Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lydia Peelle: Songs Inspires Stories

Book Notes - Lydia Peelle ("Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing")
This article is posted on LHB blog (Largehearted Boy is a music blog featuring daily free and legal music downloads as well as news from the worlds of music, literature, and pop culture.)

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Lydia Peele's short fiction has earned comparisons to Alice Munro and Mary Gaitskill, but her voice is unique and strong in this eight-story debut collection of short stories, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. These are impressive stories of the past colliding with the present, and the emotional chaos that ensues.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"In this debut collection of eight esoteric stories—three of them prize winners—Peelle’s characters negotiate tumultuous relationships and buried memories. This nimbly crafted group of lonely souls range from a one-legged taxidermist, who happens to be the only person in town who does not believe a hungry panther is on the loose, to a winter-bound woman, tormented by her ex-husband but saved by the most unlikely of creatures."

In her own words, here is Lydia Peelle's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing:

I wish I could listen to music when I write, but I can't. In fact, I need total silence. I hate earplugs, so I've got big orange ear phones of the sort one would wear while operating a jackhammer or directing a taxiing airplane. Not to say that I don't take them off often and wander over to the record player while I'm working…

My husband is a professional musician, so there's a lot of music in our house – especially old American music from the teens and twenties. And I live in Nashville, so yes, I am bombarded by the stuff they're calling country today, but there is also a deep sense of the history of country music here. Tune in to WSM 650 AM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, while you're driving around town on a hot July afternoon and you're likely to hear something classic and great.

In Nashville, when you tell people that you're a writer, the automatic assumption is that you're a songwriter. If I could write a song that anywhere approached the emotion and urgency of any one of these, I'd quit writing stories in a heartbeat.

"Jokerman" – Bob Dylan

If there is one song I listened to over and over while writing this book, tying to capture even a glimmer of the feel of it, this is it. How many times did I put it on the turntable, crank it up, and wish that listening to it could be my creative act of the day? "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…" Dylan at his line-borrowing best.

"False Hearted Lover" – Dock Boggs

"When my earthly stay is over/throw my dead body in the sea/you can tell my false-hearted lover/that the whales will fuss over me." Dock Boggs was a coal miner from Southwest Virginia who made a few dozen recordings in his late twenties and then went back to the mines for another forty years. It's believed he learned to play the banjo from black men who worked on the railroad when it was laid through his town, and he is just one of a few whites who were playing the blues in the 1920's. His lyrics are otherwordly, his banjo playing is spare and primitive sounding, and his voice is quavering and haunted. I know folks who won't listen to him at night, they get so spooked.

"Thanksgiving Day Parade" – Dan Bern

New American Language, Bern's 2001 album, is fantastic all the way through, and this, the final track, is the most righteous. I love a parade, and this song captures all that's great and unsettling and hopeful and crazed about one, with a giant cast of characters and ending with a rag tag band coming together in a cacophony of instruments – cymbals, saxophone, xylophone, clarinet, bass drum – you name it. It's messy and crowded and beautiful. I like crowded songs and crowded stories, too.

"Turkle Dove" – Bessie Jones, from the Georgia Sea Island Singers collection

After his initial collecting trips in the South in the 1930's, Alan Lomax returned to the Georgia Sea Islands in the late fifties to see if the old songs were still alive there. They were, and he believed them to be so important because they were a unique combination of slave songs and West African and Afro-Caribbean music. This song, according to Jones, was the song that the angels sang when the devil was cast out of heaven. Whenever I listen to it, I wish I was a D.J., because it's got a killer beat, and I'd sample the hell out of it.

"K.C. Moan" – the Memphis Jug Band

Recorded in Memphis October 4th, 1929, this railroad work song was sung by "TeeWee" Blackman, not Will Shade, their usual frontman. The sound of the jug in this song is both mournful and joyful. For a long time, I wanted to make a short film for the book, and when I finally did, this song was the natural soundtrack.

"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" – Kitty Wells

There's a wonderful tradition in country music of songs that answer other songs. It's often a woman answering a man, in a "honey, let me tell you how it really is" vein. For example, Roger Miller's "King of the Road" was answered, somewhat campily, by Jody Miller [no relation] with "Queen of the House." But the first to do it was Kitty Wells, the Queen of Country Music. She answered Hank Thompson's early fifties hit "Wild Side of Life" with this song. I'm paraphrasing here, but: just wait a minute, there, Hank, you want to talk about bad girls? It's a bad man who make a good woman go wrong. She sings it so sweetly, yet with a resolve of steel.

"Highwater Everywhere (Part I and Part II)" – Charlie Patton

There was a story I worked on that ultimately never made it into this collection, about a black sharecropper during the Mississippi flood of 1927. I worked on it for several years, listening to a lot of Memphis and Mississippi Blues from that era as I went, and writing that story was my introduction to the great and mysterious bluesman Charlie Patton.

