October 6, 2020
by Leslie Wibberley
Originally published in Medium, February 17, 2020
A few tips to help new writers avoid the same mistakes I made.
When I returned to an old passion of mine, writing, just under five years ago, I was hopelessly uninformed about pretty much everything about the writing world. All I knew is that I loved to put words down on a blank page, creating something from nothing. I figured that was the hard part.
Ah, the bliss of ignorance.
I’d always written, but never with the aim of publication. But after I took my first online class—writing for children—and wrote a few stories my family and friends seemed to enjoy, I began toying with the idea of submitting my work.
I took a few more classes, read a few books, and by a few, I mean two. On Writing by Stephen King, and Writing Irresistible Kidlit, by Mary Kole. I played around with some short fiction and a couple of narrative nonfiction pieces, wrote one I was rather proud of, and decided I had it all figured out.
Time to submit.
Sigh. So many things I still didn’t understand about the publishing world. So many things I did wrong and wish I could go back in time and do over.
And so, to help any of you new writers out there who may be on the brink of sending your precious words out into the world, (an incredibly brave and vulnerable act, by the way,) here are few things I wish I’d known before I took that step myself.
Take a day, a week, or even a month for longer work, before you press that submit button.
I’ve learned the hard way how important it is to let your words sit before you revisit them and work through the revision/editing process. And when you finish revising, wait again, then take another look.
Pressing submit too early is a sure fire way to guarantee a rejection.
Time away from your precious words can bring a calm objectivity, allowing you to look at what you’ve created with a slightly more impartial eye. When you return to make edits, making those changes, cutting words, and killing your darlings won’t be nearly as painful.
And the finished project will be cleaner and more polished, and far more likely to garner you an acceptance.
In the beginning, I sent projects out the same day I finished them, often late at night — PLEASE, NEVER DO THAT — convinced they were nothing short of literary genius. Only to re-read them the next morning and discover typos, plot holes, repeated words, and so many other problems that I wanted to reach inside my computer to drag that submission back out.
Which brings me to the next and hugely important point:
ALWAYS EDIT/REVISE your words.
And when you think you’re finished, do it again, and then one more time.
When I first started writing, I thought that revision meant looking for misplaced commas, repeated words, and missing punctuation marks. I had no idea what the difference between revision and proofreading was. So when someone asked me if I’d revised my work, I’d smile and say, “Of course.”
No, no I hadn’t. I’d moved a few commas around, but left wild inconsistencies in place, along with numerous plot holes.
It would take me another year, and a whole whack of rejections to discover the magic of revision.
Now, it’s my favorite part of the writing process. Possibly to my detriment. I may even be suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Editing Disorder. Lately, each time I’m ready to submit, I read the piece one more time and end up making changes. Over, and over, and over ad infinitum.
Don’t do that either.
DON’T GIVE UP ON A PIECE TOO SOON.
I learned this extremely useful piece of advice from a friend of mine who is a gifted speculative writer, and who has had much success with her short stories.
The very first short story I wrote, on a whim after a horror magazine started following me on twitter, was accepted for publication. My very first submission. So naturally I thought, “Well, that was easy.”
Yeah, not so much. I simply got lucky. But it left me with the idea that if a story I’d written wasn’t immediately accepted, it must mean the story sucked. After all, that first one was picked up right away.
So, I’d write a story, send it out, get rejected, and then tuck that story away in my “Failures” file.
It wasn’t until many rejections later that I mentioned this to my friend. She looked at me askance and said, “Oh, don’t to that! Just pull it out, revise it a bit, and send it out again. Some of my stories are rejected ten, twenty, or even more times before they find a home.”
I was stunned. How did she find the confidence to send them out again after so many rejections? When I asked, her, she just said, “Because I know the story is good. It just hasn’t found the right home, yet.” Then she leaned closer as if imparting a great secret, and said, “You do realize this business is very subjective, right? Remember, one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure.”
I took her words to heart. I pulled out that very first non-fiction piece I’d written, which had been rejected by the editor of a literary journal, a non-paying market. *More about submitting to unpaid markets to come.
I realized that despite the rejection, I still really loved this piece. So I tried again.
And yet again.
All rejections, and all from non-paying markets.
I tried one more time. This time it was accepted. By a paying market, no less! Feeling encouraged, I entered it in a national contest, and was thrilled when it placed sixth—that year there were over 6000 entries in 9 categories—earning me both bragging rights, and money!
Since then, I’ve had multiple pieces rejected numerous times before they eventually found a home. One day, a piece I submitted was rejected in the morning and won a contest in the afternoon!
