Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ask an Editor: Cover Letter Bio?

Margie asked: "Do I need to include a brief bio in my cover letter when submitting a story?"'

The simple answer is no, you do not.

Is it helpful?  Potentially, but not always.

I've seen all kinds of bios in cover letters.  From a single sentence to a full page to nothing at all.

Speaking as a working editor, I'd say I tend toward nothing at all over a full page for a bio.  Margie, being an astute writer, asked if she should include a 'brief' bio.  Brevity is the key word.  If you do decide to include one, keep it brief.  No more than three or four sentences.

But are you one of those writers who should include one at all?

Here are some questions to help you decide:

1.  Do I have any writing-related credits to include in my cover letter?  Writing credits would be recent and/or professionally paid publications.  You might also include recent publication in lesser markets if they're well-respected.  Also, if you have participated in professional writing workshops, have a degree in English or creative writing, other writing-related education or activities, you could include those.

Well, OK, just one question.  That's really all there is to it.

Don't include your life story, your sleeping habits, your favorite recreational activities, every place you've ever lived or exotic foreign clime you've visited.  Don't include the title of all 32 stories you've published in obscure publications over the course of 68 years.  I exaggerate, but you're smart enough to realize that.

But what if you don't have any writing-related credits?  Just a simple:

Dear Editor,

I respectfully submit my story "Title Here" for your consideration.


Your Name

Because I'm going to let you in on a little secret:

Editors don't always even read cover letters.  It's just one more thing to do in a long string of things that need to be done to get a story from the slushpile to the printed page.

At Flash Fiction Online, your story gets read first, because what's in your cover letter doesn't really matter.  What matters is the story.  After we've read, if we're interested, we'll read the cover letter to learn more about you.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Kind of Writer?

I'm currently working my way through Dave Farland's new edition of Million Dollar Outlines.

He suggests, and rightly so, that there are two main types of writers: the discovery writer and the outliner.

Of course it's not quite that cut and dried.

Essentially, there are a hundred kinds of writers, but they all fall on a scale somewhere between discovery and outliner.

So what do I mean by those terms?

A pure discovery writer never thinks ahead about what he's going to write.  He sits down, begins writing, and discovers where his writing will take him.  A VERY pure discovery writer won't even have a preconceived story idea in mind when he begins writing.

A pure outline writer won't write a word unless he has a detailed outline of every detail of the story, from beginning to end, and will NOT deviate from that outline in any way.

But there really are very few pure discovery or pure outline writers.  We mainly fall somewhere in between.

Even a heavy discovery writer will begin writing with a general story in mind, or maybe the end of a story in mind, or maybe a character who needs a story in mind.

A heavy outline writer (at least a smart one) will allow himself to let the story take him in a new direction, taking some time to readjust his outline to reflect that.

Each type of writer has his own challenges.  For example, a discovery writer may end up with a mess of disorganization at the end of months of writing that will need so much editing that it hardly seems worth the effort; while an outline writer may be so wrapped up in the outlining that by the time it comes to writing the story he's bored with it, never getting beyond the outline in the process.

Personally, I can't imagine sitting down to write with no preconceived notions of what I'm going to write, though I'll suggest that doing such a thing is an excellent exercise for getting over writer's block or for getting the creative juices flowing at the beginning of a writing session.

But I do lack a certain amount of skill in the area of outlining.

That's why I'm reading Dave's book.  I'll let you know how it turns out.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Originality in Storytelling

Someone once said that there are no new stories.

He was right.

All stories can be categorized into one of many motiffs, all of which have been done for as long as stories have been told.

So how do you make your story original?

You don't.  But you DO make it interesting.

First, let me slay a myth--people don't read your story to find out what happens at the end.  The underlying story structure that we, as humans, have lived with for thousands of years says that good wins, problems are solved, characters learn lessons, and life goes on.

Even in a murder mystery we know the killer will be caught in the end.  And in a well-written murder mystery we even have a richly satisfying "I KNEW IT!" moment when the killer is revealed.  You see? We already knew.

So what makes us read a story?  The middle.  The stuff that gets us to the end.

We want to see what happens to get your characters there.  We want to see their struggles, their desires, their pain, their courage, their cowardice, their triumphs, strengths, weaknesses, warts and all.  We want characters to be REAL to us.  We want to feel for them.  We want to feel WITH them.

Your characters don't need to have green hair or seven toes to be interesting.  They don't even need to be described in great detail.  They only need to do things that your readers can relate to, can understand, can empathize with.

Another aspect of making a story more original, or interesting, is to avoid cliche.  Avoid the first thing that comes to the collective human conscience.  For example, if a kid is walking across a playground and comes across a hoppy-taw, what's the first thing he might do with it?  Sticks it in his pocket?  Maybe.  Play a game of hopscotch?  Possibly.  Those are pretty common answers.  What's slightly more interesting than that?  Maybe he goes on a quest to discover the owner of the hoppy-taw.  Maybe that gets him into some other kind of adventure.  Maybe he knows whose it is and decides to keep it.  Maybe there's some tension between him and this other child.  What could it be?  How might it be resolved?

Keep thinking.  The third or fourth idea will likely be considerably more original.  And that idea will lead to others, and the process begins again.

So, originality is less in the story structure and more in the story details.  Give yourself a break.  Let yourself use the standard story structure and enrich your stories with the treasures you can stuff inside it.

Need I Reiterate? Apparently I Do.

You want advice on submitting your work?

I'll give you advice.

The trouble is I've given this advice before.  Many times.  I, or one of my team leaders, give this same advice almost daily.  We reject stories because of it.  We waste our time and the time of aspiring authors because of it.

Here it is.

In caps.

Because I feel like yelling it...


(Three exclamation marks, even.)

If you haven't visited a market in awhile--say 6 months or so--review the guidelines.

If you're submitting a story or novel for the very first time, read the guidelines.

If you think you're a big hotshot author who will obviously have his/her story land right on the top of the slush pile because of your impressive list of publications, despite the fact that you choose to ignore the guidelines, think again.

If you think guidelines aren't important, think again.

If you think it's fine for you to waste someone else's time--particularly someone who might pay you for that time--think again.

And do more than just read the guidelines.

Read them CAREFULLY.

Then HEED them!

Read n' heed.  Read n' heed.  It's really not that complicated.