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.
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.