Storyville: Cover Letters and Bridging the Gap
You’ve found your voice and it’s what you’re calling urban transgression. You’ve cornered the market on dark stories that happen in cities, women with body parts pierced and tattooed, men with stubble on their faces, stinking of cigars and despair. Now what? You’ve done your research (hitting up Duotrope and surfing for the appropriate places to submit, a column we’ll do down the road, soon I promise). You’ve discovered that there is this thing called Submishmash; there are these imbedded submission managers scattered all over various journals that are only for that particular journal; you’ve found places that want you to email it, Times New Roman, double-spaced; and you’ve even discovered one or two gems that want you to (maybe you better sit down) MAIL IT IN. But what do you say, how do you say it—are you going to screw it up NOW?
For a moment let’s just talk about sending off that short story, that dark little gem you’ve been sweating over for a week now, little dents on your forearms from leaning on the desk too hard, empty Diet Coke cans (or if you’re in the know, Diet Dr. Pepper, oh yeah) scattered at your feet. What to say?
The most formal of cover letters follow a very standard format, the same way you might write a cover letter when you apply for a job. It could look something like this:
October 18, 2011
J.W. Wang, Editor
1234 Main Street
Big City, State, Zip
Dear Mr. Wang,
I am submitting my short story “Brick” for your consideration.
BIO: John Doe has published at all of them.
But wait a minute, that’s kind of cold and dry. And if you go to the Juked website, you’ll see that there is no mailing address. Why? They don’t take submissions by mail, that’s why. Could you get the address off of the latest issue? Probably, but that’s not how things are done these days. MOST publications want you to hit up SMM or their proprietary submissions manager, or email it in. I’d say maybe 95% of publications don’t want you to snail mail it in. But there are still a few—in fact, a few that I am still dreaming of publishing with, places that are my “white whales,” elusive, haunting and quite possibly, a figment of my imagination. Doing a quick search of Duotrope, I actually pulled up 144 places that still want you to mail it in.
I’m actually kind of shocked. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Analog, Asimov, F&SF, Harper’s, Missouri Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House, Weird Tales, etc. (UPDATE: This column was written back in 2011, so now, in 2019, I can see that while there are still 151 markets that WILL take mailed in submissions, the vast majority are open to electronic submissions.) So if you’re going to take the time to mail it in, let’s give it a bit more color:
Gordon Van Gelder,
Fantasy & Science Fiction,
P.O. Box 3447,
Hoboken, NJ 07030
Dear Mr. Van Gelder,
I am a huge fan of F&SF, and have been reading it for years. I am submitting my 2,000 word short story “Brick,”a bit of urban transgression, for your consideration, and hope that you enjoy it. Keep up the great work. I really enjoyed Issue #246 on time travel; the Bradbury interview was enlightening.
BIO: John Doe is a graduate of the Antioch MFA program. His work has appeared in BULL SPEC, Weird Tales, Speedloader, Drunken Monkey, and the horror anthology, Slices of Flesh. In his spare time he reviews books for Time magazine.
Okay, see how that’s better? We make the formal a bit more relaxed by breaking the date down into numbers with dots, not as fussy. We still keep in the address and call Mr. Van Gelder by his formal name, not “Hey Gordie.” We suck up a little bit by saying that we love his publication (and if we’re submitting, isn’t that true?) and refer to it by its informal name, “F&SF” (it’s what all the kids call it), never the full, formal title. We give him a word count (it fits the guidelines), the title (“Brick,” Mr. Van Gelder says to himself, “That sounds interesting.”) and a hint of our style, our newly found “urban transgression.” We end on an authoritative note, talking about a past issue, to show that we really DO read F&SF, which is no longer sucking up, but showing that we are informed, professional, and a fan—all good things. And then we end with a much more exciting, informative and relevant bio.
This is a solid cover letter. Time to talk about your bio
“But Richard, I don’t have a bio, I’ve never published anything before.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Crap, how do I whittle down all of my extensive publishing history, my efforts to take over the world, into just a few lines? IMPOSSIBLE!” Either way, I have some solutions for you. And always write them in third person. That may just be my preference, but in my head it sounds like a public relations person, or a radio host, some impartial voice talking about how awesome you are. I think it works better. (UPDATE: I do also see that MOST bios are in third person these days.)
