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Monday, March 12, 2012

Slush Pile Survival Guide

The Cover Letter
I'm curious. Where do writers get their sometimes very peculiar notions about what makes a good cover letter?

After seeing somewhat more than a thousand cover letters, I must be honest: I no longer read them. The very first thing we do when we receive a new submission is separate the story from the cover letter. The cover letter gets filed, in case we need to refer to it later, and only the story goes on, naked and alone, to meet the first-readers and reviewers.

Frankly, considering most of the cover letters I've seen, this practice is very much to the story's advantage.

For the record, I have never bought a so-so story because it came behind a great cover letter, but I can readily imagine that there are a lot of really great stories floating around out there that have never been published, because they habitually arrive in editor's offices wearing truly godawful ugly cover letters.

Some things to avoid:

* Don't send me your entire c.v. I don't care where you went to school and I'm not buying your publishing history. I'm only interested in buying or not buying this story. In the case of flash fiction in particular, we've actually seen cover letters that were longer than the attached story.

If you have a publication history, great. List your two or three most significant—or most recent—publications. Anything more than five is overkill.

* Don't list an alphabet soup of writer's organizations to which you belong. Some are germane—i.e., SFWA, HWA, and a few others—but if you list everything down to the writer's group that meets at your local library every second Tuesday, this suggests to us that you're more interested in socializing and talking about being a writer than in actually writing.

* Don't presume a jocular familiarity. Don't assume that because the publication is named Stupefying Stories, that we're all a bunch of gonzo wild 'n' crazy kids. Using the insultingly humorous form of address, in particular, just makes us want to kick you. But since we can't get to you, we'll abuse your story instead.

* Don't send us a synopsis of the story we're about to read. All a synopsis can do is take away our interest in actually reading the story. More than anything else, you want the editor to read your story.

* Finally—and this one really baffles me, but someone out there must be saying that doing this is a good idea, because we see it so often—don't send me a paragraph of advertising copy telling me how exciting (or breathtaking, ground-breaking, intriguing, heart-warming, side-splitting, bone-chilling, or whatever) the story I am about to read is. Anything a writer writes about his or her own work in the third-person is apt to be pure marketing b.s., and we both know it, so just stop it right now. Capisce?

Hope this helps. Will write more next week.

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