Submission Protocol: Cover Letter Construction

Ah, cover letters. Who needs ’em, right? Well, unfortunately, you do, if you’re going to be submitting your work to publishers. But cover letters don’t have to be difficult; in fact, they’re pretty easy if you follow a few simple guidelines. So let’s take a closer look at cover letter construction and see if we can’t build one together.

Okay, the first rule of cover letters is do exactly what the submission guidelines tell you to do. Do not FTFFD this thing (that’s fail to follow fucking direction if you’re new to the blog). Some publishers want very specific things in a cover letter, so make sure you give them exactly what they want.

Rejectomancy points deducted for FTFFD: -5 (What’s this?)

Here’s a pretty standard set of cover letter guidelines from a publisher to whom I recently sent a story.

In your cover letter, please include your legal name, byline (if different from your legal name), the story’s approximate word count, and your publication history.

Pretty straightforward, right? So let’s go ahead and build a cover letter based on these guidelines. We’ll pretend I’m sending my (fake) short story “Attack of the Moon Zombies” to the (very much fake) publication Z-Train Monthly. This will be an email cover letter, by the way, but it could probably work as a snail mail cover letter as well.

Step 1) The salutation. I think the safest thing to do is just go with “Dear Editors” or “To the Editors.” It’s not overly familiar, you don’t have to go looking for a specific editor’s name (and then risk sending it to the wrong person), and hey, it’s going to be right just about every time. I mean, who else is gonna read your story? In fact, the only reason I can think of not to use “Dear Editors” is if the guidelines specifically ask you to address the letter to an individual.

Step 2) The body. The trick here is to get the publisher the necessary information plus any additional information they’ve requested as quickly and efficiently as possible.

First things first: my first sentence needs to establish why I’m sending a letter, what I’m sending them, and that I actually know where I’m sending it. My first sentence looks like this: Please consider my story “Attack of the Moon Zombies” for publication in Z-Train Monthly.

Okay, now that I’ve established my purpose, I’ll start getting the publisher the additional info they want, starting with word count. My second sentence is: The story is approximately 2,500 words in length. Since this publication asked for an “approximate” word count, I think rounding up or down to the nearest hundred is fine, as long as that number still fits within the publisher’s guidelines for story length.

The next piece of requested info I’ll add is my publication history. I put this info in a separate paragraph, and again, I’m going to keep it short and sweet. I usually go with my most recent publications, but if you’ve published a story in a well regarded, well known magazine, you should probably mention that. Does that kind of thing make an impact on an editor? I don’t know, honestly. Maybe? Ultimately, I think it’s the quality of the story that sells the story, but a publication in a well known, pro-paying parket certainly doesn’t hurt you chances. Three publications seems to be the magic number in almost every set of guidelines or example cover letters I’ve seen, so I wouldn’t list more than that.

With all that in mind, my publication history might look like this: My fiction has appeared in Awesome Stories of Awesomeness, SparkleVamp Quarterly, and Totally Rad Pro-Paying Magazine. (Yeah, I think you should alphabetize the names of the publications).

Step 3) Closing and signature. I struggled with which closing to use when I first started submitting. There are so many choices. “Sincerely” is a solid choice as is “Regards,” but I think a simple “Thank you” is a good way to go. It’s polite, not overly familiar, and, hey, who’s gonna get upset at being thanked?

Lastly, I’ll add my legal name below the closing, which is the last piece of information this particular publisher requested. If you have a byline that’s different from your legal name, I think the best thing to do is to put it in parentheses, clearly labeled, next to your legal name, like this: Aeryn Rudel (Byline: A. Rudel)

Step 4) Putting it all together. Okay, that’s everything, so let’s have a look at the complete letter.

Dear Editors,

Please consider my story “Attack of the Moon Zombies” for publication in Z-Train Monthly. The story is approximately 2,500 words in length. My fiction has appeared in Awesome Stories of Awesomeness, SparkleVamp Quarterly, and Totally Rad Pro-Paying Magazine.

