Five Practical Tips for Writing Humor

January 18, 2017

I originally wrote the article below for the Dark Cargo blog, which now appears to be defunct. Deborah Walker also kindly hosts a copy of it on her blog. However, with the UFO6 submission window looming, I wanted to take advantage of the extra eyeballs my blog is receiving for the submissions guidelines and post it here, for an entirely selfish reason: I want the stories my team and I read this April to be as good and funny as possible. So, here it is (from back in 2013):

 

FIVE PRACTICAL TIPS FOR WRITING HUMOR

By Alex Shvartsman

I’ve been thinking about humor writing a lot. Not only do I write (or attempt to write) funny science fiction stories, but I am also in my second year of reading submissions for the Unidentified Funny Objects, the speculative humor anthology series.

The most common reason a story is rejected from UFO isn’t because it’s bad – many are perfectly serviceable or even excellent – but because the writer’s idea of what makes a story humorous rather than merely lighthearted doesn’t match that of this editor.  I’m of the opinion that a story with a funny line or two thrown in is just that – a story with a few funny lines. That doesn’t make it comedy. A true humor story has a whimsical quality to it that, much like Potter Stewart’s description of pornography, is difficult to define but is immediately recognizable as such when you begin to read it.

In my quest to make everyone write funny stories I would enjoy, I have identified five practical strategies to writing humor in a speculative story, which I am now going to share with you. It may not necessarily be good advice, but I’ll make up for that in volume.

1)      Voice Matters

One of the most common ways in which a humor story fails is a writer coming up with a funny or cute premise, and then proceeding to tell it straighter than a straight face being shaved by a straight razor while setting the record.

You can’t rely on the premise for all of your funny. Can’t let your characters be the comedians with humor confined to dialog, either. You have to let the narrative voice do much of the heavy lifting. Consider the opening paragraphs of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

In five measly lines, Adams does such a masterful job of establishing the irrelevance of humanity, H.P. Lovecraft must be turning over in his grave with jealousy. Not only does this opening serve the plot later on (Spoiler: Things don’t turn out so well for the Earth), the writing is amusing, engaging, and humorous, immediately setting up the tone for the rest of the book.

Here’s another example:

“One of the few redeeming facets of instructors, I thought, is that occasionally they can be fooled. It was true when my mother taught me to read, it was true when my father tried to teach me to be a farmer, and it’s true now when I’m learning magik.”

Robert Asprin opens his inaugural volume of the Myth series – Another Fine Myth – with a bit of observational humor, just like Adams. Yet could their humor styles be any more different from each other?

One doesn’t necessarily have to open with an observation. Here’s an example from “Timber!” by Scott Almes – a short story from Unidentified Funny Objects volume 1:

“I realized I was in trouble when my realm-appointed lawyer showed up drunk and asked for spare coins. He made a valiant effort to defend me in the courtroom, but his lack of judicial knowledge, poor grasp of language, and mispronunciation of my name proved futile against the realm’s brilliant case. It didn’t help that the prosecutor was an exceptional medium. He used my incorporeal, perpetually disappointed mother as a character witness.

I was sentenced to death. The executioner immediately wheeled out a guillotine to a short round of applause.”

Almes jumps right into the plot, but his opening is clearly indicative of the sort of wacky you can expect from the rest of the story.

Whatever style or sub-genre of humor you’re shooting for, be sure that your narrative voice is unique, entertaining, and interesting.

2)      Comparison Joke is Your Best Friend

Comedy is hard, but some aspects of it are easier than others. Arguably there is nothing easier than a Comparison Joke. They are effective and reasonably easy to come up with. Comparison joke can be a well-placed and unexpected metaphor, or simply comparing a thing to another thing for comedic effect. Here’s one of my favorite examples, source unknown:

Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.

This joke is asking a lot of its audience. You must be familiar with both Game of Thrones and Twitter in order to appreciate it. But if you happen to be a part of that target audience, you might find this hilarious. You will nod sagely, recognizing that the Game of Thrones books and/or TV series have an unwieldy cast of characters and something terribly unpleasant is happening to most of them at any given time. You won’t even stop to ponder whether terrible things are actually happening on Twitter. You won’t dissect it, chuckling at the comparison instead, because the joke works.

