(Or how to turn a fortune worth of word processing equipment into a pile of worthless rejection slips.)
The title is a little misleading. But, if there was a magic formula to getting a story in print, we'd all be sitting on book deals instead of reading each others web-pages. Having said that disclaimer, here are some tips and good advice I've picked up along the way that might help you sell a story or two.
The three things every writer needs are...
This is a biggie. It covers everything from spelling and sentence structure, to the proper submission format. (More about that later.) We all think we know how to tie words together, but all too often little mistakes creep in. Poor punctuation or unclear sentences automatically mark you as an amateur in an editor's eye.
Proofread. Repeatedly. And that means more than just running spell-check. Check the piece once, rewrite, and check again. Then when its done, print it and read it aloud. If it doesn't roll trippingly off your tongue, it won't off an editors.
We all have one. Every brain comes equipped. But a writer needs to develop their imagination, harnessing it to overlay the fantastic on top of the mundane. That's what writing is, the ability to conceive of situations that would not normally occur without our fevered minds to help them along.
Keep journals. Watch people. Daydream. But above all else,
Read books and stories and novels and anything else you can get a hold of. Don't simply read the genre you want to be published in. Study history, (a necessity for fantasy writers), or technology, or westerns, or anything else that stimulates the old gray matter. Your mind is a tool. Keep it sharp.
Everyone thinks they can write. The difference between those who do, and those who never will, is the willingness to put yourself in the path of destruction and submit your work. That is why we are storytellers. We want someone to read what we have created. And that takes a certain degree of courage.
As Orson Scott Card points out in his excellent guide How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, "The only story that can never be sold is the one sitting at the bottom of your desk drawer."
No, this isn't about S&M or Bondage. This is the nuts and bolts, back to basics, down to the bottom line truth about submitting your work to magazines. Pay close attention...there might be a quiz later.
Nothing turns an editor off faster than an illegible manuscript. Keep this in mind. The format to work in is very simple, so simple in fact that none of the word processors I've used include it in their defaults.
12 point font.
Front side only.
Your name, address, telephone and e-mail on the first page.
Your name and the story title in the header of all subsequent pages.
Page numbers in the upper right corner.
Leave the right margins ragged.
Staple pages together, or use binders. Send them loose, in the correct page order.
No italics or fancy fonts. Trying to impress an editor with your computer skills is like trying to impress Davis Copperfield with the old disappearing quarter trick.
No graphics of any kind.
Get thee to a book store and buy thyself a current writers market guide. Short of that, head down to the library and bring lots of quarters for copying. In the end, the twenty or twenty-five dollars you'll spend every year for your own copy is well worth it.
The inter-net also has numerous markets listed, both paper and electronic. Find them. Use them.
Once you have the book in hand, turn to the index showing the particular genre you write for, and start searching. Read the guidelines carefully. Study them. Try to get a copy or two of the magazine and read the fiction they are publishing. Knowing the right market to submit to is half the battle.
Don't shotgun. That means don't send manuscripts to every publication in the field. (It doesn't mean holding a shotgun on an actual editor until they sign a contract. Although, now that I think about it...)
The rule of thumb is, submit to the highest paying market your story is suitable for first. Chances are you will be rejected, but it never hurts to try.
Sorry cyberland, the majority of markets still want snail mail submissions. (Though this is slowly changing.)Send your story in a 10" by 13.5" or larger envelope, big enough to hold the manuscript without folding.
Enclose a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) with your name and address already on it. Without this, you will never hear from an editor. Period. Whether you send enough postage for your story to be returned or not is up to you. Postage as it is, I feel it's cheaper and easier to send throw away submissions and just include an envelope for the editor's reply. Your choice.
If you send a cover letter, keep it short and sweet. Include your name and number, and any writing credits you may have. If you have none, don't worry. We all start from zero at some point, and editors recognize this more than anyone.
Okay. You've just finished the best story of your life. You've clipped and cut and polished until your eyes hurt. You've researched the markets, found the right editor's name, and mailed off your precious bundle with a quick prayer to the infernal gods of publishing houses and postal services.
Now you wait.
Some editors will respond in a matter of weeks. Some may take three months or longer to get back to you. It's the nature of the business. But, mark my words. One fine day an envelope with your own handwritten address is going to show up in your mail box. With shaking hands you open it, anxious to see what lies inside. Most likely, it will be a brief, mass printed rejection slip.
You will be crushed.
Don't throw the story away. Reprint it and mail it immediately to the next magazine on your list. And when that one comes back, mail it again. After two or three rejections, go over the story, fix any errors you might have missed the first dozen proofreads, and mail it to the next editor down the line.
Never surrender until you have exhausted every possible market.
As Yogi Berra would say, "It ain't over 'till it's over."
Nobody likes them. They are humiliating. They are maddening. But they are part of the game, and you can't win if you don't play. And bear this in mind. Rejection slips are a writers Red Badge of Courage. We might not like receiving them, but they do set us apart from the thousands of other writers out there too timid or unsure to ever lay open their souls and submit.
Be proud. You took a shot and missed. Now line up and shoot again. That's just the way it is.
Never throw them away. Rejection slips are your best legal proof that you are, indeed, a working writer. And writers get some nifty tax-breaks according to the IRS. Talk to your accountant, or find a good book about writing and taxes and look into it. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Asc. Handbook is an excellent starting point.
When you do receive a handwritten rejection, rejoice. It means that editor thinks your writing shows promise. It might not be much, but it is something. Besides, maybe someday that editor will be famous. Wouldn't you love to have a signed rejection from John W. Campbell or Hugo Gernsbeck? (Best I've done so far is a Stanley Schmidt and a couple of Marion Zimmer Bradleys!)
Robert A. Heinlein
Two books I highly recommend. "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy" by Orson Scott Card, and "Writing to the Point" by Algys Budrys. Well worth the price if you're serious about braking into print.
Now get busy and write!