Lessons From the Slush Pile: Your Cover Letter and You

The following is a slightly modified repost from my personal blog, http://inkhaven.net.


Submitting to short fiction markets can be very scary for newcomers, and there is a whole lot of confusing advice out there. I’m here to help.

First, though: you guys with the long lists of publications, who have your editors on your Christmas card lists and are now submitting reprints and selling rights I’ve never even heard of, you can wait over there in the bar. And you too, you newly-minted pros who have been doing the submission/rejection slog for a few years now–you should go buy those other guys drinks and network a little. We’ll come join you in a minute.

The rest of you, huddle up.

We’re going to talk about our cover letters today: those things that we agonize over, that First Impression that we are all SO WORRIED about. Do I sound like a real writer? Did I rank high enough in that contest entry? Do my college credits count as professional credits? What about my work as an astrophysicist, that surely qualifies me to write SF, doesn’t it?

Stop worrying.

I will tell you a secret: when submitting fiction to SFF markets, your cover letter is meant to do THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what it’s supposed to do in the rest of the world.

I’ll explain.

Out There–in the job market, academia, whatever–your cover letter is meant to impress. You are expected to drop names. You are supposed to include the most tangentially related accomplishments you can think of. You are meant to inflate it with every credit you can muster. Out There, cover letters become masterful works of fiction: spells cast to cloud the reader’s perception, to convince them to trust us and believe that we are the right person for the task. It is absolutely natural to assume that the same holds true when writing a cover letter for an SFF market.

Natural, but wrong.

The information on the internet reinforces the myth of the Inflated Cover Letter. You’ll see this perfectly reasonable-sounding advice given to writers on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s even in the submission guidelines of your favorite publication:

– Include your publication credits

This is terrifying to a new writer who doesn’t have any. We want to do it right, so we wrack our brains, thinking we have to put something there. Do I include my high school newspaper experience? What about that essay I published in our local Arts & Entertainment paper? I placed 15th in that one fiction contest–that means I was better than the other contestants who placed lower, right?

I know! It’s a horrible mental knot that we tie ourselves into, but the answer is really very simple: Leave it out.

If you do not have semi-pro or pro publication credits, anything less is not a substitute for them. This includes college courses, workshops, contests, university publications, and anything else that did not pay you Actual Money of at least 3 cents/word. Those other things are not examples of professional quality work, and including them can actually hurt you if the reader has a low opinion of any of them.

There are exceptions: there are fanzines with immaculate reputations; a contest that comes to mind that is considered very credible in the field; workshops that most of us would give our eyeteeth to get into. You know which ones those are, if you’ve published in them, placed in it, or attended them. If not, don’t list lesser ones.

And then there’s the advice that sends us all into sweating fits of anxiety:

– Explain why you’re the best person to write this story

No. Stop. Just…NO.

I’d seen this advice treated on the internet as general wisdom for years, but it never made any sense to me, not for what I was writing. What comes of this ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE advice are sorrowful, worry-filled cover letters that say things like “I’m a stay-at-home mother, but I’ve been reading SFF for as long as I could read, and have taken several creative writing classes at Local Community College.”

When an agent at a conference offered it up again to the workshop I was in, I seized the opportunity to clarify. I said approximately the following:

“WTF. I’m writing about DRAGONS/WIZARDS/ZOMBIES/VAMPIRES/SPACESHIPS/ALIENS. I do not have direct experience with any of those things. I’m the best person to write this story because…I have an active imagination?”

He changed the subject. It was almost as if he himself didn’t know why he was advising it. Or it might have been my demeanor, which was admittedly exasperated. Either way, my class didn’t get an answer.

What I’ve since learned is that it’s advice that came from non-fiction publishing, where yeah, your experience with your subject matter counts. It does not scale to SFF short fiction. Ignore it. STOP WORRYING. NOW.

One more thing you want to leave out of your cover letter is what rights you’re offering. If you read the guidelines (and you DID read the guidelines, and followed them TO THE LETTER, didn’t you?) you know which rights they’re buying. They are not going to negotiate with you on that. Including it tells the reader that a) you didn’t read the guidelines, and b) you are concerned that the publisher is going to steal your rights from you. They’re not. It’s okay. They’re professionals.

That’s what not to include in your cover letter. Let’s talk about what you should include. You’ll be shocked. Seriously. This is the easiest, most worry-free thing you have ever done. It never needs to take up another cycle in your brain that would be better spent making art. Ready?

Dear Sue Doe, [Editor’s actual name. Many editors are INCREDIBLY PICKY about this. My boss is not, but many are. If there are many editors and sub-editors, use the name of the highest-ranking editor.]

Please find attached my short story “Epic Tale You Totally Want To Buy” (2500 words, Fantasy) for your consideration. [Title. Word count. Genre if market accepts more than one. If they only accept one genre, do not submit a different genre to them. Natch.]

My work has previously appeared in Realms of Fantasy and Fantasy & Science Fiction. [THIS IS OPTIONAL.] I am a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing workshop. [ALSO OPTIONAL.]

Thank you for your time and attention.

Regards,

Jane Smith
123 Main Street
Smalltown, PA 12345
[email protected]
123.456.7890

THAT’S IT. That’s all. Do not inflate. Do not be clever. Do not include a bio unless the guidelines specifically ask for one.

So here’s the point: in the rest of the world, cover letters are meant to impress. In the SFF world, they just need to not bias the reader against you.

Look, we’re already up against how the reader’s day job went, how much sleep they got, whether their kids are driving them crazy, the state of their general health, their financial troubles, and whether or not their relationship is working. We’ve got a LOT working against us. As new writers and budding professionals we do not want to add to that.

I’m going to keep hammering these numbers home: 400-600 submissions PER MONTH. 2-5 available slots PER MONTH. They are not looking for reasons to love your words; they’re looking for reasons to cull them from an overwhelming pile. Do not give them a reason to doubt your ability before they’ve even seen your story. Let the work speak for itself.

So tell them what they need to know and tell them nothing that they don’t. Click Send, and update your submissions spreadsheet.

Now go take your rightful place over there in the bar with the rest of the writers. It’s where you belong. You earned it.

(And then get to work on your next story.)

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  • And when in doubt, do not address your cover letter to ‘Dear People’. At that point, I’m laughing too hard to keep reading.

    Excellent advice, as usual!

    I’d say about 1/2 MAX of my slush-pile cover letters follow this formula.

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  • Chris

    WORD! I have waited for this Great Day that SOMEONE else would promulgate the exact same ideal of a cover letter that I hold dear. I had wondered if I was really the only editor out here who honestly doesn’t ever read a word of anyone’s covers anyway and doesn’t have a second to spare on the “what not to include”-type stuff. I have several regular submitters who not only write a big long cover letter but actually send it as an attached document (!) along with their sub and an email explaining that they have written a cover letter (attached). Everyone who submits to SFF zines needs to read this post.

  • I’ve had pretty good luck with a one-line description of the story, but no more than that. I always figured what Chris said in his comment, that the editors don’t really read the cover letter because the cover letter isn’t what’s going into the magazine.

  • Dear God, thanks you so much for this post. After finally (maybe, I hope, probably not) learning how to do a query for long-form fiction, it was with much fear and trepidation that I tried to figure out just what the hell people are looking for in a cover letter. Thank you for making it so clear.

  • Math tutor

    Hi! Thank you so much for this post. However, what if I have ZERO publishing credits and ZERO workshop experience? What should I do then? 🙁

    • Sanbai

      Apply, but leave out the (optional) parts he mentioned above.