Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cover Letters : Short Story Market

A cover letter should not be confused with a query letter. And, while most short story markets DO NOT require a query letter, they do like to have a brief cover letter. Fortunately, cover letters are one of the easiest parts of the submission “extras” to write.

Here are the basics.

Your letter should begin with Dear [Editor]. Find the name of the editor of the publication you're submitting to. It is usually available in the “About Us” info on the magazine's website. If it's a large publication there may be separate editors for different departments. i.e. Fantasy stories may go to one editor while sci-fi goes to someone else. If this is the case, make sure you get the correct name. Even if a publication doesn't have different editors for different departments, chances are they do have more than one editor. The general rule of thumb is to address the letter to the Grand High Poohbah A.K.A: the senior editor.

Next should be a sentence that looks something like this: Attached is my short story (The Weather is Always Fine in Paradise) of approximately 7000 words. It is important to note that most publications DO NOT want a logline, summary or synopsis (however brief) of your short story. In fact, many submission guidelines specify the story should be able to stand on it's own and they will find out what it's about when they read it. The only thing they want to know is the title of the story and how long it is. If you're dealing with publications that do take simultaneous submissions, this is also the place to say if a particular story is being subbed elsewhere.

Thirdly, unless specified in the submission guidelines you DO NOT need to provide an author's bio in your cover letter. You can provide a few details about your writing history such as: I have a B.A. in Creative Writing/English/Speculative Fiction/Whatever. My stories have been published online/in print with Magazine X, Anthology Y and Publication Z. My rule of thumb is to mention whatever publication credits you have, up to three or four. Once you have more than that, mention the most recent/relevant.

You DON'T need to state you've been writing since the age of seven or that storytelling is your passion. The first is irrelevant, the second is usually a given.

If, however, you've met the editor before and been encouraged to submit you might put in a line reminding them of that meeting. Or if you've submitted to the publication before and been rejected but encouraged to submit something else, you can say that too. But keep it brief and business-like.

This is also the place to put down any “special circumstances” that apply to the story you are submitting. This could be: My high school paper published this story 14 years ago. Or: I spent two years working as a crew member on a sailing ship/zeppelin/velocipede team. DO NOT say something like: I saw an episode of Nova on PBS and was inspired to write about black holes.

If you haven't been published before and/or don't have any background writing fiction THAT IS OKAY. Everyone starts somewhere. But (BUT!) don't put that in the cover letter. Just skip this paragraph and head straight for the last section.

Fourthly, a brief line thanking the editor is always nice. I usually say: Thank you for your time and consideration.

Lastly, put your name.

Simple, yes?

The only remaining question is: is a cover letter necessary?

Some publications not only don't require one, but even say NOT to include one unless there is something specific (not covered in the other parts of the submission form) that needs to be brought to the editors attention. (Daily Science Fiction and Strange Horizons both politely discourage cover letters unless absolutely necessary.) And, while there are some publications that DO require a cover letter, many fall in the middle ground, neither requiring nor discouraging them.

Here's my two cents. If you have ANY publication credits (whether pro- semi- or otherwise) it never hurts to mention them. (This is assuming they are relevant credits. Non-fiction sales will mean little to fantasy magazine.) And, in my mind, it never hurts to show a little extra effort in the submission process by actually thanking the editor (or slush-reader) for their time. This is the handshake at the end of the job interview. By itself it won't make a difference between “Yes, we want it” and “No, thanks”. But it can show you are serious about what you are doing.

So, what have you submitted today?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Outlines: The Skinny on Why an Outline Can Help You (And When They Might Not)

When it comes to writing, organization can mean the difference between success and failure. And when it comes to organization, an outline is an important tool.

Before we go any further let me stop to say this: it is a rookie mistake to think that the use of an outline has anything to do with a writer's skill level. Let me say that again.

Outlines are not indicative of writing skill or lack thereof. They are not a crutch. They are not something only a beginner needs. You may have heard differently. You may be under the impression that if you are a “proper” writer you won't need to use an outline. This is not true.

An outline is a tool to help you organize the information you want to share with your readers. End of story. This is true whether you outline a story before you write it or use an outline to analyze a rough draft prior to revision. An outline is an organizational tool.