You can always spice up your description of absolutely anything with a comparison joke. Take care not to over-rely this tactic. Like everything else in life (with possible exceptions of coffee and chocolate), it is best used in moderation.

3)      Steal from Yourself

Many of my writer friends claim that they can’t write funny, yet they are incredibly witty when you talk to them in person or on social media. If you say something that’s an instant hit with your friends, why not write it down and save it for later?

I was chatting with some writers recently, and one of them said that he could use some advice on a certain subject. My immediate response?

“We can do advice. It might not be good, but we make up for it in volume.”

I was not trying to write a story, nor was I pretending to be a humor-writing guru in a blog post, at that time. But the joke went over well, and so I saved it for later use. You may recognize it from the third paragraph of this article.

4)      The Secret to Humor is Surprise

Most humor relies on surprise, one way or another. It can be an unexpected comparison like those discussed above, a humorous observation (if the store is open 24/7, 365 days a year, why are there locks on the doors?), play on words (A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station), or a misleading setup (I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling, like the passengers in his car).

As a rule of thumb, if you can make the readers complete the sentence in their head before they finish reading it, and then pull the carpet from under them, you’ve got a good joke.

To do that, you can subvert a popular saying:

“I’m so hungry, I could ride a horse,” deadpans Chris on an episode of Family Guy.

“Don’t judge a book by its movie,” proclaims a t-shirt popular with many a writer.

5)      Humor is Subjective

No matter how hard you try, you can’t make everyone laugh. Humor is extremely subjective. What’s funny to me may fall flat to you, and vice versa. Fortunately, for fiction writers there is a workaround:

Make sure that your story works regardless of whether the reader finds it funny or not.

Some stories are so reliant on a joke that they utterly fail if the reader doesn’t laugh. These are more often than not very short stories that do nothing but set up a pun or a twist at the end which, the writer hopes, will be funny. This is stunt writing, and should be avoided in most cases.

Write a story with an interesting plot, engaging characters, and great pacing. This way, if the reader finds it to be funny, it’s a huge bonus. But if they don’t, there is still a good chance they will enjoy the story overall.

#SFWAPro

 


2016 Year In Review

January 3, 2017

“Too busy to blog much.” Not only does that cover this past month, but also the year. It may also be a suitable epitaph for my gravestone. Either that, or “Crushed to Death by His To-Be-Read Book Pile.” But I digress.

The major accomplishment of 2016 was finishing my novel (which I blogged about sufficiently.) It’s off to my agent now, and I eagerly await her feedback. As editor, I completed and published three anthologies this year. Funny Fantasy in the spring followed by Humanity 2.0 and Unidentified Funny Objects 5 in the fall.  FF was all reprints, H20 half reprints and half originals, and UFO5 all originals. All in all, I edited 27 original stories this year. So it was rather gratifying that eight of them made the Tangent Online 2016 Recommended Reading List.

After two full-length books in 2015, I only had a handful of short stories published this year. They were (chronologically):

Whom He May Devour – Nautilus – 01/07/16
One in a Million – On Spec – vol. 101 – 02/01/16
Future Fragments, Six Seconds Long – Diabolical Plots – 07/01/16
Forty-Seven Dictums of Warfare – Daily Science Fiction – 07/06/16
Dante’s Unfinished Business – Galaxy’s Edge – 09/01/16
A Perfect Medium for Unrequited Love – Nature – 09/15/16
The Poet-Kings and the Word Plague – Daily Science Fiction – 10/03/16
How Gaia and the Guardian Saved the WorldAmazing Stories – 10/16/16
Masquerade Night – In a Cat’s Eye anthology – 10/22/16
Noun of Nouns: A Mini Epic – Upside Down, Apex Publications – 12/13/16

Okay, so maybe ten is more than a handful. I ain’t complaining.

