HNS Meeting – Windy Lynn Harris
The bimonthly meetings of the AZ Historical Novel Society are always interesting and informative. At lest, I have always found them to be so. The meeting this month, though, was especially awesome this time. Windy Lynn Harris, an editor at The Review Review and prolific author herself (she has 80+ short stories and essays published), was our guest speaker. It is possible that there has been a cooler speaker in recent months, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you who it was. Windy was amazing! You should check out her website.
So, Windy’s talk was a highly condensed version of a class that she teaches. I plan to take it in August, once my major quasi-work-related project is complete.* I learned a TON just from the 90-minute talk she gave to the HNS meeting, so I can only imagine how much I would learn from a full class! In a nutshell, Windy has a five-step system to sell or publish short stories:
- Categorize the story
- Find where to sell it
- Make a good query letter
“Short” works are essays, poems, and short stories. Short non-fiction is generally a different market. Short fiction is sent to magazine or acquiring editors. Non-fiction has very little developmental component to the process, so you have to send your very best prose – is your piece the right length for the magazine, the right type, etc. Editors in magazine and short story publishing are not “gatekeepers” like they tend to be in book publishing. They are also writers themselves, so it is a different kind of relationship. As an example, Windy read us a terrific letter she received from an editor she has worked with. It was all about how editors love writers and even if they don’t accept the work you submit that time, it doesn’t mean they don’t think YOU are awesome. If they say they want to see more of your work in the future, they actually mean it. The part of the letter that stuck with me the most was the sentiment, “To click is to believe.” I like that. It ties in nicely with my goal of creative courage, which is something I am working on this year.
Step one is categorization, which is to deeply understand what you wrote. For the purposes of Windy’s talk, that would be short stories, essays, or poems.
Short stories are generally sold by word count. Less than 500 words is microfiction. 500-1000 words is flashfiction. Both of these subgenres are imminently publishable and very popular. 1000-7500 words is a short story. 20K-50K is a novella. 50K+ words is a novel.
Genre work is meant to be formulaic. Romance, for example, is basically a love story between two people where they end up together at the end; Sci-fi features science-driven plot devices; etc. Literary work is meant to be art on the page, elevated writing, experimental. A little formula to help figure out if you’ve written genre or literary work is:
50% or more of the story is plot-based = genre
50% or more of the story is character development, experimental, etc = literary
Poems are generally only sold to literary magazines. They are sold by poem, not word count. You typically need a lot of training for poetry, lots of experience and practice and feedback, before poems are at a standard to be published.
Essays are first person true stories by the writer, usually personal. Some are persuasive but mostly are author’s feelings. If an essay is written with scene development, it is creative non-fiction. Both essays and creative non-fiction are very sellable genres. One of my favorite authors of creative non-fiction is Wil Wheaton. Get over your Wesley Crusher-hate and read his blog. That is all.
Step two is to find where to sell your short work. There are many resources available to help with this. A few that Windy recommended are:
- The Review Review! Windy is an editor there – bonus! – and it has a vetted database, “View on Publishing.”
- Writer’s Market (affiliated with Writer’s Digest). Get the hard copy version rather than trying to figure out the electronic version. It’s easier and more comprehensive.
- com deals with selling your essays.
- New Pages
- Writing for Dollars
- Funds for Writers
- Poets and Writers Magazine
- Aerogram Writers’ Studio
- Writing to Heal deals with non-fiction only, but is all paying markets
- Creative Writing Opportunities List
- Jeanne’s Writing Newsletter
Having a good query letter is step three of the process. You should send a query letter every time you submit a short creative work. You would submit a pitch letter for non-fiction. A query letter tells an editor why you are sending your work to a particular place. You should start with a real reason for doing so, if you have one! Windy said that if you have a potential contact with the editor or magazine, say so. It helps. For example, you could say that you first became familiar with XYZ Magazine through a workshop run by one of their contributing authors. Another example I liked was to say if you had previously submitted something to them and were told no thanks this time, but they would like to see future work from you. Editors mean that when they say it, so it is good to remind them if you were told that.
I would like to add here that this part of Windy’s talk created considerable anxiety for me because I did not have a query letter to submit with my recent Star Trek short story for the Strange New Worlds writing contest. This anxiety degenerated into a full-blown Gollum-esque internal, angst-ridden, self-loathing argument between myself and my brain. Holy shit, I needed a query letter?? I didn’t know I needed a query letter! But I followed their rules and instructions in the email they sent to me upon registration! But she’s a professional and knows these things and she said I should do that! Maybe I would have a better shot if I had submitted a query letter like hers? But the email I sent was totally kind of a query letter, even though I didn’t know it at the time! Maybe that counts! They’ll know that I didn’t know I needed a query letter and disqualify my story because I didn’t have the letter. I’m such a loser. It was at that point I told my brain to shut up, reminded myself that I doubt I have a chance anyway since thousands and thousands of people will have submitted to the contest, popped a Xanax, and kept listening to what she had to say.