Thank you,

Aeryn Rudel (Byline: A. Rudel)

I’ve kept the letter short, to the point, and most importantly, I’ve given the publisher every piece of information they wanted. I use the letter above as my basic cover letter template, and it’s the one I send to publishers that don’t have specific guidelines. The letter is easy to modify if I encounter a publisher that requests more or less info.

What else might a publisher ask for in a cover letter? A bio they can use if they publish your story is fairly common. In these cases, the publisher will give you a word count maximum for the bio. Don’t go over. I’ve also seen guidelines that ask you to give a short synopsis of the story you’re submitting. Those are always tough, and I think the best thing to do in those cases is keep it to a single sentence if you can.

Another thing I often see is a suggestion to include personal information that’s relevant to the story you’re submitting. So, for example, in the letter above I might add, “My story is about fighting zombies on the moon, and I am currently employed as a zombie-fighting astronaut.” If you have something like that (I never have), my advice is to keep it short and to the point, and make double certain it really does relate to the story.

Well, that’s what I’ve got for cover letters. If my approach doesn’t do it for you, a simple Google search will get you a bunch of articles written by folks with a shit-ton more experience and knowledge than yours truly. But if you must click a link, I don’t think you can do much better than this handy and informative how-to article from the excellent speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons. (They also espouse a brief and simple cover letter, by the way.)

How do you handle cover letters? Tell me about it in the comments.

Staying “Accountable” on Big Writing Projects

You gotta have a system. Every writer does. That thing you do to get from point A to point B, hit your deadlines, and hopefully decrease your stress along the way. I have a system, too, and a major part of it involves word counts, Excel spreadsheets, and a video game perception of “winning.” This is by no means a perfect system for everyone, and I know writers who think it’s way too fiddly, but I’ll share what I do, and maybe some of you will dig it.

Okay, first a little super-boring background on me. Before I started working in the tabletop game industry and really started to turn writing into a career, I worked in accounting. I did it all: accounts payable, accounts receivable, cost accounting, payroll, even collections. Exciting, huh? As much as I hated it, all that accounting experience taught me some valuable skills. It taught me to be very organized with data and how to make that data work for me. It started my love affair with Excel. I can’t lie; I fucking love me some spreadsheets. Seriously. So I found a way to take my bizarre fascination with spreadsheets and a little of my accounting knowhow and put it to use in my writing career.

Here’s what I do. When I have a big project, like a novel, I look at the deadline for completion (usually the deadline for the first draft), I break that down into weeks, then I assign a word count goal to each week, and then I divide that word count goal among five individual days. I put all this info into a simple spread sheet, then track how much I actually write on a given day compared to my target.

It looks something like this:

Day Date Target Actual
Monday 8/31/2015 2000 2364
Tuesday 9/1/2015 2000 2678
Wednesday 9/2/2015 2000 2721
Thursday 9/3/2015 2000 2305
Friday 9/4/2015 2000 2056
Saturday 9/5/2015 0 0
Sunday 9/6/2015 0 0
10000 12124
Monday 9/7/2015 2000 2037
Tuesday 9/8/2015 2000 1979
Wednesday 9/9/2015 2000 0
Thursday 9/10/2015 2000 0
Friday 9/11/2015 2000 0
Saturday 9/12/2015 0 0
Sunday 9/13/2015 0 0
10000 4016

As you can see, I set my weekly target at 10,000 words and my daily target at 2,000 words. I got the 2,000-words a day thing from Stephen King. Hey, if it works for one of the most successful authors in the whole goddamn world, it might be worth a try, right? You can see what I actually wrote on a given day, and at the bottom of each week a running total tells me where I stand with the week’s goals.

You’ll notice I don’t have a target for the weekends. That’s because I try to take the weekends off. (Well, not really off; I just work on other things.) That’s not to say, of course, I won’t work on the weekends if I fall behind. I also know that my estimated date of completion is a just that, an estimate. I might end up needing another 10,000 words to complete this novel. With the schedule above, I should finish the book about two weeks before deadline and at right around 90,ooo words.

