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Tales Of A Fourth-Rate Nothing: Ten Steps To Submitting Stories - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
June 2nd, 2010
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Tales Of A Fourth-Rate Nothing: Ten Steps To Submitting Stories
Since the blogs have been bubbling with discussions of rejection slips lately, I thought I'd talk about one of the more important processes of writing: how to get those rejection slips. Or, in better terms, how to submit your story.

It sounds stupid to say, but submitting your story is the key to publication. Despite your longings, editors will not scan your hard drive for excellent stories, and they almost always ignore your blog snippets. Getting it out the door is probably the second most important thing you can do after writing - so let's talk about how to do it.

Standard Disclaimer: All writers have different processes. This one, influenced heavily by submissions guru and specfic author Grá Linnaea and adapted by me, is one that I'm reasonably sure will work for most writers - but as with all things writerly, don't take it as gospel.

Step 1: Make Sure Your Story's As Good As You Can Currently Make It.
Note that I did not say "Finished," for then the perfectionists will sit on their stories and never actually get them out the door. Just make sure you're redrafted enough times to make sure that it's the best you can do right now. Yes, it's flawed, but make sure the flaws in it are ones you have no clue how to fix.

Early on, in my quest to get 'em out the door, I sent out a tale that I thought was 95% there. The very next day, the perfect ending paragraph came to me. That story was later rejected by Asimov's because the ending wasn't good enough, and they didn't want to see a rewrite. The lesson? Get it as right as you can the first time.

Step 2: Go to Duotrope.com, Select Your Genre, and Set the Payscale to Pro Markets. Search.
Are pro markets better than the semi-pro, or even the token payment magazines? Not necessarily. But they do pay more, and on the whole they tend to offer more visibility if you're published. So why not start as big as possible, and see what happens? The worst that can happen is a rejection, and I assure you - you're going to get plenty of those.

Step 3: Weed Out the Twitter-Zines, the Contests, and Up-tos.
Twitter-fic's great, but even at the pro rate of five cents a word, you're not paying any bills. Contests usually mean that you get paid next to nothing if you don't win, but they still publish your stuff. Up-tos mean they pay five cents a word, "up to" some arbitrary cap around $50 or so.

Now, it's nice to be published, but remember that you're worth money. The publisher is, theoretically, earning money by publishing your writing to their readers - and you should get a fair cut. Remember Yog's Law: "Money should flow towards the author."

Step 4: Look For The Fastest-Rejecting Pro Markets.
It's bad enough to get a rejection, but it's horrible to get a form rejection after waiting for half a year. Duotrope tells you the average response time; go for the fastest market. Currently, that happens to be Clarkesworld for electronic submissions and F&SF for paper submissions. Both of them reject fast because they have a less than 0.4% acceptance rate. Still, you could get lucky, and your goal is to get this out to as many places as possible in the minimum amount of time.

One note: If you hit all of the "classic" pro markets, it will take about a year for a story to be rejected from all of them. This is not a bad thing. It means you're in for the long haul.

Step 5: Write a Cover Letter.
Grá (the guy who taught me the bones of this "make a list of the quickest markets, then track them" process) has a really good essay on cover letters here.

Step 6: Submit to Their Criteria.
If they want a specific story length and your story's too long? Don't submit. If they tell you they don't want space opera and your story's a sweeping galactic epic? Don't submit. If they want it in some weird format? Give them that. In short, don't treat their requirements as suggestions.

Then submit.

Step 7: Create A Spreadsheet. Add The Submission To The Spreadsheet.
What's that? You don't have a submissions spreadsheet? Well, you will now. Put down the name of the story, the magazine you sent it to, the date you sent it, leave a column for the date you'll get a response, and a comments field.

Look at the spreadsheet periodically, and if more than two months have passed, check Duotrope to see if, on average, you should have received a response by now. Sometimes submissions get lost. If it seems to be late, check the magazine's submissions page to see if they're behind on submissions. (Some are.) If they're not late, send them a polite follow-up email that says, "Hello, good people, I've submitted a story, did you get it?"

Step 8: Within 24 Hours of a Rejection, Send It Out Again.
Do not wait. Rejections are mean things, crushing. Find a new market and send it out, stat. You are juggling stories; your goal is to keep them in editors' inboxes until they find a home.

No, don't rewrite them. That's why you made them as good as you could in Step 1; this is the pinnacle of your ability. The only time you should rewrite is if the rejection letter pinpoints something you felt was wrong, in which case feel free to fix it. Don't resubmit it unless they ask, but you can clear up that error before the next market. Otherwise, keep working on your next story.