I wrote only nine new short stories in 2016, totaling just under 30,000 words but I also added 37,000 words onto my novel (it was probably more once you account for rewrites and revisions, but that’s the word count I ended up with.) for a total of 67,000 new words, which is better than last year. Of the nine new stories I already sold six, and that’s keeping in mind that the last two of them were completed in late November and late December respectively. I sell what I write, which is perhaps the metric I’m most proud of.

According to my spreadsheet I earned $2170 from my short fiction sales in 2016, a smidgen less than last year. I expect this to decline further in 2017 as I spend more time on novels and editing. My overall writing-related income (accounting for royalties, anthology sales, workshops taught, etc.) continues to grow steadily.
I made a total of 123 submissions in 2016 (compared to 155 last year) which resulted in 20 acceptances (one more than last year). Most of these submissions were for reprints. It takes very little time to fling a reprint at a market that considers those, and as my ‘inventory’ grows, there’s almost always a story or two that are a possible fit for a venue seeking submissions.

There are a handful of outstanding submissions and a few lost/never responded ones, but I did rack up around 100 rejections this year. (The numbers don’t quite match up as some of the acceptances and rejections in 2016 are from submissions filed in 2015.) Rejections are always going to be there, and while I enjoyed a nearly 20% win ratio I would’ve been happy with half that. Never let rejections drag you down: just keep submitting until the right story finds the right editor!

2017 goals:

  • Sell Eridani’s Crown (my first novel).
  • Write and finish my second novel within the 2017 calendar year.
  • Sell at least one new anthology to a major publisher.
  • Publish UFO6 and Funny Horror.
  • Sell or crowdfund my second short story collection, aiming to be published in 2018.

There’s also the matter of completing The Cackle of Cthulhu, the anthology I’ve been working on in late 2016, but it’s literally a few days away from being done, so I’m not including it onto the list of goals.

And now I’m off to work on one or more of those things!

#SFWAPro

 

 


A Major Milestone

October 17, 2016

Today marks a major milestone in my writing career. I just typed the words “THE END” at the bottom of a 95,000 word document that is my first novel, Eridani’s Crown.

When I first dared to try my hand at writing fiction in English, back in 2010, I planned on being a novelist. I wrote a prologue and half a first chapter on a novel and then I realized that I had no bloody idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to proceed, how to build a decent plot or a character arc. Worse yet, I didn’t know if the writing was any good, and I didn’t know any people who could tell me. While I have been a life-long science fiction fan, at that time I never even met another science fiction writer.

And so I came up with a brilliant plan: I would write a few short stories and I would send them out to science fiction magazines (of which I only knew about three total.) I figured that if I was able to write publishable short stories then that meant I was ready to tackle a novel.

I wrote a short story. Then another. Then another. After a few months of this my stories suddenly began to sell. At first I placed a few at very small token markets, but before long I had a string of semi-pro sales, then a few pro sales. Over the course of six years I’ve had nearly 100 short stories published, most of them at pro venues. I won an award, was nominated for another, had countless stories reprinted, podcasted, translated to other languages…

But I never finished that novel. Or any other novel. Until now.

Having more-or-less established myself as primarily a humor writer, I figured my first book would be some sort of a snarky urban fantasy or an otherwise humorous adventure yarn (space opera, maybe?) But instead, I set the mode to “super difficult” for myself and wrote a secondary-world grimdark fantasy with not a joke in sight.

Why grimdark you ask? I wrote a short story about the protagonist and was really fascinated with her. So I wrote another. And then I wanted to write her origin story. And before I knew it, I had a novel-length project on my hands. So I just kept writing.

It was slow going. I started working on this book about three years ago, but I added to the novel very slowly. choosing to focus on short story projects instead. As the manuscript slowly grew, I became more and more focused on the novel. In fact, well over 50% of my writing time in 2016 was spent working on this book. And tonight, the hardest part of the project is done.

To be clear, the book is far from finished. First drafts are messy and kind of ugly; they’re the sort of things you never ever show anyone because they contain mistakes and prose that can be outright embarrassing. But they’re the bones upon which the book will grow and flourish as I work on revisions.

