Monday, March 29, 2010

Submitting Queries and Cover Letters: Help From Above?

The question:

"How much weight does a recommendation from a well known author help a beginning writer in the query process?"

The answer: (relevant to the slush submission process, too)

About as much weight as anything else that might make the editor sit up and take notice of you, which is some. But then, it could backfire on you. I'll explain later.

But let me elaborate.

First, using gimmicks to make the editor notice your submission is always a bad idea. Things like submitting on colored paper, or submitting in strange font formats. For the most part, editors just want the regular old stories submitted the regular old way--on white paper, Times New Roman or Courier New font, double spaced, 1" margins, blah, blah, blah.

Second, what you DO want to include to make the editor sit up and take notice is what you'll include in the content of your cover (or query) letter.

I want to be informed. I want to know who you are. Quite a lot of authors don't put their full name on their submission letter. Do it. It introduces you to me. It makes you real. It makes you an author, just like me, who's trying to make a name for herself, so don't be hesitant to make your name known. It's that simple. You don't need to give me a biography at this point. Just your name is good for now. If I want to pursue the relationship (ie. I request your story via your query, or decide to publish your story) then I might want to know a little more about you. And in the case of a request via query, I'll tell you what more I want to know. But for the preliminary process, I just want a name. I don't care where you put the name. At the beginning as an header or at the end as a signature or both. It doesn't make much difference.

I want to know that you respect me and the work I do. Begin your letter respectfully. A simple, etiquette-pure 'Dear Editor,' is a beautiful beginning to a query/cover letter. Follow that up with a line that explains what you are writing to me about. My personal cover letter begins this way: Dear Editor, I respecfully submit my story, "Name of Story," for your consideration. That's all. That simple. Most editors, myself included, don't give cover letter much more than a cursory glance/quick read. I scan over cover letters to see if the story title is there, if the writer's name is there, if there are some important details that might put that letter above some of the others, or that I might want to give special attention to. Which leads me to...

I want to know what you've done. Quickly summarize your most recent and/or impressive publications (for example, a publication in Analog is going to draw considerably more attention than a publication in a non-paying ezine, but considerably less attention if that Analog publication occured in 1972), any writing workshops you've attended, pertinent college background--like if you have a degree in English or Creative Writing. If you're a sci-fi writer a degree in Ethnobotany is interesting and fairly pertinent. It shows me you know your science (or should). But telling me you have a degree in Accounting and your story is a historical romance set in Ancient Babylon, the Accounting degree carries no weight whatsoever.

If you have no such experience (publication, workshops, college) just omit it. A simple respectfully submitted letter is better than saying you have no experience. Best for the editor to wonder at it.

It would be at this point, for my questioner, that you would insert the recommendation from the author.

But is that recommendation a gimmick? Or is it a legitimate point of reference and qualification?

I don't know. I've never come across this question or the answer to it in my years of writing and editing.

I think it could be taken either way. But let me share with you my thoughts:

1. How do I, as the editor, know that this recommendation is a legitimate one? If you can get a signed letter from the well-known author to include with your query/cover, that's one thing. As an editor, I'd want to also have the well-known author's contact information so I can check up on it. You see, I can fairly easily check up on your publication and workshop credits. If I'm really ambitious I can check up on your college degree credits without too much trouble. But it's not as easy to check up on your say-so that Well-Known Author likes your writing or your story.

2. I'd let such a recommendation carry more weight if it were applicable to the individual story, rather than you or your writing in general. As an editor, I look at stories more than authors or their qualification. Your story is what sells you. At least to me. And I think that's true of most editors in the magazine industry. It might be a whole 'nother ball of wax for the book industry.

3. Make sure you're submitting appropriately, or your recommendation will get you less than nowhere. For example, your story can be recommended from here to eternity, but if you submit a novelette to a flash fiction market it's not going to look good for you OR the author who recommended you. So use that recommendation with care. Make it count. Protect it and preserve its value by using it wisely.

4. Use it humbly. Be very careful you don't make the editor feel as if you're demanding publication because of your hoity-toity recommendation from Well-Known Author. Remember, magazines reject stories from professional authors all the time. I say again, it's not you, it's your story that sells you.

5. Weigh carefully the value TO YOU of that recommendation. Why? Because some editors may see it as presumptuous. You never can tell. Editors are editors. They're as individual as snowflakes under a microscope. They have prejudices, preferences, and burrs under their saddles, just like everyone else. If the editor who sees your query happens to LOVE the author who wrote your recommendation, then you can't lose. But what if the editor happens NOT to like the author? Not so great. So, do you want the recommendation to sell your story? Or do you want your story to sell your story? The recommendation MAY very well help. That's good. But ultimately it will always be the story that seals the deal.

