Thursday, March 04, 2010

Jessica's Slush Week entry

by Jessica

(For details on Slush Week, see Chasya's introduction.)

We'll start with the query on its own, then the response after the jump:

Dear (Agent's name):

My dad made his living off people's inability to keep on living.

Dad, who called himself Digger O'Dell, was the gravedigger and cemetery
caretaker in small-town Waseca, Minnesota. Death was our family business,
and I spent long summer days in cemeteries. I wandered graveyards, reading
names off tombstones and wondering about the people in the ground. I
absorbed the stories and images of those who had gone before me: a mother
and her six kids killed by a train, a rosy-cheeked 15-year-old girl, a
county sheriff shot on duty.

Yet, as I write in my memoir, We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down, a
strange silence about death pervaded our lives. A large divide existed
between working with death each day and actually understanding grief. Dad
and Mom were no strangers to mortality-they bought their own giant tombstone
in their early 40s, and they knew death intimately through the loss of loved
ones. But in this stoic Midwestern place, our stories were not ours to tell,
and I sought answers and explanations through the stories of others. After
my dad died from a fast-growing cancer when I was 15, the silence in my
family grew exponentially. But I realized that just as the stories I grew up
with kept the dead alive, words would be the only way to prove that my
father walked this earth. Our stories must be ours to tell.

Eight excerpts from my 68,000-word memoir have been published in print and
online literary journals. A short chapter earned first place in creative
nonfiction in the 2009 Missouri Review audio competition. Another chapter
was selected runner-up for the 2006 Bellingham Review Annie Dillard Award
for Creative Nonfiction. It was published in the Spring 2007 issue and
subsequently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My memoir earned me a spot in
the competitive mentorship program at The Loft writing center in Minneapolis
in 2007-08, and I also received a Jerome Travel and Study Grant for my
creative nonfiction work.

I spent seven years as a journalist for a small daily newspaper. I have
written more than 20 nonfiction books for children, and I teach journalism,
English, and history at the college level.

I would be happy to send you a book proposal, sample chapters, or the entire
manuscript. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you
at your earliest convenience.


Sincerely,
(Author's name)


Dear (Agent's name):

My dad made his living off people's inability to keep on living.

Nice first line.

Dad, who called himself Digger O'Dell, was the gravedigger and cemetery
caretaker in small-town Waseca, Minnesota. Death was our family business,
and I spent long summer days in cemeteries. I wandered graveyards, reading
names off tombstones and wondering about the people in the ground. I
absorbed the stories and images of those who had gone before me: a mother
and her six kids killed by a train, a rosy-cheeked 15-year-old girl, a
county sheriff shot on duty.

Again, nice details. Colorful, unusual childhood-obviously one that lends itself to musings on mortality, grappling with big questions.

Yet, as I write in my memoir, We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down (Great title!), a
strange silence about death pervaded our lives. A large divide existed
between working with death each day and actually understanding grief. Dad
and Mom were no strangers to mortality-they bought their own giant tombstone
in their early 40s, and they knew death intimately through the loss of loved
ones. But in this stoic Midwestern place, our stories were not ours to tell,
and I sought answers and explanations through the stories of others. After
my dad died from a fast-growing cancer when I was 15, the silence in my
family grew exponentially. But I realized that just as the stories I grew up
with kept the dead alive, words would be the only way to prove that my
father walked this earth. Our stories must be ours to tell.

Although the writing is engaging, here’s where I start to worry. What, precisely, is the story? Where is the narrative arc? Memoirs chronicle actual events, but they must be as carefully constructed as any novel. The narrator will perhaps break the silence that surrounds death, but what does this entail? Presumably, the painful and sudden death of her father is central to the action, but what actually happens? What keeps the pages turning? What is the engine driving the “plot”? Is the struggle to reclaim and tell our own stories solely an inward one? Over what period of time does this take place? The author’s quest to prove, through narrative, that her father “walked this earth” smacks ever so slightly (and to me worryingly) of writing-as-therapy, a distinctive strain in memoir. While I do not make light of the powerful process of recording one’s one story, it seems to me that only a tiny percentage of such efforts are suitable for a broader audience. The truth is, there are more worthy tales than buyers for them, and at some point, we need to remember that publishers take on projects that they believe they can sell.

