Persistence Pays the Persevering Writer

My own shiny beauty. I lost my first one on the road (it might be in space now)

I keep a running list of article queries that haven’t landed a published home. Some of them are many years old, but I still like many of the ideas, and know that even an old query can still shake the right editor hand if the pitch is well-timed and properly directed. I didn’t quite realize just how wobbly-kneed the oldest of those queries is until I got an editorial yes on one that was several years old.

Today I breezed through the entire list, and saw that the geezer at file bottom was a pitch for a review on the best Palm OS-based exercise software. For those of you that exist in this world, Palm hasn’t produced one of its PDAs (a term as hoary as my pitch) since 2010, but people stopped buying them well before that, and my pitch predated 2010 by some years. By the way, if you’re wondering, PDAs have essentially been replaced by a device dubbed a “smartphone.” Who knows—they might catch on.

I’m amused by the fact that the file name of my query list is called “New Queries.” On reflection, “New and Essentially Deceased Queries” has more ring, but I’ll leave that for now. What I did want to emphasize is that if an article idea grabbed you once, grab it back, and send it out on its rounds now and then. The piece that was just accepted, by Wired UK, is about the history of the Fisher Space Pen, which wrote its way into history by its gravity-defying ink, first used in space in 1968, on the Apollo 7 mission.

The Space Pen just had its 50th anniversary (and continues to make its presence on all manned U.S. space flights), so perhaps it was newsworthy again. I’ve sent that query out to between 10–15 publications over the last three or four years, and finally got a hit.

Persistence pays, grasshopper. (Don’t think the Palm pitch will be exercising any editors now though.)

Free Circles

I’ve made the Kindle version of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, free on Amazon and at other online booksellers. Circles is a lively story about a couple of high-school doofuses who hitchhike across Canada, getting their eyes widened due to their naiveté about the ways of the road. Wise guys they are, but wisdom is in short supply. Check it out—won’t cost you a thin dime.

Trimming the Shrub

And a request for anyone who has bought my newest novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub. If you didn’t bite, it’s a Prohibition-era piece about a sozzled society reporter and would-be author who blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Crash Boston. If you have read it, please consider an online review at Amazon, or Goodreads or any other online book vendor. Reviews help a great deal with a book’s success. Thanks!

Query Don’ts and Query Dos

Before I give some props and malaprops to good and bad query letters, I want to put in a good word (“pizazz,” perhaps?) for the Write-Brained Network writer’s group, which is looking to nudge its network of engaged writers over the 100 mark—and you could be the one to clap that ringing bell. Write Brained (led by the effervescent Ricki Schultz) is a fairly new group of writers from all over the country (and indeed some from out of the country) who critique each other’s work, supply contests and prompts to gin up your monthly word counts, post new approaches and developments in the world of writing, and much more. Check it out.

So, query letters. Below is a bit of bilge I penned that shows you how to oppress and alienate a literary agent with your fiction project. (Note: if you steal my sterling idea about the novel, I demand the foreign-film rights.) Below that is an actual query for an article of mine that was published in Writer’s Digest a few years back. Note that the first few lines of my query lead are the published article’s lead as well: write the query lead as though it could be the article lead—it displays your writing chops, organizes your thinking about the rest of the article, and it will save you time as well.

The So Bad, It’s Good (and Ugly)
Dear Agent (If you aren’t the right agent for my pitch, please forward this to the right agent. And please let me know you’ve forwarded it, and to who. I mean “whom.” Whomever it was forwarded to, that is. Whatever.):

So, I’m pretty sure I’ve invented a new, popular genre for my 263,437-word novel, The Nightmare from Which I Never Woke: I call it “high-fi, transmedia sci-fi.” It’s high-fi because I wrote the whole thing during a series of peyote-induced trances. In the desert. So, it’s like pure and all.

It’s transmedia because it will have some clickable pages that will send the reader to websites where they can order t-shirts. It’s sci-fi because the world I created has two suns. (I can work with editors if they need it to be three.)

Anywho, there’s some saga-like multigenerational stuff on my main planet, Hortog, and wars with lots of futuristic weapons (with step-by-step details on their manufacture and operations). But it’s really a love story, because my main character, Glig, has sex with an alien, who’s kind of like an old-fashioned egg-beater.

The novel’s also very meta. You know, self-referential and informing.

My mother has been hounding me to send this query, because I haven’t had much income for a bit, so if you could send me a little chunk of the advance now, that might help get her off my back. By the way, I paid for one of those deep Internet searches to find out your home address, so if you’d like to discuss this in person, I’m there in a heartbeat. I know you are busy—I will bring the coffee!

By the way, if you aren’t interested in this book, I also write a kind of YA-haiku combination that is killer.

PS I think my novel could be a series.

This query stinks up the joint because it addresses a generic agent (agents love the names their mothers gave them), it ruminates on pointless issues, it’s specific when it should be general, it’s general when it should be specific, and in offering to stalk the editor at a coffee klatch, it veers into prosecutable grounds. Though that YA-haiku thing might work, if it had a banging DJ.

The Good (Even My Mother Thinks So)
Dear Maria Schneider:

First-person essays span space, time and subject: the city dump, an obsessive bird, or a toy from the 60s—all subjects of essays I’ve published—are just one shuffle of an endless deck of compelling themes. It’s never the subject of an essay that tells, but the style and stance of its author. What might seem the least likely of essay subjects can be made a piquant page-turner by a writer’s winning hand.

I propose an article for Writer’s Digest on Crafting the Personal Essay. The article would cover these sections:

• How to choose a subject that suits your style (and vice versa)
• Finding subjects in everyday life
• Fleshing out topics (whether they are existing personal interests or burgeoning ones)

• Distinction between slant and topic
• How to choose, apply and maintain essay tone
• How to blend personal perspective with facts

• The presence of the author (formal/informal, in the background or up front)
• Avoiding heavy-handedness while promoting point of view
• Authority with a light touch

The Lead
• How to hook the reader
• Building on the lead
• The use of declarative sentences, humor, restraint and exaggeration
• Divergence from the lead

• Structure and cadence
• The musicality of words
• How to sneak up on a reader, and how to overwhelm them
• Maintaining momentum and topic drive
• Layering of ideas

• Packing a punch at the end
• Circling back from your lead
• Customer (reader) satisfaction

• Pitching your story

For relevant article sections, I’ll provide short examples of good and bad expressions of the outlined technique or approach. I will also cite some examples of essay compendiums that are strong representations of first-person essay writing, such as Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay.

I’ve published essays or stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, Traveler’s Tales, the San Jose Mercury News (West and SV magazines), Things magazine, Verbatim magazine, and others. My website, has a number of my published pieces under the Freelance and Fiction links.

Please reply or give me a call if you’re interested in seeing my manuscript or in discussing the query further.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Tom Bentley

This query is directed to a specific (and relevant) editor, it opens with a strong lead, it clearly and explicitly discusses the article scope, it has some writer’s bio info, and it invites the editor to discuss the article possibilities. The editor is given a good sense of what the writer could do with the potentials outlined in the query.

And b’God, they even paid decently for it…