Step 9: Reaching the End of the Pro Market
If you've sent a story to every pro market around, then it's time to compile a list of semi-pro and token payment markets you'd like to submit to. The #1 rule with the semi-pros is taken straight from ken_schneyer:

Submit only to markets you'd be proud to be published in.

Which is to say that you probably can get published in any number of markets - but some of those markets are pretty crappy, particularly when you get below one cent a word,. Look around, read samples of your market's fiction (which is never a bad idea anyway), and overall ask yourself the question, "Is this a crowd of writers I'd like to be a part of?"

Last year, Ken compiled a list of which markets had the most mentions in the Year's Best Horror. That's not a bad way of looking at it, either. But remember, audition your markets to make sure they suit you, as well. Choose quality fiction places.

Note: You should, of course, apply the same criterion to pro markets as well - but in general, pro markets can afford to pay five cents a word for a reason, while semi-pro markets vary a little more. I'd put Sybil's Garage and Shimmer (among many, many others) up against any of the pro markets, qualitywise... but there are publications that pay exactly what they do and aren't nearly as good, in my opinion. I'm not saying that the excess pay of the pro markets equals quality, but pro markets does have the benefit of a) usually reaching more people to read your fiction, and b) paying a lot more.

Regardless, if you think a pro magazine stinks, then what would that say about your fiction if they accepted it? Don't bother if you hate 'em.

Step 10: Write More Stories.
As noted, it may take a year or more to get a story published - or at least to get accepted. (It might take another eight months to a year on top of that to get it into print.) Or - let's be blunt - that story might just not be good enough to be accepted in the markets you want it in.

Your solution? Write another story. Don't wait for Your Marvelous Story to find a home - go out and write another one. And another one. And another one. I'll refer you over to Jay Lake's Bathtub Theory of Writing Success, which states that the more you write, the more you fill your bathtub.

Submitting is the second most important part of the process. Writing is the most important. Get writing.

(26 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

Comments
 
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From:mariadkins
Date:June 2nd, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
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I would add a step 1a - have other people (not friends or family) read your work for (a number of things including continuity errors, grammatical mistakes, clarity, flow, voice, etc, etc).
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From:theferrett
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:32 am (UTC)
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I wouldn't disagree, but the "make it as good as you possibly can" is an essay unto itself. And one that I'm probably not, as yet, qualified to write.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 2nd, 2010 03:44 pm (UTC)

I feel like a goon...

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... as I have been using Writer's Market for guidance on where to send my submissions.

Thank you, Ferrett, for showing me duotrope.
From:diatryma
Date:June 2nd, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
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My 7 is different-- I use a stack of index cards because I can't find a way to make Excel do what I want for submissions tracking. But do keep track.
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From:sinanju
Date:June 2nd, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC)
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I use OpenOffice, but otherwise I agree with Ferrett. I have columns for story name, word count, pen name (I have two), magazine name, editor name (if a new editor takes the reins, I can resumbit!), date submitted, # days out (it calculates automatically), response (sold, form rejection, or personal rejection), response date, average response time (so I don't have to check Duotrope to know if something's been out way too long), and comments.
From:diatryma
Date:June 2nd, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
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I wasn't posting to say that paper records are better, only that there are alternatives to Excel for tracking purposes. If a spreadsheet were my only tracking option, I wouldn't keep track. I haven't found a way to make it work for me.
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From:theferrett
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:31 am (UTC)
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What the heck are you tracking that you need paper to do it? I'm not denying you, just baffled.
From:diatryma
Date:June 3rd, 2010 06:28 am (UTC)
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It's more a layout thing. I haven't found a way to track submissions that lets me easily sort by story without having to look at any that I'm not interested in. My current system is a stack of index cards with a binder clip. Each story has a card, then list market, date, and result. Stories that are out are perpendicular so I can see them easily. This probably wouldn't work as well if I had more active stories, but it works well enough for me.
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From:maryturzillo
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)

Spread sheets

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Spread sheets are terrific for some things, but they play peek-a-boo with data that doesn't quite fit in the little rectangles, and if you submit to, say, six markets, you have to scroll horizontally to read all of them. And you have to be good at putting your mouse in the exact right rectangle, or later on you discover you didn't really, thank God, submit that erotic poetic revery to Analog -- but where DID you submit it?

Also, with 80 stories and 270 poems in play (some of these are published, but I submit for reprint, too), the document gets unwieldy.

I just use a word-processing document. Searchable, alphabetic, compact when printed out. First line (not indented) = story title, with cross referencing for alternyms, plus word count and any notes. Subsequent lines, indented = market and date submitted.

But different writers' mileage will vary -- I envy your ability to use spreadsheets with such facility. I have used one for years to track my weight, step count and, at one time, calories, although I gave that up. Easy, enlightening, helpful in modifying behavior and understanding motivations.

