Tips for epistolary writing

old letters. jpg

Tips for Epistolary Writing

Formatting: Your letter should look like a letter (or whatever medium you choose). Include a header with the address and a date, a salutation, and an appropriate closing. Also, make sure these elements are appropriate for the style of letter you’re writing. A business letter will look different from a personal letter which will look different from an email.

Point of view: You’re still telling a story, even though the form is epistolary. Probably you’ll write in a mix of first and second person points of view. Also remember that this is one time when you (your character) is actually writing to another character. So it’s OK to use “you.”

Story elements: Make sure you include well developed characters, tension, a resolution to the conflict, dialog, subplot. You can assume the reader will pick up some subtext, but it’s not like a real letter in which the reader already knows the letter writer and his or her history. You’re bending a genre to fit your purposes.

Tense: Often you will want to open the letter in the present tense, and then move to past tense. For example, “I am writing to you to tell you…..” Then move on to what happened that the letter writer wants to share. Remember in Ketchup Clouds, the girl starts with the jam that isn’t blood and what she wants the prisoner to know about that and then moves into what happened a year ago when she killed a boy. It’s easy if the letter-writer is writing about something that happened a year ago. If the events happened in the recent past though, make sure you don’t slip back into present tense. The end of the letter and the closing should move back into present tense. “I hope this letter finds you well. Your friend, Jane.”

Characters: Make sure you know your characters well. You don’t need to give all the information about them in the first letter or two. Reveal information as the letter writer unveils the story. Also, remember that characters are developed through experiences and behaviors, what they do, not who they say they are. So don’t have your characters tell about themselves as much as they tell about the things they do, which show who they are. An exception might be if your character is an unreliable witness to events or tends to lie about her own character in relation to how she or he actually behaves. In that case, having her tell something about herself that’s in conflict with how she acts shows something about her reliability in describing herself.

Plot and subplots: People rarely write letters about just one topic. They include mundane details from their lives, information about more than one event or person. They include details to invite the reader into their world. You need to do that too, or you’ll end up with nothing but a concept for one storyline instead of a complete, complex story about a character’s life.

(photo credit:


Truth or lies in creative nonfiction

Check out this cartoon titled “Everything you ever wanted to know about truth in nonfiction but were afraid to ask: A bad advice cartoon essay.” It’s an easy-to-understand discussion of the difference between fact and fiction, cold facts and truth in storytelling, and a little bit of history about creative nonfiction itself. Sometimes creative nonfiction writers get so stuck on writing something exactly as it happened they lose sight of the storytelling aspect, which is the creative work. This cartoon does a good job explaining the boundaries.

The website is called Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else they have to say about writing. Their blog has an interesting design too, if you’re into things like that. Probably professionally designed. They’re both experienced, published, and award-winning writers, so they know something about the business of writing.


You Will Hear Thunder

Portrait_of_Anna_AkhmatovaI took one of those silly Facebook quizzes that told me my poet BFF would be Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). Here’s a translation of one of her poems, in honor of National Poetry Month and poet BFF’s everywhere.

You Will Hear Thunder

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you.

~~ Anna Akhmatova

I Want to Write Different Words for You

I want to write different words for you

To invent a language for you alone

To fit the size of your body

And the size of my love.


I want to travel away from the dictionary

And to leave my lips

I am tired of my mouth

I want a different one

Which can change

Into a cherry tree or a match box,

A mouth from which words can emerge

Like nymphs from the sea,

Like white chicks jumping from the magician’s hat.

~~ Nizar Qabbani

(photo credit:


I found a really cool tool called Padlet that might help you generate ideas and organize the letters you’re writing this quarter. Double-click anywhere on the screen, and you’ll get a box where you can write; drop in a document, photo, or website; and move and sort individual letters. If you sign up (it’s free for the basic model), you can save and share your padlettes on most social media sites.

With the basic, free version you can change the wallpaper and the layout. Unfortunately, you don’t get the cool effects that make your padlette look like real letters or diaries. That costs $30.

Here’s the really simple example I made in class. Try it out. See if it helps you write better letters.

Mock Turtle submission deadline May 1

The submission deadline for issue 11 of Mock Turtle Zine is May 1. You still have time to submit, And, yes, you will get performance points for submitting to any appropriate publication this quarter. I’ve listed several possibilities in earlier posts. Talk to me about it if you have any questions.


We are now accepting submissions for Issue 11. The deadline for Issue 11 has been pushed back to Friday, May 1. Be sure to check our submissions guidelines below before sending your poetry, prose and artwork.

This issue also features the Antioch Writers’ Workshop Poetry Contest, so please, check below for awards information. The contest is for poetry only. Please put “AWW SUBMISSION” in the subject line of your email, and include a 50-word bio, with your hometown. All contest entries will be considered for the contest as well as for regular publication.

Please review the general guidelines as well as the author/artist guidelines below. Do not submit your work until you have reviewed these guidelines.


