Archive for writing tips

Think like an editor when submitting

Posted in All posts, On writing, Pig in a Poke with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2010 by Trina

As the fiction editor for Pig in a Poke magazine, I receive a variety of e-mail formats introducing story submissions. I find this curious because our submission guidelines give specific directions for submitting. Even so, most writers do not follow the guidelines. The norm is to diverge from what we ask. Why? Why don’t writers pay attention to details that could help to get their work published?

Guidelines are not meant to make writers’ lives more difficult. Rather, each editor has his or her own process. The way they ask writers to submit work streamlines that process. Hence the need for guidelines. Editors may ask for a certain phrase in the subject, ask for attachments or not, or request certain formatting because it makes it easier to read the submission and reply more quickly.

Editors are busy, just like writers. Many of us have day jobs. We receive hundreds of submissions each month. We ask that writers submit work a certain way in order to help us. We appreciate writers that make our lives easier by submitting as we ask. And when we get our way, we are in a better mood when we read your work.

In general, I suggest fiction writers do the following when they submit their work for publication. I think these steps will at least increase a writer’s chance of receiving a reply and will likely increase their chance for publication.

  • Follow submission guidelines carefully.
  • Personalize your e-mail. Do not use your husband’s, wife’s or work e-mail.
  • Include a cover letter with the name of the story and word count. Unless the editor states otherwise in the guidelines.
  • Put your bio in the cover letter. Unless the editor states otherwise.
  • Put your name and contact information on the first page of your submission and in the cover letter. Unless the editor states otherwise.

Follow submission guidelines carefully.

I ask that a story be submitted as a Word or .rtf file to I like attachments because I don’t want to have to scroll down an e-mail or read a story that has lost its formatting. I like to see italics and bold where they belong. I want paragraph breaks, which can be lost embedded in e-mail. Harry doesn’t mind poems embedded in e-mail. Neither of us care what font is used, so we don’t state a font choice.

Subject line

Pig in a Poke asks that in the subject line writers list the genre and their last name. Example: “Poetry: Calhoun”. We ask this, not to make extra work for you, but so that we can easily match up the submission with the e-mail when we reply. About half of the fiction submissions I receive do not have the correct subject line. This means that when I am ready to reply to the writer I have to search through my e-mails to find the person’s submission. Unless it is an exceptional story that I want to accept, I may not have the patience to sort through all those e-mails in order to reject the story.

Name and contact information

It is important to put your name on the first page of the story submitted. About a quarter of the fiction submissions I receive do not have a name anywhere on the story. This makes it difficult for me to reply. Even if the writer put his or her name in the subject line of the e-mail, I still can’t quickly find the e-mail submission. I have to open every e-mail until I find the attached story in one of them. You can imagine my mood if I reply after wasting time looking through dozens of e-mails.

Cover letter and bio

I ask that in the body of the e-mail, writers introduce the story, themselves, and include a brief bio. The cover letter is for me to get to know the writer and his or her work. If the cover letter is humorous and conversational, I can expect the same of the story. It adds interest for me if the writer tells me something about themselves. For example, I received this letter recently.

I generally write in an attempt to be humorous, though most of those with whom I have shared my work inevitably ask me how drunk I was at the time of writing the story.

Although I ended up rejecting this submission, I was more excited to read it than I would have been had he sent in a standard note. And I offered ideas for revision that I might not have otherwise.

More than half of the fiction submissions I receive do not include a bio. I don’t care what publications, if any, writers have. That is not the reason for the bio. The reason we ask for a bio in the cover letter is so that we can run it with the story if we accept it. When the bio is not in the cover letter, if I accept the story I have to ask the writer to send a bio. Then, when I lay out the story in the magazine, I have two e-mails from the writer to keep track of: one containing the story and one containing the bio. This gets messy.

All in a name

Please personalize your e-mail when submitting. For example, if your name is Sally Smothers, your e-mail should be something like: or or With free yahoo and Google e-mail services, there is no excuse to submit your work with an e-mail that does not match your name.

I recently received this cover letter for a short story sent by John K:

Bio included in work

Nothing more, just that the bio is included. I did not know how long the story was or anything about the writer. This did not stop me from reading the story, although some editors might have hit the delete key. And they would be justified in that. If a writer can’t bother to follow the guidelines, we should not feel compelled to read his or her work.

The story was written by Elizabeth B, whose bio read:

I am now a practicing attorney in Weston, Florida. I have published in The Florida Bar and the journal for the state’s lawyers, and I write regular monthly legal columns for local magazines. I am currently working on a collection of short stories.

I liked the story, but decided it wasn’t quite right for “the Pig.” When I tried to reply to Elizabeth, I realized I had no e-mail in her name. Nor had she followed the guidelines by putting her name in the subject line. So, I had to open every submission until I came to an e-mail sent by John K with simply “submission” in the subject line. If Elizabeth had personalized her e-mail with her own name or followed my guidelines by putting “Fiction: Elizabeth B” in the subject, I could have easily found her e-mail and replied.