I wrote the first draft of the story about six months before Katrina, and in addition to listening to Patton and his contemporaries, I was reading a lot of old New York Times articles about the 1927 flood, which was one of the great disasters of its time. So much of the poor population of Mississippi ended up homeless in Red Cross relief camps along the levees.

Then Katrina happened and it was like Déjà vu. The New York Times headlines were almost identical as the ones nearly eighty years before. And those songs resonated so painfully with what we were seeing in New Orleans. Back then, many people sang about it, but Patton was there when it happened – he lived through it – and his account is most haunting. "The water was risin' up in my friend's door/Some man said to his womenfolk, ‘Lord, we better go!'"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Writing Cover Letters when Submitting Short Stories

Cover Letter Guidelines from Three Sources (adapted by Cathy Eaton)

From Catherine Tudish (Fiction Writer and professor at Bread Loaf School of English & Dartmouth College): adapted from Cathy Eaton’s lecture notes
1. Cover Letter
a. Be brief
b. Address editor by first and last name
c. Start with something like “I am enclosing [name of story] for your consideration.”
d. Give no information about story.
e. Include 1-2 sentences about self.
f. Include publishing credits of fiction you have
g. Thank them for reading work
h. If doing simultaneous submission, say so in the PS
i. Include envelop with SASE (self-addressed stamped envelop) so that they will send you acceptance or rejection.
j. If you don’t want them to return manuscript, include SASE for reply only. Some journals prefer to recycle (toss) manuscripts they don’t use


How to Write Cover Letters for Short Story Submissions
May 24, 2007 (adapted from article by Roselyn James)
Cover letters
1. Purpose
a. Cover Letters are essential for short story submissions, regardless of whether you're submitting through email or snail mail.
b. Literary magazines like to know whose work they're reading and they like to know the writer did at least minimal research before sending the submission.
2. Research the expectations of each magazine.
a. Each magazine is different. Some want specific things addressed. For instance, Flashquake states that if a writer doesn't want feedback, a statement to that effect must be included in the cover letter.
b. Others may request that you leave out certain information. Menda City Review, for example, prefers not to have a bio included in the submission.
3. Basic Format:
a. The same basic format can be used for any short story submission.
b. Be sure to read the magazine's guidelines carefully and make the appropriate changes.
4. Salutation
a. The first thing you need to do is check the masthead. The masthead lists the magazine's editors and staff. If there is no specific section for this, check the About Us or Contact Us sections. (Note: Use first and last name of editor.
b. Always address your cover letter to the fiction editor. If there is no fiction editor, then address it to the main editor or the editor-in-chief. "Dear Editor" should only be used when the magazine does not list its staff.

5. Introductory paragraph
a. The best advice I ever received regarding submissions came from a poet who was lecturing at a seminar. She said her cover letters simply state, "Here's my poem." The point is that you want the editor to spend time reading your story, not your cover letter.
b. Keep it as simple as possible. Let your story speak for itself. Don't explain the theme or where you got the idea for the story. Just say: "Enclosed is my fiction submission, 'title', for your consideration."
c. You can, of course, change that line to suit your tastes. You can add the word count of your story, the name of the magazine you're submitting to, and anything else you want as long as you keep it simple and the paragraph doesn't have more than a couple sentences.
6. The bio is the About the Author section.
a. It should be kept under 100 words and it should tell something about you.
b. Mention publishing credits. If you don't have any publishing credits, just don't mention it. Since most literary magazines are open to new writers, it's no big deal.
c. Editors like the bios to fit the tone of the magazine. That means some prefer serious bios, while others prefer off-the-wall, humorous bios. If you're unsure, take a look at the author bios published in the magazine and follow their example. I like to include my email address in case any readers want to contact me. I've also had editors of other magazines contact me this way.
7. Closing
a. This one's easy. Thank the editors for their time. Be sure to sign your name (or, in the case of an email submission, type your name).

8. Information to include
9. Include your name, snail mail address, phone number, and email address in your cover letter. If you're sending it snail mail, your information should be at the top of the letter. For email, it can be at the top or the bottom of the letter.


Cover Letter Information (

What happens when you finish that masterpiece of a short story and you are ready to send it off into the world to be published? You need a cover letter. A good cover letter will not get you published, but a bad cover letter will hinder your already slim chances of an editor choosing your story to see print. The first few steps listed here are needed in order to prepare for writing a cover letter, and the later tips show you how to avoid common pitfalls when submitting a short story for publication.

1. Write a well-crafted story. Remember first and foremost you have to have engaging fiction. Without a solid short story, you should not bother sending anything to an editor.