Here’s what I like about my system and why it works for me.

  1. It keeps me accountable. I know exactly what I need to do each day, and at the end of that day I need to enter what I’ve done into that spreadsheet. I don’t want to “fail” to do my job for the day. I need to fill in those boxes on my spreadsheet, damn it.
  2. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. One of the favorite parts of my day is entering how much I’ve written into the spreadsheet. If I exceeded my target by a lot, I feel pretty damn good. I feel like I’m “winning.” I’m beating the sadistic ogre making me write all these goddamn words at his own game. (Seriously, fuck that guy.)
  3. It helps me take a day off when I need it without feeling guilty. If you look at the spreadsheet above, you can see I did pretty well last week; I exceeded my weekly goal by over 2,000 words. That means I’m technically a full day ahead of schedule, so if I need to take a day off to run errands or whatever, I’m covered. I’m still on target for this week, even if I only write 8,000 words. That’s a really important feature for me because I have a tendency to feel super guilty on days I’m not writing, and those extra days I “earn” by exceeding my work count goal help me get over that.

So, that’s my system. What does your system look like? If it’s better than mine, can I use it?

Ranks of the Rejected: Josh Vogt

Time for another Ranks of the Rejected. This time, talented fantasy and sci-fi author Josh Vogt has agreed to give us the lowdown on his rejection experiences. Josh is another writer I met through Skull Island eXpeditions when I was heading up that imprint. He was interested in writing some Iron Kingdoms fiction and sent me some samples of his work. The samples were great, but I also saw that he’d published short stories with Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and Shimmer Magazine, two very tough markets to crack. I was impressed, but I wasn’t sure if I should publish him or lose his email in a fit of jealous spite. Thankfully, I chose the former, and it was definitely the right call.

Josh is a potent 12th-level rejectomancer undoubtedly destined for rejecto-mastery. He commands many strange and wondrous literary powers including Prestigious Publication and Create Captivating Concept.

Here’s a little more about Josh:

Josh Vogt’s work ranges across numerous genres and formats, including writing for a wide variety of RPG developers. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, is a tie-in to the Pathfinder roleplaying game. WordFire Press has also launched his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s a member of SFWA, the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and a Scribe Award finalist. Find him at

1) What do you remember about your first rejection letter?

That it didn’t surprise me at all. It acted like a milestone in my fledgling writing career because it meant I was actually doing what I needed to do: write stories and submit them to publications. It meant I was trying; so long as I kept trying, I believed those rejections would eventually turn into acceptances.

2) In your opinion, what can writers learn from rejection letters? What have you learned?     

Well, once you become a writer and get your rejection letter decoder ring, you can tap into all the secret messages industry pros hide in them…

You don’t have your decoder ring? Oh, well, forget I mentioned that.

Anyways, writers can learn a lot from rejection letters. Through rejection, we can learn just how subjective writing is, and how one editor’s tastes can be in stark contrast to another’s. You can also use rejection letters to track, in a way, your progress as a writer. Did you use to get only form rejections but now are getting personal rejection letters? Are you getting specific feedback, being told your story made it to higher review tiers, or being asked to send in more of your work even though your last submission “wasn’t the right fit?” If so, those are signs of growth and should be encouraging, even within the sting of the denial.

I’ve also learned to not take rejection so personally. Rejection isn’t an attack on me, even though it may feel like it at first. The story I submitted just didn’t hit the target…this time. It’s not a sign that I should give up being a writer. Instead, it’s an opportunity to submit the story elsewhere and keep trying until it finds a home.

3) Got a favorite rejection? Memorable, funny, mean, just straight-up weird?

Here’s a favorite from all the way back in 2007:

Hi Josh!

Thanks for your patience while we slogged through our slush pile.

Your work is not right for us at this time. Please understand that this doesn’t mean your work isn’t right, it simply means it’s not right for US.

There are any number of reasons we as editors felt this way:

Maybe the hook didn’t catch us. Maybe you ignored the formatting guidelines. Maybe your story didn’t jibe with the theme of the magazine for a given issue. Maybe the editors were in a bad mood. Maybe the editors were drunk.

