Let’s Talk About Submissions
by Dennis Doty
You’ve written your story, run spell-check and Grammarly, done your self-edits. You sent it to your Beta readers and implemented their feedback. At this point you need to make a decision about a professional editor. This is a recommended and important step, but to be honest, one that I often skip over on short stories. For stories over 10,000 words, I wouldn’t consider skipping this step, but I do a very thorough self-edit and have some really outstanding Beta readers. Usually, instead I run it for a final check past my granddaughter, and who is a teacher with a degree in English who is also a writer and knows that I don’t want anything but honest and professional feedback. For most writers though, I would strongly recommend a professional at this point.
Now you are ready to submit. Your story is fully polished and ready to go. You search the markets using Writer’s Market, Duotrope or whatever source you use to find a market that fits your story. Time for all the final details.
You make sure that your story is in the proper submission format for the market you have selected. You read the Submission Guidelines closely making sure that everything is exactly as the publication wants it. If there is no editor listed to address your cover letter to, you have gone on-line and found his/her name and address. If you can’t find it on-line, you have called the publisher and asked the usually very helpful secretary who answers the phone for the proper address and editor.
You have written a short but professional cover letter. Here is an example of one I used for one of my stories.
You have sent your story, usually as an attachment to your cover letter email or through Submittable (be sure to follow the guidelines for submitting to the letter), and you are waiting expectantly for your acceptance letter and contract to arrive. What happens to your story now?
It arrives at the publisher and is probably opened by a secretary. He/She gives it a quick glance. Is it properly addressed? Is it in the proper format? Were all of the guidelines followed? If the answers are “yes”, she prints it out and puts it in the editor’s slush-pile in-basket. If the answer(s) are “no”, she copies your address info into a standard rejection email, hits send and deletes your submission. End of story. Let’s look at the submissions to Friday Flash Fiction Challenge and see how this works.
Look at the very first entry under formatting. It scored a two out of a possible five. This story would have received the standard rejection letter within days of submission depending on when the secretary opened it. It would NOT have been seen by an editor or even a reader assisting the editor. This story would have been rejected unread. Now look at the second story in Week 2. This story would have been printed by the secretary and put in the editor’s slush pile. That’s what you want to happen.
What happens to your story now? Eventually, your story will make it to the top of the pile. When that happens, either the editor or one of his assistants will actually read your story. Now look at the 5th story in Week 4. It nailed the format and went right into the slush pile, but it didn’t really fit the story requirements published in the Guidelines. Another rejection letter goes out and another story is crossed off their To-Do list. Now take a look at the second story in Week 2. This story was a perfect fit for the magazine, anthology or contest is was sent to. It was passed on to the actual editor and lands in a much smaller slush pile sometimes known as the short-list. Congratulations, your story is in the top 90% of stories submitted to that market. But you have one final test to pass.
Now the editor has to compare your story to the other stories in his/her short-list stack. Is it the best fit for that particular issue? Does the quality of writing stand out above the others? Do you have a great hook that draws him right into the story? Does the story flow? Is it cluttered with too many characters or too much exposition or dialog? Does it have a great ending which ties up all of your loose ends and leaves him/her satisfied? Does he/she want to see more of your work?
If the answer(s) are “no”, guess what? Yes, that’s right. You get a rejection letter. If the editor has time (highly unlikely) or sees something special about your writing, you may get a personalized response explaining why your story was rejected and maybe even asking you to submit it again for a future issue or to see more of your work. However, if the answers were mostly “yes”, you’ve made it. An acceptance letter and contract are on their way. Congratulations, you are in the top 1-2% of stories sent to that publication. Your story is going to be published!
