Sunday, March 30, 2008

Talmudic Interpretation of "Poetry Cover Letter Protocol"

"Poetry Cover Letter Protocol" (below) is valuable new first-hand information. It's "new" because it supersedes information disseminated for 30 years. Take it serious.

It was once bandied about that editors cared about the work, not the cover letters -- so cover letters for poetry and fiction weren't needed unless your submission had been solicited, or you were sending it for a special issue, or if it was a simultaneous submission.

Listing recent publications in cover letters helps editors score and pigeonhole the poet before the editor sees the work. Such a list is also a clue to the poet's economic and social position, because if I'm systematically pursuing a career as a poet, working my way up through the lit journals year after year, my parents probably left me a trust fund or I married a lawyer. Thus the editor can see himself in the author, and perhaps sympathize -- because the editor is a poet as well.

Prizes prove that the poetry is the kind that currently wins prizes. (See Juvenal's Satires or St. Augustine's Confessions for a more holistic view of prizewinning poems and poets.)

Indicating that the poet is a college teacher, an editor, a curator, or librarian -- and omissions of anything else-- telegraphs the poet's educational level (master's level; probably MFA) and that the poet has leisure enough to read and to track literary trends. It also proves beyond a doubt that the poet is white. Thus the editor can see himself in the poet, and perhaps sympathize.

Enclosing an SASE implies that the poet wants the poems back, but I guess it doesn't hurt to spell it out.

Thanks, poetry editor, for your time. We apologize for impinging upon it by sending you poems. Please accept the coveted Artificial Difficulty Prize for March 2008.

Poetry Cover Letter Protocol

Address your envelope and cover letter to the poetry editor, using the correct name (forget Writers' Market, it's always out of date; check the mag's website instead) and, please, the correct gender indicator.

Start the letter by asking the editor to consider the enclosed poems for publication. If you happen to be sending the poems for a future "special" or "themed" issue of their magazine, say so.

Next paragraph: Write, "My work has appeared in. . . " and list your most recent poetry publications, a maximum of five of them. List any prizes won. If you have never published or won prizes, don't say so; just skip this paragraph.

Mention your schooling and profession only if it's related to literature. If not, skip this paragraph. Do not volunteer information such as "I am a stay-at-home mother of twin girls."

If you are "simultaneously submitting" the enclosed poems to other journals, put that in the letter -- but never say which journals they are. If not, skip this paragraph.

Be sure to say whether you want your manuscript returned or "recycled".

Thank the editor for his or her time.

Your SASE should have the magazine's return address in the upper left corner, and should be self-sealing.

Monday, March 24, 2008

We're Feeling Much Better, Thanks

Just signed a contract for an essay to appear in Are We Feeling Better Yet?, an anthology of women's essays on the health care system, accepted by PenUltimate Press. The editors had asked, so I told them I had two writer friends -- Cathy Luh and Janet Edwards -- with appropriate and darned good essays in hand. Cathy and I were co-authors on Guilty Pleasures (Andrews McMeel, 2003) so this is our second joint appearance in print. Stick with me long enough and you'll be signing some kind of contract! Look for Are We Feeling Better Yet? in October 2008. Each contributor gets $75, which among writers counts as an economic stimulus package.

I like signing contracts -- frankly, I LOVE signing contracts or (for poetry) "consent forms" -- and hope to be signing one soon on the book Fame (book of interviews). I read contracts down to the last jot and tittle, and my main thing is, I want to keep the electronic rights.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Magnetic Poetry for the MTV Generation

John Ashbery's poems play with language. Rarely there's a line or two that's clear. But mostly not. It's rather like that "Magnetic Poetry" they sold a kit for. So knock me over with a feather when I heard, just recently, that "Ashbery is the most influential living poet" for the MTV generation. It's probably mostly because he's gay and has a good haircut. In fact I threw out my copy of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror thirty years ago today.

If, like me, you can hardly believe today's young are so gullible, look here in the NYTimes where Ashbery's poems were picked for "commercials" on "MTVu" -- MTV's special station for college campuses. Poetically, college-campus popularity is the last exit to Brooklyn. In the same way, the Boomers dug Richard Brautigan. Woot. To stay sane -- and write well -- don't trouble yourself with "most influential living poets."

Dead Ends for Your Creative Writing

If you want quality readers such as literary agents, Pushcart Prize judges, famous writers, and Best American Poetry anthologists among your readers:

1. Don't submit to a brand-new literary journal. They don't have subscribers, and their newbie editors don't know enough to nominate their contents for Pushcart or other prizes.
2. Don't submit exclusively to journals edited by students in MFA programs. Because the editors change yearly, their contents are unpredictable and can be uneven, and because of this they are not taken very seriously. In fact these journals are referred to in the aggregate as "MFA rags."
3. If you win prizes from your local literary organization's contests and get that good work printed in the awards-ceremony program, or on the organization's website, that may be the last daylight your prizewinning work will ever see. Some litmag editors consider that work to have been "already published."

I think some MFA rags are wonderful, but if you're career-minded, learn to think differently. The above information from a seminar I attended last Saturday on poetry publishing.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Instant Gratifications

Hot Link for Writers: Virginia Quarterly Review's long list of litmags with Live Links to their Home Pages! Surf no more! Bookmark this torridly hot page.

