Write about the very first time you saw the ocean.
Category: The Writing Life
Write about a time someone made you finish your dinner.
I remember learning years ago that the average short story is rejected 25 times before finding a home. (Now, I’m guessing this number is much higher.) This made me feel a lot better — some of my stories were above average in terms of how long it took to publish, some were below, and many were right on track.
Half the battle, I’ve come to learn, is just sticking with it — sending out that story over and over again even when the rejections keep coming in. But the other half of the battle is even more important: making sure you not only have a terrific story (or novel, or poem, or whatever it may be) but that you follow editorial guidelines and send a professional submission, whether you’re targeting a literary journal editor or an agent. Time-strapped editors and agents have little patience for sloppy work, and it’s worth paying a little extra attention to detail when it could mean the difference between getting a fair read or being tossed in the reject pile.
As both a writer and editor, I’ve learned (often the hard way) how to put together a submission that gets a fair read. While every editor is different, below are a few of the most common submission mistakes that writers make and how you can avoid them yourself.
Sending out work before it’s ready. Keep in mind that it’s the writing that is most important — always. If your story or novel isn’t ready, don’t send it out. Period. I’ve done this many times, of course — it’s hard not to be eager to send out something brand-new, especially if you’ve spent months or years working on it — but it never turns out well. What editors and agents look for more than anything else is great writing. So wait until your project reaches that level before you even consider sending it out.
Submitting a sloppy cover letter or query. If a cover letter is riddled with typos and grammatical errors, an editor will assume your writing is the same — this will not encourage a thoughtful read. Many writers have their manuscripts professionally copyedited before sending them out — and if you’re a writer who needs this, be sure your cover letter is edited as well, as it’s the first thing an editor/agent will see. By “sloppy” I also mean not researching the publication, agency, or publisher — writers who submit a literary novel to an agent who only reads mysteries, or a science fiction story to a poetry journal (and yes, these things happen all the time) will not get read; it’s simply a waste of everyone’s time. Be sure your submission is appropriate to where you’re submitting.
Overselling yourself. You do want to be confident about your work, but in a professional way, not a desperate-salesperson sort of way. Keep your cover letters and queries short and to the point, and if guidelines are available, follow them exactly. Don’t compare your work to that of other authors (unless the guidelines specifically require this); I’ve seen letters for everything from short stories to novels in which writers compare themselves to famous writers (often misspelling these famous writers’ names, no less), and it’s no surprise that there is, in fact, no comparison whatsoever. For a literary magazine submission, don’t describe the story, essay, or poem — let it speak for itself; your cover letter need only contain a bio, contact information, and whatever the guidelines may ask for. For an agent query, follow guidelines exactly (this usually means a one-page query with a little about the book and a little about you).
Don’t get ahead of yourself. Many writers include a copyright symbol with their work, or they include a dedication or acknowledgments page with a manuscript — unfortunately, including these things at such an early stage reveals a lack of awareness about publishing and may get in the way of your getting a fair read. If you’ve been writing and think you’re ready to submit but don’t know anything about publishing (whether you’re submitting to literary magazines or agents), take the time to learn before submitting — it will save you a lot of time, energy, and rejection. (For example, you’ll learn that your work is automatically copyrighted as soon as you write it; there is no need to register it or do anything else — and you’ll also learn that you submit a dedication and acknowledgments to your editor only after you’re under contract, with the final version of your manuscript.)
Less is more. Simplicity is key here — again, it’s the writing that is important; let it speak for itself. The less you include with your submission, the more quickly the reader will get to your writing, and this is exactly what you want.
Write about leaving a place. Then write about coming home.
A million thanks to Joanna Penn for hosting me this week on the brilliant The Creative Penn blog, where you’ll find my post “Think Like A Writer Every Day, Even If You Can’t Write Every Day.”
Best of all, Joanna’s wonderful readers have chimed in with fantastic tips and ideas for how to stay inspired and creative, even when you’re unable to sit in the chair and write — I so enjoyed hearing about so many different processes and learning a few new tips.
For those of you not yet familiar with The Creative Penn, do check it out — you’ll find a wealth of information on writing, publishing, and marketing. In addition to Joanna’s own expertise as a writer, her website features guest posts and interviews with other authors on everything from finding time to write to editing and revising to how best to publish your work.
Write about a time you made an excuse not to do something. Then, write about a time you wished you had made an excuse not to do something.
