Saturday, December 8, 2012

Things I've Learned From Submitting to Magazines

I am not an expert at publication.  On the contrary, I'm quite new at the game.  It was only last spring I started to take the concept of publishing seriously.  My first story was submitted this past August and in the four months that followed I have published exactly 0 works.  But I've been learning along the way and now have a slightly better grasp on the business of publication than I had even half a year ago.  To celebrate Rejection #13, here are all the things I learned while trying to get published.

1. There Are Still Paying Magazines Out There!

When I got my Writer's Digest Writer's Market 2011, I was saddened to see something like 3 fantasy magazines listed in there and came to the conclusion that there was no market for fantasy short stories.  My dream seemed over before it began.  But all was not lost.

I learned of the L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future, which only considers amateur writers' work and offers prizes up to $5000 with no entry fee.  Also, the Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers included some helpful sites.  Predators and Editors, while somewhat out of date, does offer a few (mostly low-paying) magazines.

But the most helpful website by far was the Science Fiction Writers of America, which almost inadvertently gave me a cache of updated and paying websites.  The Science Fiction Writers of America will only accept published SF/F writers as members, the lowest of which must publish at least 1 short story in a magazine paying a minimum $50 or 5 cents a word.  They helpfully offer a list of qualifying magazines.  That means the twenty or so magazines listed not only specifically publish my genre, they also pay a decent amount.  Once I found this little gem, half my work was done.

2. Some Magazines are Digital and Some are Non-Profit

I was surprised to learn how many of the magazines are entirely digital and how many of the magazines simply give out their content free of charge, no ads or anything.  Sometimes you have to go to their website and sometimes they send the stories straight to your email!  Obviously, this is a wonderful opportunity for writers to research the magazines and find out exactly what kind of stories the publishers are interested in.

More amazingly, they give their content out free and still pay writers.  How do they do it?  I learned that at least some of them do all the work of applying for grant money from the government so that they can pay for quality stories.  I, personally, really am grateful for these magazines and their editors who put in so much hard work for our sakes.

3. Organization is Key

Before I got serious about submitting to magazines, I would occasionally check out the pay rates of a magazine, see what they were looking for, and daydream about submitting.  Ultimately, that got me no where.  There were too many negative feelings associated with publishing, and I just couldn't muster up the backbone to go through with it.  It was too much work, I inwardly whined.  I was too busy.

Organization changed that.  First of all, the very process of organizing changed my mental framework.  The business of publication became a business and did not hinge on my feelings at the moment.  Having a system in place made submissions efficient and far easier.

So what was my system?

I printed out forms with the name of the magazine, their email, their editor, their genre, their interests, what they were looking for, what they were NOT looking for, their pay rate, the word limits, and how to submit.  I filled out a form for every magazine (hand-written, no less) and stuck these in a binder for future reference.

When I have a story ready to submit for publication, I flip through the binder and make a list of the magazines which might be interested in the story.  I prioritize the list and go through it one magazine after the other.  After I submit, I do my record-keeping.

On a spreadsheet, I type in the name of the story, the magazine I submitted to, the date I sent it, when I can expect a response, the date it got accepted or rejected, comments, any costs for submitting the story (postage or contest fees) and any money received (which, to date, is just a big column of 0s).  I do this every time I send out a story.  I also print out a copy of my rejections.  This is partially for tax purposes (on the off chance I make enough money to pay taxes), partially to keep track of where my stories are sent, partially to see how long it takes to get a rejection.

Very basic stuff, but it does take time to make and implement a system.  

4. It is Very, Very Hard to Get Accepted

For some reason I thought that it would be easy to get published in Daily Science Fiction.  After all, they needed stories five days a week.  My logic was that they needed more stories than monthly or bimonthly magazines and so I would have a better shot at getting published due to sheer volume.

I was mistaken.

My story did actually get through the first round of cuts, "rarified company that more than 80% of submissions do not reach."  The second and final round had slightly better odds, but still "half or more of our second round stories will not ultimately see publication."  In other words, I had a 90% chance or higher of being rejected.  And, by the way, I was.  I got cut in the second round.

Now, if those are my odds for a magazine that needs 260 stories a year, I shudder to think of what my odds are for something like the Writers of the Future Contest which only accepts 12 stories a year.   

