Submitting a story? Here’s what NOT to put in your cover letter.

In my spare time, I’m a slush-pile reader for Sanitarium Magazine. If you send in a submission, I guarantee I’ll read it at some point. (I see everything.) And while I’m not the decision maker, I see some recurring trends in cover letters that really, really need to stop.

1. “This story will scare you/thrill you/chill you to the bone like never before!”

Yeah…no. You, the writer, don’t decide that. I, the reader, do. I understand that you’re proud of your work, but you’re just giving it an unnecessary hype. I have yet to read a submission with that line in its cover letter that did not utterly fail to meet expectations. In fact, just seeing that sort of phrase makes me lower my expectations in advance.

2. “I have an MFA from [university].”
This smacks of pretentiousness, just a bit. You’d think being a writer with an MFA would ensure doors just open to you everywhere, right? No, wrong, sorry. You still have to be able to do things like construct a scene properly, write dialogue that indicates the speakers clearly, show your research, and have a more-than-basic grasp of grammar and punctuation. Moreover, an MFA is unlikely to be the sort of degree that’s at all relevant to your story’s subject matter–unless your degree is in, say, sculpture and your narrator is a sculptor. MFA-bearing authors have provided me with some of the worst things I’ve ever read.
3. “This can’t be cut, it’s my masterpiece!!!1!”
I saw this phrase, almost word for word, in a recent cover letter. Again, you wrote a thing and you love it, and you think other people should love it too. I’m a writer; I understand that. I want people to love my things too. Unfortunately, what comes across with that statement is “I’m too good for an editor,” and honey, let me tell you, no one is that good. Ever notice how many different versions of the Bible there are? That’s because even God needs an editor. Now here, take this ladder and get over yourself.
It’s simple, really. If you’re writing a cover letter for a fiction submission, the best thing to do is just say, “This is the title of the thing I wrote. This is its word count. Here’s a brief summary of the plot.” Feel free to list publication credits if you have them, but don’t expect anyone to be impressed by them. Trust me. Keep it simple, and the people who read your story will thank you.
….or at least be slightly more inclined to take you seriously.

Thoughts on books and diversity…

So this popped up on my Twitter feed

Silvia, with whom I was originally familiar from Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft (which you should all read), poses a pair of valid questions. Unfortunately, I’m not a statistician and can’t provide mounds of data; I do, however, have twenty years of library experience under my belt, so I can at least answer from my own observations.

Note: anecdotal evidence is anecdotal and your mileage may vary.

1) Don’t adult POCs read? In my experience, yes, but not nearly as much as their white counterparts, and the reasons for that “not nearly as much” are largely socioeconomic. I can cite two reasons from experience at my last library:

A) Functional illiteracy. I encountered this mostly in older people (whites and POCs) and, particularly, among teenagers of color. I understand the former: I live and have worked my entire life in Tennessee’s smallest county, which is overwhelmingly agriculture-driven and is also one of the twenty poorest counties in the United States. In the local population, anyone over about 65, regardless of ethnicity, has a very good chance of not having finished school at all, or of being able to attend school only sporadically, thanks to the demands of farming at a time when it was much less industrialized and much more manually labor-driven. For these people, reading as a leisure activity was and is hardly prioritized.

As for younger generations (say, born after 1993 or so), as a rule, the educational playing field is much more level and the necessity of underage labor is largely removed, so I’m really at a loss for why so many teenagers and young adults in my community read poorly or not at all. Maybe it’s lack of familial involvement in the education process. Maybe it’s a bevy of undiagnosed learning disorders. Maybe it’s simply apathy. I don’t have a good answer for this.

B) Lack of time. This, from my observation, is a particular problem for adults of color in my few square miles of the country. They’re much more likely than their white neighbors to work multiple jobs, retire later (if at all) and have a large part in rearing grandchildren or other younger relatives (again, just observing the local happenings here). If you’re working a sixteen-hour day, or raising three great-grandchildren, when you do get down time, it’s most likely to be spent on food and sleep.

All that said, Silvia’s second question was:

2) Or no one is interested in adult ‘diverse’ books?

Oh boy. Um. Yes. Yes they are. People are so interested. Part of the problem? Well, if you’re relying on a library for reading material, and that library happens to be continually strapped for funds (not at all uncommon anywhere), you can expect that most of the incoming material will cater to the largest user demographic. (This may well be true of bookstores as well, especially small independent ones, but libraries are my point of reference.)

The libraries I’ve worked at have received both their funding for new materials, and their means of obtaining those materials, from the Tennessee state library system, which keeps an eye on each county’s demographics. Left to their own devices, the people who handled book acquisitions would have filled my library shelves with the latest NYT bestsellers and mind-numbingly saccharine Christian fiction–because that’s what “the people” want and “the people” are, according to census reports, overwhelmingly white. In order to get books written by people of color (as well as any sort of books that were scifi, fantasy, hard science nonfiction, or non-Christian religious nonfiction), I had to jump through the hoops of a manual ordering process and hope I didn’t get hit with “we’re not ordering this” or “no one’s going to read this”. The problem wasn’t lack of demand; I had demand. I just had to get past the “white people won’t read this” crap, and a lot of times that meant I had to buy and shelf-process the books with my own money, because by God, I wanted to read it, and if I wanted to read it surely someone else did too.

Demand exists. Need exists. People want to read books about characters like themselves. We’re just going to have to shift the market paradigm (does that make sense?) and make those books easier to obtain.

Now I’m curious: is there a disparity in positive publicity received, for white authors vs. nonwhite authors? Anyone got numbers?

Things I’d like to see *less* of in horror writing…

1. Authors who think “Lovecraftian” means “vomit a thesaurus over it.” You’re doing it wrong.

2. Serial killers with mommy issues and odd sexual fetishes/religious hangups.

3. Vampires in general, but especially vampires who are perfect and sparkly and sexy and angsty. Show me vampires who go to church and go to Walmart. Show me vampires with illnesses or disabilities. Show me vampires whose undead-ness doesn’t change the people they used to be.

4. Zombies. Especially, especially zombies created by Super Seekrit viruses or weird government experiments. And zombies that rot–why is it that the virus/magic/whatever that reanimates the corpse can’t preserve it? Show me zombies that have some scrap of humanity left and aren’t entirely mindless.

5. Post-apocalyptic/dystopian protagonists who are assholes to everyone. I know, I know, we’re all trying to survive out here and not drink the glowing water, but you know what Al Capone said about a kind word and a gun. (And while I’m at it, let’s have more post-apocalyptic/dystopian worlds that aren’t the product of a weird virus or a nuclear disaster. It’s not 1980.)

Frustrated reader is frustrated.