Assumptions, assumptions, part II: the importance of packaging

I begin today with a parable. And I’d advise getting comfortable for the telling, my friends: it’s gonna be a lengthy one.

A package appeared on my doorstep the other day. Now, the fact that someone had left me a present was not in itself that astonishing — after all, it was my birthday (many thanks to those of you who wrote in with felicitations!). What WAS strange was that this gift was wrapped in generic plain newspaper (the funnies, admittedly, but still, it was pouring that day) and was signed, in a handwriting I did not recognize, from “Your Secret Pal.”

I understand that the Department of Homeland Security frowns upon such lighthearted pranks. I’m quite sure that they’re looking for my college Secret Santa now (although, because it was Harvard, he was actually called — and I swear that I’m not making this up — Furtive Non-Denominational Gift Giver).

I was a trifle nonplused, of course, but that did not stop me from opening the box. Not everyone would have opened an unidentified box, though (see earlier comment about Homeland Security). Years ago, I mailed a set of tiki god party lights (I know, they sound tacky, but oh, they nearly brought a tear to the eye, I assure you) to my brother, via a shipping service that favored a generic shipping label whose return address gave no indication whatsoever who had actually, you know, instigated the mailing. So my brother, not the world’s most trusting soul on a good day, and moreover a doctor whose practice was located quite close to a clinic that catered to the reproductive freedoms of its clientele (if you catch my drift) immediately decided that it was a bomb and took it straight to the police department.

The nice police officer took it away and handed it to the bomb squad, which in such a small town probably consisted of an X-acto knife, a curious secretary, and a drug-sniffing dog named Rover. A few minutes later, he returned, the open package in his arms. “It appears to be a present, sir,” he told my brother, straight-faced. “I hope you’re fond of tiki gods.”

With this in mind, I tore my birthday box open. It contained a box of quite nice gargantuan wineglasses, honestly a bit big for anything but the meatiest Bordeaux or Cabernet Franc (hey, I grew up upstairs from a winery, so I know these things), but great for housing a mango mousse with rhubarb swirls. If one’s tastes ran in that direction.

For days, I obsessed about to whom to send a thank-you card. Not to boast, but I don’t suffer from a shortage of pals fond of a joke — or, for that matter, pals confident enough in their own uniqueness to believe that their handwriting would be instantly recognizable. (This seems to be a local phenomenon, as nearly as I can tell: for those of you who don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s not all that unusual for telephone callers in these parts not to identify themselves at the beginning of calls they’ve initiated to friends. I’m constantly having to ask, after a gigantically friendly greeting, “And WHO is this, please?”) I compared notes, asked friends leading questions, racked my doorstep for clues: I was a regular Perry Mason.

Four days later, I received a call from my godmother. Better mannered than most, she identified herself, at least well enough that I knew who she was: “It’s moi, darlinki. Did you find my present?” She was flabbergasted that I hadn’t identified the giver instantly, because she had just assumed that she had, at some point in our 40-year acquaintance, happened to mention that one of the most cherished rituals of her childhood had been that an old jazz musician friend of the family would leave presents “from your secret pal” every birthday.

I will swear on a stack of anything you like that I had never heard that story before.

What does this have to do with the fine art of revision, you ask? Quite a lot, actually: the package is a metaphor for how editors view a new author’s manuscript submission to a publishing house. (And you thought I didn’t have a point!) Unless that box is packaged properly, in exactly the way the recipient expects tiki god party lights to arrive wrapped, the box might never make it past the doorstep.

In other words, it would behoove you to adhere to standard formatting.

Second, most editors — as a matter of policy at the big houses, in fact — are like my brother: they would vastly prefer that someone else open a mysterious package first, please, to tell them whether it is something they would like to have or something awful. And that, in a nutshell, is why publishing houses favor agented work. The agent opens the package, assesses its value, and wheedles the editor into taking a look at the pre-screened contents.

The package left by my godmother, on the other hand, is like the manuscript I mentioned yesterday, the one that assumes that the reader is going to cotton to a shared worldview, lexicon, knowledge base, etc. And, admittedly, had I known about the secretive jazz player, I probably would have caught on immediately to the joke and known who sent it. But, like most editors at most publishing houses, I didn’t know enough about either the package or its sender before I opened it to understand the logic of the giver.

With a birthday present, such misunderstandings are easily remedied, of course. With a book submission, they generally end in rejection. Yes, even if the writing is sterling and the plot thrilling: never forget that a publishing house, like an agency, is not a monolithic entity housed by robots with identical tastes, but rather by people with individual ones.

So package your work with care, my friends, and make your work as accessible as possible by providing any and all necessary background, preferably in an entertaining manner. Tomorrow, I’ll move on to what this might look like in practical terms. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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