Brilliant In Its Simplicity

In continuation of providing support to my fellow writers, today’s blog post offers further assistance with the publication of your short story.  I touched on how to format your short story for submission, but now I’ll address the query letter.  I don’t know about you, but those two simple words often strike fear in my heart.  After working so hard on your piece of writing, now you have to craft a brilliant letter to entice your chosen agent or editor in the hopes of receiving publication of your short work or a request to see more of your longer pieces.

The good news is that a query letter to accompany your short story is more like a cover letter.  You’ll probably spend more time researching magazines that are compatible with your work than you will crafting your submission cover letter.  In fact, I’m amazed I have this much to say about one of the shortest things you’ll ever write.  As an added bonus, this letter works for poetry, too.

Start you letter with your name and contact information at the top left-hand side of the document.  Immediately following is the name of the editor-in-chief or appropriate genre editor and the name of the magazine.  Next is the genre of the piece you are submitting.

Sidebar:  I must admit that I didn’t know short story was a genre especially since many people indicate that a piece is fantasy, horror, etc.  I double checked this because I always love to learn something new and pass it on.  It would appear to be true.  I suppose if one has written a piece in a more specific genre, such as those mentioned, you could state this.  I also suppose one would be smart enough not to send a short work of romance to a sci-fi journal.

The word count for the short story comes next, or if you’re submitting poems, indicate the number you have included.  A brief bio highlighting your previous publications should be included.  If you are well published, congratulations; however, resist the urge to mention every piece you’ve ever placed.  One or two of those placed with well-known magazines or journals will suffice.  If your education is relevant to your writing career or topic of choice, include that as well.  The same goes for your professional background.

Be sure to mention whether or not your submission is simultaneous.  There are a few places that will not accept a simultaneous submission, and I will withhold my opinion about them.  Some editors assume a submission has been sent to multiple magazines/journals, but they still want this noted.  Quite frankly, I can’t imagine why one wouldn’t be sending out simultaneous submissions especially if he or she is attempting to build reputation as a writer.  When your piece of short fiction has been accepted, immediately notify and/or withdraw it from other places to which you have submitted.

The good thing about cover letters for short fiction is that they do not require a synopsis of the written work.  Another unnecessary addition is your life story, so don’t be tempted to include it.  Only short works of non-fiction need this type of information, and even then, filter what you include.  Use good sense and don’t gush over the magazine/journal to which you are submitting.  Don’t tell how many times the piece has been rejected.

And that, fellow writers, is the long and short of it.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 15

Two days ago I started reading a novel by an author whose previous book I enjoyed. Admittedly, I only had one book by which to judge her writing, but since I absolutely fell in love with the story, I trusted that I would like other books she wrote. The first novel I read by this particular author was set in medieval Japan, a favorite era of mine, which scored the book high marks right off the bat. I didn’t have to labor at all to find the exciting parts as the writing was excellent and the story captivated me. Again, this alone shed a positive light on the second novel even though it wasn’t about Japan.

Writer's Soul 15Many years had passed between reading the two novels, but I had high hopes for the second one. The second book started slowly with very little dialog and page long paragraphs composed of rambling sentences from multiple POVs separated only by commas. It took some effort to follow whose thoughts were being expressed. But I’m no quitter. If I could read José Saramago’s The Double which has enormous paragraphs with only periods and commas even when it’s dialog, and ended up being one of the best books I ever read, then I could finish this book.

One of the first things I checked was where in the lineup of publication this particular book stood. It’s number fourteen for the author which is quite impressive. There was a reason to keep going. If publishers believed the novel worthy of printing, then I should probably press on. I mentioned this to my husband, and it generated a question we’ve debated before. Is there a certain place in an established author’s career when no matter how mediocre the book may be it will still be published based on his or her prior success and/or reputation?

I’m tempted to read this author’s first and second books. They were published several decades ago, and I wonder how the writing may have evolved over time. Is it better, worse, different? Was the author simply trying something new, something she always wanted to do but didn’t dare attempt until she was established enough to trust that her work wouldn’t be rejected? Or does this later book reflect the change in tastes among readers?

In either case, I’m going to be fair to this author and finish the book. There have been less than five books in my lifetime that I was unable to finish. Also, I’m willing to allow an author some grace as she builds up to the pinnacle of the story. I trust that fourteen books later, this author knows how to write worthy of my attention. There are slight mysteries and questions that have been posed, and I cannot set the book down without discovering what they are.

I mention all of this to lay some groundwork for the real issue I want to discuss. It has to do with query letters, synopses, and first page or chapter critiques experienced by new authors. If the book I’m reading was a first novel, without an established reputation backing it, to be judged only on a query letter, synopsis, or first chapter, regardless of how brilliant those items may be written, it would be rejected outright.

A person simply cannot focus on a tiny glimpse of someone’s writing taken out of context and judge whether or not the entire work is worthy of publication. And yet, this is exactly what it done during pitch sessions at writing conferences and in agents’ offices on a daily basis. How much brilliant writing is bypassed because an agent, editor, or publisher wasn’t aware of all the narrative forces driving the story as it unfolds to reveal its true shape?

I fear that what I’ve termed ‘fast-food thinking’ has negatively influenced the art of writing and publication of said writing. Everything in life takes place at the speed of light so that our desires receive instant gratification. Just as quickly, we move on to seek the next tantalizing thing without ever realizing that we aren’t truly satisfied. The more we seek, the more things need to be supplied to fulfill the vicious whims of demand. And if you are the person who can do it bigger, better, faster than anyone else, you’ll probably be the one to make boat loads of money. So what if quality suffers? Well, that’s the problem I’m leading up to.

Let’s step back for a moment and analyze why this fast-paced process isn’t working. Let’s start with the writing. Great writing takes time, and if people have bought into the lie that time is money, then great literature is in more danger of becoming obsolete than even I thought possible.

There has to be a better way.

Writing is a major investment of passion and time. It doesn’t follow cookie-cutter formats and spew out copycat books, it doesn’t happen to make the writer rich, and it doesn’t exist for the express purpose of becoming a movie. Writing can be summarized for book flaps and reviews, but if that was all it took to satisfy a person, the writing wouldn’t have become a book in the first place.

It’s time to trade in ‘fast-food thinking’ for ‘stop and smell the roses reasoning.’ If anything worth having is worth waiting for, then I propose allowing this lesson in patience to be applied to how books are evaluated. Furthermore, as a society, we must no longer tolerate being spoon fed our entertainment especially where books and/or writing is concerned. Readers must also slow down and appreciate the treasures they hold in their hands when they read a book.

Of course, I’m open to suggestions on how to make this process work better, not just easier. In doing so, we’ll not only rescue writing from being destroyed, we’ll stop this process from encroaching upon other forms of art.

Write Happy!

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