Here's a fun post over at Brian Freeman's blog, demonstrating that even a guy like Stephen King started out taking shots in the dark with his early submissions.
I remember writing cover letters like King's. Mine were always short and sweet -- I can recall a tip in one of the first Writers' Market books I read that advised young writers against giving a rundown of a plot for a submission; the idea was to let the story speak for itself. Just mention your credits, keep your cover letter short and sweet, and include an SASE with appropriate return postage. That was the professional way to do things. Let the story do the talkin'.
But: Hell, that didn't really leave much for me to say to an editor. In the early days, I'd struggle to find something -- anything -- to say in a cover letter. I used to type something like: "I've enjoyed reading your magazine (i. e. yes, I'm not a dolt -- I've done my homework and I think this story is appropriate for you), and I hope you'll find the enclosed story to your liking (i. e. please read the damn thing). I'm an unpublished writer, but I hope that won't keep you from considering my manuscript. Thanks for your time (i. e. I think I'm cut out for better than the slush pile; you tell me if I'm wrong); enclosed find a SASE (but please, for god's sake don't use it)."
It was a great relief when I had a few years of publishing under my belt. First I graduated to writing cover letters that said: "I've been published in some of the newer magazines, including Cemetery Dance, Noctulpa, and Grue..." Later, I upped the ante with my first professional credits: "I've had stories accepted for Charlie Grant's Final Shadows anthology and Joe Lansdale's Dark at Heart..." A little later, I could mention sales to the various Year's Best anthos, and a few award nominations, too. Even the publication of my first novel.
Of course, none of that was done through email. When I started out, email didn't exist. I'm kind of glad about that. I've still got a filing cabinet filled with old correspondence -- you know, that paper stuff the postman used to deliver to your house. Inside are manila folders full of letters I traded with other young writers, proposals I shot out to editors, guidelines for long-lost anthologies (yes -- the infamous HWA "haunted airport" antho!), letters and postcards from grand old writers like Robert Bloch and Dick Laymon and Karl Edward Wagner... lots of stuff like that. I've even got every rejection slip I ever received.
I've got to admit that it's fun to look through those files every now and then. Seeing the old letterheads of magazines that are no longer with us brings back memories, as do those (sometimes) cryptic signatures at the bottom of the page and (equally cryptic) handwritten comments I still can't decipher twenty years later. It's great to channel some of my early enthusiasm, and (yes) instructive to consider some of my early failures, too. After all, it was all part of learning the writing game, and I wonder if young writers will get that kind of one-stop-shopping glance in the rearview mirror as the years pass -- I mean, does anyone really archive their emails or (even worse) text messages? I don't think so.
Taking a look back myself, I'd say the main thing that's changed for me is my attitude about rejection. Used to be, I'd almost always take it personally. I'd get a rejection slip, and I'd immediately want to prove the editor wrong by selling the story to a better magazine. Or I'd want to write a new story that would knock out the editor who'd rejected me, get me a slot in his or her antho or magazine, and get me a check. Of course, sometimes that happened, and sometimes it didn't. What I can say now is that my attitude was fuel for the fire -- and, hey, if taking rejection personally made me write another story, that was something positive right there. We all can use a blast of creative fire, and that particular brand got me to "The End" of plenty of stories.
Mostly, though, I've learned that rejection is nothing personal at all -- it's simply a business decision. Because writing is business. Oh, it can be art, too, but those battles are fought on another front, when you're alone with the page in your office. The business/rejection/acceptance stuff really does break down in a different way.
Editors want good stories -- that's a given. But beyond that they also want names that sell books, or magazines, or eBooks, or whatever. And they want to get the best writer they can wrangle with the money they have available. So when push comes to shove, commerce is the part of the engine that drives a lot of deals, and (as a result) success or failure in the marketplace. Most of the time editors are looking for writers who can carry the freight, and get the job done, and deliver the goods both creatively and in the marketplace... and there's a lot more to getting yourself in that position besides becoming a good writer.
Still, ask most of us, and you'll find that the "being good" part of the equation carries a lot of weight. Acclaim is nice. Deals are nice. Money is wonderful. But I don't know anyone who doesn't want to think they've done quality work. In other words: Nobody gets excited about thinking they're a hack, no matter how much money they have.
And, really, if you're a working writer, there's an easy way to size things up for yourself. Just take a look at your personal bookshelf, the one where you keep your solo work and contributor copies of anthologies and magazines where your work has appeared. Run your finger along those spines. Take your creative pulse. See if the work bound up in those volumes satisfies you or doesn't. If there are novels on those shelves you wish you hadn't written, think about the ones you should have written instead... and write 'em. Think about the books you'd like to see up there two years from now... and three years past that. Think about the publishers you've worked with and the ones you'd like to work with, and how you can position yourself to make some of those deals a reality. Think about where you've been, and where you're going, and the fiction that's going to get you there.
Make some plans. Kindle yourself some creative fire. Because it's the fire that will get you there. No matter where it comes from. No matter how you make it. It's the one thing that every writer needs to make good work.
So kindle it up, and when those flames deliver you to the keyboard be thankful.
Rattle those keys.
And let that fire burn.