Tips to Getting Your Story Published
I’ve written before about how to get your work out of the slush pile and into the literary magazines that are out there, but the current Poets & Writers has a whole bunch of great tips that apply to writers of all stripes and so I figured I would pass on the knowledge. Let me say this first: this is advice from people who actually know what they’re doing. One guy is an agent and the rest are the people who actually receive stories and pick out which ones get published and which ones do not, so take note of that before you dismiss them. Oh and also, what the hell do I know? I still haven’t been published.
- Don’t be intimidated: There are thousands of people submitting stories, it’s true, but don’t let the odds dissuade you. Stephen Corey of the Georgia Review says, “the bulk of what we receive is not good at all.” This rings true for me—half the stuff I had to read for grad school was boring, and these were very intelligent, capable people. Now think of all the idiots out there sending in their stuff—I feel bad for the editors. I’d feel better if they accepted my stories.
- Follow the guidelines: If a journal says to type up your story in red ink, do it. Paper clips and not staples? Don’t ask questions, just do it. Include a picture of yourself in a military uniform eating a banana? Yes sir! This is your chance to prove you aren’t one of the aforementioned idiots and that you can follow instructions. It shows you did a little bit of homework and aren’t just sending out a thousand copies willy nilly to whoever will take it—that would be “bad.”
- Read journals and mags cover to cover: I understand the idea here—it’s to ensure you know where you write. But it isn’t very practical to go through a hundred of these at any one time to see if your stories match up well. I prefer to read “best of” or anthologies of short stories, as I’ve mentioned before. This way you’re exposed to the best of what’s in those mags and you don’t have to sit through some pretty painful stories. Which, hey, should give you solace because if those stories suck and they got in, so can yours. Try to make sure yours stories don’t suck—hey that’s pretty good advice right there.
- Write a “good” cover letter: Doesn’t have to be brilliant, but drop a couple of hints that show you’ve read the mag so they know you aren’t a schmuck. Mention a story you liked or an author and be direct. Easy, right? Don’t tell them how great your mom thinks the story is. Your mom is a liar.
- From One Story: “Make sure that your first page and last page are flawless.” I agree big time with this one, it’s why I like Flogging the Quill‘s Flogometer challenge—it’s all about grabbing a reader’s attention right from the start. I’ve been quitting books lately because I don’t like forcing myself to read something that I’m not enjoying. I would add that all the work and energy that goes into making a story start out with a bang and end in a rush should be put into each and every page. Makes sense, right? But seriously, look at how much work we put into the beginning of a story—try extending it throughout. Not easy, but it’ll make for better writing. Otherwise they may never make it to your “perfect ending.”
- Investigate: Nat Sobel, a famed literary agent, recommends writers check out the websites of agencies to see who’s on their “roster.” Great advice for people looking for agents. It’s similar to the idea of knowing the mag you’re writing to, it will give you an idea if your writing style matches those of the writers they already represent. This is all about finding a good match, not anyone who will take you. Although, honestly, most of us would be thrilled to be accepted by any agent.
- Don’t rush to submit: Take your time, edit, show it to friends and trusted readers. There is no rush. Don’t time your story to match the submission deadline of any particular competition or literary journal, just write until you feel you can’t get it any better with what and who you have. You have one shot at making a great first impression with this story and you should take advantage of it. It would be like shaving in one minute and throwing on whatever’s on the floor before a first date—not cool.
- Slow down: Another one from Stephen Corey, “If you are truly serious about doing distinctive work that will make its mark, slow down.” This kind of goes back to the previous bullet but it’s worth repeating. Writing (and submitting) in a rush won’t do anything but hurt you. Hurt you real bad.
- Read short stories: If this is what you’re writing, then this is what you should read. It’s all about feeding your brain (and the unconscious) what it needs to produce. If you’re writing a history essay on the Independence (yawn), then you shouldn’t be reading A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
In the end, it comes down to practice and putting in the work. If you’re caught in a bit of a fund in terms of your writing, I would recommend you try to stop worrying (and sitting in front of the blank page) and reading as much as you can. Good stuff, stuff you really love. After you’ve read something that just drop kicked you to the ground, go for a walk and let it sink it. Don’t go to work or check email, take some time to reflect on it and give your mind some time to digest it. Every time I do that I find the ideas start to come.
Maybe I’ll do another post on writer’s block another time. I’ve also been considering posting a short story or two on here, but we’ll see what kind of “demand” there is for that. Now go write and leave me alone.
[the picture at the top is of a "thing" that I saw in Boston once. It looked like a speaker but I still don't know what it was. Looks cool though]