How I Got My First Story Published

As reported last week, I finally “broke through the iron ring” and sold my first piece of fiction, The Hatchlings. It’s still up on the Fiction Vortex site, so read it while you can.

Tarantula Attack

That being said, I wanted to write this post to give aspiring writers an “after action report” on how this happened so that you can do the same because all I need is more competition. Just kidding. In all honesty, here is what went down and some advice.

First of all, dear writers, don’t get put off by rejection. I shared this story with three of my friends before sending it to a single magazine. They all liked it, I think a bit more than previous works, but it wasn’t something that really blew them away. After the feedback, I thought about changing some things, but stuck with that version more or less.

The next point here is that this story was less than 5,000 words and its genre was speculative fiction. This is a good piece for a first time writer as there are lots of markets for this length and genre. If you wrote a historical fiction novella (10,000 – 50,000) you would have a much harder time marketing the piece because there are simply less markets. Writing short in a popular genre is a great way to go for a beginning writer.

I turned to Duotrope and did a customized search for science fiction and horror magazines (the work is a horror short story set in the future). With the data on markets (in this case, magazines and websites) from that Duotrope search, I was able to rank the markets according to acceptance rates. My basic strategy was to start with the harder markets and  work my to markets with higher acceptance rates. But before submitting, it’s good to remember two things:

  • Magazines generally won’t accept stories that have been published elsewhere (including blogs). So, if you have a story you think is good, you might want to refrain from self-publishing it on Kindle or posting it to your blog.
  • Most magazines don’t accept simultaneous submissions. I.e., if you submit a story to one magazine, you usually can not submit it elsewhere. You must wait to receive your rejection from the original magazine before submitting it elsewhere. (BUT NOTE: some magazines DO accept simultaneous submissions, so always check this first.)

I hadn’t self-published my story, so the first point was irrelevant. But I had not anticipated the second point. So, my story spent plenty of time at each magazine. One great magazine had it for 147 days, that’s almost 5 months!! They did apologize for holding it so long and I did have the option to withdraw the piece, so the fault is partially mine as well. Another magazine had it for 51 days. And remember, these are days you can’t do anything with the story. It’s just out there, across the seas, waiting to become something.

So, what is the story doing for those two months? I have no idea, since I’ve never worked at a magazine, but here’s my best reconstruction:

  1. It goes into a big electronic system. Here, I presume, it gets tagged and may even have a word count limit auto-reject.
  2. It gets parceled out to “slush” editors. These people are tasked with reading and filtering out good stories from bad. I’d imagine this starts with the basic filters: Does the story meet the word limit? Is it in the right genre? Does the writer know how to spell? Does the writer know the rules of grammar? Is the manuscript formatted properly? And does it follow the magazine’s submission guidelines? If not, it automatically gets rejected in a matter of days or even hours.
  3. Past this basic, test, the story fights for its life in the slush gladiator pit. Some magazines require the story make it through two slush piles or slush editors before moving on.
  4. It moves up the editorial chain to higher editors who will read the stories that survived the slush piles. Sometimes, it’s put to a vote to resolve a difference of opinion. 
  5. A senior editor (usually the editor-in-chief) decides to accept or reject the piece.
  6. Another editor or staffer sends you an acceptance or rejection letter. Most likely, they reject it.

So, what does rejection feel like? I have to admit, like many writers, I never submitted my stuff because I didn’t want to be rejected. I didn’t want to face having something I poured myself into cast aside. But, then I woke up and decided I had to be writer and I had to submit my stories just like Heinlein said.

So, how did it feel? After all, The Hatchlings got rejected 8 times before it was accepted, so I got used to it. The answer: not as  bad as I thought. Here’s the first rejection letter I ever received (names have been removed to preserve anonymity. XX stands for magazine titles, X stands for personal names.):

Thanks for submitting “The Hatchlings,” but I’m going to pass on it. It didn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid. Best of luck to you placing this one elsewhere, and thanks again for sending it my way.
—————————
X
Editor

Yeah, that stung a bit at first. But the more I thought about it, it wasn’t that bad. This was one of the best speculative fiction magazines out there and the letter had actually been kind, humane even. It just didn’t quite work for them. I could take that. Couldn’t I?

The next day, I told my writer friend D— that I had got rejected by a top science fiction magazine. Here is a reconstruction of the conversation:

D—: “You submitted your work?”

DARIUS: “Yeah, to XX magazine. I got rejected.”

D—: “Dude, that’s awesome.”

DARIUS: “Well…”

D—: “No way. That…Is…Awesome. Hey, J— [his wife’s name], Darius just got rejected by a magazine…Huh? Yeah? [Muffled  shouts] Dude, that’s so cool.”

DARIUS: “Mm…Yeah? You think so?”

I have to admit, I struggled with seeing how “cool” it was at first. Anyway, I kept  submitting my story and I noticed something. Each subsequent rejection hurt less and less. And at the end of the process, I was just kind of curling my lip, moving the email to my Rejections folder and searching for the next magazine to apply to. Here’s another rejection letter:

Mr. Jones,

Thank you for submitting “The Hatchlings” to XX Magazine for consideration. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time.

Sincerely,

X

Submissions Editor

That’s not so bad is it? Professional, well put and lets you down easy. It even has a nice personal touch with a real  human signature line. You’d  be lucky to get such a nice letter when getting rejected from a job these days, if you get any response at all.

Despite the rejections, I kept submitting and I eventually got one of the most exciting letters I’ve ever received in my life, the acceptance letter from Fiction Vortex. I won’t reproduce that here, but it was nice.

Now that I’ve passed that milestone the goal is to get the next stories done, proofed and off to more magazines and start the process all over again. I can’t wait.

And I hope with today’s post, many more of you will be joining me.

See you out there,

Darius

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2 comments on “How I Got My First Story Published

  1. Kenneth Jobe says:

    Having just received rejection # 3, I really appreciate this post. I stumbled upon Duotrope pretty much by accident, and finding it has fired me up to get busy submitting. Continued success to you!

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