If you got a rejection letter for any of the above reasons, you have work to do. You need to read over the guidelines again and compare what you sent in. Did you dot your I’s and cross your T’s? Look over your cover letter and be sure that it was properly addressed and just the right professional tone with ALL of the requested information included. Now, look at the story itself. Did it need a final edit or proofread? Read it out loud AGAIN. Is there any word that needed to be inserted or left out? Does your hook grab the reader? If you aren’t sure, send it to a trusted Beta and ask. Was your ending satisfying? Again, if you don’t know, what do you do? That’s right. Send it to a Beta. If you have done all this and still find nothing wrong, don’t get frustrated. It is likely that it simply wasn’t a perfect fit for that publication or for the issue they were working on. Go back to Writer’s Market, Duotrope or whatever source you are using and start again. Louis L’Amour collected over 200 rejections before Bantam took a chance on him, but he didn’t give up. He went on to become their best-selling author ever with over 330 million books sold. Another author was rejected twelve times before a publisher’s eight-year-old daughter asked to read the rest of the story. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone went on to sell over 450 million copies.
I hope that this overly long post will help you to understand what happens when you submit a story and encourage all of you to do so. Honestly, rejection can only make you better. Sure, it might sting for a bit, but it will never really hurt you. Send those stories out. It’s what writers do.
Truth. It's a seemingly simple concept and one that is important in our art. As fiction writers, we are not strictly bound by truth and yet it still plays a pivotal role in our craft. We all have our own truth to tell. The fact that we tell it through the characters we create and their actions and reactions to the situations we place them in, does not diminish the truth in any way. Moreover, if we deviate from that truth, we risk losing our audience, so we are constantly challenged to get it right.
What do I have to do to become a writer? I hear this question a lot. Probably, the reason is that there is not one simple answer.
First, the number one thing you must do is WRITE. Write every day even if it's only for ten minutes. But what do I write, you ask? It doesn't matter. Write something. Type out whatever random thoughts pop into your head. Daydream and let your fingers record it. Soon, you will find that it is beginning to take on the form of a story that you are telling yourself. When you are not writing, read. Read the great authors in your chosen genre, but don't limit yourself. Read something in as many genres as you can. Get a feel for how others have done it.
If you have more time to devote to your writing, maybe some writing prompts would be helpful. They are easy to find on-line. A good source is Writer's Digest. You can find their prompts at http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts. Another good exercise comes from a friend of mine, Quinne Darkover. Known as the Darkover Prompt it has a single drawback. You absolutely MUST have at least three friends. I know. For a writer, living our solitary hermit's life, this can be a challenge. If you do have three friends, however, this is how it works. Get one friend to give you a noun, any noun. Ask another for a verb and the third for an adjective. That's your prompt. Write a story using these three words. Here's one that Quinne wrote from the words, vacuum, fly and purple. https://qdarkover.wordpress.com/short-stories/
I know that I have a novel in me, but I don't know where to start, you say. This, too, I hear often. I recommend starting with short fiction, and I do so for a number of reasons. First, if you can write a compelling short story, you can write a great chapter. The second is instant (or at least rapid) gratification. We all get a sense of accomplishment when we complete a project, and third, there is a learning curve. No one decides one day that they want to be a climber and books a flight to Everest. You start on the small hills and peaks around home and work your way up.
When you add up the writing, the self-editing, the beta reader feedback and more editing, a professional edit and proof-reading, your book is going to take many months often years to complete. There are too many opportunities for discouragement and self-doubt. Start with something smaller that you can complete and get feedback on before you move up to the grand project. I don't want to see anyone pour their heart into their work for a year or two only to discover that it's crap, because they didn't learn their craft first.
How do I know if I'm ready to try something bigger? This is a much more difficult question. I think that a good sign might be when that big story will no longer let you sleep at night, when it is crying out to be told, because then you might have the passion to see it all the way through to the end. Another indicator might be when your short-stories are consistently garnering good reviews and your editor is no longer bleeding to death on each page. Maybe you'll even have a few sales under your belt and the confidence that goes with that.
But what if someone else writes my story before then or the subject becomes irrelevant? Two- part question. For the first part, no one can ever write your story. If you take your idea and go to any other writer and say, “Here. Write this”, the story is going to be completely different from the one in your head. Even if the broad outlines are the same, no one is going to write it just the way you would and they aren't going to touch the same hearts that yours will.
What if it becomes irrelevant? Who cares? Some stories do. They are not the stories which stand the test of time, are they? So, you didn't write your political thriller about the 2016 election. Guess what? By 2018, no one would have cared about it anyway. Find a new topic and a new story that will last. Look around you. Stories are everywhere and thankfully, you didn't waste a lot of time on that loser.
