Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Crafting Classy Cover Letters

Guest post by Rick Kempa

This was one of the handouts from Rick Kempa's "The Art of Getting Published" session at the WyoPoets spring workshop in April. He has graciously permitted Writing Wyoming to share it with you. You may also find his post on market research in our blog archives.

So you have explored numerous journals and magazines, on-line and in-print, and found some that feel right for your work. You've sampled their writing and said to yourself, "Yes, my stuff would be at home here, too." A flush of confidence wells up. You scoff at that timid voice inside you that fears rejection. By god, you're going to give it a go!

If you bring your full attention to bear on the specifics of the submission process, you will increase your odds tremendously and -- if you make such a professional approach habitual -- you will assure yourself of eventual success.

Editors are like microwaves and cell phones: no two operate the same way. They have all kinds of needs and preferences and downright quirks. It is your job to keep track of what they are. A close reading of the publication's website, and especially the Submissions Guidelines, should cue you in on how to format your work, what to name the file, what file types (.rtf, .doc, .docx) to use and avoid, what should and shouldn't go into the cover letter, what method of transmission is required (submission service, email or U.S. mail). And so on. Painstakingly observe these particulars, in both the cover letter and manuscript, and you will spare the editors some pain -- which is a good first goal to have.

First, a few words on the manuscript: make it clean and error-free. Unless instructed otherwise, put your name, address, email, and phone number at the top of the first page of each separate poem or story, and a simple header (last name and page number) for every subsequent page. Single-space poetry, double-space prose. Keep it simple -- no fancy fonts, embroidered borders, or perfume.

The manuscript is what matters most of all, of course. The world's best cover letter can't -- or shouldn't -- get lousy work in print. Still, a well-made letter serves a purpose: it establishes you as a serious, savvy writer (not a novice), and it puts the editor in a receptive mood. I favor the three-paragraph approach: introduce your work, introduce yourself and make a connection.

Introduce your work

"Dear Marco Polo," I begin, or whatever the editor's name is (I make a point of finding out). "Enclosed are four poems [or "two short prose pieces" or whatever] for your consideration," and I name them, putting each title in quotation marks. Sometimes I add a second sentence that characterizes the work: "As you will see, they all grapple with the disabilities that the Alzheimer's victim suffers, and the interactions between that person and her caregivers." Or, "All of them, as you will see, explore the surreal ground of childhood." Sometimes I don't.

Introduce yourself

The second paragraph is the place to give the editor a sense of who you are. If you have prior publications, say so: "Other work of mine has recently appeared in Oxbow Soup, The Praying Mantis Review, and the anthology Yours Truly, published by Peccadillo Press." or: "Several of my memoirs have been published in regional newspapers."

If you don't yet have publications, that's all right. It's your manuscript that matters most, not your reputation, and most editors take pleasure in finding "new voices." Instead, show the editor, in an honest, earnest way, that you live a life of words. Mention your placement in regional contests, your writing group, attendance at regional conferences, enrollment in writing classes. Or say something simple and endearing like: "I am a lifelong reader, who in recent years began pursuing the writer's craft in earnest." Don't overdo it; three sentences is enough.

Make a connection

Editors like to know that you are not mass-mailing your submissions, that you have taken a personal interest in their journal, that you are a member of their readership as well as a would-be contributor. The third and final paragraph is the place to make this connection. Examples: "I cam upon your journal through New Pages, and have enjoyed reading the work from your first volume." "I picked up the current issue of Image at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver a couple of weeks ago, and have been relishing it ever since."

Avoid false compliments ("I absolutely adore your journal!"), over-familiarity ("I googled you and found out that..."), brashness("My work is a PERFECT FIT for your journal!"), and plaintive pleas ("My ailing mother's last wish is to see her son in print.") Be genuine, or be quiet.

That's it. Make a quick exit: "Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely, John Hancock."

By the way, these guidelines -- with some variations -- are the same whether you are mailing out your work in that good old-fashioned way or submitting it online, which is the new norm. For electronic submissions, the cover letter goes either in the body of the email or in the "comments box" that the submission service (Submittable, Submishmash, etc.) provides. When you copy-and-paste, check to see if the formatting has changed. Italics tend to vanish. Also, most of the time, editors what your manuscript -- the two stories, the four poems -- to be condensed into a single file, which can make for some maddening reformatting. But it's time well-spent. The manuscript must look good!

When you press send, or when you lick the stamp, take a minute to congratulate yourself. It is no small thing to seek an audience. And now that you have the hang of it, submit to somewhere else.

