Now that I am a month or so removed from scoring applications for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholar Program, I can look back with a certain level of objectivity I could not find while wading through a waist-deep pile of papers. I’ve already begun to forget the tortuous two weeks I spent reading the nearly 2000 applications, the horrible spelling and grammar, the sameness of it all. This is important–forgetting all of that will make me want to do it again next year.

Still, I thought of an interesting analogy that has given me a little better understanding of the publication process. Reading my yearly batch of high school drivel reminds me of all the rants I have seen from literary agents and editors regarding their slush piles. I imagine there are several similarities between my reading a poorly written explanation of what makes a student unique and an agent reading a poorly written query letter and sample pages. I may read a hundred applications before I find one that is remotely interesting. Sometimes, I even get excited when I find one of these rare gems, often stopping so my wife can read it. For an agent or editor, it must be a similar process. The slush pile builds and builds, calling you to pay attention to it while, at the same time, making you loathe its very existence. The worst part of both processes, I believe, is the knowledge that to find that one golden example of how it should be done, you must first read all the examples of how it shouldn’t be done. You read and read and read until your eyes cross and then you read more. For me, I know I only have two weeks to complete the assignment. For an agent or editor, that drive comes from the never-ending pile of submissions. Anything other than constant vigilance and the pile grows too large to manage. You have to monitor your mood, knowing that exhaustion or being ill-tempered will affect how you evaluate what you are reading. The only thing that makes the process worthwhile is that rare surprise, the one that stands out as genuinely creative and original. For an agent, this means a possible source of income. For me, such an application means that I will have a say in choosing this one particular student for a program that will change his or her life. One does not perform such a momumental task without loving those moments of discovery.

Now, as I await the result of my novel manuscript and a few short stories currently out on submission, I remind myself to be patient by remembering all the applications that I had to read, my own slush pile. It is easy for a writer to send off a story and then sit by their email inbox awaiting some sort of resolution, but, as for me, I have better things to do because I understand the process in a way that probably most people do not. My two weeks of slush compares to the thousands of queries most agents receive every year, but it’s enough to keep me focused on what’s important–writing well enough to get myself out of the slush, to be that rare find instead of one more reason to pop a few Excedrin.

Project Superhero is now moving ahead again. Last night, I did over 2000 words, double my daily goal, and I’m starting to feel the flow of the story again. That’s a good thing. In the meantime, I am waiting patiently for a response on Dead and Dying from Nelson Literary Agency and on two short stories on submission to different venues.

Status of Project Superhero:

Yesterday, among my regular email fodder–Writer’s Almanac, CNN, my Daily Dilbert–I saw one that took my breath away. Wedged in between my comic and a MySpace friend request from some girl I’ve never met who swears she met me at a bar I’ve never been to (ah, gotta love spam), I saw the subject “Query–Dead and Dying” followed by, in lighter print, “We would like to see the first 30 pages or”. Nelson Literary Agency is interested in my story.

Someone wants to see something I’ve written. Holy shit!

In On Writing, Stephen King compares writing a novel to “crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub”. That’s a very apt analogy. It’s lonely work, with little or no validation during the process itself. Still, at some point with your oars in the water, you want to see some landmark, some sign that you are making progress in the right direction. I can’t imagine the frustration of trying to cross an ocean in a bathtub, only to get turned around and end up right where you started. So, we look for landmarks, little islands of validation to let us know all the rowing is serving a purpose. That’s what a request for a partial is–one small buoy letting me know I’m still rowing for the opposite shore.

I realize that a request for part of my manuscript is far from a guarantee of representation (although that did not prevent me from dancing a little jig around the living room chanting “Partial! Partial!” after I read the email), but it set aside the great bugaboo that I’ve worried about since I started thinking about publication–the query letter. Having written a successful one now, I’m much less mystified by what should go in one, and what shouldn’t. For someone who writes in a long-format, encapsulating your story into a paragraph that not only makes sense, but also entices the reader to want more, is a helluva trick. To me, it’s more like composing a poem–a lot of meaning in a small package–than just writing a business letter. You have to stand out without being absurd. You have to be concise, yet pass on a fair amount of information. Most of all, you have to SELL the book. That’s what I’ve been missing in my earlier letters. Timidity is a great evil when it comes to query letters. I want to be bold and convincing, just like I would be to a customer shopping in my store. It’s not enough to send a letter saying “Hey, you might want to look at this”. I want to say “Hey, you NEED to read this and here’s why”.

What surprises me most about this request is not that I received it in the first place, but the agent requesting it. Kristin Nelson does not represent horror, the genre where my novel falls, but recently posted on her blog her fondness for them personally. She also expressed some regret that she does not represent more male authors. I’m hoping that by playing to those voids in her clientele, that my chances of gaining representation will increase, but I understand that whether or not I get further in the process depends on how good of a book I’ve written and that’s fine with me. Getting past the query stage, I have enough faith in my writing to feel at least somewhat hopeful. I also understand how business works, though, having been in retail management for years, and that sometimes a book, no matter how well written, will not sell in the current market. I’m fine with that, too. All I can do is what I’m doing–keeping my fingers crossed and letting my writing do the talking for me.

I hope my first 30 pages are good enough to garner a request for the full manuscript. If not, I will be disappointed, but the only remedy for that brand of disappointment is to send out another, stronger query to the next agent on my list. I have too many other things going on, including my works in progress, to let one little bump in the road get me down. I do want to be published, very badly, but I have patience. I also have two short stories out on submission that I’m waiting to hear back on, so as long as I have a few lines in the water, I can still hope for fish. What I can’t do is expect them to just jump into the bathtub with me.

