Scam Emails! (Or how to craft better fiction...)

Monday, March 7, 2011


Some obscure mil/billionaire in a foreign nation that may or may not exist has died/been sent to prison/exiled and you have been named his/her/their heir.

To claim your prize/inheritance/rainbow generator, all you have to do is tell me information I have no need to know, possibly break the laws of your own country as well as a few others, and not know world currencies!

Isn't it great?

If you ever needed proof that the ability to write something that isn't true doesn't equate skill at writing believable fiction, just pick out one of the oft-circulated scam emails at random and take a peek (without opening any attachments... please...)

However, that's not to say that you can't learn a thing or two from dissecting "bad" fiction. Let's take a look --


Every writer of fiction (or fictional writer, for that matter) should know how far they can push their reader's BS-meter before they trip the book throwing response. This is where world-building comes in. You make the rules for your universe, and then you're obligated to operate within them.
  • random gagillionaire (possibly royal) dude(tte) kicks off, and they're so destitute for friends/family that they pick someone at random to hand their millions to... wasn't that an Adam Sandler movie?
  • You only get ONE of those OMG "what are the odds" moments per tale, so get it out of the way up front and don't push it. (Inheriting an airline shipping company, being the heir to King Whosamawhatchit VII, and winning the Spanish Irish sweepstakes in ONE DAY, is pushing it.)
  • I don't care what country the person comes from. If they're in a contemporary, Earth-bound setting, even if they don't have friends, relatives, dogs, or charities of choice to whom they leave their indescribable fortunes, they will have a government under which they lived (or over which they presided). If no one else gets the cash, the governing body will lock it down.
Ignore any of these points, and that book-shaped dent in my wall is your fault.

  • The Irish sweepstakes is not held in Spain. It is not run by Spain. If you tell me you represent the Spanish government on behalf of the Irish sweepstakes, your book becomes a projectile, possibly breaking my window and killing the perfectly innocent birds in my tree. YOU HEARTLESS BIRD MURDERER!
  • If a company has a famous owner, then spell their name correctly. When you tell me to contact "Bill Gate" at Microsoft, I am confused. Which gate is Bill's gate? Does he have his own that no one else uses? (most likely, and it wouldn't be one I had access to) Google is free and easy to use -- this isn't rocket science. CHECK YOUR FACTS BEFORE YOU WRITE THEM DOWN.
  • If the steps required to accomplish a certain goal have real-world consequences, then you should mention those consequences at some point. (Chekhov's Gun - Google it - seriously) This means that if there are legal ramifications to wiring money out of the country to a total stranger, in return for a life-changing, under-the-table windfall, and the star of your tale chooses to do this, then at some point in your story, there'd better be (at the least) the threat of prosecution for doing this illegal thing.
  • If the country you claim to represent has switched to the Euro, this is something you should know. (Not only does Spain =/= Ireland, but it's not the UK, either. Spain does not use GBP as their national currency. Goo-gle. One word, two syllables. Not difficult.)
  • If someone famous has been dead longer than I've been out of high school, it's highly unlikely that they are sending me an email. If they are, then I intend to interview them and get my own show called "Emailing the Other-Side" wherein I use Yahoo to converse with audience members' deceased family members. Maybe they'll send pictures.
  • When you write fiction for an American audience, it's important to know that audience. Most Americans have a comfort zone firmly ensconced between things they're familiar with. Most Americans don't go to Japan and look for great sushi, they go to Japan and look for McDonald's. They also get this weird glazed look when too many unfamiliar names flash in front of their eyes.
  • This doesn't mean you can't diversify... in fact you should. When I see fourteen messages from six different "Kipkalyas", all with names starting with S or J, I get them confused. I can't tell them apart, so I don't care about them. If you want to reach your audience, then you must make them care about your characters.
  • Regional dialogue is like spice. A little for flavor works, but too much and you'll turn your guests stomachs. When you fill your fiction with phrases that your average reader doesn't recognize, it pulls them straight out of your story and makes them hate you. Then they remember you killed the birds in their tree in the last list and hate you even more. (This is where an editor comes in handy - they can point out which words work in any region and which ones, while benign on this side of the pond, reference embarrassing body parts in a derogatory manner on the other.)
And finally:


  • You may not know Yog, but he is both wise and benevolent, and his law is simple -- Money flows TOWARD the writer. This means you never pay to be published; publishers pay you.
  • If you are offering to do something for me, but expect me to send you my name, address, phone number, social security number, bank account, and work details, in order to get it... you are an idiot. I don't waste my time with idiots.
  • If you offer to publish my book, but expect me to send you my name, address, phone number, social security number, credit card number, bank account and addresses for my friends so you can spam both me and them with "deals" on purchasing a book I wrote myself and can read at my leisure from the file on my hard drive for free... you are an idiot. I don't waste my time with idiots.
(*caveat* if you choose to self-publish, then you go looking for a reputable self-publishing company. I am referring to idiots who pretend to be commercial publishers when they are, in fact, pay-to-play vanity presses.)

2 Chiming In:

Charity Bradford said...

Lol, this was brilliant. Way to take something like spam mail and turn it into a great metaphor for writing.

Oh, and I have some ocean front property in Arizona for sale...

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I got one of those phone calls about how to claim my lottery winnings by wiring some funds. I told him I was working (true, since I was writing) and could I have a number to call him back? He rattled off an obviously made-up number, but I reported it to the cops anyway.

But I have to admit, when I was a teenager my mom got a few calls at work: "Mom, we got a letter that says we won $5 Million dollars from Publisher's Clearinghouse!!!"

It's so human to want to believe the good things, that it's easy to tap into it. But you're right that as writers, we also have the responsibility to not betray that.

Whew, long post to which I will add a single word: fanny! (makes me giggle every time our water instructor doesn't want to say "tighten your butt" because it sounds rude and says fanny instead)

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