Frustrated, I sent this note to Elizabeth:

Dear Elizabeth (or John),

Thank you for submitting “name of story” to Pig in a Poke magazine for publication. I’m afraid it does not quite work for us. I found the beginning rather long. The story did draw me in toward the middle and I liked the ending, but overall, it tended to ramble and just didn’t hook me.

I found it confusing that your e-mail lists your name as John K. And I would suggest writing a brief note introducing yourself and the story, especially when your name doesn’t match your e-mail. I had to open e-mails in my in box to find out who to reply to. This can be frustrating to editors.

John wrote back, apologized, and said that he is submitting for Elizabeth because she is busy with her law practice. Indeed. My opinion is that writers should submit their own work. Stories are personal and to pay an assistant to submit work just seems to impersonal. I was further taken aback when I received this cover letter for another of Elizabeth’s stories last week, again sent from John’s e-mail.

John K submitting for Elizabeth B.  Thanks.

Did John and Elizabeth learn nothing from my note? If John is going to continue to submit for Elizabeth, he could at least open a yahoo or Google account in her name, as I suggested. And neither John or Elizabeth bothered to write a note introducing the story. If she is too busy to write a query letter, should I be bothered to read Elizabeth’s story?


Posted in All posts, On writing, Pig in a Poke with tags , , , , , , , on May 6, 2010 by Trina

“I thought the story was well written, but nothing was happening.”

I write these words more frequently than any others in rejections letters for stories submitted to Pig in a Poke magazine. Lack of tension and conflict is probably the most common and unfortunate reason for rejection because many of these stories have real potential. Lack of tension is also a common problem in the fiction writing I see as a freelance editor, so I thought it deserved a blog post.

The best stories are the ones that keep us interested and what builds interests is tension. Tension is that feeling of conflict between what the protagonist wants and the barriers in the way of that happening. I don’t care how literary a story is, or how well the words are strung together, if there is no conflict, it is boring. No conflict equals rejection. Long or short, fiction must have tension or you lose your reader.

I recently read a 5,000 word story about a man who fought in Operation Hurricane backing up paratroopers dropped into Samara. I hated to reject the story, because it could have been really good, but instead was a dialogue about Eastern politics. Why wasn’t it good? There was no conflict, no tension. We learned the protagonist’s story only through his passive reflection on what had happened to him. There was no reason to keep scrolling down the page. It was well-researched and well-written snoozer. Withholding could have turned this story into a page turner.

Avoid the rejection pile by learning to withhold

Creating tension in fiction is about withholding. It might mean withholding the answers to questions like: Will Detective Alex Cross get the bad guy? How will James Bond will get out of this? Will Harry and Sally find a way to be together? These questions must be carefully planted into the readers mind and the answers revealed only through the resolution in the ending. Hints dropped sporadically can be a good way to build tension.

You create tension by continuous planting of questions in your reader’s mind. In the case of the Algerian soldier, tension could easily have been created by telling the story in real time and withholding by posing these questions either in the characters’ actions or dialogue: Is the hero going to save the day? Will our soldier make it out of Algeria? Will Algeria achieve independence? As it was written, these questions were answered before the story even began. Why would anyone keep reading?

Create tension by withholding in several ways:

  • change the order of how you reveal what happens, so that the reader will want to know what’s going to happen next–taking care not to reveal too much up front.
  • “mystify” one of the major revelations so that it’s unclear to both the reader and the characters what is really going on.
  • give at least one significant character a juicy secret that ties into the central storyline and will give a nice subplot at the same time.

Your characters are flawed. They should make mistakes. If your protagonist takes two steps forward, she must take one step back. There is a reason James Patterson’s books sell. He is a master of creating tension. When Alex Cross gets one step closer to the killer, something worsens in his life. His grandmother collapses and is rushed to the hospital. His girlfriend is kidnapped.

Here’s to conflict. May it always reign in your stories.

Lost in Translation

Posted in All posts, On writing with tags , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2008 by Trina

During a brief period when I was freelancing fulltime, I interviewed Harry Calhoun about his success as a poet and marketing writer. The interview titled ON WRITING AND POETRY: HARRY CALHOUN IN CONVERSATION ran in Thunder Sandwich in 2005. To increase my exposure as a freelancer, I also submitted the interview to Since then, the interview has appeared on various sites about writing. I feel proud that my first, and probably last, attempt at an interview is so popular. Harry says he doesn’t mind that his words are all over the Internet. Instead he feels honored so many are taking his advice to heart. It has even been translated into Spanish.

One version on was obviously lost in translation. Harry and I both got such a laugh from this garbled mess that I decided to post part of it. My favorites are that Harry was a uranologist (a physicist who studies astronomy) since 1980 and I gave up an occupation as a flourishing region edifice pedagogue. Who knew?

“This is meet brilliant. The flooded discourse is incredible? I m REALLY appreciative of whatever earnestly beatific advice from a man writer.” Mark Howell, Senior Writer, Solares Hill.

