• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Can Take All the Madness the World Has to Give

Lately, lots of off-the-wall submissions. Definitely feels like end of days. And as always they evoke a spectrum of feelings and reactions in me. First, self-pity. Why me? Why do I get these letters and why do I feel I have to answer. Next, annoyance. Can you not be bothered to do a a simple Google search and discover that I’m not interested in self-help, how-to, sci-fi, fantasy, new age and books on spirituality? Books on spirituality in particular enrage me. Then there’s the writing thing. Most people who get published work at their writing for YEARS. These query letters generally come from people who just turned on an Apple for the first time and believe that whatever comes out deserves to be published. Then there are the letters that say something flattering about my books, this blog, clients whose work they love. These letters touch me a little, but I also know the compliments are in the service of self-interest. When I do workshops, someone invariably asks whether pitch letters matter that much in the scheme of things. For me, they determine whether I will read the manuscript, so yeah they totally matter. They are like the bouncer outside of a club.

I’m happy to critique your pitch letters here if anyone wants to post. The more opinions the better.


19 Responses

  1. I genuinely love Patti Smith— you know, just for the future record. If there is one.

  2. Most how to/trade/books and standard articles on crafting pitch letters/emails/queries to literary agents/editors in general — advise and or encourage crafting the letter to include building some sort of a connection, re: citing familiarity with agent’s other writers/clients/blog. Or if you attended a workshop, or networking/panel event — cite when/where to jog memory if possible, and if you read their book, to note that as well, perhaps including a cite to the text. So these folks may just be following this type of generic — how to formula. I’ve read this advice, over and over, for the last 30 years, but it always felt a bit artificial, to me.

    • IT’s good advice, but the familiarity etc. needs to be genuine and not generic. And yes mention where you met the agent. Maybe say something specific about the event.
      I’ve been talking query letters for 30 years. Writers hate them and blame then on not getting through the door. My response is: you’re a writer. It’s your job. You can do it!

  3. That’s a generous offer – if I had something to pitch, I’d certainly go for it.

    And you’re right. Google is their friend and I imagine it can get tiring when it seems as if some want a shortcut and to not do the work. I researched everything I needed to know. It’s how I came across a freelance editor – Ann Patty – by Googling “who edited ELLEN FOSTER,” and that went on to her connecting me with Caroline Upcher (now retired), and on and on. The internet is fantastic if you can siphon through the crap. I also read books on writing – yours for one way back when – and see, that’s totally legit b/c I don’t need an agent. 🙂

  4. I’m stepping in here with a good bit of trepidation. Mea Culpa, I have been one of those dewy-eyed sorts, invoking Ralphie Parker’s confidence as he submitted his Christmas theme assignment, when I sent out queries. And, just as firmly, receiving swift and crushing rejection – if any response at all. Literary agents are gatekeepers with immense power and responsibility. Unless the applicant is a sociopath, I suspect many trying to wedge one toe past the publishing world’s doorway aren’t really trying to make the agent’s job a nightmare. I promise. We are the teenagers stumbling to find the right way to start a conversation, get noticed, ask for that first date. And many of us, to continue the imagery, won’t go to prom.

    Since none of my manuscripts focus on self-help, pandemic themes or crafting ideas, perhaps this is my moment to restart the query process?

  5. Okay, I’ll take you up on your generous offer. Here’s my prototype, identifying details changed to protect the innocent:

    Aspiring Author
    131313 Aspirational Avenue, Grunt Hollow, Ca. 95401
    (707) 131-3131

    April 24, 2020

    Dear Overwhelmed Literary Agent,
    I just listened to your interview on the Kenyon Review, hoping to learn more about you and what you are looking for. If nothing else, I’ll be buying Blackout in June. But as a debut author, I took heart from your comment “I still love the slush pile.”
    My completed 90,000 word literary memoir “Unclaimed Baggage” teases apart the complicated relationship between a charming woman who chooses Italy over parenthood, and her only daughter. I’m told it’s as “engrossing,” “compelling” and “riveting” as a good novel; two of my beta readers devoured it in a single sitting.
    When nine-year-old Katie’s family moves to Libya, her bedazzled mom loses interest in raising her five children. By age thirteen, she’s been shipped off to family friends, then boarding schools in England and Arizona as her mother divorces her father, takes up with an Italian nobleman and settles in Tuscany. Visiting in her twenties, her mother extracts a fateful vow: Katie must promise she’ll never put her in a nursing home. Desperate to win her mother’s love, she agrees. By the time her mom returns to the U.S., she’s nearly ninety, with early dementia. Katie, divorced and childless, brings her to live next door, surprised by her fierce protective love for the woman who’d abandoned her, and the transformational effect of their role reversal. But as her mother becomes unmanageable, Katie wrestles between choosing freedom, as her mom did, or honoring her long-ago vow.
    “Unclaimed Baggage” shares themes with George Hodgson’s Bettyville, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and Novella Carpenter’s Gone Feral. I’m told I have a knack for blending comedy and tragedy, similar to David Sedaris, and that my style resembles Mary Karr’s.
    I’ve studied memoir with the same writing group for 15 years. In 2003, Sasquatch Books published my landscaping book Dig This! (as Kate Anchordoguy), which reviewers described as “engaging,” “witty,” and “unique.”
    Thank you for your consideration.
    Aspiring Author