It seems to me that a memoir needs to succeed on three levels:
1) The story itself must be pretty remarkable, the dizzying number of personal narratives that have been published in the past 15 years means that the bar has been set high, or low. So many of these memoirs have underperformed that for the most part, publishing houses regard the life stories of non-celebrities as a difficult sell.
2) In addition to being extraordinary and specific, the particulars of your individual story must speak/be relevant to a larger readership. You need to engage the universal, make it clear why folks who don’t know and like you should care about your story.
3) The writing. If it’s good enough, and I mean superb, revelatory, inventive, true, with a voice that is distinctive and winsome and real, well then…other rules may or may not apply.

Eight excerpts from my 68,000-word memoir (Hurray! It’s compete and not overlong. My heart sinks when I read my memoir is “complete at 150,000 words.”) have been published in print and
online literary journals. A short chapter earned first place in creative
nonfiction in the 2009 Missouri Review audio competition. Another chapter
was selected runner-up for the 2006 Bellingham Review Annie Dillard Award
for Creative Nonfiction. It was published in the Spring 2007 issue and
subsequently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My memoir earned me a spot in
the competitive mentorship program at The Loft writing center in Minneapolis
in 2007-08, and I also received a Jerome Travel and Study Grant for my
creative nonfiction work.

Here I sit up and take notice. Even if I have only a hazy idea of what this memoir is about, and wish that the author had thrown in a comparison title or two to show me that she knows the market, these credentials mean that I will certainly give the author the benefit of the doubt.

I spent seven years as a journalist for a small daily newspaper. I have
written more than 20 nonfiction books for children, and I teach journalism,
English, and history at the college level.

Again, all to the good. This is someone who has honed her craft. My concerns about writing-as-therapy are receding.

I would be happy to send you a book proposal, sample chapters, or the entire
manuscript. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you
at your earliest convenience.


Sincerely,
(Author's name)

On the whole, I’d request to see this.


Thanks for sending it in!

18 comments:

  1. The leap in quality from the previous submissions to this one is pretty staggering, isn't it?

    The book doesn't sound like one I'd rush out to buy, but it certainly sounds interesting, distinctive and coherent.

    Is there anyone who doesn't see it that way?

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  2. Thank you for commenting Jessica.

    Hurray for you author!! good luck!!

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  3. That formatting thing drove me wild, but I'd want to read this too. Though I should probably say that I love reading memoirs AND tombstones, so I'm an easy sell.

    Why not start with 'Death was our family business'? That would grab my attention right away.

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  4. Yeah, I dug this one.

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  5. This query, according to all the "ground rules" that have been explained to me, seems too long. However, the portion of the query actually describing the work is only 236 words, while the credentials and bio of the author is 167. Is this acceptable? Are the credits and bio exempt from the constraints of overall length as far as agents are concerned?

    Please don't mistake my intent. I think this is a very well-written query -- much better than any I have read here to date. My only criticism is that the ending sounds presumptuous when the agent is asked to respond "at your earliest convenience."

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  6. There aren't 'ground rules'. This is one of the real misconceptions, and I think it's also one of the things people who've failed cling to: 'oh, I was so close, but I just didn't know the exact form of words and that's what tripped me up'.

    There's nothing about a word count in the DGLM submission guidelines: http://www.dystel.com/submit.html. If it had said '400 words', then the agent would not discard a brilliant 500 word query letter. While sticking to an agreed word count is indeed a skill authors need to master, the brilliant bit is the key requirement.

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  7. A couple of additional comments.

    1) Okay, someone hit the "enter" bar too many times. I understand.

    2) Given the claimed awards and academic background, why is the writing so high-schoolish?
    It's neither tight nor clean, and if the book is written the way the query is, a complete re-write would be called for. I don't see that a craft has been honed. Can't say that I've been pulled in.

