In my last week at ClarionWest I made a goal for myself: Become a slush reader. I’d heard, throughout the workshop and many times before the workshop, that wading through the slush can give an author an edge they might not get otherwise. You see stories that work, and you start to realize why. Conversely, you see a lot that don’t work, and the reasons become more and more obvious. It sounded like a great place for a writer to be.
That is why, about a month ago, maybe a little more, I started on as a First Reader (a prettier way to say slush reader) for The Colored Lens. You may recall, my first published story appeared in this zine, so I was super happy to get the chance to join the team. And all those things that were said about slush reading are holding up to be true. I see a lot of people making a lot of the same mistakes, some of which are easier to correct than others.
Perhaps the easiest is the cover letter.
I know of one market that specifically states that they could care less about your cover letter. It’s not the norm. So when I get a story that has a strange cover letter (for whatever reason), I can generally tell I’m dealing with someone who hasn’t caught on to the fact that writing is a business, and that writers need to treat themselves, editors, and readers, professionally. Doing so enables readers to take themselves seriously, and encourages others to do the same.
What, then, does a good cover letter look like? Well, lets first take a look at what it doesn’t look like. (These examples based on real submissions.)
- The nonexistent cover letter: The author has sent in a story. Maybe it has a title, author name and word count. Possibly it includes contact info. Then we get the story. This is a bit like being thrown into the middle of a conversation, without being introduced.
- The sloppy cover letter: The author has included a greeting, but its rambling, or self-deprecating, or doesn’t give the information a cover letter needs. This includes saying that you don’t know what genre your story is, which is tantamount to saying you don’t understand your own work. Also includes poor spelling and neglecting at least the name of the publication in the salutations.
- The not-really-a-cover-letter cover letter. Namely, listing every publication you’ve been in. Full stop. No Dear editor, no introduction, no information on the story, just a list of creds.
Now, none of these things will be an automatic rejection from most markets. But it does mark the submission as coming from a noob. Especially with the crazy amount of resources available via the interwebs, there is no reason to send out a story with a bad cover letter.
So, we’re back to: What does a good cover letter look like? Here is one, very simple example, the letter itself in bold.
Dear XYZ, <–This should be, at the least “Editor of ‘magazine you are submitting to’”, or use the fiction editor’s name, which will generally be accessible on their website.–>
I am submitting my story “The Clowns of the Cabal” for your consideration. This piece is splatterpunk <–Know your genres enough to be able to label your story, know your story enough to be able to find a label for it. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it shows you have the knowledge to be able to discern whether the piece should even be subbed to that particular market.–> and is approximately 666 words. <–Always include an approximate wordcount. This will help the reader determine whether the piece is within their market’s wordcount guidelines. Also, if the market is looking for something specific to fill a hole in the next issue (like a good flash piece) this could help your story get more consideration, right away.–>
My story “Great Balls of Fire” appeared in the Spring 1978 issue of The Journal of Gastrointestinal Studies, and my story “Poirrot’s Downfall” will appear in Issue #13 of Wicked Cool, October 2014. <–In this second paragraph, list 2-4 of your most relevant/recent publications, as well as any relevant and notable workshops you have attended, or schooling you might have. Your HVAC certificate does not count, unless your story is about an air conditioner repairman, or the like.–>
Thank you in advance for your time. <–Let them know that you know that they’re human.–>
Arnold P. Schwarzenkopfer
Writing as John Smith <–If you have a pen name, include it both below your signature, and on the manuscript in the byline. Your real name goes under your signoff tag, as well as in the upper left corner of your ms, where your contact info should be located. Standard manuscript format.–>
And that’s it. You don’t need to include your bio unless the market specifically asks for it, though it’s not a deal breaker. (Speaking of submission guideline–read them. They are there to help you. Because if you ignore them, the reader/editor will know, and it will count against you.) You don’t need to be witty or clever. Just get in, introduce yourself, and then get out of the way of your story.
Have I missed anything crucial? What’s your take on cover letters?
(As a side note, I now want to write all those stories.)