Meanwhile, work on my novel-in-progress (Codename: Superhero) is picking back up. I went through a period where I could not decide whether to keep going with this one or start anew with another project I’m very excited about and, in the end, I decided to keep going with my current one. The new idea will still be there when I’m done and I’ve taken a few days to rebuild my original enthusiasm for Superhero. During my hiatus, however, I did pump out a guilty-pleasurable Harry Potter short story to appease my restless Mugglenet readers in the hopes that they will not notice the time I’m taking to write Chapter 12 on my long work there. Should any of those readers find their way here, I assure you that the project is not dead and wondrous things lie ahead as soon as I can work them into my busy schedule. So, we’ll resume posting my metrics on the WIP and see where I can go from there.

Dear Applicant:

Every year for the past five, I have volunteered to read a portion of the applications for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program. This five-week program, held on various college campuses across the Bluegrass, allows gifted high school students to participate in learning that might fall outside the normal realm of secondary education while forming a community of diverse, yet like-minded achievers who represent the best and brightest of the state.

I owe a great debt to this program. Spending five weeks there as a skinny teenager with glasses that resembled something Elton John might have worn in the ’70’s, I learned a great deal about philosophy, forensics, and, thanks to the great people I met, friendship. It should also be noted that I met my wife in line for registration at GSP, so even without all those great memories, I would have something great to show for my time spent there.

To give back to GSP, I agreed five years ago to score applications as part of the Statewide Selection Committee. This panel of about 16 or so people reviews the applications submitted from every school district in the state and evaluates them on various criteria. I have scored three portions of the application in my time on the committee, including the Extracurricular Activities, the Honors & Awards, and, my personal favorite, the Uniques. In this small writing portion, the applicant is asked to describe a unique or personal activity or interest that sets him/her apart from his/her peers in 250 words or less.

Oh, dear. We had no idea that this was so difficult.

So, to help future generations of Governor’s Scholars applicants, I would like to note a few things that are NOT unique and that should be avoided when completing this part of the process:

1. You are active in your Christian church. While this is, I’m sure, an admirable quality in you, 80% of Americans consider themselves Christians. I don’t think a trait can be considered unique when 4 out of 5 people in the country share the same trait. What particularly irks me about these, besides their withering frequency, are the ones that go beyond just describing the applicant’s own involvement to tell me how important it is to be a Christian in general. Obviously, there is a general consensus on this if 80% of Americans are Christian. Still, in the words of George Carlin, “keep thy religion to thyself.”

2. You play a musical instrument. Again, a very admirable trait, but not unique. I hate to break it to you, but playing a trumpet in the school band, guitar in your church’s praise band (see above), or drums in your garage band does not make you unique. It makes you exactly like 500 or so other applications that I have to read and will not get you a very high score. Now, if you play something odd–a harpsichord, perhaps, or a lute–then I will be more willing to give you points for uniqueness. While there may not be room for a harpsichord in your garage or praise band, these are the sacrifices we are called to make sometimes.

3. You play a sport. Again, admirable. I played baseball in high school and tennis in college, so I appreciate the amount of time and work that goes into athletic endeavors. I also understand that thousands of students play sports across the state and, by definition, this makes the activity rather common. Now, again, if you play jai alai or something of the like, then that would be worth few points.

4. You’re a writer. Hey, me too. Together with the 300 or so other writers I scored this year, we could form a pretty decent writing group. We could form some fiction factory to pump out James Patterson novels until the cows come home. The ones that really make me groan, though, are the poets who include a sample of their lousy poetry and expect me to be impressed. If I want to read poetry, I’ll pick up some Keats or William Carlos Williams. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have one poem I have saved from several years ago pinned above my desk. I thought the poem was wonderful and still read it from time to time. If you do insist on sending me poetry, it better be well-written and innovative if you hope to gain points from me.

Another turn-off in this category are the applicants that try to trick me by writing about something really great and then reveal at the end that it was all made up because the applicant is a writer. Ha ha, joke’s on me! Don’t do this. Don’t tease me with something that sounds great, then pull the rug out from under me. I don’t give high scores when I’m pissed off.

5. You went on a mission trip. Related to #1, but numerous enough to gain their own little rant. It’s great that you are going to Peru, Africa, or even the wilds of Eastern Kentucky to spread your message while helping to feed the poor or paint some old lady’s house. While you’re at it, come paint my house. I’m sure it was an amazing event for you, one that will live on in your memory for years, but there are a lot of people seeking to spread the Word. You are not unique.

And, to keep a good sense of balance, here are a few DO’s to accompany my DON’T’s:

1. Have someone proofread your entries before you submit them. I can’t deduct points for poor grammar or spelling, but I wish I could. Still, if you are between two scores in my mind and you have a bevy of grammatical and spelling errors, I’m going with the lower score. In this highly competitive process, that can make all the difference, so have someone who knows what they’re talking about read your entry for mistakes.

2. Think broadly. When you are looking for something that makes you unique, think beyond your immediate circle of friends, or even your school. Try to find one thing that sets you apart from EVERYONE else in the world. That may be tough, but to set yourself apart in this process, you have to THINK. I know that’s a lot to ask for, but we are looking for people who can do that, for some reason. Oh, yeah, the Scholar part maybe.

3. Put some effort in. If you don’t want to participate in the program, I will be able to tell and will be more than happy to help you out. Still, if you want in, put a little work into it.

Obviously, if you have searched and found this post, you are serious about your application. Therefore, I encourage you to take these things into consideration as you apply. I would much rather read about your collection of gnome figurines than your mission trip. Even if it’s mildly embarrassing or personal, I want to see something original, something that will set you apart from the other 2000 or so applicants I have to score.

Please help conserve my little remaining sanity and not make this yearly labor of love just labor.

Thank you in advance,

Lee Smiley
Statewide Selection Committee
Kentucky Governor’s Scholar Program