There’s a question I hear quite often from newer authors looking to get into the writing game or people who have never done more than just think about writing.
“How do I get published?”
I can honestly say there is a different path for every single writer who takes up the mighty pen. However, there is one method I recommend for beginners, and it presupposes that you start small. In fact, the smaller the better. If you don’t know what flash fiction is, look it up. Starting with smaller projects and being methodical about increasing your skills and moving to larger projects teaches you the writing discipline.
Think of it like taking up martial arts for the first time. On day one of your first martial arts class, you won’t be doing spinning back-kicks, grappling holds, or punch combinations. You’ll be doing stretches and perhaps learning the fundamentals of throwing a punch without breaking your thumb or wrist. You might even be exposed to the most basic of katas or forms.
You’ll spend days learning the basics, then weeks and months learning more advanced katas and how to both attack and defend. You’ll strengthen your muscles and stretch ligaments. You’ll begin to build up muscle memory so that blocks, punches, and kicks become second nature. However, you won’t be ready to get into a ring for quite a while.
Writing well takes a similar process. So, if you’re going to start down the road of becoming a professional writer, you’ll want to start small and build up from there.
Your end-goal in the short and medium term is to find places to submit your fiction. Much of what I’m suggesting will depend upon finding editors who are actively looking for stories. When it comes to short fiction, I’ve listed below some of the best websites to search for and find active calls for submission.
With each of these sites, you can search by genre, theme, due date, pay level, and a number of other parameters to find precisely the market you want to submit to.
A quick note about markets: they don’t all pay the same. There are token markets with zero or minimal payment and frequently a free copy of the magazine or anthology you are submitting to. There are semi-pro markets that pay anywhere from a fraction of a penny to five cents per word, and usually a free copy of the publication. There are also pro markets which pay six cents per word and higher, and these also usually include a copy of the publication.
When you are submitting, it can be efficient to write the story and submit to a specific publication. However, if your story is general enough in theme, then I recommend submitting to the highest paying market, and if you get rejected, submit to the next one lower on the list, and so on. Keep submitting that story until it’s either picked up or there are no other markets to send to. If it isn’t picked up, then consider rewriting it or storing it until you can rework it later. Sometimes a story requires a greater skill level to complete effectively.
So, how do you get to the point where you have stories to submit? I’d recommend adopting the following process or something like it. As I said, every writer’s path is different, but the following steps are a reliable means of building up your writing “muscle memory” and getting published.
Step One is to read. If you’re planning on writing fantasy, then take a look at the best selling fantasy. If you’re writing sci-fi or horror or paranormal or romance, then read those. Know what’s being written in the real world. This isn’t to duplicate what has come before. It’s about learning the vernacular of writing.
When I use the terms “zeppelin,” “goggles,” “clockwork,” and “corset,” then anyone who reads or writes in the steampunk genre will know what it is. If I use “sword,” “elf,” “dragon,” “wizard,” and “castle,” then it’s a good bet I’m talking about fantasy. Knowing the vernacular is a much more complex process and requires a deeper understanding, but what you’re doing throughout this process is learning the language that connects best and fastest with the people who read the genre.
Know the language.
Step Two is to find yourself a critique group. This can be anything from a group of friends getting together to review each other’s work all the way up to joining writing associations and joining the critique groups they have already set up. One option is to do a search at www.meetup.com for critique groups near you. I’ll do another post on finding the right critique group, but that’s a whole different can of wax.
Step Three is to understand fiction length. Getting back to the martial arts analogy, you’ll want to start writing flash fiction to begin with. There are plenty of flash fiction markets to submit to. They’re fast and easy to write. You can easily and quickly crank them out, get them submitted, and see what gets accepted. You’ll find that the more you read and write, the more frequently your stories get picked up.
Step Three is to write. Put your butt in the chair and write one story after another. Set your goals to fit with your schedule and then keep writing. I’ll have more on how to factor this all in as well, but again, that’s a different conversation.
Step Four is about craft. A portion of this learning will come from the reading you do. The more you read good fiction, the more you will intuitively understand what makes up a good story. Characterization, world building, story arc, suspense, denouement, black moments, serialization: are all things you will want to wrap your head around as this process continues. Read books on craft, listen to seminars, and mimic what you’ve read in your own writing without plagiarizing anything. Your critique groups can help here as well, because you will learn from the lessons others have learned when they tell you what they feel you did wrong, did right, or could have done better.
Step Five is learning patience and building up a tolerance for rejection. This takes time, and it’s the primary reason I always suggest starting small. The less time you invest in initial projects, the easier it will be to accept the rejections that will inevitably come. Dejection and self-doubt are two of the most common struggles for every writer. Earning even a partial living as a writer requires staying power, and the longer you tough it out, the greater the likelihood that you will cross the threshold into being a paid writer.
Step Six is simply moving up the ladder of fiction length. The cutoffs for fiction are as follows:
- Flash Fiction – 1 to 1,000 words
- Short Fiction – 1,001 to 7,500 words
- Novelettes – 7,501 to 17,500 words
- Novella – 17,500 to 40,000 words
- Novel – 40,001 words and above
Take things in small bites at first, and, again, build up your fiction length (and your pay rates) as your successes increase.
Step Seven is simply to start writing novels. Building up three-dimensional characters and maintaining multiple story arcs to a unified conclusion takes practice. So practice. I’ll talk more later on writing and submitting novels. I’m still in that process myself, so I’ll include my own lessons as I learn them.
I know that’s a lot, but the general process defined above can be effective. There are always differences in method, skill, and success from one writer to the next. Look inward. Seek out your own strengths and weaknesses so that you know where to focus your attention as your own personal journey towards becoming a successful writer unfolds.
And, as always, keep writing.