One of the reasons I put off writing fiction for as long as I did was that I really had no clear idea of how to start. That might sound a bit foolish, but I honestly felt that if I had no means of publishing my fiction, then writing was basically a waste of time.
Years later, I found that getting published was not only possible, but probable if you’re willing to put in the work.
I put together this post to provide some of the basics for any writers who felt like I did; who just weren’t ready to take that leap and had no idea of how to really get started.
Writing isn’t easy. Publishing isn’t easy. But after reading the steps I took to publish my first short story, hopefully you’ll see that it’s not as difficult as you might think.
Step One: Write Like Your Life Depends On It.
This is fairly obvious. Start writing. Spend some serious time practicing and learning about the craft. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a great place to start for learning some basics, even if you’re not a fan of his. Another good book is The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing by David Morrell.
But once you’ve got the basics, real learning can only come from experience. Write as much as you can stand. And then keep writing. Find a strategy that works for you. Some authors use a daily word count goal, others set a less specific goal, such as writing a single scene, or for a certain amount of time.
What your goal is at this point isn’t important. What’s important is that you write every day. And when I say “Write every day,” I mean this needs to become as important as taking a shower and brushing your teeth. You need to make it part of your permanent daily routine and stick with it no matter what.
Come up with some ideas for a short story or two and just see where they go. Have fun and try things you haven’t tried before. You’re learning right now, so this is when you can experiment and figure out what works for you.
Step one ends when you have a first draft that you’re relatively happy with.
Step Two: Show Your Work in Progress to a Bunch of People.
This is where things can either start getting fun or scary, depending on your point of view. This is that step where you have to let other people read your short story. You may want to start with a friend or family member you trust. You might not get the most detailed critique from a non-writer, but what you will get is a general idea of how others view your work.
Less detailed, “big picture” comments like “I don’t get it,” or “cool ending,” can actually be very helpful in the early stages, but you’re also going to need to find a way to get a more detailed critique. I recommend using an online critique group like Critters or Scribophile, but you could also find a local writer’s group. Check out my post Don’t Be Afraid of Critique Groups if you’d like a few more details on my thoughts about that.
Step two ends after you have received a good amount of constructive feedback and are ready to begin the potentially grueling process of revising your story.
Step Three: Rework, Revise, Rewrite.
Revising your work can be one of the most difficult parts of writing. It’s also one of the most important parts. What makes it so challenging is that first and foremost, you’re a writer, not an editor. You want to be writing, creating, plotting, all that fun stuff. It’s no fun looking over your creation and trying to figure out why it’s no good.
So here are a couple of quick pointers to help make the process a little more bearable. In Step Two, I suggested using a critique group. The best way to look at the suggestions from the group is this: If one person makes an observation, take note and think about it. If you agree with what was said, then do it. If you don’t agree, then ignore it. But if two people make the same comment, really think about it. And if three or more people say the same thing, you have to listen and make the appropriate changes.
On other words, if two schmoes (and I use that term lovingly) on the other side of the table at the coffee shop can figure out that a line from your story sucks, than you can be sure a publisher or editor will say the same thing. Only they’ll toss your whole story without stamping on the smiley face that your critique group will.
Another thing about working on revisions is that when you hit it right, you’ll know. The story sitting in front of you is one that you’ve read over ten times already. And with every one of those readings, there are parts that you either subconsciously skip over or cringe when you see them. Pick out those parts and rewrite them. Rewrite them until you bleed. Or at least until you can look forward to reading without skimming over them.
When you get to that point, you’re ready for the next step.
Step Four: Find the Right Market.
So now your story is perfect and you want nothing more out of life that to see it in print. And maybe even make a couple of bucks for it.
You can find market listings all over the place. I prefer Duotrope, a complete market listing and submission tracking site that charges a small annual fee, but there are plenty of free alternatives out there. Just search online for “fiction market listings.” You could also pick up a copy of the current Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, which is full of open markets for all genres.
Your biggest concern right now is making sure you send your story to the right publication. You want a market that publishes stories similar to yours. A literary magazine sporting a black and white photo of Willa Cather on the cover will most likely not be accepting your pulp space zombie story. This is really important because most markets do not accept simultaneous submissions, meaning that they don’t want you submitting your story to multiple places at the same time.
Don’t waste time waiting for a rejection letter from a publication you shouldn’t have even submitted to in the first place, when you could be sending it off to more appropriate markets.
Step 5: Submit that Sucker!
After finding a proper publication to submit your story to, the most important thing you can do is read the submission guidelines. Read them a few times and make sure that you follow them word-for-word. Most publications will want some variant of standard manuscript format. William Shunn has a great example posted here -> Proper Manuscript Format : Short Story Format.
Some publications will only accept attachments. Some won’t open attachments. Some use online forms. Some are stuck in the 1980’s and will not accept electronic submissions at all. Again, read the guidelines and do as they say.
A quick note about cover letters. Most short story publishers don’t want a detailed cover letter for with their submissions. A simple introduction, along with the title, word count, and list of relevant publishing credits should suffice. Don’t spend time over-thinking it. If it’s good, your story will speak for itself.
Just be respectful, submit the story, and wait. And if it doesn’t get picked up, don’t fret. Just read it over and send it somewhere else.
And never ever respond negatively to a rejection letter. It serves absolutely no purpose and will destroy your changes of ever getting published with that publication again.
On the other side, I think it’s okay to send a quick note of thanks if the editor provides some useful feedback with the rejection, just don’t overdo it.
And that is submission process in a nutshell.
In closing, I know that so much more has been written on this topic, but I set out to cover just the basics in this post. I hope this quick guide was useful.
What has your submitting and publishing experience been like so for? Feel free to share in the comments section!