Write about the best summer you can remember. Be as detailed as possible, from who you spent your time with to what was going on in your life at the time. Was this summer a recent one, or was it in the distant past? (Note: Fiction writers can apply this exercise to their characters.)
Write about a mountain. Be detailed about it, from what it looks like from afar to what can be found within its trails to what the view must be like from the top.
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a book cover’s got to be worth at least forty to a hundred times that, if it’s going to sell what’s inside.
According to Para Publishing, “everyone judges a book by its cover,” and their statistics cite a Wall St. Journal study that reveals that bookstore browsers spend eight seconds looking at the front cover and fifteen seconds looking at the back. Yet the trick is usually getting readers interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.
As many of you know, Forgetting English was reissued last year with a gorgeous new cover.
What most of you don’t know is that I was madly in love with another cover image before falling in love with this one. That first cover was exotic and mysterious and beautiful, in a way completely different from the one above. But we ran into a permissions issue and had to let it go.
Naturally, I thought I’d never fall in love again. My kind and patient publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53, assured me that I would.
And I did. Now, I can’t imagine my book having a cover other than the one above.
Below is the first edition of Forgetting English, the cover of which went through several dramatic makeovers (different type styles, different colors, different layouts, with the Gauguin painting the only thing that didn’t change) before turning out like this.
While I’m partial to my new book cover, I’ll always have a fondness for this one — my ex-book, if you will. Going through this process not once but twice was interesting; I think authors (not to mention readers) react to a cover much the way they do to people they meet: There’s an instant connection, or there’s not. A good publisher and book designer understands that and looks for an image conveys what’s beneath the cover as best it possibly can.
Check out this book design case study, featuring Erika Dreifus’s wonderful book, Quiet Americans, which takes us through the steps a book designer goes through in preparing not only a cover but the interior design.
Most authors, unless they publish with a small press, don’t have a say in what their book covers look like (or, they attempt to have a say and are ignored or overruled). For my first book, while the Gauguin painting featured on the cover is one of my favorites, its South Pacific feel evokes only one story in the collection, and I didn’t feel it was a good fit. While I’d already sent along a few cover ideas and even several images, someone had already secured permission to use the art, and there was no room for debate.
When my book was reissued, I was thrilled to work closely with Kevin at Press 53 to find a cover that we both thought was perfect for the book. He understands, as good editors, agents, and publishers to, that while the publisher knows how to best market its books (and is footing the bill for book design, no less), the author also has a valuable contribution to make — and an author who loves his or her book cover will be all the happier to promote it.
For more insights on authors and their book covers, check out this piece in The Awl featuring six writers on book covers and marketing; it’s fascinating to hear from authors who either love or hate their covers, who were consulted or not, and how they approach the strange process of getting blurbs.
When all is said and done, when it comes to our book covers, we authors have to be flexible. If our books are our “children,” as the comparison often goes, we have to let go just as parents do: Parents, after all, never know exactly how their kids are going to turn out. And they love them all the same.
Write about a favorite piece of jewelry, whether yours or someone else’s. Is it something that was given to you or something you bought for yourself? Was it something you gave to someone (like an engagement ring) or something you inherited? What makes it special to you?
I’m giving away a copy of Everyday Writing on Goodreads — sign up to win anytime from now until October 10!
It’s autumn — and in New England, that means celebrating the foliage. If you’re out leaf peeping, don’t forget to pop into the local bookstores in all those fabulous New England towns. Woodstock, Vermont, has one of the sweetest: the lovely Shiretown Books, right on the main street as you stroll through town.
The store is small but has plenty to offer, including books by local authors and staff picks, and it’s a terrific place to browse. And it’s a bookstore with a big heart: Last year, in response to Hurricane Irene, which devastated parts of Vermont, including areas of Woodstock, Shiretown gave back by donating a portion of book sales to relief efforts.
Bookstores like Shiretown are among the many reasons it’s wonderful to shop locally — to support not only the indies but the communities that support them best as well.
Write about a breakfast date. Include everything from what you ate to what you wore to what you were doing the night before.
Write about the last time you spent time in a garden, whether you were weeding your own or meditating in a garden in Kyoto.
Write about being pulled over. (This can be a personal story or something told from the POV of one of your characters.) Why were you pulled over? Did you try to talk your way out of a ticket? What does this experience, and your reaction to it, reveal about you?