I also have no idea if the book is any good. At the moment it feels like someone thoroughly shook the dictionary and upended it onto my screen. In other words: a random combination of words masquerading as a story. I simultaneously crave and dread the moment when I get to show this book to my trusted beta readers. If all goes well, they will assure me that the book is not totally crap. If it doesn’t… Well, no one can make me show this manuscript to anyone else. But I remain optimistic.

I can’t tease you like this and not tell you what the book is about. Eridani’s Crown is the story of a woman who is her world’s version of Alexander the Great or Napoleon — except she succeeds where they failed and actually takes over the entire world (conveniently, her world is a single Pangea-like continent called the Heart.)

She starts out as a hero, fighting against terrible odds and for all the right reasons. But by the end of the book, she is the worst kind of villain and despot. I like to describe it to folks as a “character arc of Breaking Bad meets the grimdark setting of Game of Thrones.”

And while, again, I’ll reiterate that I don’t know if the end result is any good, I’m certain it’s ambitious. There are politics and machinations, examination of power and responsibility, and the first instance of a political Cold War I’ve seen in this sort of setting. I stole liberally from different eras of history, with characters loosely based on Alexander the Great and Mozi (Chinese engineer and pacifist from 400 BC). There are scenes inspired by the Battle of Waterloo and the decline of the Roman Empire, by the ill-considered reforms of Peter the Great and the brutality of Ghenghis Khan.

And I’m pretty sure the body count would make George R. R. Martin flinch.

Whether this book or good or not, I have unlocked a major achievement in that now I can call myself a novelist. Tomorrow the revisions begin, but tonight I celebrate and rest on my laurels for just a little while.

#SFWAPro

 


How to Write a Proper Short Story Cover Letter

May 9, 2016

As an editor I see a lot of bad cover letters. I can’t help but think folks are following some bad advice out there, so I wrote a thing that might help. It’s long and it’s a little ranty and cranky (because I’ve seen a lot of bad cover letters in the last month), but I hope it will also be helpful.

Note that this advice is specific to genre magazines and anthologies and short fiction. Novel submissions play by a different set of rules, and there may be a slightly different etiquette in literary submissions and other genres. But, if you write and submit science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories, the following essay is for you.

How to Write a Proper Short Story Cover Letter

The most important fact to remember about cover letters is this: the best cover letter in the world is not really going to help you sell your story.

An impressive list of awards and pro credits might–on a rare occasion–entice a slush reader who’s already on the fence about a submission to bump it up to the editor. An editor or first reader might delve a little deeper into the story before they give up because your previously listed sales have demonstrated a certain level of competency. But, beyond that, the story is going to sink or swim on its own.

However, a bad cover letter is at least as likely–perhaps more likely–to undermine your chances. It can clue in the editor that you’re new and inexperienced or, worse yet, that you’ve settled for being published in mediocre markets. (More on that below.) And if you manage to really put a foot in your mouth, you may end up with whoever is reading the story actively rooting against you.

The cases where the cover letter will sway things either way are rare. Some of the industry’s top editors wisely ignore cover letters altogether; they read the story first so whatever you put in the cover letter doesn’t pre-bias them either way. But not all editors do that. And since a good cover letter is really easy to write, why not give yourself that tiniest extra edge?

Let’s begin by talking about some of the most common mistakes one finds in cover letters. I write this at the tail end of a month-long submission window where my associate editors and I received nearly 640 submissions. Although the letter below is 100% fake, virtually every mistake and problem it features showed up in one or more of the cover letters I saw this month alone.

Without further ado, here’s a terrible cover letter:

Clueless Writer
123 Main Street
Cleveland, OH 44101
216-555-1212
c.writer@email.com

Attn: Mrs. Jane Smith, Editor

Dear Mrs. Smith,

I’m submitting my short story “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” to be considered for publication in your magazine, Time Travel Tales. It is formatted in Standard Manuscript Format and saved as an RTF file as per your guidelines. It is an original story not previously published anywhere and it is not on submission elsewhere.

This story is about a pair of scientists who invented a time machine and decided to to travel back to 1905 and kill young Hitler while he’s trying to make it as an artist in Vienna. They wrestle with the moral dilemma of killing a man before he committed any crimes as well as with the potential pitfalls of a scientific paradox his death would cause. In a surprise twist ending, they decide not to kill Hitler and go home.