2. Know your market. After you have a polished story, you need a place to send that story. Learn what magazines publish the type of fiction you write. Is it a genre story: horror, science fiction/fantasy, romance, mystery? Is it a literary story? Look at the magazines in book stores, libraries, and on the Internet. For literary magazines, check the ones listed in the back of The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Award anthologies. Actually read the magazine to see what they publish and how it compares to your own story.

3. Read the magazine's guidelines. You can receive guidelines by sending an SASE (Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope) to the magazine with a request, or more conveniently, you can now find many magazines' guidelines on their web-sites. Guidelines give you another good sense of what the magazine will publish, how much they will pay, how fast they respond, and when they read. It is especially important to find out the reading period of literary magazines because they most often do not read during the summer and will send your story back.

4. Use the magazine's current address and a current editor's name. You can find this information on the inside cover of the magazine, the magazine's web-site, or their guidelines. I would suggest looking in these places over Writer's Digest because you can more easily find the current editor's name. Always send to a particular person (the fiction editor if possible). Nothing sends a story to the slush pile faster than addressing it to the generic: "Dear Fiction Editor."

5. Be succinct. This is a business and calls for business writing, not creative writing. Say what you need to say in the shortest time possible. Remember that editors are busy and appreciate concise cover letters (some suggest sending no cover letter at all, but I advise against this because it suggests you have no experience as a writer).

6. State intention. In one clear sentence, preferably at the beginning or near the beginning, tell the editor what you want. Example, "I would like to submit my story ‘Short Story Title' to the LUCKY REVIEW." Of course, you would substitute the short story title with your own and the magazine title with the one you are submitting to.

7. Give credentials. Be careful here. Too many beginning writers try to over load editors with every writing credit they can imagine: "I wrote for my middle school newspaper and then for my high school newspaper and now for my Sunday School newsletter and I've had a letter to the editor published in the Hobbock Chronicle and my cousin Larry hung one of my stories up his garage's waiting room." You want to give any genuine writing experience you have in a concise way: "Most recently, my short stories
have appeared in The Big River Review, Apple Pie Tonight, and How About That." List only your publication record as a general rule. If you have not published anything yet, give the impression that you are serious about being a writer: "I am a working writer living in New Orleans." Again, be brief and let your record and story stand for themselves.

8. Offer cooperation. By way of ending the body of your letter, have a sentence that lets the editor know that you can reformat your story for the magazine's purposes. Example: "This story is available on disk upon request."

9. Follow the right form. Make sure that the rest of the letter follows standard business form. At the top have your contact information, then the current editor's name and the mailing address of the magazine, followed by the salutation, "Dear Mr./Ms. editor's last name." And again do not be creative with the close; stick to "Thank you," or "Sincerely."

Remember a good cover letter's form is invisible to the reader. All you want the letter to do is to tell the editor you have submitted a story for the magazine's consideration, give a brief overview of your writing background, and show your willingness to accommodate the technical needs of the magazine

Submitting short stories to magazines

Submission of Stories Information from Catherine Tudish
Catherine is a professor of fiction writing at Bread Loaf School of English and Dartmouth College
Additional information from Cathy Eaton
Cathy Eaton is a professor of fiction writing at NHTI Concord’s Community College

1. Helpful Books/Magazines for Submitting and Publishing Short Stories:
a. Writer’s Market Place & Writer’s Digest
i. Kinds of work they are looking for
ii. When reading period is (often staff is on holiday during summer)
iii. Websites (***make sure you read samples of the work they publish before you submit so you know you are sending them the kind of work they are looking for)
b. 2009 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market *** Catherine recommends as best resource
i. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH
ii. Contains names of magazines that publish short stories
a. Editor to address cover letter to (Make sure you check website for current editor because editors often change jobs)
b. Types of stories each magazine is looking for
c. Contact information
d. Payment information (generally you won’t get paid)
e. Length (word count) of stories
iii. Includes contests and awards
iv. Online markets
v. Small circulation markets
vi. Literary magazines (Catherine suggested we target this market)
vii. Markets for romance writers, sci fi, fantasy, horror
viii. Literary Agents
ix. Helpful articles by authors, editors, and publishers
c. Subscribe to Poets and Writers Magazine (

2. Catherine Tudish recommends that once you have 3-5 strong stories, that you submit a story to several places and then wait for response which may take several months. Pay attention to whether or not magazines permit you to submit to multiple places at one time and then include that in cover letter. (Note – I have heard from other sources that you can submit one story to as many as 30 magazines at one time.)