I hope that answers your question, or at least gives you some food for thought. I'm going to put the word out on my writer/editor network and see what other's have to say. I'll include those comments--if any--in the comments for this post. If you need clarification feel free to ask for it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ask an Editor

Go ahead. Ask me. Ask me anything. Of course I'll only answer if I know the answer. I mean, if you ask me the flight speed of an African Swallow whilst carrying a coconut it's fairly likely you'll be ignored. And if you ask me about the nuts and bolts of the book publishing process, I may or may not know the answer. But if you ask me something about running an online magazine or about the slush process involved with that, or about writing, THOSE I can answer.

Just post a comment with your question and I'll answer in a post.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How Unique Is My Story?

That's not a particularly easy question to find an answer for.

In SOME respects, it's easy.

For example, you MUST KNOW that any hugely popular book is going to be followed by a plethora of similar stories sent in to short story markets. Every release of a new Twilight book is followed by an avalanche of vampire stories.

You must also know that some story frameworks are so old and oft-done that finding a unique angle to them is a challenge for even the best writers. The standard romance motifs, for example. You know them. Jane Austen did them all. 1) Boy meets girl; boy hates girl; girl hates boy; they find they've misunderstood each other and reconcile in the end. 2) Boy loves girl; girl loves boy; boy and girl torn apart by circumstances beyond their control; boy finds girl in the end. 3) Boy meets girl; boy and girl love each other but bumble around with telling each other so; finally in a moment of tension boy confesses to girl. 4) Any combination of the above. Also, the speculative fiction standards--werewolves, vampires, dragons, evil aliens, fairy tales. That last one's my nemesis. I love writing 'fairy tale riffs,' as one editor described them. But they're hard to sell.

It is a truth that no story is wholly unique. Every story has been told, every angle explored. But your story still has to be unique in some way.

Maybe it's uniquely well-written.

Or uniquely deep in characterization.

Or unique in it's setting. Sometimes the most mundane settings can be the most unique, which further complicates things, doesn't it? But really, how many stories are set in New York City? A lot. Loads of interesting things happen in New York, but that's to be expected, isn't it. How many stories are set in a housewife's kitchen? Could you create an interesting story set in a housewife's kitchen? Something like Irma Splinkbottom's Recipe for Cold Fusion? (by Janene Murphy, Flash Fiction Online, November 2009)

Maybe your story has a unique twist to an old theme, like a vampire whose mortal buddies let him suck a little blood once in awhile because the poor kid gets so darned pale and listless (Ray the Vampire by Mercedes M. Yardley, Flash Fiction Online October 2008).

Maybe your story uniquely emphasizes a culturally or societally relevant theme in an oft-repeated story framework, such as prejudice and genocide in The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Trip Trap by ME, Anotherealm May 2005).

Understand that some story ideas that don't sell are hard to pin down because you don't see any of them in the fiction markets. So, naturally, you think, 'My story is different from all those published stories, so it's SURE to sell.' Think twice about that one. Many publishers include in their guidelines lists of story ideas they see too often or don't want to see. Read those lists. Keep them on file. If THOSE publishers are seeing those story ideas too often, so are ALL publishers.

Here are two from Strange Horizons:
Stories We've Seen Too Often
Horror Stories We've Seen Too Often

Here's one from Thrilling New Detective Fiction:
Thundering Cliches

In addition to these, I'll add my own observations of what we're unlikely to publish.

Slush Turnoffs:

*Suicide. I'd rather see characters acting to save themselves, even if they fail miserably.
*Abuse of children, especially sexual abuse, ESPECIALLY incest. Yes, it's an important issue, but it needs to be dealt with in a very serious way, not in some fiction magazine on the internet.
*Granny (or Pappy) is dying. I love grandparents as much as the next guy, but it's hard to make it anything but depressing, and it's hard to do it in a way that hasn't already been done a million times before.
*An all-encompassing Depressing S**t (to quote an editor friend) category.
*Stories told from the POV of a cat (or dog, but especially a cat--personal bias), especially if the fact that the POV character is a cat (or dog) is withheld from the reader until the end.
*Bad relationship stories. Too often such stories are about dumb people who suffer abuse or unhappiness because of their own stupid choices. Why would I want to read about that?
*Erotica and excessive pointless violence. There are markets for those. Markets that are NOT for those kinds of stories don't want to read them.