Harry Calhoun s represent could materialize beside the lexicon definition for “journeyman.” Living grounds that not every writers hit to be famous or follow to digit identify of composition to be successful, Calhoun has institute regular article souvenir as a uranologist since 1980 and was a widely publicised worker article and literate essay illustrator in the 80s and 90s. In addition, he has altered a genre entrepot and a modify entrepot for the structure playing and settled genre and falsity pieces in magazines much as Thunder Sandwich and The Islander. He has been an award-winning marketing illustrator for international companies much as GE and IBM for the instance note years.

Trina comedienne is a worker illustrator and application who has feature and enjoyed much of Calhoun s work. Read the entire garbled interview on .

The real interview reads:
“This is just brilliant. The whole interview is incredible! I’m REALLY appreciative of some seriously good advice from a fellow writer.” Mark Howell, Senior Writer, Solares Hill

Harry Calhoun’s picture could appear beside the dictionary definition for “journeyman.” Living proof that not all writers have to be famous or stick to one type of writing to be successful, Calhoun has found frequent editorial favor as a poet since 1980 and was a widely published freelance article and literary essay writer in the 80s and 90s. In addition, he has edited a poetry magazine and a trade magazine for the housing industry and placed fiction pieces and poetry in magazines such as Thunder Sandwich and The Islander. He has been an award-winning marketing writer for multinational companies such as GE and IBM for the past twenty years. Here he is interviewed by Trina Allen in his home in North Carolina.

Trina Allen is a freelance writer and educator who has read much of Calhoun’s work.

My bio is just as funny:
I am a worker illustrator and application who gave up a occupation as a flourishing region edifice pedagogue to indite flooded time. I started the Storm of Thought Writing Center for composition and redaction hold and advice. I am currently employed on a children s new and individual brief stories. My publications allow Dana Literary Society, and Thunder Sandwich. My articles most teaching, curricular materials and presentations hit appeared in educational magazines much as Science Scope.

The bio should read:
I am a freelance writer and editor who gave up a career as a successful middle school teacher to write full time. I started the Storm of Thought Writing Center for writing and editing help and advice. I am currently working on a children’s novel and several short stories. My publications include Dana Literary Society, and Thunder Sandwich. My articles about teaching, curricular materials and presentations have appeared in educational magazines such as Science Scope.

I am grateful that Harry was willing to struggle through my first attempt at an interview and that interview helped us to get to know each other. We got married soon after. I also decided that freelancing wasn’t for me. I like the security of a steady income over the starving artist thing. Developing educational tests is a much better day job for me.

Writer’s Block

Posted in All posts, On writing with tags , , , , , on March 16, 2007 by Trina

I haven’t posted recently and can’t decide what to post now. I have too many ideas. I’d like to discuss the spring equinox and daylight savings time or the new TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” which infuriates me from the perspective of a test developer. I heard about paying prisoners for organs on the radio after an article came out in the Wall Street Journal about organ transplants. I am also interested in children and grieving — watch Bridge to Terabithia, an excellent book and recent movie. So, like a tornado my brain is swirling with ideas, but look for them in upcoming blogs because I can’t pick a topic from the wind storm this morning. Writer’s block: too many ideas, not enough time. And I haven’t even begun to discuss my fiction writing ideas. I am still finishing The Magic Quilt, my historical fantasy novel for middle age readers. I’m polishing two short stories. I’ve begun work on an essay, my first true account of my life five years ago. So which do I work on in the hour that I have before I go to work? I can’t decide, so I’m writing this blog on having too many ideas.

I enjoyed Jane Yolen’s Random thoughts on writing and on children’s books , sent to me by a member of my writing group. “I generally do not think out plots or characters ahead of time … I am a reader before I am a writer. I want my own writing to surprise me, the way someone else’s book does. If I think out everything ahead of time, I am–in Truman Capote’s words–‘Not a writer but a typewriter.'”

When it comes to submitting my work for publication, I face a similar overwhelming dilemma. Where do I submit? The market is so vast now with print and Online magazines.

Sweeping Back the Slushpile: a First Reader’s Primer is a humorous piece written from the point-of-view of an overworked editor who must slog through the slushpile. Weeding through 800 to 1,000 manuscripts in order to publish four would seem a mammoth task at any rate, but the slush pile reader is given one-half an hour to finish the job. The advice given to this editor is “Don’t read the manuscript.” I recommend this humorous article for anyone who wants to escape the slushpile.

It is obvious why those nasty form rejection slips sometimes accompany work that we labored over so lovingly. As inspiration to myself, I reread an article I wrote a couple of years ago, To Market, to Market: Steps toward Publication. My advice to myself, then and now, consists of three simple suggestions. First, learn about the publication process so that you are informed. Second, do everything within your power to improve your writing so that it is A plus quality before submitting it anywhere. Third, know your market.

I’ll add a fourth here. Choose a project and focus on it. Easier said than done.