2. Magazines that publish short stories that Catherine recommended (You can read samples online, in libraries, in book stores)
a. Virginia Quarterly Review (
b. Georgia Review (
c. Kenyon Review (
d. Prairie Schooner (
e. Green Mountain Review (
f. Hunger Mountain Review (
g. All-story with Zoetrope (
h. Glimmer Train (

3. Online magazine that Catherine recommended
a. Narrative Magazine

4. Books Catherine recommended as helpful guides to writers
a. *** The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
i. good exercises
b. *** Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose
c. Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Foreeter
d. Burning down the House by Charles Baxter
e. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner)
f. The Best American Short Stories (includes list of top 100 journals)

5. Cover Letter
a. Be brief
b. Address editor by first and last name
c. Start with something like “I am enclosing [name of story] for your consideration.”
d. Give no information about story.
e. Include 1-2 sentences about self.
f. Include publishing credits of fiction you have
g. Thank them for reading work
h. If doing simultaneous submission, say so in the PS
i. Include envelop with SASE (self-addressed stamped envelop) so that they will send you acceptance or rejection.
j. If you don’t want them to return manuscript, include SASE for reply only. Some journals prefer to recycle (toss) manuscripts they don’t use

6. Format of Stories for Submission (Check and follow submission requirements of specific magazine you are submitting to). Typical submission guidelines are:
a. Double space
b. 1 inch margins (sometimes a little more)
c. 12 pointfFont. Times New Roman
d. Upper right hand corner of first page
i. Name
ii. Contact information
1. Address
2. Email
3. Phone
iii. Word count of story
e. After first page upper right hand corner: last name and page number (Eaton 1)
f. Note: they may not want you to staple pages

7. Write poetry: (Catherine recommends writing poetry to help your fiction writing)
a. Precise word choice
b. Compression of language
c. Shaping of language
d. Make every word count

8. Read poetry. Poets that Catherine recommends who are accessible
i. Billy Collins (
ii. Stephen Dunn
iii. Mary Oliver (

9. Contests (Catherine doesn’t recommend entering contests as odds are worse) or paying money to submit your own work.

10. Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont
(Catherine recommends as wonderful place to go for writing retreat. Financial aid available.)

Additional Information from Cathy

1. is web address for Duotrope’s Digest, a free writers' resource listing over 2550 current Fiction and Poetry publications. Use this page to search for markets for piece you just polished. Use menus at the top and right to explore the rest of the free services they offer writers and editors, including a free online submissions tracker for registered users.

2. provides 6000 updated listings, including agents, magazines, and contests. Extensive search capabilities to find the right publication or agent for you. It also saves your favorite searches for future reference! Tools for tracking your manuscripts and submissions

3. Online fiction writing workshops that I recommend is called an Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop. They use a Blackboard Format
a. Gotham website address is
b. Zoetrope is

4. (
a. Magazine Publishers (Magazine markets for writers -- search hundreds in seconds! Search online database of over 1,100 magazines to find your writing's home and get your name into print)
b. Writing Links
c. Writing Competitions
d. Literary Agents


Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Birth of a Character

After graduating from Bread Loaf thirty years ago, I wanted more than anything else to be able to have children and raise a family, if you will, to give birth to real life characters. But it turned out that wasn’t as easy as I anticipated. Neither is the process of giving birth to fiction characters. Everywhere, I saw babies, young children, teens, students of all ages and they weren’t mine. My husband and I couldn’t get pregnant and the turmoil that caused inside me is equivalent to the desire and difficulty of conceiving a character whose story is worth telling.

After many years and after several surgeries, I conceived, but both the baby inside me and myself were at high risk of not surviving like characters that die before they populate a story or before they’ve found an audience.

Unexpectedly, none of the expected complications arose, and our son surprised everyone by being born healthy and much stronger than a typical newborn. This element of surprise is integral in the act of creation. Characters take on a life of their own, at times following the author’s bidding, and more often controlling the unraveling of their own story. I’m sure you can anticipate where this parallel is going.

All the elements of mothering or fathering a child connect to conceiving a character in a story from nurturing and encouraging him to allowing him to develop into a complicated, contradictory being. My son, like my characters, grew out of me, but now life experiences, complications in his life, and the people he meets, shape the decisions and choices he makes and sometimes take control of him; other times he takes control and shapes his destiny.

The nuts and bolts of creating character can be found in many how-to-write fiction books. A writer has many strategies to choose from as he breathes life and purpose into his characters.
1. Physical, emotional, and psychological descriptions of characters;
2. Dialogue, monologue, thought, dialect, manner of speaking;
3. Interaction with other characters or setting;
4. Actions, gestures, and expressions;
5. Reaction to what others do, to what happens to characters, and to what characters hears and perceives;
6. Clothes characters wears, places characters inhabit, objects that define them;
7. Creation of characters’ back story to establish what events, people, circumstances from their lives trigger their motives.

The author reveals his characters through scenes and summarized events in his story. My list is merely a list, but it is worthwhile for the apprentice writer to incorporate all these strategies in combustible combinations. But, of course, a character is much more than the sum of these strategies an author uses to reveal him.