by A. Leonard Lucas

There’s an old trick to performing better on job interviews: spend time on the other side of the desk, in the power seat, asking questions and evaluating potential hires.  After that, you’ll understand what an interviewer is looking for and know how to provide it.  I recently found the same principle is true of story submissions.  My transition into a fiction editor position at Fender Stitch has given me new insight into the slush pile and cover letters, which improved my acceptance rate.

The first thing I noticed as editor was there’s a big slush pile myth that needs debunked.  We’ve read it in writer’s magazines, blogs and forums; a high percentage of submissions are supposed to contain basic errors.  The targeted market doesn’t accept the story’s genre or grammar mistakes and poor writing litter the piece.  Maybe the cover letter has the editor’s name spelled wrong.  Maybe everything is formatted wrong.  Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen in my inbox, this isn’t true.  Your competition is not filled with novice, careless writers.  It’s filled with professionals.

Now I don’t say this as disheartening, demotivating news.  I just know if you’re like me, you’ve probably gotten angry about a few (hundred) rejections for stories that were textbook perfect.  Perhaps you’ve began wondering if you were actually one of those writer’s the magazines talked about–so blind to your own material that you didn’t even realize you’re a hack.  Breathe a sigh of relief, that’s not you at all.  Your writing isn’t being rejected alongside a bunch of poorly-edited, copycat, teenage-girly-vampire stories.  It’s rejected because the market contains more professional writers than publishers.

So, since the competition is stiff, how do we get accepted?  Use your cover letter as a way to stand out.

Let me tell you what I’ve noticed in only four months on the job.  Reading a dozen or more 3,000-word stories every day will give you a migraine and a perpetual bad attitude.  Eventually, most editors (sadly, this includes me already) start opening every submission with a finger on the reject button.  It’s not that the stories aren’t entertaining or that we editors are lazy and callous; it’s just that we’re overworked, and we can only choose 1 out of every 300 stories (and that figure is for a tiny upstart e-zine!).

If you want to be that single story, you need to improve the editor’s attitude, raise her expectations as she opens your submission, make her hope your story will be the winner.  I’ve found that my mindset going into a submission directly correlates with the enjoyment I get out of it and likewise, the likelihood I’ll accept it.  It’s not always fair, but it’s happening.

This is why cover letters exist.  And first impressions aren’t just for handshakes.  I’ve seen three things in cover letters that make me excited about reading a person’s story, even when it’s my tenth one for the day:

1.  Impressive Credits

You’ve either got them or you don’t.   If you’re lucky enough to have awards or publications in top-tier magazines, tell me about them.  Simple.  Obvious.  But I’m more impressed by two good credits than a super long list.  And if you don’t have any, don’t worry.  Although it may raise my expectations, I’ve found drool-worthy bios often don’t translate into amazing stories.

2.  Positive Comments about the Editor’s Writing

What I’m really talking about is brownnosing.  Sucking up may be beneath you, but a little flattery goes a long way.  If you’ve read something the editor wrote and you liked it, he’s likely to open your submission with a smile on his face.  And that’s the whole point.

3.  Creative Cover-lettering

This is the tough one to describe and implement.

Let me tell you a little urban legend.  Years ago, when Art Spikol, a columnist for Writer’s Digest, posted a job opening for a writer, he received about a hundred typical resumes with clips attached.  But one person did something different; they submitted nothing but the statement, “I can flat write.”  That’s who Spikol hired.

And that’s what I consider creative cover-lettering.  It’s not decorating your letter like it belongs in a Hobby Lobby scrapbooking aisle.  It’s not telling me all about what I’m about to read.  Creative cover lettering is the first impression equivalent of show don’t tell.  It’s you showing the editor you can write instead of telling him with a long list of publications and self-praise.

I know . . . I know . . . someone is saying “I can flat write” isn’t showing, it’s telling.  But to an editor, it’s not.  That short sentence shows the writer is different, confident and economical with words.  Also, there’s a huge difference between “I can flat write” and “I can write well.”  It’s voice.

You can go a thousand different directions with creative cover-lettering.  Maybe you make an insightful comment about a story the magazine just published.  Maybe you write a simple, unique, one-line sentence that introduces your story in an impactful way.  Maybe if you’re submitting a humor piece, you tell a short joke–or at least say something funny.  The point is, I can’t tell you what to do here.  It’s all about showing your ingenuity.  Just write something different and creative that matches the personality of the magazine and makes the editor excited about reading your story.   But remember, it’s easy to go too far with this.  It’s better to keep things standard and professional than to flirt with sensationalism.

And if you ever submit anything to me, mention how helpful this article was (even if it wasn’t!).  If you’ve read my work, I’ll be glad to read yours.

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 A. Leonard Lucas is the fiction editor of Fender Stitch Online ReviewHis stories have appeared in The Literary and Arts Journal of Coastal Maine, Every Day Fiction, and Jersey Devil Press, among other places.  He received an honorable mention in the Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Story Contest and his poetry won him a scholarship to the University of Kentucky.