There is no better form of literary one-upmanship than a well-written acknowledgments page. Well, other than holding down the top spot on the New York Times best-seller list, of course. Having your very own fatwa is also hard to beat. (“Oh, I’m fine, other than the fact that I had to go into hiding because my book provoked the wrath of millions of people. . . . What’s up with your career?”) Oh, and buying a Scottish castle with the royalties from your book sales is pretty good, too.
But, other than having a number-one best-seller, having your own security detail, or living in a castle, your book’s acknowledgments page is really the best way to make other writers apoplectic with envy. And the beauty of this approach is that nobody can accuse you of being a pompous jerk because you’re hiding your pomposity in the guise of thanking people. In honor of our Spotlight on First Novels, now live on Booklist Online, and as a service to first and aspiring novelists, I present a crash course in writing an acknowledgements page that allows you to wear the guise of a humble and gracious scribe while, in reality, letting every writer who is less successful know exactly how much more successful you are. Read on and learn whom to thank—and how to thank them.
“Ideally, your research will be reflected
in your writing—but, just in case it isn’t,
be sure to mention it all here.”
By thanking your long-suffering agent, your wise editor, your energetic publicity and marketing teams, your persistent film-rights agent, your tireless foreign-rights office, and the versatile actor who voiced your audiobook—your “team”—you are instantly placing yourself in the tiny club of authors who actually have a team. Most writers do not have a team. Even many published authors would settle for “someone who answers the phone.” (Note: you may also thank “the gang.”)
Your Research Crew
By thanking the patrolmen, detectives, lawyers, forensic anthropologists, NASCAR drivers, river guides, Civil War reenactors, or circus clowns who helped you with your research, you are letting people know that you did research. The more esoteric the job title, the more interesting and dangerous your research will sound. And the more people you thank, the more research we can infer. If you are worried that people won’t get the point, be sure to thank one person in particular, for “Answering my frantic calls at 2 a.m. when I needed to know such-and-such” or, better, “Replying to 50,000 e-mails, no matter how boring and detailed they were.” Ideally, your research will be reflected in your writing—but, just in case it isn’t, be sure to mention it all here.
Your Illustrious Peers
It’s very important to thank a lot of famous writers. This tells us, and them, that you are on their level and allows starry-eyed readers to imagine that you spend a lot of time drinking cocktails together and exchanging bons mots. To encourage the impression of chumminess, even if it is likely false, use only first names. To that end, only thank authors whose first names allow us to guess who they are (Cormac, China, Zadie). There’s really no need to thank John, David, and Mary. They could be anybody. (Well, Jonathan does have a tantalizing ambiguity.)
Another tack you can take is to use a famous author’s familiar name. Anybody with Google knows that Elmore Leonard goes by “Dutch,” but telling “Jo” you appreciate her advice on your children’s book will suggest that you’re no ordinary Muggle. What makes this approach awkward is that, for some particularly obscure familiar names, you may need to use the last name for context (Patsy Cornwell, Tobin Anderson), which, ironically, makes you seem less intimate with the person you’re nickname-dropping.
Thank one dead, obscure writer, being sure to mention that their out-of-print book (“an unheralded masterwork”) was wholly responsible for your decision to become a writer.
Your Watering Hole
You know, the one where you drink with Cormac, China, or Zadie? Thank the bartender by name and reference an in-joke so we know you’re a regular. If your usual drink reflects either your sophistication or your spirit of adventure, here is the place to mention it. Even if you prefer Bud Light, you may prefer to mention your appreciation for a Negroni, a Sidecar, or a Moscow Mule.
You Are a World Traveler!
As a famous and successful author, the world is your oyster. But name-dropping, London, Paris, or Berlin is just so tacky. (Well, you might get away with Berlin.) Better to thank the proprietor of your special writing getaway, the place you go when it’s just four weeks to deadline, where you write around the clock in sheltered anonymity. It doesn’t matter whether this is a pensione in Venice or a cabin in Appalachia. The point is that most writers are just desperate for an hour away from their damn kids; your ability to leave town at will will have them drooling with envy.
Your Book Awards
Don’t mention these. That’s just tacky. And, besides, you have someone on your team whose whole job is to put foil award seals on the dust jackets of your books. You would probably thank that person if only you could remember their name.
You might as well thank these people, if only to avoid discomfort at holiday get-togethers. But, unless your brother is the lead singer of a famous band, your father is a famous painter, or your mother’s mysterious disappearance has haunted you since childhood, keep it brief.
The rule of thumb here is: dogs and cats, yes, birds and ferrets, no. Your dog was there for you when no one else was and it is during your rambling evening walks that you find your best ideas. Your dog has some delightfully human character trait (he can always be a good listener) and, if he is old and infirm, we should know that, too. (It makes you seem more patient and caring.) If he is a rescue dog, mention it twice.
It’s just about time to wrap up your acknowledgments, and you’ve saved the best for last. Sure, you wrote a book that topped the best-seller list, is about to earn you your very first fatwa, and shows distinct series potential (Scotland, here you come!)—but a dreamboat husband or wife is the ultimate accessory. Your spouse should look good in a tux (or a bridesmaid’s dress), should be a good dancer (or a hilariously bad dancer but a good sport), extremely accomplished in a nonliterary art or craft (scrimshaw, furniture making, bartending), and unbelievably gorgeous. Naturally, they stood by you during the years before you became big, nursing your babies, giving you backrubs, and holding your hair back when the pain of rejection caused you to overindulge in Negronis. The more overt your public display of affection, the better: who would really proclaim to the world, “I love you, Snuffums!” but someone who is so in love that they don’t care what the world thinks?
You do, of course, care what the world thinks, no matter how successful you become. And the more you care, the longer your acknowledments page will grow.