    3) No offense or snark intended

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  8. Digger O'Dell is also a character from the Old Time Radio show "The Life of Riley".

    On the series, Digger ran a mortuary and was always showing up to trade quips with O'Riley. Expressions such as "We're the last ones to let you down" were quite common coming from Digger during the barb-trade with O'Riley.

    Digger always introduced himself as "Your friendly undertaker."

    O'Riley would say something like, "My wife's nagging will put in my grave," to which Digger would reply, "How dare she! That's my job!"

    I would definitely do a bit of research and investigation into the Digger O'Dell of "The Life of Riley" radio (and television) show and the Digger O'Dell of this submission.

    Perhaps just a coincidence.

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  9. Talewright....he was a gravedigger, just like Digger O'Dell. That's the reason why he sometimes called himself Digger O'Dell.

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  10. Jessica, what concerns me is where you say, "Here I sit up and take notice...." In other words if the author didn't have these credentials, you may very well have passed on this query, correct? If that's the case, a mediocre query gets a yes, simply because he/she has awards, prizes, grants or publications.

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  11. 'a mediocre query gets a yes, simply because he/she has awards, prizes, grants or publications.'

    Well, duh.

    You're trying to persuade an agent you can write in an interesting, involving and professional way. If you write a dull query letter that ends 'this is my second novel, the first won the Pulitzer', that's going to influence the decision.

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  12. Jessica here,

    Yes, actually, I do pay attention to prizes, grants and publications--especially those that I recognize. This is not the most dazzling query that I've read, but there's enough here to pique my interest. Moreover, I read very quickly, so in this case, I'd rather give a writer the benefit of the doubt than not. In addition, I'm not convinced that brevity is always the soul of wit. If your letter can keep me reading over two single spaced pages, that's fine by me.

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  13. I would have mentioned that daddy knew of the Digby O'Dell of "Life of Riley" and thus took on that moniker as a family joke--even adopting the character's habit of making funerary quips as the radio and TV character had done.

    With all the sensational headlines of authors stealing paragraphs and chapters from the works of others in the past few years or misrepresenting their fictional work as biographies (A Million Little Pieces, Jason Blair, et al), any author who has done his/her research would want to make sure he/she is not accused of accidentally borrowing from the works of others without proper and due citation and credit.

    As a composition and research teacher, the first rule I emphasize is "Cite your sources, even if you're unsure if it should be cited."

    That's also the last rule they learn.

    I also tell students that if your response to a person's comment isn't worth having your name attached to it, keep your responses to yourself.

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  14. Anonymous 3:17 I agree with Talewright's last statement, and with everyone trying to learn as much as we can from this exercise, your "duh" comment gives no real value to this conversation.

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  15. 'your "duh" comment gives no real value to this conversation'

    I apologize if that's distracted from my point: a query letter is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Its purpose is to get an agent interested, and clearly an author with some pre-existing acclaim and experience is going to be noteworthy.

    This week has demonstrated, I think, that the problem with the slush pile isn't that they're full of appalling rubbish, it's that they're full of rather safe, rather bland, seen-it-before stuff. By my count, there were two 'would have requested mores', and they were both for books that seemed unusual and personal. It's very obvious, I think, why they were picked and why the others weren't.

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  16. Fatcaster,

    I'm not sure where you're coming from with your statement that the writing is "high-schoolish" and "neither tight nor clean."

    I've seen the writing of high school students--quite a lot of it, in fact--and I'd be struggling to find any resemblance here. If one of my students had ever created a production at this level, I'd have been doing cheers in the faculty lounge.

    As for tight and clean: the minimalist approach is not everything. I found this to be beautifully written, even if not plot-driven, and I'm growing more and more concerned at the number of writers who appear to be obsessed with standing guard over an invented set of rules, rather than creatively using general principles of good writing to reach the intended audience.

    I'm not an agent, but if I were, I'd request to see this.

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  17. Jeannie --

    We're just going to have to agree to disagree about the writing. :)

    What "set of rules"? Who's "standing guard"?

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