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Essay Seeks Editor for Mutual Edification
July 29, 2005
When in the course of a manuscript's life it becomes time to venture out into the world -- this is prime time for the writer to choke.
I've got three copies of "My Terrorist Eye" ready to go -- actually, only one of the copies is tangible, the one that's going to a monthly journal with decent circulation and eclectic taste. One of my three targets requests online submissions, so they'll get the Word file. The third, the longest of long shots, specifies query letter only; they promise to trash unsolicited manuscripts unread. I believe them. Most publications receive far, far more essays, stories, and poems than they can use, and a high proportion of what they receive is unusable. Hence the emphasis in writers' mags and workshops on irresistible query letters and killer first paragraphs: the idea is to stay the hand of an editor who is itching for an excuse to toss your gem into the form-rejection pile.
My query letters are well-written and impeccably punctuated, but I know from long experience that they are not irresistible. If only I could find the philosopher's stone, perhaps I too could write an irresistible query letter? Perhaps. But I suspect that irresistibility is largely in the mind and heart of the editor, and that the Myth of the Irresistible Query Letter is a tale embraced by writers who want to believe that they too can be plucked from the obscurity of the slush pile and raised to the pinnacle of the published.
In the late 1980s I wrote a lot of poetry, some of it pretty good. I submitted clumps of it to various little magazines, and quite a few of my poems got published. (I have the contributor's copies to prove it.) Then what? In most cases, nothing. If anyone ever read or admired or was moved by my poem, I never heard about it. By that time I was hooked on giving readings, solo or in groups or at open mikes, at bookstores or coffeehouses or friends' living rooms. Putting my work out there was no longer enough: I wanted to hear something back. I needed to hear something back: gasps, fidgets, and applause gave me clues to what was working and what wasn't and under what circumstances. The silence of a rapt audience was exhilarating; the silence that greeted most of my published poems was a drag.
By then I was writing reviews and features for the Martha's Vineyard Times, in addition to essays and reviews for several feminist, lesbian, and/or gay publications. Seeing my work in print a few months after I finished it was good; a few days was even better, though short deadlines and nearly immediate gratification increased the risk of error and outright blathering. My editorial skills grew, and so did my willingness to let my work go without polishing it to death.
I've worked harder and longer on "My Terrorist Eye" than on any other essay I've ever written. It's good. But Wednesday night, when I read it through one more time (for typos or reassurance, I'm not sure which), the opening pages that tell of my twice-detached retina seemed a little too long. Probably I could cut another hundred words out, but mostly -- it's ready to fledge. Fly true, and may you land on the desk of the right unresisting editor, the one who can best find you an audience.