Interview By Cindy Hudson
When Colleen Sell is not editing one of the many books in the popular A Cup of Comfort book series (published by Adams Media), this freelance editor spends her time writing for magazines as well as editing and ghost writing for other clients. Plus, she always has an idea for a project or two she would love to develop if she had more time. With over 25 books under her belt in the A Cup of Comfort series and more on the way, there’s precious little free time in Sell’s life these days. She took a moment out of her busy schedule recently to talk about what she strives to create with A Cup of Comfort and to give readers of Writers on the Rise tips for submitting their personal essays.
When you first started as editor of A Cup of Comfort, what did you want to bring to the series?
One of the things that was important to me is that the stories we included were not homogenized to have the same tone and the same voice. I wanted variety and I wanted to allow as much literary influence as possible. I wanted the stories to read like fiction; but I wanted them to be absolutely true. I wanted the stories to capture readers and pull them in.
How many submissions do you usually get for each book?
It varies on the topic but between 1,500 and 3,000. I select about 50 for each book, but I will not take a lesser story over a better story just to get that number. For me, the quality of the book is always the most important thing.
Does each A Cup of Comfort volume have its own personality?
Yes, definitely. There’s commonality with each volume, but each of the books I’ve worked on has a very distinctive personality as well.
What do you look for when you’re selecting stories to include in a particular A Cup of Comfort volume?
Authenticity is really important to me. It’s been said that there are no new stories. But your perception of what happened in your life and how it affected you is unique. And there’s always something that’s unusual, that’s specific to your life and your situation that’s different from everybody else’s and that’s what I want to see in stories. I also think the best stories have a universal truth. Something in that story needs to resonate with just about everyone who reads it. And it needs to have a nugget of truth, that thing that makes us human coming through in the story without actually saying it. When a story lets readers come to that conclusion themselves, that is an excellent essay.
If you choose an essay from a writer for one volume will you consider something else they’ve written for another?
I consider the essays individually every time. And we have published more than one essay from a writer in the same volume. People can submit as many stories as they want for as many volumes as they want. Our policy says that I cannot publish more than three stories from any author in any single book. It’s usually better for the reader if there’s variety. But sometimes the very best stories that provide the most variety and flavor and different points of view are by the same author.
Do you choose essays from people who haven’t been published before?
About 25 percent of the essays in each book are by people who have not been published before. If I see a good story, even if it needs a little work, I’m going to grab it.
Do the authors participate in the promotion of the books?
They do, but it’s not required. Many of the contributors set up signings at bookstores. We also have authors who participate in local art fairs that feature local authors, library events and charitable events.
When submitting to A Cup of Comfort, what can authors do to make their writing stand out?
I’m a firm believer that you’re going to write the best story if you write what you know and write from your gut and not think too much about what we want. A lot of the stories deal with challenging and painful events in life. Write honestly about that, but for our purposes it’s about comfort, hope and inspiration. So keep that in mind. No matter what you write about it has to resonate with a large audience, it has to have some kind of insight or redemption quality or something that’s uplifting.
What kinds of stylistic and submission no-no’s should people avoid?
One of the common tendencies in writers is to overwrite, to say too much. Make sure every word counts. Also, preachiness doesn’t work for A Cup of Comfort. And, believe it or not, I get submissions with no contact information, no name. So if I want to publish the story I don’t know how to contact the author.
It’s not a good idea to submit something, revise it and submit it again. Sometimes people submit something because they’re excited and then after a couple of days they think, “Oh shoot, I have a mistake in there so I’m going to resubmit it.” It happens a lot with new writers. Sit on it a couple of days and make sure you want to submit what you submit. And if you find something you’d like to change after you submit, don’t worry. Editors don’t expect every submission to be perfect. We can tell if a story is close to what we need, and we’re accustomed to fixing things later.
Cindy Hudson writes for national trade magazines, regional magazines, online publications and daily newspapers. Her website and its companion blog, publishes reading lists, book reviews, author interviews and other book club resources. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Portland, Oregon, where she writes weekly for The Oregonian. Visit her online at http://www.cindyhudson.com.