Sunday, August 19, 2012

Little Things That Editors Love

A while back, I was talking with my friend, the poet Amy MacLennan, about an odd topic. We’ve both been reader/editors for literary journals and publishers, which means we’ve both spent many hours wading through piles of submissions, logging them in and sorting them into the Yes pile, the No pile, and the Maybe pile. The odd topic was this: Once in a while, a moment comes around when an editor is sitting there with two poems or short stories, both of which she likes, but only one of which she can accept. Maybe the fiction anthology is down to its last slot, or there’s room for one two-page poem, but not two. What will sway this editor to pick one piece of writing over another when, for all practical purposes, they’re equally good?

This is when little things become important—strange little things that an editor starts to notice when she’s read 300 submissions in a row. Picking one piece over another at this point may be a very unscientific process, one that boils down to a bit of charm, or a small annoyance, that the writer inadvertently sprinkled into his or her submission. Every editor’s different, and there’s no accounting for pet peeves. But let’s assume that I’m sitting there with two pieces of writing in my hands—one yours, and one that’s somebody else’s. Assuming that both of them feature stellar craft and suit my taste, what little things can you do in your submission that will make me root for you?

1. Surprise me.
By “surprise,” I don’t mean put a cockroach in the envelope, or tack another bloody O. Henry ending onto your short story. (Don’t get me started on O. Henry abuse.) The kind of surprise I like is, for instance, a sonnet that startles me with its gorgeous language set against an unusual topic—say, hospital food or safety deposit boxes. Or a short story that’s in the form of an accident report or a shopping list. This is the kind of jolt that lifts one good poem or story over another good one, a certain transcendence that makes an editor feel like she’s discovering truly inventive writing, perhaps even changing the course of literature. What editor doesn’t want that?

2. Include a short, straightforward bio with a few decent credentials and nothing cutesy.
Notice that this has nothing to do with your story or poem; this is all about the cover letter. Even if you have no publishing credits whatsoever, this is where you play it straight and say that you’re a stay-at-home mom or retired plumber or whatever, and maybe you’ve taken a few creative writing classes. If you have good credits—well-known literary journals, or small ones—list three to five of them*, and maybe a contest or two that you won, a degree you earned, or somebody famous you studied with, and keep it around 50 words. That’s it—no soliloquies, and no jokes. Humor in your story or poem is fine, but humor in a cover letter is like target-shooting in a strange, dark room—you’ll probably miss, and things will just go wildly wrong from there. If you’re a writer who likes mantras, here’s one for the cover letter: Do not scare off the editor.

3. Keep your cover letter simple.
This goes hand in hand with the short, straightforward bio, but it encompasses the entire look of your cover letter. When I was reading submissions for an anthology a while back, I was surprised at how annoyed I got with the overdecorated cover letters. I saw all sorts, from big splashy author logos to pastel photos of ripply lakes and aphorisms about dancing in the rain. All of those things qualify as too much information. I’m a sucker for elegant touches, like bullet points between the state and zip code, or the little telephone icon before a phone number. But after seeing so many methed-up cover letters, I’m leaning more and more toward the humble, plain-Jane variety, with the writer’s name and address at the top left-hand corner in the same font as the rest of the letter. (Needless to say, avoid frou-frou fonts, or the kind that a former co-worker called “too fontsy.”) The main attraction should be your poem or story; for the cover letter, the only rule of thumb is that it should not be distracting. If it does come down to you and that other author, don’t make the editor think, “Hmm…the one with the neutral cover letter that doesn’t say much, or the crazy teddy-bear lady?”

4. Just send one or two entries. Not twenty. Not fifty.
One exception to this: It might actually be OK to send twenty or fifty entries in to a contest. You have to pay for every one, so you’ll be helping them keep the contest going, and that’s not a bad thing. But if you’ve got twenty genuinely good stories or poems, they’ll do better work for you if you spread them around rather than putting all your literary eggs in one basket. And if you’re submitting to a journal or anthology—well, let’s just say that when an editor sees thirty-eight identical envelopes in the mail bin, he probably won’t be thinking, “I bet I’ll love this person’s work and will be thrilled to read every one of these!” Again, editor-ay, no air-scay.

5. Do any of the following, some of which are completely out of your control:

Be a little kid.
I love getting submissions from kids. I don’t care if the story is wildly inappropriate for our publication; these small people with their hand-scrawled cover letters and drawings of their hamsters just kill me. That’s not to say that I’ll accept the piece. But I will send the nicest rejection letter you ever got.

Be one of many people from your small town who sent in a submission.
I love this too. I’m fascinated by the little batches of envelopes that come in from the same tiny town in Kansas or Manitoba or wherever. Obviously these people know each other; they’re probably in a workshop or night class together. And because I’ve been in those workshops and classes where we all ganged up and tried for the same publications, and then laughed about it over coffee later, I’m instantly on your side. Bonus points if you’re from the same family.

Hail from an exotic-sounding place.
This is completely immature on my part, but I will give you a slight edge if you live someplace that sounds really cool, like Black Kitten Road or Woolgoolga, Australia.

Next up: There’s a flip side to this, of course. What dog-doodies should you avoid to keep your work out of the rejection pile? Stay tuned…

* Bonus pet peeve: authors who list every place they’ve ever been published, complete with the title of each poem or story, in a big honkin’ paragraph.

Photo by Niklas Bildhauer

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