You get the idea. The important thing is that you wrote something. Please keep doing that.

Many authors have papered their walls with rejection slips before going on to extraordinary success. Let this letter help wallpaper you to the stars. (Boy does that sound cheesy.)


The Editors

4) What’s the toughest part of rejection for you? Pro tips for dealing with it?  

Actually, it’s less about the pain of the rejection itself and more about determining why the story got rejected. It’s easy to get wrapped up in wondering and worrying, “Was it not a good fit or does the story just suck? Is it broken and I’m fooling myself thinking it’s worth submitting for publication, or will the next place I send it to absolutely love it?”

This can be paralyzing and counter-productive. On the one hand, yes, you want the confidence to keep submitting your work. On the other, you need to learn to recognize when a story could use some revising or has flaws that are holding it back. This is why having a critique group or beta readers is so helpful, because you can have them take a look at the piece and give you direct feedback—rather than trying to perform rejectomancy and driving yourself insane with doubt and second-guessing.

5) Tell us about your latest acceptance letter. How long did it take the sting out of the rejection letters that followed?

My latest story acceptance was based on an anthology invite, so I had the odds tipped in may favor from the get-go. I got asked to fill in as a pinch-hitter writer, adding a short story to an upcoming holiday anthology, Naughty or Nice, being edited by Jennifer Brozek and coming out from Evil Girlfriend Media . I got to write a story based in my Cleaners reality—a new series about a supernatural sanitation company—and had a lot of fun doing so! Of course, if I’d done a piss-poor job of it, it could’ve been rejected just as easily. Fortunately, Jennifer enjoyed what I turned in, and I’m now excited for future chances to write more Cleaners shorts.

6) Okay, plug away. Tells us about your latest project or book and why we should run out and buy it.

This year saw the debut of my urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with the first book, Enter the Janitor, kicking it off! It’s about a grumpy old janitor working for a supernatural sanitation company who gets a germaphobic young woman as an apprentice. It has more of a humorous edge to it, with a nice dose of absurdity added into the mix. The second in the series, The Maids of Wrath, is scheduled to come out this November if all goes well!

So if the thought of magically empowered janitors, maids, plumbers, and other sanitation workers makes you grin or chuckle, give it a whirl!

Dealing with the Dreaded Multi-Rejection Day

You’ve been at this writing thing for a while now, and you’ve started to develop a fairly thick skin. The odd form rejection doesn’t really faze you anymore, and, hey, you’ve even had a couple of acceptances recently. I mean, you’re really starting to rack up those Rejectomancer XPs. You’re feeling good, feeling confident, so you fire off a whole bunch of submissions, half-a-dozen, maybe more, all at once. Then, feeling accomplished, you sit back and wait. You’re no fool, you know the game, you know some and maybe all those submissions could get rejected. You’re ready for and expecting rejection letters. What you’re not ready for is all those rejection letters arriving on the same goddamn day.

I’m not gonna lie, and there is no way to sugar-coat this; the multi-rejection day stings like a motherfucker. The real bitch of it is you can’t avoid it. It’s not common (I hope), but it’s gonna happen. It’s the unfortunate byproduct of what is essentiality a good thing—feeling confident enough to send out a lot of your work.

My personal record is three in one day. I know writers who have received four or more. Opening your email to one rejection letter is no fun, opening it to three will make you think there’s a vast editorial conspiracy with the sole purpose of grinding your hopes and dreams to paste beneath a mountain of “Not right for us” and “We’ll have to pass.” Of course, that’s not true, and I’ll bet there are even kind-hearted editors who would hold a rejection letter for a day if they could somehow know a writer just received one.

When you do find yourself the victim of a multi-reject day, it can definitely mess with your head a little. You’re only human, and worse, you’re a writer, and our psyches tend to be more Swiss cheese than solid granite when it comes to keeping out shit like self-doubt. The best way to deal with the multi-rejection day is to see it for what it is: an unlikely outcome, a bad roll of the dice. Try to keep in mind, as hard as it may be, that three rejection letters at the same time doesn’t mean anything more than three rejection letters spaced out over a week. It’s just bad timing, that’s all.