But I like a straight WP doc for my stories and poems.
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From:ersatzinsomnia
Date:June 2nd, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)
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Useful and informative. Thanks!
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From:phillipalden
Date:June 2nd, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the constructive and highly useful suggestions.
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From:becca_maru
Date:June 2nd, 2010 09:34 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for this.
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From:mikandra
Date:June 2nd, 2010 09:48 pm (UTC)
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I would add step 1a:
Sure, send out a story as good as you can currently make it, but never discount that at some stage in the future, after you've submitted a few times, someone says something and you get an idea how to make it even better.

Never assume your stories are set in concrete once you've started submitting.
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From:theferrett
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:30 am (UTC)
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I agree with that partially, but I also have a disproportionate number of people who will polish a manuscript over and over again until they've spent six months on a single story - and I don't want to encourage them. I'm erring on the side that it's better to write a lot and have a few stories with leftover room to grow than it is to keep rewriting The Story until, well, you probably don't get it published.
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From:mikandra
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:36 am (UTC)
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I know what you mean, and I agree.

As for myself... is 15 stories and four novels anywhere near enough? I never assume that the version I'm sending out is the absolute final until I sell the story, or until I decide to shelve it.
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From:maryturzillo
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)

rewrites

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I think it's great that you're good enough that you can sell stuff that's pretty much off the lot. I send stuff to all the majors, get rejected, and brood a lot. By then (the majors take awhile to reply) the story is not in style, so I have to rewrite it to update the language and references, and maybe even the fake science.

I think you're a terrific writer and your advice not to over-rewrite works for you. But sometimes something Sheila says (even though she's not asking for a rewrite) resonates and makes the story better. Stan, too. Stan is a terrific spot-on critiquer. Often just a few words, but they illuminate.
From:ext_88162
Date:June 2nd, 2010 10:56 pm (UTC)
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Great piece! Thanks for the link to Duotrope in the article; makes looking for markets a hell of a lot easier!
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From:theferrett
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:29 am (UTC)
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It is amazing. Toss 'em some PayPal if you use it enough; they deserve it.
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From:montykins
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:25 am (UTC)
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I think it's interesting to compare your list with Heinlein's rules.

Your step one is in direct opposition to his first rule. But your steps eight and nine are almost exactly his rules four and five.

I don't know what the moral is, since obviously no set of rules is going to work for everyone, especially since he was writing in the forties for a different world. But the combination of direct opposition and strong agreement appeals to me.
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From:theferrett
Date:June 3rd, 2010 01:29 am (UTC)
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How's my step one in opposition to his rule? He says, "You must write." I say, "You must write - but make it good." And then my Step 10 is, essentially, "You must write."

So I don't see it in opposition; perhaps a little more verbose and flabby, but that's why he's Heinlein and I'm me. Or am I missing something?

And yeah, I don't think it works for everyone, but I think "You have to submit if you'd like to be published in your lifetime" is a sad fact of the biz.

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From:montykins
Date:June 3rd, 2010 02:28 am (UTC)
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The confusion is easily explained: I didn't mean his step one. I meant whichever one was "never rewrite unless by editorial request", which is in opposition to your philosophy of rewriting.
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From:ann_leckie
Date:June 4th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
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I've heard people interpret his "never re-write" as meaning "never do more than one draft" but I don't think that's what he meant. For one thing, he himself re-wrote his work before he sent it out. I remember Michael Swanwick, the first day of his week at Clarion West the year I was there, handed out copies of an early draft of a Heinlein story, plus revisions he'd made before sending the ms out. Swanwick said explicitly that he wanted to disillusion us of the myth that Heinlein hadn't done drafts, that he'd always gotten it right the first time somehow.

For another thing, while some writers can put out something salable without multiple drafts, most of us can't. So even if Heinlein could, there's no point in trying to impose that on every other writer.

And that "to editorial order" kind of indicates that he's talking about rewriting after you start subbing. I think he's elided the whole issue of drafts under "you must write" and then looks straight ahead to editors reading your work.
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From:krinndnz
Date:June 3rd, 2010 04:45 am (UTC)
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Delightfully crunchy stuff. Thank you.
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From:jongibbs
Date:June 3rd, 2010 06:29 pm (UTC)
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I'm here by way of Bart (aka avacadovpx) who recommended I pop in and have a read. I'm really glad I did. What a great post!

Thanks for sharing :)
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From:misha_mcg
Date:June 4th, 2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
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I definitely need to make use of that spread sheet idea! It's so easy to lose track of what has been sent where and when and ah!
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