Bottom line is, you will know when you're ready to write that first novel. Put the pen down. Not yet. Stop and think. Think for a few days at least. Why do I want to write this book? If the answer, the real deep-down-in-your-soul answer is “to see my name on the spine”, “to have a best-seller”, “to get rich”, “to do something that no one else I know has done”, or anything remotely resembling these answers, go back to the short-stories and essays. You're not ready yet. If you proceed, you will probably write a book. You will likely take short cuts and not have it properly edited. You will publish before it is ready to be read, and you will damage your reputation as a writer, maybe irreparably.
If, on the other hand, you really do have a story that MUST be told, the one that keeps you awake at night and the only thing that you want more in the world than to write it, is to get it right. You're ready. Put your butt in front of the keyboard and let her rip.
You did it! Against all the odds you have overcome. You put aside the distractions, the everyday minor disasters, and all the constant demands on your time and attention for a whole month while you created your 50,000 word plus masterpiece. You set boundaries for friends and family so that you would have the time to write. You exercised self-discipline, banning the internet with all its distractions until you had your daily word count. You wrote the novel you have always intended to. Now, all you have to do, is edit and polish it.
DO NOT DO IT! Do not even open that file or notebook again before 2017. Don't even think about it. You need the time and distance to be able to look at it with the detachment of an editor.
Right now it's your baby. Those characters are your darlings and you are way too proud of them to even think of cutting or changing one word of their amazing dialog. You are the parent looking for the first time at this tiny pink being that you have created and the only word echoing around in your brain is perfection. You have to now let it age like a fine wine so that when you do come back to it you can see the little dirty diapers, the peanut butter smears on the couch and the crayon markings on the walls. Leave it alone.
Here's what you should be doing now. You should be recharging your batteries. Get up from your desk, your laptop or where ever you have spent every free moment for the last month and walk around. Reintroduce yourself to the family you've been neglecting. Call an old friend and go out to lunch. Go on a date with your significant other. Take a walk outdoors. In the long run, all of these things will put you in a better frame of mind for the task ahead.
Should you stop writing? Hell, no. You've developed some great habits over the last month. You've trained yourself to block out some time every day to get that word count down. You've taught yourself that, when you sit down to your keyboard, you will produce something. Don't give that up. You've worked too hard and sacrificed too much to learn these habits, but, and there's always a but. You need the rest as much as your work does.
So take smaller bites for a while. You don't have to maintain a two thousand word per day pace. Drop down to one thousand or even five hundred. Write some short stories or essays. Change the tone of your work. If your novel was dark and brooding, write something lighthearted even comedic. Now is a good time to stretch those cramped writing muscles. Try something new.
This is also a time for marketing. If you don't have a website or author page, start one. You're going to need it to promote your book. Hopefully you have some short stories or essays lying around. This is a great time to dust them off and put a polish on them. See if you can find them a home. Search the markets and ship those babies off. Let's be honest about this. A lot of writers are afraid of submitting their work. Get over it. I have a stack of rejection slips and letters an inch thick, and that's just from this year alone. Surprise. Not one of them drew blood or left a bruise. They're just part of the life we've chosen. Everyone gets them. You will too. So what. Take them in stride, rant for a day if you need to, sulk a little if you like, then polish that baby one more time and send it back out. Remember, if you can't take the rejection of a little short story or article, how in the hell are you ever going to find an agent or publisher for that masterpiece you just finished writing. Put on your big boy or big girl pants and just do it.
You have a major accomplishment under your belt. You've written a novel. Enjoy that. When you come back to it next year, you will look at it with totally new eyes. You'll find yourself thinking, “Why was I so proud of this character? He/she doesn't really add much to my story. Kill them. You may even enjoy it. You'll look at that masterpiece of dialog and say, “Do people really talk that way?” Fix it.
This new perspective will only make your baby better. Get out your red pen and go to work. If you want more information on exactly how to go about tackling your masterpiece when you come back, I have some great advice from my friend, author and professional editor, Victoria Griffin.
Above all, keep writing. You got this.