AWW Poetry Contest Awards

  • Best-in-show award: Wins scholarship (registration and tuition fees) to the 2015 Full Week workshop (July 11-17), with afternoon poetry seminar. (Other afternoon seminars—fiction, creative nonfiction, and focus on form—and not available with this scholarship.) Fees other than registration/tuition (e.g., travel, lodging, food, one-on-one manuscript reviews, the Saturday Seminar optional add on, or fees for any other programs Antioch Writers’ workshop holds) are not included. This scholarship may only be used in 2015. This is a scholarship award only; no cash value.
  • 1st place and 2nd place awards in adult category: Both win $125 scholarship, which may be
    applied toward the 2015 Full Week Workshop (July 11-17) programs—including Full Week, Morning Only, Afternoon Only or Saturday Seminar. This scholarship may only be used in 2015. This is a scholarship award only; no cash value.
  • 1st place and 2nd place awards in teen category: Both win $125 scholarship, which may be applied toward the 2015 Full Week Workshop (July 11-17) Young Writers program or Saturday Seminar. This scholarship may only be used in 2015. This is a scholarship award only; no cash value.

General guidelines

  • Do not copy and paste submissions into your email. Please, attach all submissions as Word, Open Office, or text documents.
  • Submit up to THREE pieces per category: poetry, prose (fiction or nonfiction), drama, photography, and other visual art. If you submit more than three, we will stop reading/looking after the third. Send us the best, not everything, please! (We simply get too many submissions now to handle more. We’re volunteers, after all.) If you think you have an exception (such as a set of short related poems, like several haiku), then just check with us.
  • Save each submission as a separate document. Do not submit multiple works in one document.
  • Save each submission with last name first, then first name, then the title of the work. Sample: Dendy_Christina_For_Us.doc.
  • Provide a short biography or artist statement in your email. Biographies should not exceed a short paragraph, four to eight sentences. We print abbreviated (one to two sentences) biographies in the print publication.

Although we have published work from outside of Ohio in the past, we are a local publication that accepts work from artists and authors from Dayton and the surrounding area only at this time. Thank you!

Author guidelines

You may submit any genre, any form. Poetry, song lyrics, fiction, and nonfiction all apply. In fact, we’d love some more nonfiction, so send some!

  • Poetry and song lyrics should not exceed 100 lines. We prefer pieces under 30 lines. Fiction and nonfiction prose should not exceed 2,500 words. We prefer pieces under 1,000 words.
  • Documents are accepted in Word, Text, and Open Office.
  • Documents should be single-spaced in a black, 12-point Times or similar serif font, with one-inch margins. Avoid fancy fonts and formats.
  • Documents should not include address, bio, word count, or other miscellaneous information.
  • You may submit up to three pieces of literature.

Visual artist guidelines

You may submit any artwork that can be represented in a two-dimensional image. Paintings, illustrations, cartoons, photography, etchings, woodcuts, and sculpture all apply. If you are photographing art, be sure to check light and shadow in the final image.

  • All inside pages print in grayscale (black and white). Please submit only b&w images for publication inside the zine.
  • Images are accepted in pdf, jpg, and gif formats.
  • Images should be between 800 px and 3200 px in width.


We have expanded our call for submissions, so we may have to decline some of your submissions. Please know that we will look at every submission and consider its merit in terms of the guidelines and the balance of content within the magazine. We’ll let you know one way or another.

So, a word of advice? First, follow the guidelines. Second, don’t send us something hot off the mental press. Let it sit for a few days, and then look at it again. Revise!Ask a friend to read it and give you feedback. The stronger the piece, the more likely it will be accepted. Look for errors (misspellings, typos, syntax) to fix, and take the time to think about your content. If you wrote a story, does it have a conflict? If you wrote a poem, do you use imagery? If you wrote an opinion piece, do you state a clear perspective? For visual art, make sure you send us a strong image of your piece. If your artwork didn’t scan or photograph well, then scan it again, please. If your photograph is blurry, then perhaps consider another one unless the blur serves a definite aesthetic purpose.

Review process

How do we select work? When submissions are received and the deadline has closed, the editors duplicate the submissions and strip them of identifying information. Submissions are then split into batches, and sent to reviewers, who sort the works into categories (definitely want to publish, might want to publish, and not this time). The editors then review the “definitelies” and the “maybes,” and based on space, make selections for the print publication. The editors also look through the “nots” to make sure that they agree with the reviewers. Preference is given to those pieces considered “definitelies” by reviewers and both editors, and so on, but the final decision is made by the managing and the founding editors.

If a piece was not selected for publication, it does not mean that it did not have merit. It simply means that our team of reviewers and editors judged other pieces to be stronger in some way. Thank you to everyone who had the courage and vision to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, eye to lens, and pen, paintbrush or other implement of creation to visual medium. Please, keep doing it, and send us more.

Authors and artists retain all rights to their work.
And no, we do not pay.
We are not-for-profit and unable to offer compensation.