1.28.2007

Bartleby the Scrivener***

Dearest Miss Snark -

I have a question about mentioning non-publishing credentials in a query for a genre novel. If I'm committing the crime of nitwittery, I plead guilty and fling myself on the mercy of the court (making sure I don't accidentally land on KY on the way down).

My genre is mysteries. I worked as a (poorly paid, but professional) journalist covering crime and police for a few years. I'm now working on a doctorate in criminal justice with an emphasis on policing. In both capacities - journalist and academic - I've logged quite a few hours in police ridealongs, conversations with police, studying (and teaching) policing, etc.

When I send a query about my mystery novel to an agent, is any of that information germane?

Here I thought you were under arrest when I saw you in that patrol car. Must.Stop.Conclusion.Leaping.

You can certainly mention your real life experience but don't emphasize it. It's a bonus to the (we hope) good writing, but what it mostly does is provide an extra ounce of confidence that if you use an odd word, or fact, I won't think you're making a mistake.

The Ph.d thing has no resonance with me. I'd much rather know you've been in the Tombs than in the ivoried halls of academe.

But then...Miss Snark is an agent with a bail bondsman on retainer and a restraining order from the Harvard Club.





***points to the person who (without resorting to google) can identify the joke in the headline

21 comments:

Brady Westwater said...

You had to be bailed out by your bailbondsman from the Tombs after refusing to move out of the premises of the Harvard Club. The part that puzzles me is that George Clooney did not graduate from Harvard.

Anonymous said...

I would prefer not to.

Inez said...

I would prefer not--

Anonymous said...

I would prefer not to.

bostonerin said...

I'd prefer not to.

judy merrill larsen said...

Well, it's a reference to the really, really, really long short story I had to fake reading in my eleventh grade English class (sorry, Miss Griffin) by, I believe Joseph Conrad, about a legal clerk/assistant, named Bartelby who had to write/copy all sorts of dreck. (And something I never made my own English studentts read when I was a teacher.)

Anonymous said...

I assume you are referring to the anonymous commenter who anonymously commented on commenters who made noobs "feel lower than whale shit." The phrase suggests that most noobs cannot write as well as Herman Melville, and, after finally reading MOBY DICK (which is not a social disease as I always thought) I have to agree. Not only are noobs generally "lower than whale shit" (whale shit being an affectionate term for Melville) but so are most experienced scriveners, the author of this comment included.

Sallymannder said...

Judy Merrill Larsen....

"...eleventh grade English class (sorry, Miss Griffin)"

My high school English teacher was Miss Griffin also. Was this, perhaps, Washington Lee HS in Arlington, VA, or is this just a coincidence?

Carolyn said...

Bartleby the Scrivener is a short story in Melville's Piazza Tales about a law clerk whose job is to copy documents. He replies to requests that he do actual work with the words, "I would prefer not to." As others have also done here, I would explain the joke, but really, I would prefer not to. (Kind of like a lot of days when I really would prefer not to write. Except unlike Bartelby, I do anyway.)

enzero said...

Bartleby died in the Tombs, and now his pathetic corpse is repeatedly dissected in the ivied halls of Academe?

Inez said...

okay chere mllie snarque, give it up!
and the cultural reference belongs to--
none of us?

Kit Whitfield said...

Agree with Miss Snark. The idea of a writer with real-life experience is potentially promising - you may have a more realistic and gritty view than someone who's never been there, plus it can be used to promote an author when you're doing PR. On the other hand, there are plenty of crime journalists who can't write good fiction, and if you over-emphasise the credentials, it'll look as if you haven't worked that out. I'd recommend a nice letter talking entirely about the book, with a little one-sentence paragraph near the end mentioning that your job has given you some hands-on experience of the stuff your fiction is about.

On the encouraging side, it definitely piqued my interest, so if you don't overplay it, it may well pique agents' interest as well. Good luck...

sarkychick said...

absolutely do mention it - the police/journo experience I mean. Your editor will like that you know what you're talking about, and publicity and marketing will use it ditto. Just remember not to use the products of your research to weigh your book down, but to inform it with a light touch.

Katie said...

Bartleby gave up on life all of a sudden and refused to do anything his boss told him to, right?

Kim said...

That's how Patricia Cornwell got started on her Kay Scarpetta novels - she did crime reporting and did some time working with a pathologist, (I think). I don't know if she mentioned it or just let her knowledge show through in her writing, which she does beautifully (with some of her books, I can't snack while reading them because her description are like CSI on paper.) I think the trick is to show enough without boring the pants off of those of us on the outside.

word ver - hudwobgn - how's THAT for a monday morning???

archer said...

I'd much rather know you've been in the Tombs than in the ivoried halls of academe.

A lot of people claim there's not much difference.

BradyDale said...

We all took the same class so we know the 'prefer not,' but I don't really get the joke unless it's some other detail.

I'd prefer not to hear that you're getting your PhD?
I'd prefer not to answer your lettr?

Or is it some other element of Bartleby lore?

I think about this story all the time. Can you imagine? Pre-Xerox, pre-typing, people just sat around copying out contracts by hand, again and again, so that lawyers could put one in the hand of all parties.

Wow. I would die. I'd just die.

Jessica said...

I see that others have beaten me to "I would prefer not to."

Three cheers for literacy.

Anonymous said...

bartleby the scrivener is a story about a guy who worked in a pizza joint. his job was to write out the tickets for the delivery guys. they hated him and called him "bartleby the sniveler". in retribution he occasionally switched addresses on them, getting them in deeper than whale doo-doo. the feud escalated until one day one of the delivery guys tried to smother him in an extra-large pepperoni and sausage (hold the onions), and in self-defense bartleby stabbed the delivery guy with his 2-foot quill. both died at the scene.

an unfortunate bystander wailed, "can't we all just get along?"

really. happened in LA last year.

Cynthia Bronco said...

One of my favorite short stories of all time, right after his Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.
I only skimmed Mby Dick, though, both times that I was supposed to read it.

whoisbenji said...

Thank Dog you didn't title it Billy budd.