A song and dance, by Mario
Petrucci. Or, a story-writer’s guide to
Asked by a colleague to write some submission guidelines, but wanted to do it in a more interesting voice: hence, a kind of interior monologue.
So. You want to know what successful submissions
are really all about? Font. That’s what it boils down to - Font. I read somewhere that some writer’s win-rate
in competitions tripled when she started to send out poems in laser-printed ‘Garamond’ font, decorously spaced so
as to occupy the entire page.
important too. Now what have we here…
‘Courier. Oyster: Wove. 90 g per square metre’. ‘Copyliner. Multifunction. 80 g per square metre.’ Multifunction? Sakes alive, it’s a sheet of paper not a Smart Card. ‘Malfunction’ would be closer to the
mark. All that rigmarole about having
to store the paper close to the printer and not subjecting the ream to any
shocks and loading only a certain number of sheets at a time and removing any
crinkled sheets first and, even, riffling the air through it all before you
load up. All over the globe, Personal
Assistants and Executive Secretaries are developing a personal riffling
style. I’d not be at all surprised if
there were a Rifflers’ Weekly. And all
of them intoning, “It needs air. Stand
clear. The paper needs air...” as though some doyenne had just
terminally fainted on stage.
I don’t have to decide which paper now.
I’ll come back to it.
how do you shop for paper, of all
things? Stride into the new
multi-storey paper mall and say: “Excuse me mate, I’m looking for something a
little out of the ordinary. Something
zany to go with my new Oki-woki-page 10ex Multi-malfunction printer. No, not that sheaf - how about that one there... no, that one.” Did some
ex-paper-chase addict at the Monopolies Commission have a bad dream or
something? (Oh and by the way, was it
Screaming Lord Sutch who asked: why is there only one Monopolies Commission?)
digress. Back to business. Now - paper-clip, or staple? A staple has that feel of permanence, don’t
you think? Staples say: “Not a
three-year writer, but a three-hundred-year writer”. I always think of staples as assertive, resolved, definite. Yes, a staple. Definitely. One of those
big ruddy copper ones, the type that has that ochre tinge. Iridescent and sure. Pressed into the paper like a bar of
tropical copper melting into a crisp white sheet of Scandinavian snow. And on the reverse side, two perfect, tanned
arms breaking through from behind to clinch the sheets in an amorous
forever-embrace. Hmm. Maybe not
copper after all. What about
steel? Steel’s good. Classy rather than brassy. Until it rusts. Then it’s like seeping sewerage.
Rubs off on the poems. Bear in
mind that your submission might have to resist years of clammy revisitings by
vacillating editors floundering in mid-career therapy. Can you get galvanised staples? Whichever type you plump for, the bonus with
staples is that editors might take more than one piece rather than go to all
the trouble of removing the staple. Got
the other hand, what if the editor wants to make a rejection but would like to
keep my biographical details on file, as I request in the cover letter? God, I can see him now - levering furiously
away at my post-orgasmic staple, hacking at it with Stanley knife or a rusty
scalpel-blade salvaged from his former brain-surgeon days, slipping horribly,
spurting blood across the pristine desk, across the beautiful ivory paper,
damning my name (well, looking up my name in the biographical details so he can
damn it), cursing my pen and all its progeny, even unto the seventh draft. What if he got staple-poisoning? I can just imagine his Whodunnit lawyers
tracing the staples to an obscure Highland manufacturer, thence to their one
North London distributor, and finally to their sole customer - me. It wouldn’t occur to him, of course, to just
read the header on the submission. God,
what if he died? Much worse than that - what if, in a fit of
spite, he shredded my SAE?
The indispensable Stamped Addressed Envelope. All part of the writers’ jargon.
And every business has to have its jargon. It’s like linguistic cling-film.
Keeps out the undesirables - especially uninitiated writers. So when it comes to SAEs, does size
matter? I’m never sure about that
one. I’ve heard rumours of a size
called Imperial Double Crown, or something like that. Sounds impressive, but
also a mite O-T-T. C5 envelopes slip
nicely through the letter-box - but you do have to fold the paper. Ah yes, that old brain-twister: one fold, or
none? I suppose, on the one hand, you
should never, ever give the editor an
extra thing to do. At some tiny
critical-mass of tasks their trigger-happy brains snap into reject mode. Ideally the poems should spring through the
letter-box, dance up the stairs to the foot of the bed, sing themselves to the
drowsing Literato in eight-voice choral harmony, typeset themselves on the PC
and breathe their little Sorcerer’s-Apprentice last-gasps straight into the
distributor’s mail-out bag. I suppose
the web’s already doing something like it.
the other hand, you want the arrival of your work to create a real editorial
‘epiphany’. So I pack the poems in,
until the white envelope’s tight as Semtex.
I want the postman to hold it up to the light - for several minutes; I
want the pit-bull to scamper back into the kitchen whining like a pup; the
snoozing editor to wake with an eschatological start to the resounding thud of
gravitas on her door-mat, delivering itself like a single-stroke pile driver. I can see my poems rising to the top of that
brown scree of unsolicited submissions, dazzling, like a missing link capping
its brown sedimentary geology, like an ingot of frozen cream afloat in… well,
something brown. Or does high density
make things sink…? Shite.
not a staple, after all. What about one of those plastic-covered
paper-clips, then? You know - the
pretty ones that come in rainbow colours?