I am a graduate of DeVry University where I earned my MFA. I then studied physics at Phoenix University Online and earned a PhD. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes. I’m also a Taekwondo black belt, and an award-winning cat breeder.

I’ve been previously published in For the Luv Review, Cat Breeder Quarterly, Obscure magazine, The Poetry Digest, Daily Movie Reviews website, and the comments section of the Cleveland Times.

This manuscript is a disposable copy.

Sincerely,

Clueless Writer

Let us now examine this bit by bit:

Clueless Writer
123 Main Street
Cleveland, OH 44101
216-555-1212
c.writer@gmail.com

Attn: Mrs. Jane Smith, Editor

1985 called and it wants its business correspondence formatting back. Your contact information should appear at the top of your manuscript, and while there are still a small handful of markets that ask you to include it in the cover letter as well, most don’t. Unless they specifically ask for it, don’t duplicate it in the cover letter, and certainly don’t include “Attn:” or “From the desk of” lines they may have taught you about in eleventh grade typewriter class. The first line of your cover letter should be the salutation.

Dear Mrs. Smith

At the very least, this should be addressed to Ms. Smith because she’s the editor and not merely an extension of her husband. If you know who the editors are, generally address the most senior editor at the market. Dear Ms. Smith or Dear Jane Smith would do nicely. But, really, Dear Editor(s) will do just as well. You could even go with my personal favorite (and a form of address I’ve actually seen in my slush pile): Gentlebeings. If you use any of these, you avoid the possibility of misgendering your correspondent, misspelling their name (Shvartsman here; I know a thing or two about that), and maybe sidestep the effort of trying to decipher the hierarchy of a specific market.

Most editors won’t care, but unless you’ve communicated with the editor in the past and they signed their e-mail to you with their first name, it’s marginally better to avoid addressing them by their first name (aka Dear Jane.) For the record though, “Dear Alex” is fine by me.

Moving on:

I’m submitting my short story “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” to be considered for publication in your magazine Time Travel Tales. It is formatted in Standard Manuscript Format and saved as an RTF file as per your guidelines. It is an original story not previously published anywhere and it is not on submission elsewhere.

The same rule applies to cover letter as does to fiction: don’t overwrite. Before you include any specific bit of information, ask yourself: is this necessary and relevant?

Jane Smith knows that the name of her magazine is Time Travel Tales. She can reasonably make an assumption that you’re sending the story to be reviewed for publication there. If Time Travel Tales asks that you format your story in SMF (Standard Manuscript Format) and does not accept reprints or simultaneous submissions, then she will assume your story is neither a reprint nor a simultaneous submission, because you’re a human being who is capable of reading and processing information stated in her guidelines.

Which brings us to my personal favorite: writers letting me know that they formatted the manuscript in RTF or DOC or whatever, as specified in the guidelines. First, again, I know which formats are requested in my own guidelines. And second, I can see your file right there. Either you formatted it correctly, in which case I don’t need a reminder as I will not be awarding you a gold star for this since we aren’t in kindergarten, or you sent me a PDF, ZIP file or some other strange beast I didn’t ask for, and then we have a different problem altogether.

This story is about

If you follow any advice at all from this text, let this be it: Do not summarize your story in your cover letter. Let me repeat that.

Do not.

Summarize.

Your Story.

In your cover letter.

This practice likely comes from the world of novel query letters where you do have to summarize your book in a few paragraphs. However, this need does not translate to short fiction. Virtually every editor I know hates when authors do this with a passion.

We want your story to speak for itself. We don’t want any sort of a preview, a summary, or anything else that will spoil it in some way. In fact, when I see a sentence that opens with “This story is about” I immediately skip to the next paragraph. So please, do yourself a favor and don’t include one.

Once in awhile, a market will actually ask you to include a summary. And while I don’t really get how this is helpful to them, always abide by what the guidelines say over what I write here.