Hot Link II for Writers: -- totally online service actually reviews litmags, tells you all about 'em -- and all about independent presses.

BTW, Virginia Quarterly Review Online is a good example of how literary magazines have recently spiffed up their home pages with blogs, news-you-can-use, excerpts from recent issues, and so on. Get to know their online version. This is the way the world of litmags -- our world -- is evolving. Be there! Thanks to poet Josh Kryah for this tip.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Why Writers Don't Read Manuals

I discovered Writers Market at age 18, but was past 40 when I first read those concise and helpful articles up front, appearing in every edition, about How do I publish? and What is a query letter? and How wide should my margins be? To this day I have never bought or read a single one of those tons of books on How to Become a Published Writer, or Make Money Freelancing. Just coaxing them from the reference shelf and flipping through is distasteful. . .

On the other hand, insatiably I read myself raw on any first-person books about the writing life, like Bird by Bird, One Writer's Beginnings, and The Artist's Way. My Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath fell to pieces and I'm annoyed they don't sell it in hardback.

This would be weird if I were unique, but it seems writers at all levels, all of them dying to publish, prize those esthetic-autobio-musings-type books, but can't swallow how-to-write books, even if they can be had at any library for free. Instead writers will pay flaming cash and cross a time zone to hear a living published writer TELL them about these publishing things that seem to them so magical and mystifying.

That's because we are soulful & don't believe what those how-to books and articles say. For the majority of writers (and other people!), magic and mystery trump planning and common sense. We live in a sort of Bronze Age of the mind. We want to see and hear in person the writer who has pulled the sword from the stone. Then we believe. Maybe we hope too for a little dharma transmission.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

One Whine Away from Success

Good news: "Let's see your manuscript" from the most recent book publisher I queried. That was the query letter I didn't feel like writing, had 10 excuses for not writing, that I wished would write and mail itself. Not only that, but it got a really quick response and refreshingly polite "Look forward to reading the ms."

The effort was all worth it! All worth it!

Lessons learned:
1. I should do any chore that has even a remote possibility of helping me toward my goals.
2. Fourth time's the charm.
3. If a publisher's interested, they'll respond ASAP!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Tips for a Productive Writer's Conference

I listened at at the St. Louis Writers Guild networking workshop on Saturday and am passing on what I heard. Simple stuff! Yet it never crossed my mind!

1. Tough to part with the money for the conference or workshop? Consider it an investment in yourself.
2. Put your genre and the town and state you're from on your nametag. This increases the chances that you and others there will have something in common.
3. Carry extra pens and notepads (cheap ones) so that when someone says, "Wish I had a pen," or "Wish I'd brought some note paper," you can be their hero.
4. Stay at the hotel where the conference is held, not across town.
5. Go to as many sessions as there are. Even if there isn't a romance-writing session at 2:00 p.m., attend the poetry session. You might learn something. And go to the banquet thing even if it costs money and you don't really want to.
5. Pick up all handouts from all sessions. Put post-its on those you want to read carefully later, at home.
6. Don't feel bad about taking freebies such as bookmarks, tote bags, etc.
7. If you see someone who seems all alone, invite them into your group or to your table.
8. If you're meeting with an editor or agent, do NOT sit down and start reading to them the first chapter of your novel.
9. A conference is not a vacation. To get its benefits, work it.
10. Buy books from the authors there, and have them autographed. You might meet somebody.
11. Be liberal about giving out your business cards (the ones that say you're a writer). You do have some, don't you?

I didn't!
And suddenly bizcards made sense! They'd make me more confident! So I checked out the free ones offered by and finally designed and ordered some quite cheaply from Can't wait to get them and show you.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Where are the Female Humorists?

Topic of the meeting was "Networking for the Writer," two hours of solid advice. Especially the part that said "Introverts, you can network online!" A guy there named Bob looked familiar. Soon I realized he was Bob Rybarczyk, the "Suburban Fringe" weekly humor columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he writes good. His stuff, mostly family humor, is really funny.

Worried that he was there to write a funny column about a meeting called "Networking for the Writer," I un-introverted myself and said hi and complimented his column and asked why he was there; I figured he wouldn't need to network. Turns out he can't get syndication or an agent, has published a P.O.D. book but wants a "legitimate publisher" (his words) and hasn't one. This is a writer with thousands of local fans and popular appeal. He isn't a journalist; he started out as a P.R. guy who happened to write amusing office e-mails. P.R. guy has to learn to network? Guess it's that old artificial difficulty.

For a while I've wondered: Where are today's female humor columnists? Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck, but she's not funny. Did the art die with Erma Bombeck? I know scores of witty women. (The presenters at the meeting were sharp, witty women: Tricia Sanders and Tricia Grissom, of But the stakes are higher now. Women can't afford to risk sending amusing office e-mails. Caring for kids and aged parents and grumpy mates of the kind Phyllis Diller called "Fang" and I called "The Missing Link," worrying about their necks and moles and the church people, keeping at all costs menial, ill-fitting jobs, not enough sleep -- these days a woman who laughed about these things in print, or even shut her door to start writing, would get visited by Child Protective Services. Lady, if you're out there: We need you!