    • You won’t use “Overwhelmed Literary Agent,” right? Otherwise, nice opening. You don’t need to add work count. Please don’t include hearsay, “I’m told its….” If you have blurbs from established writers, use them. Otherwise don’t/ You say it’s a memoir, but describe in the third person so sounds like a novel. COnfusing! Too much plot. Broad strokes are best for describing plot. All those comparison titles make no sense together. YOu need explain what themes you’re talking about. Not sure it’s worth mentioning a landscaping book. or the writing group. If you have solid writing creds like MFA and publications, use it. If not, let the letter do the work. But more and more editors want credentials and/or platforms, ie social media presence. THANKS for being so brave. Hope some of this helps.

      • I am implementing your suggested comments immediately. I really appreciate you taking the time to give feedback. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And don’t worry, “Overwhelmed Agent” was just a placeholder.

  6. There is an old barn I pass each day on my way to work. The first level is concrete and the roof is gambrel style. Crumbling chimney’s are on each side of the barn. The farmer who once owned the land told me it was originally a pig barn back when the farm served the local TB sanatorium. His family converted it to a calving barn, the chimneys added to keep the calves warm during the cold north country winters. My story, “Upon Asking About an Old Barn”, is about our conversations and the kind of history of an area you don’t find in the history books.

    • Sounds lovely.
      Have you been sending that letter out?

      • Not yet, but I think I have a magazine that will be interested in it because they accepted one of my articles a couple of years ago and it got good feedback. And thank you for your comment!

  7. “Books on spirituality in particular enrage me.”
    Oh my god, I love you.
    and my memoir’s about falling in love with then breaking up with Jesus, so I’m not even thinking you’ll rep my book. I just really do love you and the way you unapologetically tell your truth–it’s not in the service of my memoir-writing self.
    But I will definitely send you my query letter when I get to that point, since you offered.

  8. My novel’s about two young women, former Resistance fighters, fleeing to Switzerland with Nazi gold. It’s 1945-46. One knows, the other doesn’t. There’s a baby involved, and they’re hunted throughout.

    I’ve been revising/polishing all winter and was planning on querying this spring. Then Covid came and froze me up. No query, no pitch. Your offer today gave me courage and hope that we writers must persevere.

    Thank you.

  9. Thank you, Betsy. I’ll give it a try.

    Dear Agent,

    Think Elena Ferrante, only with more formal daring and innovation, and with an author whose identity is verifiable and unobscured. Think Marcel Proust, only without the cork-lined room and interminable tea parties. Think of a series of books, fiction all, that will not teach you how to become healthy or wealthy, but may share with you some wisdom of human experience. This is the project called “Being in the Desert” — eight volumes ranging from novels through novellas to story collections, charting, tracking, and accounting for the life of one Jeffrey Chorus, his family, his friends, and his lovers, through forty years from the mid-1960s into the mid-2000s. His life is both ordinary — religious upbringing and life in the provinces (West Texas, New Mexico), education at state public schools and universities, marriage and a child and a divorce — and unusual — at least one illegitimate offspring at a young age, several years of being the only straight man working at a gay disco barely a decade after Stonewall, and probably more than an average number of broken hearts along the way. It’s a romance but not a bodice-ripper, its pretensions strictly literary and artistic. Portions of four of the books have been published over the years in various small literary magazines, but not one of the books has yet been published entire. If you’re interested in learning more, please feel free to contact me at your convenience. I would be happy to share with you any part of the work you may wish to see.

    Sincerely yours,
    etc., etc.

    • Big ones to compare with Ferrante and Proust. I like the derring do. Big ones to pitch eight volumes!! Also kind of great but totally insane as publishers will pretty much do a two book at most. A little out of my element here. In other words, I like the letter. But I don’t think it will serve you. This is all about finding the “right one.”

  10. I’m late to this party, but here goes. (Italics were lost in the cut and paste.)

    Dear Betsy,

    My father was an astronomer, and I associate two things with him: science and loss. Science was the language of my childhood, a native tongue I left behind, as I followed my mother’s interests in books and music. The Work of the Stars is a memoir about how I became drawn to science after my father died. I tried to understand a problem he worked on for ten years with little success. Although I ultimately failed, I figured out where he went wrong and learned a great deal about my father, science, my family, and myself.

    I have an MFA in poetry from Emerson College and am the author of Stuff Every Beer Snob Should Know (Quirk, 2018). Essays adapted from this manuscript have been published in Post Road, Tahoma Literary Review, Solstice, and The Common. My poetry has appeared in the anthologies Not Quite What I Was Planning (HarperCollins, 2008), Letters to the World (Red Hen Press, 2008), Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry (Bloomsbury, 2013), and Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. I have recently presented panels on science and poetry for the Salem (Mass.) Lit Fest and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

    I am querying you as a long-time fan of your blog, where I comment as [pseudonym]. I also remember you once saying you represented hard-to-characterize work, and my memoir is about being the living embodiment of being hard to characterize. The Work of the Stars [will be complete shortly] at 64,000 words.

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