reception. Trust me.

There will not be nearly enough time at the reception to spend all the time you want with all the people you want to. They’ll understand and will be happy for the time you can spare them.

Smashing wedding cake into each other’s face is strictly amateur hour.

It’s your best man’s (or the equivalent’s) job to remind people that at a wedding reception, as at the Academy Awards, speeches are best very short. You didn’t spend an obscene amount on the catering just to have it grow cold as Uncle Jim blathers on.

Remind the DJ or band that they work for you, and they’ll damn well play anything you want. For some reason I think this may be less of a problem at gay weddings. Thank God.

There will be drama of some sort at the reception. If the wedding party lets any of it reach the newlyweds, they haven’t done their job.

Don’t fill up on bread. You’ll have to dance later.

The first dance should be a song people expect from you. The second dance should be a song they absolutely don’t. It gets things going.

Try to remember as much as you can. Don’t worry if you don’t; what you absolutely will remember is how it feels to be with those who love you, who are pouring their love and happiness over you. Weddings are testimony to your clan of family and friends. You put them on to give them a chance to share your joy. They come to them to remind you that they already do.

In case this is in any way an issue, let someone else clean up the reception hall. You have better things to do on your wedding night.

There are very few things in the world that are better than the very first time you wake up next your spouse.

In some ways, your marriage will be like every other marriage out there. In other ways, of course, it won’t. Those of us who are married now will certainly offer you advice, whether you ask for it or not. But there are some things where you’ll be the first married people to experience them. In some ways, those of us who are married now will be glad we don’t have to go through them. In other ways, we’re deeply envious.

Marriage is work. It never stops being work. It never should.

I’ll be married nine years next June 17th. During all that time, there hasn’t been a single day where I haven’t said “I love you” to my spouse — several times if at all possible. The two facts are related.

Other short phrases which also occasionally come in handy: “I’m sorry,” “You’re right,” “I’ll get that” and “Of course I’ll go down to the freezer and get you some ice cream, even though it’s 3am and you woke me from a dead sleep. There’s nothing I’d rather do.” Okay, so that last one is not that short. Think about all the times you’re entirely unreasonable, and then go get the ice cream.

The thing about marriages — even the really good ones — is that human beings are in them. And you know how people are. Keep it in mind.

I have no advice to give you for the people who have decided that your marriage threatens their own. Only remember that some of us out here would wish to give you the strength to endure them.

I cannot speak for all married people, but I can speak for myself. Marriage has been so good to me that I cannot imagine not sharing it with anyone who wants it. I celebrate your weddings, and I offer the greatest gift I have: That you receive in your married life the joy I have had in mine, and that you share that joy, every day, with an open and loving heart. You’re about to be married. There is nothing better.

To those about to be married: Welcome, friends. It’s good to have you here.