No? I have to admit, those huge
paper-clips are nice. Know the ones I mean? Pewter I think, or something like it, almost
as thick as coat-hanger wire and with a crinkle-crankle running gorgeously
through the metal. So dominating of
that small white stage of paper, so suggestive of… well… clippability. Wonderful.
Apart from the grey skid-marks they leave. Even steel clips mark the paper - a dead giveaway your poems have
been playing around. Oh yes indeed -
every editor needs to believe he or she is your very first. And God help you if you’re into simultaneous
submissions. Worse than a vicar being
caught in flagrante delicto with a one-legged ostrich. So, coloured clips then? Or is that a little too playful, not
‘eternal’ enough? Oh God. I’ll come back to that.
Blast. No white envelopes left. And what did
I do with that sheet of submission do’s and don’t’s? Think I tore it up. I suppose I didn’t want to be too…
influenced. After all, I want my
submissions to be, well… distinctive.
No - radical. Should I ditch A4?
what IS all this business about g per square metre? I wonder, could you send poetry to magazines by the square
metre? Should we write it by the square metre, serving it up like those small-time
pizzerias in Italy? Just imagine -
poetry sold like pizza for bulk family consumption. You order, then wait twenty minutes while the poet knocks it up
right there, from scratch. You wan extra bucolics, signore? A littla versicle for da bambino? - onna da
house! Ah yes. Served still smudgeable, to be read with a
fizzy drink at a rickety white table under a big stripy umbrella. Having to listen to one of the kids moaning
he hates villanelle, why do we always get villanelle,
why can’t we have sestina instead? Now,
there’s a world I could write for.
brings us to the most vital issue of all.
Postage. That 60 g glass ceiling
is such a bind. But you’ve got to
respect it or your unit costs soar. For
ages I was embroiled in the rocket science of converting A4 sheets into square
metres, adding the two envelopes, and a bit extra for the cover letter (always
something special for that - watermarked and logo’d, ideally, but never photocopier paper). Now that I’ve invested in letter scales
(through a regional Lottery Capital Investments Grant) it’s got even
worse. Yep, up at three in the morning
trimming the bottom quarter-of-an-inch off poems, paring back the envelope
flaps with nail scissors, trying to get the bloody thing down to 59 and
hum. Getting distracted again. What about a title page? You know: pastel sheet with suggestive
epithet right across it. A title that
somehow clasps your flailing poems together with all the tenacity of a three-inch
bulldog clip. Some bold metonymic
six-inch-nail of a word - plus, of course, your pseudonym. Gives your submission that extra zap, that
wonderful air of a mini-book. That “It
is finished” look. Could go for the
high-stakes abstract noun. What about ‘Submission’? Nicely unambiguous. Or is
it a touch pseudo-sadomasochistic? You
know what these editors get up to. What
about Intermission then? Manumission? Missionary
come back to it.
okay. Getting there. What else?
Hmm. I’m missing something… Ha-ha!
The poems! Won’t be the first
time I sent out a cover letter on its own.
Almost had one accepted once.
Got mistaken for a Post-modern stand-alone experimental piece. Anyway.
This hot little lot here was written when I was just seventeen. Can you believe it? Still unpublished, for some reason. Paper’s beginning to disintegrate a bit, but
the crumples have evened out. Been
through more hands than a ship’s harlot.
Can’t bear to edit them though.
They’re so… impromptu. What
editors love. The grey sheen and
coffee-rings might not look so great but they do give a real sense of something
hard won. Isn’t that what literature’s
all about? In any case, no time before
lunch to retype. I’ll send six. Always six.
Even though I’ve only got three.
I just send two copies. After
all, they never read past the first one or two. Oh, and of course, be professional - make a note of precisely
what you send out, where and when. It’s
pretty crucial when it comes to clarifying which of your poems, exactly, Steven
Spielberg is after.
there you have it. Six Parnassian gems,
in condensed italic 17 cpi Garamond font (laser-printed, naturally), centred, in
times-3 spacing to fill the sheet, laid out on 30 g per square metre beige A5
air-mail paper (I’m not made of money
you know), embossed across a leading diagonal using my home-made DIY
watermark-stamp, finished off neatly with a facing page entitled
“Indisposition” (niiice pun) and
devastating pen-name Kharisma, one corner
sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands glitter (pressed in with a thumbprint, or
maybe chin-print, of Eau Sauvage),
accompanied by six sheets of 180 g per square metre Foolscap sky-blue card,
hand-written (for intimacy), listing alphabetically my writing-related
activities, especially all the workshops I’ve ever been to, and the whole lot
gripped together with a high-sprung bear-trap bulldog clip, then folded three
times over into a petunia-pink C6-sized envelope together with a C7 SAE, stamps
provided separately of course, all in small denominations so the editor can
make up the correct rate herself at the Post Office counter - in fact, not a
bad idea to make sure the stamps are paper-clipped - no, stapled - to the front
(no, the back) of the cover note.
Right. That should do it. Can’t help feeling, though, I’ve just wasted
a morning. It’ll probably bounce right
back. Just like they always do.
Mario Petrucci 2001