Having said this, it can occasionally be helpful to include the story’s genre and length, especially for markets that review different genres. It may help the editor assign it to the right reader or to budget proper amount time to review it themselves. So it’s perfectly okay to say “Please consider my dark fantasy story” or “Enclosed is a steampunk flash fiction story of 900 words.) Just don’t get into the details of plot and sure as hell don’t tell the editor how wonderful and great your story is.

There’s one other notable exception to talking about your story in the cover letter, and we’ll cover it in the next section. Or, perhaps you can spot it in the next paragraph yourself.

I am a graduate of DeVry University where I earned my MFA. I then studied physics at Phoenix University Online and earned a PhD. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes. I’m also a Taekwondo black belt, and an award-winning cat breeder.

Generally, you should not include your non-writing related accomplishments in the cover letter unless your experience directly correlates to what the story is about. In our example, the author is absolutely right to mention their physics background and their thesis. It is directly relevant to the story they are submitting and to Time Travel Tales as a market. The other tidbits, however, should not be included unless the author is presenting a story about a Taekwondo tournament or about breeding cats.

So yeah, if you’re a NASA scientist mention that in your space exploration story. If you’re a history professor, this will be relevant if you’re writing historical fantasy. If you write a story set in Japan and you have lived in Japan for a few years, you can mention that. But your advanced degree in Windchime Studies is likely not helpful when trying to sell a cyberpunk story.

Then there’s my personal pet peeve, and that’s authors mentioning their MFA (a creative writing degree) in their cover letters. To me, this is an equivalent of saying “trust me, I write good” and is not relevant to your story, unless it happens to be about an MFA program. In fact, seeing this in a cover letter almost always correlates to something I can quit reading after a page because the writing is subpar.

Which is not to say MFAs are bad, or writers with MFAs are bad. It’s just that the good writers with MFAs do not generally feel the need to include this particular accomplishment in their cover letters.

The other thing that is perfectly okay (but unnecessary) to include are your professional writing association memberships: SFWA, HWA, and the like. Instead, focus on including your publishing credits and awards or achievements in creative writing, if any.

I’ve been previously published in For the Luv Review, Cat Breeder Quarterly, Obscure magazine, The Poetry Digest, Daily Movie Reviews website, and the comments section of the Cleveland Times.

First of all, let me say that listing no publishing credits if you don’t have them will never hurt you. It’s even okay to say you’re a new/unpublished writer. Really! Every editor I know loves discovering new talent and loves being the first to publish someone, or first to publish someone in a pro venue. No one is going to hold a lack of past credits against you.

It’s also perfectly fine if you’re new and you only have a couple of token credits to your name. Although I advise authors not to submit anywhere that pays less than semi-pro rates, that’s a different topic and a couple of token credits won’t hurt you. There are two things that can hurt you, however:

First, listing a ton of credits that are all lower on the totem pole than the place you’re submitting to. When a pro editor sees a list of twenty non-paying or token-paying markets they won’t be impressed. In fact, this will have the opposite effect as the editor might assume that you either can’t write work publishable at better venues or, worse yet, you’ve settled for the minor leagues and aren’t seriously trying to improve your writing. Either way, you’ve just pre-biased the editor/first reader against your work. So, even if you have 20+ small credits, only list three or four of them.

In fact, even if you have 20+ professional credits, only list three or four of them anyway. Name-dropping your top 3 markets is better for establishing your bona fides than name-dropping your top 10 markets.

The second way to torpedo your chances is to mix in your non-fiction credits with your fiction credits to make the overall list more impressive. It’s cool if you wrote an article for Clarkesworld, had a poem published in Strange Horizons or a book review at Apex magazine. You can even include those credits in your cover letter if you really want to. But if the editor thinks you’re intentionally trying to obfuscate things by bundling them with your actual fiction credits with statements like “I’ve been published at For-the-Luv Review, Obscure magazine, and Clarkesworld” they will notice that one of these things is not like the others, use their Google-fu, and then they will raise an eyebrow.

This manuscript is a disposable copy.

This is a thing I actually saw in a cover letter this year.

Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the price of return postage for a stack of typewritten pages was cheaper than the cost of photo-copying an extra set, some authors wanted their rejected manuscripts back. Magazines required that these authors include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) either way, and enough postage if you wanted your precious pages back (coffee stains optional.) If you didn’t want them back, it was expected to mention in the cover letter that the manuscript copy you included was disposable. In fact, I remember doing this as recently as a couple of years ago, until F&SF became the last of the respectable genre ‘zines to stop requiring print submissions.

Fast forward to today. All submissions are electronic. (Some venues still accept print subs, but if you’re reading this, you probably aren’t among the authors who avail themselves of this option.) So, what is the point of adding this line to the cover letter? None, other than blindly following conventions from the bygone era.

To summarize, your cover letter should be short.

In e-mail cover letters include story title, genre (if applicable), length, and any relevant credits/awards. Consider including word count in email header as this may be helpful to the editors as they often choose to read stories based on how much free time they have available.

In webform that already makes you fill in the basic info, stick to credits/relevant info; no need to repeat info from the form’s fields.

Optimal cover letter for Clueless Writer submitting to Time Travel Tales would be:

Dear Editor,

Please consider “Traveling Back in Time to Kill Hitler” (SF, 3000 words).

My short fiction has appeared in For the Luv review and Obscure magazine.

I have a physics PhD from Phoenix University Online. My thesis was on time travel paradoxes.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Clueless Writer
ClulessWriter’sHomepageURL.com

It’s simple, it’s basic, and it highlights the relevant accomplishments this writer has.

This is the actual cover letter I currently use:

Dear Editor Name,

Please consider Story Title (SF, 2000 words).

I’m the winner of the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2015 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. Over 80 of my short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and other venues.

Thanks very much in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Alex
www.alexshvartsman.com

If anything, I feel like mine is on the longish side. Note the URL at the end of the letter. If they really care about my other credits or just want to make sure I’m not unhinged lunatic who writes 3000-word rants about cover letters on his blog (Ahem!), they can click through. But, chances are, they won’t. Because this cover letter has, hopefully, done its job of introducing me briefly and will not get in the way of the story.

Which is, really, all you can ask of an optimal cover letter.
#SFWAPro

###

I’ll be presenting a workshop on the business of short fiction at Balticon, where in addition to talking cover letters I’ll discuss contract review and negotiations, the etiquette of queries, finding viable markets for your work and submission strategies, reprint and foreign rights, and much more. The funds raised by this and other workshops will go to support Balticon 50 and there are great many other reasons to attend this convention. Check out mine and other premium workshops here.


2015 Year In Review

December 31, 2015

This has been an excellent year for me as an anthologist, but perhaps a tiny bit of a step back for me as a writer. Here’s why.

I published two new anthologies, both toward the end of 2015: UFO4 and Funny Science Fiction. Year to year the new UFO volume seems to launch stronger than the previous year and swells up the sales of the previous volumes to go with it. UFO4 was no exception — it has launched strong and I’ve enjoyed strong sales on the series in the last quarter of the year. The real surprise however, was Funny SF. It was meant to be a budget project: reprints only, Amazon only, e-book only. It was mostly meant to be a vehicle to help promote the UFO series. But then, selecting funny stories from among the best the last ten years worth of professionally published material has to offer can result in a pretty damn good book, and the readers agreed. It has sold better than any other book I’ve launched to date and continues to sell very well. I am already reading for the Funny Fantasy volume to be released this summer, and will follow it up with Funny SF 2 next year.

I’m also working, concurrently, on three anthologies! In addition to Funny Fantasy, I’m in the early stages of work on UFO5, and I’m also editing a non-humor anthology, Humanity 2.0, for Arc Manor. Which is great, but it also takes up an enormous chunk of my writing time.

And that’s where the step back comes in for me as a writer. I had my first collection and a novella published in 2015. I was nominated for an award. And I still say there was a setback. Why? I simply did not produce the volume in 2015 that I had in the previous two years. I wrote a whopping 24 stories and 66,000 words of short fiction in 2013. In 2014 I wrote only 13 stories totaling 38,000 words. That’s because some of my word count was dedicated to the novel. In 2015, I completed only 11 stories totaling 23,000 words. However, my novel is now at about 60,000 words total, 2/3 of the way to finishing the first draft.