Another way to figure out what might sell is to read--and read a lot.

You'll find dozens of free online fiction magazines in all genres. Some of them, like Every Day Fiction, will send the stories right to your email inbox.

But don't make the mistake of reading a story about a little boy on a trampoline and think your own story about a little boy on a trampoline will sell to the same magazine. We not only want something unique, we want something that hasn't been done before. We don't want to bore our readers with too many similar stories. We want every story to be a new and exciting literary feast.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Characterization: Reader's Want to Care

In junior high school we learned how to write descriptive paragraphs. I still have a few of mine. One is about a storm rolling across the valley where I grew up. Black and purple clouds, lightning forking through the darkness, the wind growing strong and cold, the mountains a dark shadow that's swallowed up by gray sheets of rain.

You know what I mean. You've all written something like it. I hope you kept it, to remind yourself how far you've come.

At any rate, when we learned to write descriptive paragraphs, we learned to over-write. You really don't need quite so much description.

I've already written about imaginative engagement, and how you can make the most of drawing your reader into your story through spare descriptions, particularly in how you can use such a strategy to endear your readers to your characters.

But how, besides sparse description, can you help readers actually want to read about your characters?

Whatever you do, don't take your example from Gregory Maguire's Wicked The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

How do I mean?

I read Wicked. Cover to agonizing cover. I kept hoping (beyond hope, it turned out) for something to happen that would make me care about any of the characters. I cared about Elfeba at the beginning of the book, but that caring soon wore off as she grew and acted and did things that made me not only dislike her, but hate her. And Maguire surrounded her with characters that were no more likeable than she. By the end of the book I was grateful that Dorothy would someday come along and melt her, and sickened that Dorothy would be influenced by Glinda.

Awful book. I wish I had tossed it in the library return bin long before I actually finished it, but I just couldn't let go of the idea that the book was SO popular, and that worthwhile books have characters readers love to love. I just couldn't believe that Maguire would finish the book without giving me that. But he didn't. I got to the last page, still hoping.

Never happened. Waste of time. If I could give it negative stars in a review, I would. I grieve over the time I lost reading it, time that I could have been doing a thousand things more valuable and enjoyable--like having a colonoscopy.

My point is, reader's don't just want to feel strong emotions about characters. Obviously Maguire's book elicited such strong emotions in me I had to go on about it for three paragraphs! But strong emotion wasn't enough.

I REALLY wanted to care.

So how does a writer create a charcater that his reader's can care about?

"Really scary books succeed because we come to know and care about the characters. I like to say, "It's the PEOPLE, stupid"--NOT the monsters." ~Stephen King

Mr. King's advice applies to much more than just good horror. But he has a point about horror. Horror works best when we know and care enough about the people that we fear for them more deeply than if they were strangers--or worse, despicable--to us.

So how does one create characters readers care enough about to read about? Try these:

1. "Hey! I know this guy!"

Readers care about characters they can relate to. Does that mean you're only going to reach blind Tibetan women if your main character is a blind Tibetan woman? Of course not. But as a blind Tibetan woman she will have experienced things that are universal to all human beings--things like pain, sorrow, joy, hunger, fear.

Readers relate to characters for one (or more) of three reasons--things happen to the characters that were similar to things that have happened to the reader; the character reacts emotionally to a problem the way a reader would; the character acts in a way that makes sense to the reader.

The reader thinks, 'Sure, I would have done the same thing.' Or they think, 'You know, I can relate to her sorrow, because I've felt that kind of sorrow before.' Or they think, 'You know, I've never been that scared in my life, and I'm sure glad I haven't! That poor girl!'

In these ways, the reader finds himself in your characters. And since we're all egotists at heart, readers will read about themselves from here to eternity.

The trouble with writing despicable characters is, despicable people don't tend to be voracious fiction readers--hence the overwhelming preponderance of sales of books with good guys that win in the end.

2. No one likes a cry baby.

Don't be afraid to give your characters emotion. Let them react, naturally and in an expected way. Be careful they never OVERreact, however.

A hundred some odd years ago, the Victorians were fond of their female main characters fainting at the slightest distress because of the 'delicate female condition.' It was SO dramatic. it was SO endearing. But was it real? Who knows. I didn't live in Victorian times. Maybe chicks were fainting all over the place. Somehow I doubt it. It was dramatic--melodramatic, at least. But it wasn't realistic. It made fun reading, but didn't change the world or tax the readers' imaginations.