Whether this particular tool is right for you is something only you can judge.

Here's how an outline can help you writing a rough draft.

  1. The Big Picture – it's easy to get lost when dealing with 80k words or more. An outline keeps the whole of the story in view even when the subplots are especially twisty or a slow spot is threatening to drag the whole project under.
  2. The Road Map – getting from point A to point Z is not always as simple as it sounds. Sometimes just getting to point B is a challenge. An outline gives you a chance to connect the dots before you're facing the additional challenge of writing.
  3. The Progress Chart – while this can be a double-edged sword, an outline shows you how much progress you're making toward the end of the story. (Or, how much progress you aren't making, but either way you know how far you've gotten.)
  4. I'm Bored – if you're like me you might find that writing from beginning to end is sometimes... boring. With an outline you can skip around, writing the parts that seem interesting to you on any given day and still keep the whole thing on track. (More or less.)

Here's how an outline can help you edit your novel.

  1. All of the Above – editing is a frequently dreaded step of the writing process. And, given that the novel is just as many words to edit as it was to write in the first place, all of the reasons an outline can help during the rough draft apply to the editing process as well.
  2. What The Hell Is This? - if you've never gone back to look at the first draft of a novel and thought “What the heck did I write?”, never fear – that moment will come. (Sooner or later.) Creating a new outline (based on what you actually wrote and not just what you intended to write) is the first step to evaluating what should be kept, what needs serious revisions and what should be cut out entirely.

“But what if I don't want to use an outline?” you say.

Well, an outline is a tool and, like any other tool, not everyone will get the same productivity out of it. I, personally, find outlines to be enormously helpful, but not everyone has my brain so not everyone will get the same results.

Here's why an outline might not be right for you.

  1. My Hands are Tied – although it isn't true that an outline is binding, some people find the idea of plotting a story before they are writing the actual story to be restrictive. Or they find that the creativity seems to shut down once the story is laid out in black and white bullet points.
  2. The Outline That Ate Chicago – believe it or not, sometimes you can get so caught up in writing the outline you never actually get around to writing the story. If you find you've spent three years on the outline (or even three months) you might consider that it's time to move on to the next step – writing. If the problem persists, outlines may be more of a hindrance than a help.

The most important thing to remember is that not every novel is the same. It doesn't matter if you use an outline or not. What matters is that you are using every available tool to help you write more productively. Sometimes that means winging it. Other times you may need more organization. Whether you need to pick up an outline or put it away, remember: an outline is a tool, not an indication of skill (or lack thereof).

So, what have you written today?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Writing Fiction From Scratch

A lot of people dream of being published authors.
Some of us want to be the next JK Rowling, Wally Lamb, Stephen King or <insert your favorite author here>.
Some of us want to write because it's our passion and we have stories we want to share with the world.
And that's great. Wonderful. Amazing and fantastic, even. (Even for those of us, like me, who are in it for the money.)

The million dollar question is, what have you done today to make that dream happen?

Did you read a good book?
Spend an hour searching for potential representation?
Browse your favorite online writers forum?
Did you catch up on the dozens of blogs by other writers, publishers and agents that you find inspiring?
Find a few new blogs to read?
Take a walk?
Listen to music?
Browse through photos or newspaper headlines looking for inspiration?
Did you exchange emails with a writing partner or that friend who's always cheering you on?
Tweet a few dozen times about how hard it is to get published/quotes by famous authors/the link to the latest bad/good news in the publishing world?
Browse Facebook searching for new writers to connect with?
Look for how-to articles on writing?

Did you write?

There is nothing wrong with searching for inspiration or researching new markets. Networking with other writers and learning your craft is rarely a bad idea. BUT. Nothing will make you a better writer more than writing. And I mean nothing.

Writing fiction from scratch is hard.
It takes work.
Not surfing the web looking for yet another article debating the pros and cons of First Person vs. Third Person.
It takes work.
Not meandering around Facebook looking for more writers to friend.
It takes work.

That means sitting down every day and writing something. Even if it's one sentence. Even if you know it sucks. Even if it takes an hour to get one paragraph finished. Sit down and write. Because nothing will help your chances for success more than actually writing.

So, what have you written today?