Rick Kempa earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 1987.  Since 1988, he has lived in Rock Springs, Wyo., where he teaches writing and philosophy and directs the Honors Program at Western Wyoming Community College. Rick’s essays and poems have appeared in more than 100 journals, e-zines, and anthologies. He has been nominated for five Pushcart Prizes. He has authored two books of poems, Ten Thousand Voices (Littoral Press, 2013) and Keeping the Quiet (Bellowing Ark Press, 2008) He has also edited two anthologies, On Foot: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories (Vishnu Temple Press 2014) and, with Peter Anderson, Poetry of the Grand Canyon (Lithic Press, 2015).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


post by Lynn

I learned how to take multiple choice tests from my oldest sister, Sally. 

“You don’t have to know the right answer,” Sally said. “You just have to eliminate the choices that are wrong. It’s the process of elimination.”

I got so good at taking multiple choice tests that in my junior year of high school, the school secretary announced over the intercom, “Lynn Griffith is the winner of this year’s Betty Crocker Homemaker of America Award for Niobrara County High School.”

My friends from home ec laughed out loud, since they knew the truth: I burned bacon, left pasta on the far side of al dente and produced cookies that spread out like wet manure.

The Betty Crocker Homemaker of America Award was presented to the person who scored highest on a test. You guessed it—a multiple choice test. I didn’t know the correct answers so much as I had, through the process of elimination, figured out the wrong ones.

This has been a useful skill in my writing life. Starting out in creative writing about nine years ago, I asked myself, what genre should I write in?

Some writers know what genre is right for them from the beginning. I wasn’t—am not—one of those writers. So I started trying different genres on for size. Screenwriting, for example. I took a class in this screenplays and found out a few things about myself:

1. I don’t write well to formulas. And Hollywood is all about formulas. When my teacher said that my set-in-the-West story should have a stampede, and “of course” my pregnant protagonist would have to confront the baby daddy at some point, I bristled.

2. I don’t collaborate well. When the teacher started to tell me that what my plot needed in order to become a good screenplay, I resisted with every fiber of my being. I wanted to yell, “Leave my story alone!” Yet this kind of collaboration is completely normal in the screenwriting world. Douglas Adams said, “Getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” If you resist collaboration, you'd probably better stay away from screenwriting.

3. Writing without description makes me sad. In screenwriting, you write only action and dialogue. One director famously said, “You can’t film adjectives!” When I left screenwriting behind and started writing fiction, I was thrilled to be able to describe people, scenes, etc. once more.

Note to self: Check screenwriting off the list and move on.

Now don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with screenwriting. It’s just not for me. And I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t tried it.

There were also some side benefits to the experience. I improved my scene-writing and dialogue-crafting skills, and learned much about narrative arc. I am grateful for those lessons.

The advantage to eliminating some things from the genre list is that I can funnel my energies into the options that remain. So far, there’s plenty left on the list: creative nonfiction, personal essays, fiction and poetry.

I doubt I will ever narrow the list down to one thing. Fortunately, there’s always…

D: All of the above. 

How about you? 

Has the process of elimination helped you in your writing life? 

Or are you still looking? 

Or have you always known?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Things Mr. Wonderful Says to Me

by Susan

I have another man in my life, one I see at the office. He says all the right things, the things women long to hear:

"You know honey, why don't you just relax and let me make dinner tonight."

"The ball game really isn't that important. I'd rather spend time with you."

"Actually, I'm not sure which way to go. I'll turn in here and ask for directions."

And my personal favorite:

"Here, you take the remote. As long as I'm with you, I don't care what we watch."

When Mr. Wonderful's battery dies, I'll be inconsolable.

I would like to have a writer's version of Mr. Wonderful as well.  One who would say things like, "You're funnier than Dave Barry," or "Here's that $10,000 advance for your poetry chapbook." 

A better aspiration is to simply keep going when I feel discouraged. I'd like every word to roll off my pen perfectly, every sentence to be brilliant, but the actual process is more akin to W. Michael Gear's "vomit and mop" method."

Michael once told me in an interview how relieved he was when packrats urinated on his first, dreadful, unpublished novel and his wife Kathy finally allowed him to throw it away. Anne Lamott extolls the virtue of "shitty first drafts," and I've often heard it said that "you can't edit nothing." But oh, how painful it can be to put words on a page and know just how far they fall short.

Writing well is difficult. It takes time, but it can be done. And it is so worth it when some Mr. Wonderful whispers in your ear, "Here's your book contract." Or says your article or poem has been accepted for publication.

Sometimes we have to tell ourselves that our stories matter even when we can't seem to get them in print. Rejection slips show perseverance, although few of us wish to have an extensive collection of them. All I can say is keep going. Find a cheerleader, even if it's yourself. Your stories matter.