Although I wrote slower this year, I am still selling what I write pretty well. I already placed 6 of the 11 stories I wrote this year, and sold all the remaining stories I wrote in 2014. That leaves only 3 un-placed stories from late 2013, and one from 2012 which is sort-of sold but the contract hasn’t been signed yet.

I earned $2275 off my short fiction writing in 2015 (also about a third down from last year) having sold a total of 19 stories (including reprints). I made a total of 155 submissions, over 20 of them still outstanding, which means I also collected nearly 120 rejection slips, or about the same number as last year. A much higher percentage of my submissions this year were reprints, both because I haven’t written as many new stories and because I have so many more reprints to choose from as the great many stories I sold in 2013 and 2014 are coming off exclusivity.

Looking to 2016, my main goal is to finish the novel (yes, I’ve been saying that for a while now, but progress has been made, however slow, and at the rate I’m going I should be able to finish it.)

Thanks for reading my ramblings on this blog in 2015 and happy New Year!

 


Paying Back, 2015 Edition

December 18, 2015

Every year around the holidays I donate a few bucks to various online services and sites that I use heavily and that mostly offer their services for free. I also write this post in order to encourage others to donate also, if they can afford to. Here’s where I sent my hard-earned cash this time around:

Wikimedia Foundation

I use Wikipedia heavily whenever I need to look something up as it relates to my writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if I accessed close to 1000 listings on there in the course of 2015. Although not specifically a writing resource, most writers I know lean heavily on it as well.

Codex Writers

This is an invaluable resource and I spend a lot of my time at conventions and other writerly gatherings proselytizing fellow authors. Anyone who graduated a pro-level workshop like Clarion or Viable Paradise, or sold at least one short story to a SFWA-qualifying venue is eligible to join. Highly recommended!

The Submission Grinder

Free and easy-to-use tool to track your submissions, learn about new and active short story markets, and get estimates on how quickly editors at each venue are responding to submissions. The Grinder continues to grow and they’re 100% committed to providing their service free to all writers. They’re also publishing fiction at the Grinder’s parent site Diabolical Plots (full disclosure: a story of mine will appear there next year), as well as The Long List anthology of Hugo-nominated and near-miss stories from last year. David Steffen does a ton of work to benefit the community. In addition to a donation for his operating expenses, I’d encourage those of you nominating to consider his site for a Hugo nomination next year under Best Fanzine or Best Fan Writer categories.

Locus Magazine

This is not really a donation since I get the magazine in return for my money, but I subscribed mostly to support their efforts. Locus has been around for a long time and a ton of work goes into covering the SF/F publishing word the way they do. As an author and editor I truly have a vested interest in their success, and buying a subscription is one small way to ensure their continued existence.

Happy holidays!

#SFWAPro

 


Lots of cool news (with pictures)

March 17, 2015

YearsBest2013-195x300

Twelfth Planet Press announced the Honorable Mention list for the 2013 Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction. I’m very honored to have my story “Things We Leave Behind” included on this list! Ken Liu’s story from UFO2, “The MSG Golem” has made the list as well.

You can read Things We Leave Behind at Daily Science Fiction, where it was originally published. You can also listen to the story podcasted at Cast of Wonders, and narrated by me!

 

 

Crains

The May 16 issue of Crain’s New York Business Journal ran a profile on me in my capacity as owner and operator of Kings Games. All I have is this thumbnail for now, but I’m expecting some copies in the mail and am looking forward to reading the article.

 

Informator

 

These are the contributor copies of Informator Gdanskiego Klubu Fantastyki, which has been publishing my Tales of the Elopus mini-stories translated into Polish, one per issue. You can also see the PDF issues online, here. (Click on the magazine cover at top right.)

 

missiontomorrow
Editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt shared the cover art of Mission: Tomorrow, his anthology forthcoming from Baen this November which includes my story “The Race for Arcadia.” This will be my second appearance in a Baen anthology, after this summer’s release of the latest Chicks in Chainmail volume.

#SFWAPro