In my opinion, another good way to deal with the multi-rejection day is to reach out to and talk to other writers. That can really help. A writer pal of mine just experienced one and received a totally genuine outpouring of sympathy from other writers (me included). We all know how bad it hurts, and if I can ease that hurt a little for another writer, I’m gonna do it. I’ll probably need that sympathy reciprocated in the very near future.

Have you ever had a multi-rejection day? Tell us about it in the comments. And if you’ve ever had a multi-acceptance day, please, please, please tell us about that, just so we know it’s not the writer’s equivalent of Sasquatch or something.

A Short List of Writerly Woes

I was thinking about things writers do to make themselves miserable (well, things that have made me miserable, anyway). So, I came up with a short list of things I have done (or, regrettably, still do) that can be counterproductive to my writing and what I do to avoid them. Anyway, I thought I’d share. Maybe you can relate.

  1. Overanalyze rejection. Obviously, I think you should analyze rejection because you can learn from it, but there is a good (productive) way to do it and a bad (counterproductive) way to do it. Good, constructive analysis is when an editor sends you a personal rejection and says, “Hey, this story would be great if not for X,” and you spend some time doing a little critical thinking about X, even if you don’t ultimately agree with the editor.  Bad, counterproductive analysis is when you receive a personal rejection letter from an editor who praises your work but doesn’t ask you to send more, and you come to the conclusion, after obsessing over the letter for hours, that the editor hates your story, your work, and probably your face. When you overanalyze rejection, you’re usually getting aboard the catastrophic-thinking rollercoaster, which only goes in one direction—down. Really far and really fast. The way I decided to combat this issue was to—you guessed it—create a whole goddamn blog about rejection. I get that that’s a little extreme, but one of the reasons I started this blog is because I’ve often taken comfort reading about other authors’ experiences with rejection. It helped me to know (and stop overanalyzing) that everybody gets rejected. So, when you start to overanalyze a rejection letter, my advice is to look for that shared experience with other writers, on a blog, on social media, or even in person. It can really help put rejection into perspective.
  2. Review surf. Oh, man, this is a tough one. I mean, they’re right there, just a Google search away. This is definitely a do as I suggest and not as I absolutely fucking do. There’s a time and a place to review surf, and I think it’s a bad idea to take a “break” from writing and start plugging your name into Goodreads or compulsively checking reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever. That’s taken a bite out of my ass more than once.  Invariably, I will find a bad review, I will read it, and I will sabotage my productivity for the day obsessing about it. I try not to look at reviews until after I hit my word count quota, then if I hit bad one, I’ve got twenty-four hours to shake it off. When I can’t control myself and my browser starts drifting Amazon-ward, I try and only look at the average review score. If my book or story or whatever has a good average score, I don’t need to read that one- or two-star review bringing down my average. I probably will, but I don’t need to.
  3. Compare your success to another author’s. I’m not talking about the bullshit line of thinking that says another author doesn’t deserve his or her success, which, in my opinion, is a really destructive path to go down. I’m talking about falling victim to self-doubt, getting down on yourself because some of your author friends and acquaintances are having more success than you. I think it’s natural to ask “What am I doing wrong?” when you’re working your ass off trying to make it as a writer, things aren’t going exactly the way you hoped, and it seems like your friends’ careers are blowing up. Here’s my personal cure for that. I lean right the fuck in to my friends’ successes, sincerely congratulate them when they announce their achievements, which I know they’ve worked super hard to get, and, yeah, maybe live a little vicariously through them. When I do that, I feel reenergized, and I feel positive and optimistic about my own work again. Why? Because I haven’t let myself stew in self-doubt. I’ve shared in someone’s totally legit happiness, and as it turns out, happiness can be contagious. Who knew?

Do you have habits that can be counterproductive to your writing? Let’s talk about them in the comments.