This year I will have a story coming out in an amazing anthology called, Not All Monsters. The editor, Sara Tantlinger, told us she had over 300 submissions.
This book features 21 stories from women in horror and will come out in three different forms: a fully-illustrated hardcover version, an illustrated paperback version, and an ebook. I’m thrilled with how much publicity it’s receiving.
And yet, this same story was rejected SEVEN different times before finding its home.
I’ve won first place, on two separate occasions, in huge national writing contests with stories that were rejected numerous times before, and after those wins.
Subjectivity at its finest.
DO YOUR RESEARCH before you submit to a publication.
This means not only reading an issue or two to get a feel for the type of writing they enjoy, but also learning who the editor is. Find out their names and spell them correctly when you send your cover letter.
Don’t, God forbid, do what I did and address your letter to Dear Mr. XXX only to discover the editor is a woman. If you can’t determine their correct pronouns by their first name, dig deeper. More than likely you will be able to find out. If you can’t, a simple: Dear Editor is acceptable.
If they have specific formatting guidelines, follow them! If they don’t list anything specific, you won’t go wrong by using standard Shunn formatting.
If they list what they’re looking for, and what they absolutely do not want to see, make sure you listen. Don’t try to sneak your zombie horror in as a romance just because there is a tiny romantic element in your story. If the editor states clearly that they don’t want horror stories, don’t send it!
START SMALL. Consider less well known, and even unpaid publications.
Of course, there’s a chance you could be one of the lucky ones who submit to one of the top publications and get accepted right out of the gate, but the higher probability is that you’ll be rejected.
There are many wonderful markets looking for fiction and non-fiction pieces with a fairly large readership, but who don’t offer payment. When you’re first submitting, consider sending your work to these. There is nothing more satisfying than having someone in the industry tell you they like your work and want to publish it. Having your work published, whether that be in print, or online, will build your confidence and help build your writing platform.
And consider unpaid anthology call outs. You’ll often get a free contributor copy if your story makes the cut. It might not seem like much, but let me tell you, the first time you get a copy of a book with your words inside, you’ll feel like you’ve just been paid a million dollars.
Once you have a few successes under your belt, branch out, pushing for larger and paid publications. Eventually, try for professional markets. Your confidence will grow with each acceptance.
The first few pieces I had accepted for publication were in non paying literary journals, and those successes led me to try harder markets.
Five years later, I’m happy to say I’ve been rejected by some of the most demanding markets out there.
But, I’ve also had a few acceptances.
And, if I’d started with those big markets and been rejected, over and over again, there’s a good chance I’d have been so crushed I would have just stopped submitting.
KEEP TRACK of your submissions.
In the beginning, like me, you may be sending out so few things that you might think, “Oh, I’ll remember where I sent that.” But once you have more work out there, and many pieces you’ve sent out countless times, let me warn you, “YOU WON’T REMEMBER.”
There is nothing more horrifying than to send out a piece only to get a rejection letter from an editor that says simply: “Same answer as the last time you sent this to me. No.”
Use a spreadsheet on your computer, a notebook, or planner that you keep just for story submissions, or use one of the online services like Duotrope or Submittable, but make sure you keep track in some way.
LEARN WHERE TO SUBMIT YOUR WORK
As I said, I had no idea what I was doing when I first started writing and submitting my work. I wish someone had given me a list of where to start back then.
And so, to save you the same struggles I faced, here’s just such a list for you:
Duotrope: A paid service—$5 US per month—that allows you to search by publication, genre, and even payment offered. It’s also a great way to keep track of your submissions. If you are producing a lot of work that you’re trying to find homes for, it’s actually a pretty great resource.
Submittable: A free service that allows you to search for publications, keep track of your submissions, and which shows their status.
Facebook Groups: There are many, but here are a few I use:
- Writers Post no Fee Calls for Submissions
- OPEN CALL: HORROR MARKETS
- Open Submission Calls for Short Story Writers
- Open Submission Calls for Romance Writers
- A free publication that comes out via email each week, offering writing tips, prompts, and publications seeking submissions.
- The Horror Tree:
- A great resource lists markets for writers interested in horror.
Okay, I think I’ve covered the most important things I wish I’d known when I was first starting to submit. I hope you find them useful.
Leslie Wibberly is the award-winning writer of CNF, short stories & novels—horror, magical realism, romance, speculative fiction—adult & YA, repped by Shannon Orso of Victress Literary
Write City Magazine
Write City Review
Windy City Reviews
Book of the Year
First Chapter Contest
Chicago Writers Association
Make a Difference!