Thoughts on Submissions and Queries

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Before I met my wife (at work, of all places) I spent about 6 months in the dark and frightening world of online dating. I never quite mastered the art of the profile pitch. Judging from some others I read, I was not alone. Unclear dating profiles seem to come in three varieties. There are the ones too vague to tell you anything specific about the person – “I like to have fun, ask me anything, looking for my true love,” etc etc. Still others over-share, such that it feels like those who don’t meet precise specifications need not apply. Last are the poor jaded profiles that make you want to message the user just to ask who hurt them. These come with a frightening list of loaded ‘thou shalt not’ statements that hint at cringe-worthy messages and bad dates.

What does this have to do with writing? 

Last week, I bought a Kindle copy of the 2020 Writer’s Market for Novels and Short Stories. 

Reading the submission guidelines felt disturbingly familiar.

Some literary magazine profiles felt almost intentionally overcomplicated. Usually from universities and filled with words like “evocative” and “transcendent,” reading these summaries made me feel like a hobo at a country club. It was clear that they want to feel something, to be wowed. What type of fiction they want to read was less clear. 

(Side note: for some reason universities feel the need to spell out that they do not accept racist stories. First, isn’t that a given? We should all know this by now. Second, are racist writers sufficiently self-aware to know that their stories are, in fact, racists? We’re all the hero of our own story, after all. Diversion over, back to the article.)

Others said almost nothing, listing contact info and a name. I guess I can go to their website. 

Others listed an exhaustive spectrum of genres, topics, and styles they did not want to read. By the time the list was through, I wondered what was left. Who hurt you, lit. mag.?

What does this mean for writers?

I found that as I read through hundreds of blurbs, my priorities solidified. I wanted the information I needed delivered clearly, succinctly. Wading through thousands of words in small print, I found myself scanning for keywords that applied to my specific situation: 

Do they welcome new writers? Do they accept genre fiction, specifically sci-fi, mystery, and horror, which is my bent? How do they want submissions? Do they pay or give contributors copies? Not that that last point is a deal-breaker for me, but it is good to know.

As an unpublished writer, agents and editors still hold a certain mystique for me. Before this past week, they felt like distant challenges to be met. Thumbing through the W.M.20, I developed some sympathy for the devil. 

Editors and agents read mountains of dense text daily. What I did for a few days is their life. They doubtless have certain triggers they look for in a text – qualities that indicate a good match for their publication. In all the things that are not my manuscript, they need just the facts. They do not need a fluffy cover letter telling my life story. They do not need fan-mail about their publication. Don’t waste their time, and leave a professional first impression. In any case, don’t irritate them before they hit the first line of actual fiction. 

What are your tips or experiences with query or submission best practices? Let us hear it in the comments.

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