What the readers COULD relate to was that the characters were going through some seriously trying circumstances. Maybe the readers WISHED they could just faint dead away so they wouldn't have to deal with their own trials, at least for a short time. I don't know. I don't actually get it. I thought The Count of Monte Cristo could have been staged with a Snidely Whiplash villain and the count as the big-chinned Canadian Mounty hero it was so over the top melodramatic. Poor Count, bursting into tears at the drop of a velvet glove!!

These days we can't take our example from the Victorian popular fiction writers. Our readers are considerably more savvy than their Victorian counterparts. I believe it was Orson Scott Card who said something to the effect that if you make your character cry, you dispel the tension for the reader; but if your character doesn't cry when he has good reason to, then the reader will cry for him.

For a great book that characterizes subtly, but powerfully, I recommend Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell, or The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss.

3. Don't hate me because I'm beautiful...

My teenage daughter knows a boy at school that she hates. Why? Because he's PERFECT!!! Ugh! He's smart, he's a good speaker, he's outgoing, he's good looking, he's just plain perfect--and she hates him.

You know this person. You've experienced this kind of person before. You probably hate him, too. They make us look bad. They're too good to be true.

True for fictional characters, too.

A character that's too GOOD (or, on the converse, too BAD) will be hated by your reader.

Hating isn't always a bad thing, right? Don't we want to hate our villains?

I'm talking about a different kind of hate here. I'm talking about the 'I don't want to read about this character' kind of hate. The kind of hate that comes from characters that are too perfectly good or too perfectly bad.

This is particularly true for our antagonist and our protagonist. For example, if the books were called Hermione Granger and the Socerer's Stone J.K. Rowling would have been laughed right out of the publisher's office. Hermione is too perfect. She's a know-it-all. But poor flawed Harry makes a perfect hero, just like poor bad-tempered Hercules does, and poor trusting King Arthur.

Rule of thumb, you want your hero to have some flaws--like Harry Potter's ignorance and blatant refusal to do what's good for himself--and you want your villain to be a likable guy--aside from the fact that he's trying to off your hero. OK, maybe not LIKABLE, but he should at least have some characteristics we can relate to. I mean, we even feel sorry for Tom Riddle, don't we? We understand, at some level, why he turned to evil, because we can see ourselves at least entertaining that sort of thing had we been raised in similar circumstances, right? Of course right.

4. The real bad guy--the author

Don't be afraid to hurt your main character. Punch him, slap him, cut him, put him in the hospital, kill his best friend, take away his girlfriend, run over his dog, kidnap his children, burn down his house, shoot his horse out from under him. All these things play on our own fears for our own safety, and they make us LOVE the character who not only goes through it, but struggles against it and survives!

When Emmet gets shot in Silverado--GASP!!
When Luke loses his hand in Star Wars--Oh, no!
When the Wicked Witch of the West slaps Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz--Poor Dorothy!

You get it? I thought you would. Have fun with that.

I found a website called Men With Pens. They had a couple of good articles on characterization:

What Makes Readers Care About Your Characters?

Characters Rule the Story

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Don't Burn Your Bridges

Recently I sent the standard form rejection to a submitter. I mistyped FLASH in the signature. It happens. I mean, if a certain not-to-be-named high up muckity muck editor can send me two rejections written to the wrong person, I can certainly miss a keystroke now and then, right?

That's not quite how this writer saw things.

My rejection (name changed to unjustifiably protect the asinine):

Dear [Full-of-Himself Writer],

Your submission has been deleted unread due to submission guidelines

Please read our submission guidelines before submitting again.


Suzanne Vincent
Falsh Fiction Online

His oh-so-irritating response:

Suzanne honey, hate to see you so overworked!

VIOLATIONS? I didn't realize I was submitting to the Treblinka Times. Sorry, I'll try to do better next time, kapo.

By the way, FLASH is spelled FLASH, not FALSH. Or was that a Freudian slip?

I sent to my Editor, asking if we could "blackball this a**hole." He wrote to said a**hole and sent me a copy of the letter, here:


Consider how you look when you send a simultaneous submission that's only 250 words long, when we explicitly state in our guidelines that we don't accept simultaneous submissions and that we only consider stories that are 500-1100 words long. Kinda stupid, right? I mean, as a writer, you should also be able to read. But oversights happen, and I tend not to be a lenient and light-hearted guy, so whatever. No big deal.

But then you're rude to one of my editors because she pointed out that you're not reading our guidelines. And then you insult her because she has a typo in one of the several hundred emails she sends each month. I have news for you -- that makes you look stupid, not her. StupidER, I should say.

Please don't submit to us again.


Ah, justice.