Your Cover Letter Does Not Matter, and Other Insights from a Contest Judge
By Nina Badzin
I started submitting to short story contests and general submission calls in 2009. I highly recommend that writers push themselves to submit every so often because even rejection, when accompanied by one generous phrase of positive feedback, can buoy our efforts to fill the next blank page.
I’ve learned plenty about the writing and revision process by continuing to submit stories and by facing rejection mixed in with a dozen successful “we’d like to publish your story” emails. What has been the most eye-opening experience however, was judging a recent flash fiction contest for the innovative site, Mash Stories.
At Mash Stories, they challenge writers to create a 500-word flash piece using three specific keywords, which change in each competition. My story, “Meet the Vines,” was shortlisted in a previous contest when the keywords were relativity, cathedral, and monkey. The winner is paid $100, but all shortlisted stories appear on the website with a beautiful layout and a podcast narrated by a professional voice actor. More satisfying than the idea of a cash price was the experience of hearing my story read by a male British actor. I can’t recommend that enough!
When the editors of the site asked me to help judge the next competition, I said yes. Having never sat on that side of the literary magazine process, I marveled at my new access to the manager area of the Submittable website.
I was drunk with power. No, I’m kidding. In reality I was overwhelmed. Part of what sets Mash Stories apart is their commitment to giving every writer specific feedback. Whenever an email appeared from Submittable showing I had anywhere from three to five stories to read and respond to with comments, I felt a responsibility to stop what I was doing and read them. Then in the next few days more stories would appear. I’m estimating that I read and responded to about 80 stories over three months.
I can’t speak for every judge of Mash Stories or for judges anywhere else, but reading that many stories led me to some epiphanies about the submissions process.
1. THE COVER LETTER DOES NOT MATTER.
I used to agonize over the cover letter whenever I had a new story to submit. Is my bio updated? Does the list of literary magazines where I’ve published sound impressive enough? Should I mention my blog and my freelance work? Should I say something witty at the end?
Let me tell you something that surprised me: I did not read a single cover letter. Not one. I glanced at the writer’s name so that I could use it when writing my response, but otherwise the cover letter was irrelevant. It simply did not matter if the writer had never written a story before or if the writer had been published in 25 literary magazines. Was this 500-word story good enough to pass on to the next round? Thatwas the only bit of information I needed to know, and only the story itself could provide the answer.
2. IT’S TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THE FIRST FEW LINES.
In most cases I knew within the first few lines whether I was passing the story along to the next round of judges. If the story was rough at the beginning then improved in the middle, I had plenty of compliments to share with the writer, but I could not move that story to the next round. Those first few lines set the tone for what kind of story would follow and only in a few cases was I disappointed with the rest of the story or wrong in my assumption that the story did not work.
3. TOO MANY F’BOMBS IN A FLASH PIECE IS ILL-ADVISED.
Too many curse words in a 500-word story takes away from the piece as a whole. A well-placed few will do. Maybe your story doesn’t need any. Maybe it does. Each case is different, but sometimes the word choice says more about the author than the characters, and I only want to be thinking about the characters. (See point above about the cover letter.)
4. ORIGINALITY GOES A LONG WAY
Since this contest used keywords, I tended to be more likely to vote for the stories that used the words in an original way. For example, with the keywords honesty, cockpit and blow-dryer, I ended up reading many bathroom, airplane, airport, and even spaceship scenes. The stories I enjoyed the most found a way to use the words as part of the dialogue or some other passing bit of exposition, but not as the main focus.
5. TENSION IS KING
Yes, a story needs compelling characters, an interesting setting, atmosphere, and solid dialogue. The most important factor, however, at least when reading 80 stories in a short amount of time, was the question of tension. If the story had enough tension to make me want to read to the end, I was grateful. If the story plodded along with no compelling inherent questions to answer along the way, I struggled to read to the last line. Beautiful language, clever dialogue, and an original idea are all meaningless without enough tension to carry the reader to the end.
I hope that was helpful, and I recommend submitting to Mash Stories, where I’m retired as judge, but will remain a faithful reader.
Nina Badzin is columnist at The HerStories Project and Tcjewfolk as well as a contributing writer at Kveller and Great New Books. Her essays and short stories have appeared in numerous websites, anthologies, and literary journals. You can find her weekly on her blog ninabadzin.com [http://ninabadzin.com] and much too often on Twitter [https://twitter.com/ninabadzin] and Facebook [http://www.facebook.com/NinaBadzinBlog].