Query letters must all include:
Your contact information
The magazine’s/editor’s contact information.
Address the letter specifically to the managing editor; however, if the masthead doesn’t list who that is, or it isn’t clear, it is ok to address it To Whom It May Concern or To The Editors Of… instead.
The first paragraph should be your introduction, the title of your story, length, why you’re submitting it to that magazine.
The second paragraph should be your credentials that are relevant, why you wrote the story.
Final paragraph should simply be something like, “Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.”
The whole query letter should be short, each paragraph only two or three sentences.
Windy gave us a sample of one of her query letters. I redacted it to remove the specifics of her story title and magazine she was submitting to. The format was a little different since she sent it via email, but the basics are the same:
I became familiar with [magazine name] through Duotrope. I’m sending you my short story [“TITLE”], for consideration because I thought it would be a good fit for your upcoming Hidden Things theme.
I am the Publishing Tips editor at The Review Review. My stories have been published in [ALL the places OMG], among many other journals. I am working on my first novel.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
Windy Lynn Harris
It is also worth considering getting a Submittable account. It not only helps you track what you have submitted and to where, it helps you track the progress of your submissions. It shows when something is submitted, when it has been read, if it has been rejected or accepted, etc.
Formatting is the fourth step. Use standard manuscript formatting. Do not deviate! The following list is from the handout Windy gave to us:
- Use 8 ½ x 11 inch, 20 lb white paper. Print on one side only.
- 1 to 1 ½ inch margins
- Standard typeface (no italics, bold, etc). Times New Roman or Arial.
- 12 characters per inch printer spacing (12 pt).
- No end-of-the-line hyphenated words or justified right margins.
- Double space the entire manuscript (poetry is the only exception).
- Indent paragraphs five spaces.
- No additional spacing between paragraphs.
- Type your name, complete address, phone number, and email address in the upper left corner, single spaced. In the upper right corner, type approximate word count of the manuscript.
- Drop down about half way on the first page and center your title. Put your byline beneath it. [Put your pseudonym there if you’re using one. Put your real name in the upper left corner with your contact information.] These are double spaced.
- On page two and subsequent pages, add a header that includes the title (or a key word from the title), your last name, and page number. Scoot this header to be right-justified so the text does not interfere with reading your prose.
The final and most terrifying step is, of course, submission. Dun dun DUUUUUUUUUN!!! Think of your overall writing goals. Are you going to submit to 20 magazines this week? To fewer? To more? Be realistic about what you have written. First, get seen in literary magazines. Get published in smaller magazines first, which is usually necessary. Save those top tier submissions for when you are really ready. It isn’t terribly likely that the very first time you submit something, it will be to a place like The New Yorker, or that it will get published. So keep pecking away at the smaller places first, and the top tier places will come along eventually.
Be organized: keep track of the magazines you submit to, the date, if you used Submittable/snail mail/etc. If you got a “nice” rejection letter, it is a good idea to track that as well so you can incorporate it into your query letter if you submit again to that same magazine.
Send each piece to at least five places until you get it accepted! It should always be in the hands of at least five editors at any given time.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS.
Copyright. The minute you write something, it is yours. You don’t need to put any silly copyright symbols on your stuff that you submit or anything. Nothing screams “N00b!!” quite like doing that. It is understood among editors and the publishing world that you wrote it and it is yours.
You also own every right to your work in print, screen, plays, every iteration of your work.
First Rights means a publisher is the first one to publish something. If something has been published before, any subsequent publication is a reprint or republished work. Be careful posting things to your blog, as that often now counts as self-publishing and some places won’t publish it after that.
Be careful as well of “All Right,” which means the publisher would own all the rights to your work, not you.
So this is the very condensed version of Windy’s class. As I mentioned at the beginning, she does offer the class in a four-week session. All the information can be found on her website: www.windylynnharris.com. Admission for the February class is now closed; however, enrollment for the May class will open in March. Dates of her next classes are:
May 2016 (admission opens in March)
August 2016 (admission opens in June)
November 2016 (admission opens in September)
Thanks for an awesome talk, Windy, and I, for one, look forward to taking your class and working with you in the future!
*I refer to that project as Operation: Save My Own Ass, and will feature prominently in any future blog posts I write about it, including one I’m working on which should hit in the next few days.