If you have never published anything, I mean not one story on any website, chapbook, or handmade zine, then it’s going to be a little trickier. Do your best.
No credits ever (Collegiate Edition):
BIO: Richard Thomas completed his MFA in 2011 at Murray State University where he studied under Pulitzer nominated professor Dale Ray Phillips. In his spare time he is working his way through the work of Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury. He lives in Chicago.
Just try and use ANYTHING that is close to the world of publishing, editing, writing, etc. It can be a job or a past class you took with a name author. Cling to what you can, but keep it short.
No credits ever (Funny Edition):
BIO: Richard Thomas recently returned from the future where he is happy to report books are still alive, but they are applied to your skin with disappearing ink. He is writing a 1,000 page memoir of his trip, entitled Re-Entry.
I always think this is risky, but if you have a good sense of humor, this could be a chance to write something clever and funny and get somebody’s attention—your call.
BIO: Richard Thomas writes neo-noir fiction and has had stories published at Word Riot, 3:AM Magazine, and in the horror anthology, Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub. In his spare time he is an adjunct professor at Lake Forest College.
Okay, we have shown that we can get published, that there are some editors in the world that have taken our work, and maybe even PAID for it, holy crap. This looks good. Drop some names if you have them, but only a few. You teach too, that’s great, put it in here, it shows you are serious, that this isn’t a lark. Good job.
Lots of credits:
Do not overdo it, be selective, condense, and try to only put down the most recent credits, the ones you are most proud of—I’m using my actual bio here (NOTE: Back in 2011 that is.) as an example—this is what I send out right now:
BIO: Richard Thomas was the winner of the 2009 "Enter the World of Filaria" contest at ChiZine. He has published over forty stories online and in print, including the Shivers VI anthology (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub, the Warmed and Bound anthology (Velvet Press), Speedloader (Snubnose Press), Murky Depths, Gargoyle, PANK, Pear Noir!, Word Riot, 3:AM Magazine, and Opium. His debut novel Transubstantiate was released in July of 2010. In his spare time he writes book reviews at The Nervous Breakdown.
This is bordering on too much, I know that, and I’ll probably cut a few titles soon. The contest win is great to put up front, because they are really hard to get. I then condense my publishing history down to mentioning that I’ve published extensively, and then list a few names of places and books that people may have heard of. I drop King and Straub because it gets people’s attention and puts me in good company. I list a mix of literary and genre credits, print and online, because you never know what the editors are reading, and it shows range. I mention my novel. If you have a novel, mention it. I could probably move that up, but it seems to make sense to me to list it after the stories, like a cherry on top of a sundae. Book reviews comes last, but I’ve done a lot for TNB and the site gets a lot of traffic—just one more way to show that people want to see your writing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When it’s all said and done, you know what? Your cover letter rarely matters. That’s right, I said it. Many editors don’t even read it. But, you never know. It’s an opportunity to give some stranger a quick glance at what you’ve done, but it’s always about the writing. Always. Let me say that again: it’s always about the writing. Do your best to write a short, concise, and appealing cover letter, showcasing whatever ability, experience, and credits you have.
There have been times that I’ve submitted and had an editor say “Hey, Richard, I’ve heard a lot about Transubstantiate, got it on my to-read list.” And I’ve had editors say “Oh, I love The Nervous Breakdown.” You never know what might get somebody’s attention, what might impress them, what might make them pause for just a second and say, “Wow, this guy looks like a serious writer, I’m going to go read his story right now.” And that’s all you can do, really—be professional, concise, and try to bring a spark to the page (or email). Something that might make an editor laugh, or raise their eyebrows, and hopefully open your story and dive on in. That’s what we want—interest.
After all of this, the only thing you have to do now is blow them away with your story. And beat out a hundred other authors. And make up for the fact that the editor is getting divorced, his wife is screwing a guy named Richard, and he hates Stephen King, that hack.
A classic story to read: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and later collected in Welcome to the Monkey House (Delacorte Press).
A contemporary story to read: Lindsay Hunter’s “Me and Gin,” originally published online at Barrelhouse.
TO SEND a question to Richard, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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