Be your own Mr. Wonderful.

For the record: My husband tells me to relax while he makes dinner, although it's always pizza. He's not that into ball games, nor is he afraid to ask for directions. He even lets me have the remote now and again.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A. Rose Hill Named Wyoming Poet Laureate

Governor Matt Mead held a news conference Thursday to sign an Executive Order appointing A. Rose Hill of Sheridan as Wyoming’s new Poet Laureate. Mrs. Hill is the seventh Poet Laureate in state history.

“Rose is an exceptional writer. She writes poems that remind us how beautiful poetry is and that make us want to hear more. Devoted to her family and community, she has taken time to share her talent in classrooms, public readings and workshops,” said Governor Mead.

Hill graduated from Sheridan High School and Sheridan College with a degree in accounting. Her writing has appeared in Serendipity magazine, in Emerging Voices published by Western Nebraska Community College, and in numerous publications featuring Wyoming poets and writers.

“I am so honored and humbled to be in the company of the tall Poets Laureate who came before me,” said Mrs. Hill. “I want to thank my family for being here with me and supporting me. I’m really looking forward to this!”

“Rose is the third Poet Laureate during my time in office,” continued Mead. “Knowing that Wyoming has many talented poets, I early on decided to give more than one person the opportunity to serve in this important capacity. Rose follows Echo Klaproth and Pat Frolander and I thank all three for giving us the gift of their time and talent.”

Susan chimes in:
Rose has been a writing friend since I first moved to Wyoming more than 20 years ago. She was one of the first people who made me believe I was a writer. She has written poems that touched me so deeply I have cried and poems that have made clear to me the joy inherent in life. She is not only a brilliant poet, but a wonderful, kind and caring woman that it is my privilege to know. She richly deserves this honor. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


post by Lynn

I’m thinking about mentors these days. I’ve had a few, and am in search of more. Also, I just noticed that “mentor” is only three letters short of “tormentor” which I think might say a little bit about the relationship. 

Just kidding…

One of my favorite writing-related quotes of all time is this one:
“Writing can be like folding a banquet-sized tablecloth; you can do it yourself, but it’s a lot easier when you can find somebody to help.”
-- From Writing Brave and Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing, by Ted Kooser & Steve Cox


Tina Welling is the author of Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature, published by New World Library (we blogged about the book here). She also wrote three novels published by Penguin: Crybaby Ranch, Fairy Tale Blues and Cowboys Never Cry, plus essays and short stories which landed in national magazines and literary journals.

With all that in print, she obviously found somebody to help her fold tablecloths, eh?

Actually, Tina makes the bold statement that mentoring has been the most important factor in her writing career. 

“Without it, I would have spent years floundering,” she says. “To experience mentoring with a writer who has walked through all the stages from longing to publishing is invaluable. Not to mention time and energy saving.” 

Tina worked with several mentors along her writing journey. They each pointed her toward her strengths and talents, and offered support and encouragement.  It is through these relationships her skills were honed and her creative direction clarified.

“And when I was ready for publication,” Tina says, “they guided me toward the right avenues for seeking an agent and a publisher.” They even offered their own connections in the national world of publishing and gave their endorsements to people who could make her dreams come true.  


Now Tina is honored to be a mentor herself.  “I love this work,” she says.  “I love the teaching, guiding, cheerleading. When I receive heartfelt gratitude for passing on a writer to their agent or publisher, that writer doesn’t know yet how much fun I’ve had.”

One of the ways that Tina mentors writers is through workshops. She is a longtime faculty member of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference and also conducts creative writing and journal keeping workshops around the country.

This coming September 13 – 19, Tina will be exercising her mentoring muscles in a big way at the Willow Creek Ranch Writing Workshop. She is collaborating on the workshop with Janet Hubbard, author of two mystery novels: Champagne: The Farewell and Bordeaux: The Bitter Finish, published by Poison Pen Press (learn more about Janet here).

This five-day workshop includes two writing sessions each day, lots of mentoring (including advice on agents and publishing), writing discussions and readings in the evening and even a Kaycee rodeo. The workshop is limited to ten participants to ensure that Tina and Janet will be able to spend plenty of time with each writer. Oh, and participants will camp in cowboy tents at the original “Hole-in-the-Wall” outlaw camp. Fun!


In time, Tina believes, the writers she mentors will get the chance to become a mentor too. “Then they’ll know how satisfying it is to connect good writers with people who can bring their work to the world.” 

So, dear blog post reader, what say you about this whole mentorship thing?

Do you have one? 

Are you one? 

How do people go about finding mentors?