5. Feedback is More Precious Than Gold

Most of the magazines I've submitted to tell me straight out that they don't have time to give personalized feedback.  You get a polite but generic rejection letter.  The stories I sent "couldn't hold my interest" or "isn't quite what we're looking for right now" or "didn't quite work for me."  One letter told me, "To date, we have reviewed many strong stories that we did not take.  Either the fit was wrong or we'd just taken tales with a similar theme or a half dozen other reasons."

I'm beginning to wonder if the legend editors sending back manuscripts bleeding with red ink to heart-broken writers has gone the way of the dinosaurs.  I don't know what I'm doing wrong, if anything.  Perhaps the editor just didn't like it, perhaps it was bested by better stories, perhaps it was just late to the party.  There is something quite gauling in thinking your story was rejected not for any obvious reason, but because it just wasn't good enough.

If I ever do receive one of those bleeding manuscripts, I shall probably jump for joy.  Then I'll read it and weep.

6. 1st Rejection = Elation; 10th = Depression 

My first rejection letter came in the mail, and when I received it, I was devastated, but also weirdly elated.  All writers get rejected, so this letter was like a badge of proof that I was now part of the writer's club.  I had taken a step up.  I was professional now.  And I figured  after about 50 rejections, I'd start getting accepted.  That's just how it worked.

Fast-forward to rejection # 10 and the elation had worn off.  I just felt devastated.

It's like going on one of those rafting rides.  Before you even step on, you see the sign.  "You will get wet.  You may get soaked."   You see the people exiting the raft shaking water off their slippers and notice the beads of precipitation on the seats.  But still, you get on.

Rejection #1 is like hitting the first rapid and feeling cold water go down your back.  It's shocking, but also exciting.  Rejection #10 is like walking around the park in wet socks for an hour, getting a blister on your heel.  You're just sloughing through, knowing it will be a long time before conditions change and feeling helpless to do anything about it.

So expect doubt and depression and questioning your worth as a writer.  Just expect it delayed.

7. I'm More Creative Than I Thought 

I never thought of myself as an "idea" person.  My writing strength came from developing stories; that's why I preferred novels to short stories.   With a novel, I take one or two ideas and develop the heck out of them.  But with each new short story, a new idea is needed.  How was I supposed to constantly think of ideas?  My mind just didn't work that way.

Well, maybe it does.

I came up with an idea journal and forced myself to write in it.  I was not constant.  Every now and then, I'd force myself to write a page or two in the journal.  Every now and then, I'd daydream a good idea right before bed and stick it in the journal.  Every now and then, I'd stumble upon an interesting new fact or concept and play with it.

And while I can't say I'm a fount of ideas, I nearly filled up that journal in six months and came up with more ideas than I needed to.  All I needed was a journal and a half-hearted attempt at brainstorming.  Were all the ideas good?  No.  But I'm still shocked at the usable amount that I, a "non-creative" person, was able to come up with.

8.  I'm Not Sorry

I've known I've wanted to be a professional writer since I was twelve.  I pursued creative writing as a degree.  I'm 27, and I've only just started publishing.  Think of all I could have learned if I had started ten years sooner.  Aren't you sorry you waited so long?

No, honestly, I'm not.  I wasn't ready ten years ago.

For the longest time, I refused to submit to magazines.  I told myself I wasn't a short story writer.  My prose wasn't up to par, my ideas were unsellable, my stories were doomed to failure.  All true. (Probably.)  But the real reason I didn't submit was because I didn't think could handle the rejection.  I would crack under the pressure, fall into a depression, and never write again.

So, I didn't look into publishing.  Instead, I spent ten years honing my craft and building up professional armor.  I needed to know my stories were good on their own, whether they were published or not.  At the same time, I had to de-sensitize from the finished product enough to treat publishing as a business, basically detach my dreams of success from the story and cast it out like a fisherman throwing out a net.

Writing is a hard business.  Some young writers throw out their work and achieve fame and prestige.  Others get crushed.  I took the cautious path.  That's what I was comfortable with.  When you're leaning toward ready, jump.  But if you're still frozen in terror, it's okay.  Take your time.

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