Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name



I sent the
six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had
five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections
praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same
letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript
requests. The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being
called “Mr.” and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a
Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work
that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be
meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine.

I wanted to
know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total
data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17
times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same
book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more,
where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.

This was my
second time going. I had written a novel before, and sent it around.
Those queries had a pretty good response, though no one offered to
represent it. All the agents who read it said it wasn’t bad, but that it
had an essential structural problem. I couldn’t fix it, so I put it
away. My short stories had also usually gotten some decent replies—some
published, most rejected with a detailed “please send more” kind of
answer. I figured that I was paying my dues, keeping on keeping on,
having roughly the same experience any other young writer would have.

Sometimes it was hard to put away something I had believed in. But in general, I believed what I was told about my work.

This new
book was different. I knew it was better than my older work—more
ambitious, more interesting, more playful, more exciting. My writer
friends loved it and sent it to their agents on my behalf, before I
began sending query letters under any name at all. The responses
trickled back with a number of similar rejections, mostly: “beautiful
writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?” and of
course, a lot of silence. Still hopeful, I started sending blind
queries, hoping for at least a few enthusiastic readers. Meaningless
silence turned into meaningful silence day by day. The few written
rejections didn’t cite a coherent problem. My writer
friends still promised it was a good book, that I should have faith in
my work, that good news would be around the corner. It wasn’t.

rejected is par for the writer’s course. But what chilled me was the
possibility that it was not a surface problem but an astigmatism in my
understanding of human nature—that I’d written something better but
somehow less meaningful, that I could make nice sentences, but what I
think people do is not what people do. Every rejection letter mentioned
the “beautiful writing,” which is the paint job on top of but not the
engine of the book. I started writing short and angry paragraphs, and
then not writing at all. The problem reached into every part of my
mind—not only that I had written the wrong book, but that I was the
wrong person.

That was
when George came to life. I imagined him as a sort of reptilian Michael
Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards
at night while I did the work. Most of the agents only heard from one or
the other of us, but I did overlap a little. One who sent me a form
rejection as Catherine not only wanted to read George’s book, but
instead of rejecting it asked if he could send it along to a more senior
agent. Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that
would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real
me. George’s work was “clever,” it’s “well-constructed” and “exciting.”
No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main
characters were feisty. A few of people sent deeply generous and
thoughtful critiques, which made me both grateful and queasy for my

More at the link.

Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name

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