by Richard Risemberg
After a long, dry spell, I suddenly began placing stories in small-press magazines this year, even some that paid in cash! Since last winter, I have “sold” – sometimes for pay, sometimes compensated only in honor – I have sold six stories to five magazines.
It all started by accident, but the sort of accident that fate contrives when you help it along.
It began when I followed the advice a friend had given me give short readings at open mic nights hosted by a friend of his. At these events, I sometimes read poetry, sometimes short stories, and sometimes chapters from a novel. And at one of the last of these events, I met a fellow who edited a new and small magazine dedicated to noir. Although I met him at one of the events where I read decidedly un-noirish poems, he asked me to send him some work – no doubt because the host always introduced me as a noir writer, as I have two self-published novels in the literary-noir genre.
However, I didn’t have any noir stories at that time. So I rewrote one chapter of my third (as yet unpublished) novel as a standalone story. I sent it in, and it was accepted.
This brought me neither instant fame nor untold wealth, commodities that I am still quite short of. But it did show me that small-press magazines actually do publish work after all. So I began sending out stories from inventory, and writing more of them. And as I became more involved in the process, I devised a protocol. It is simple, and it seems to be working. Here’s what it takes to start selling stories in the world of little magazines.
Emulate the prolific salmon. You are already swimming upstream anyway, since you’re a writer in America. So blast out enough fish eggs that you generate a population of magazine credits to expose your work to readers (no matter how few) and to editors (who are said hover over the swarms of little magazines like hungry gulls – or at least their unpaid interns do).
You have an advantage over the salmon, though: if one of your eggs doesn’t “hatch,” you can magically regenerate it and give it another chance. So here’s the protocol:
Write every day. You cannot sell stories that you do not write. I give myself about forty minutes each morning to work on my actual writing. Some of that time is spent editing finished work, to make sure it’s actually finished. In the last four years, I have written three and a half novels and several dozen stories doing this. Write every day. Write every effing day. Except Sunday (or your preferred sabbath equivalent.) Write six days a week. Without fail. Or even every day. It won’t kill you.
Edit what you write. Consider no story “done” till you have read and revised it at least three times. Nine times is better. This counts as writing time. An unrevised story is not finished. Edit what you write.
DO NOT POST THEM ONLINE. The vast majority of literary and genre rags will not consider anything that’s been published before, and, yes, they specifically state that even posting it on your own obscure blog, the one that only your sister, reads counts as “publishing.” They WILL find out. There is no privacy any more. If you’re on the internet, you will be found out. Do not play around with them. They will probably blacklist you if you try to fool them.
1. Read the submission guidelines. Editors are the law in their own little deskbound worlds. Do it their way, or be exiled. Format, font, or genre–give them what they want. When they ask for something, it’s not a hint; do ti wrong and they won’t even read the story through.
2. Submit the stories endlessly, heartlessly, relentlessly to multiple magazines. Do not bother with rags that can’t tolerate simultaneous submissions. Most journals take two to eight months to let you know whether they’ll accept your work or not, and have no right to ask for exclusivity. If they do ask it, eff ’em. Just keep sending the stories out. I try to keep each story I’m marketing out at three magazines at a time.
3. Ignore rejections.They don’t matter. Often editors will note that someone else will perhaps prefer your story even if they didn’t. This is not mere politeness. Editors are not polite. It is the truth. Of the six stories I have sold this year, four were rejected at least once, and one four times, before they found a home. Rejections mean nothing. Jack London famously collected six hundred and thirty rejections before making his first sale, and went on to become one of the bestselling authors of his time. And he did it without the internet, while working twelve hours a day in a commercial laundry. Keep sending your stories out. (Just make sure you’ve revised them till they’re actually done.)
4. If you have sent a story to multiple magazines, and it is sold, immediately withdraw from consideration by the others, either through Submittable, if they use it, or by email. That day. Editors are testy and will notify each other of people who don’t play nice. So even if you are not in fact nice, act as though you are. Or give it up.
I write six days a week. I revise each story three to nine times. And I send stories out six days a week. I keep an Excel spreadsheet as a backup to the common Submittable program, because not all editors use Submittable. I put in the work. I didn’t used to do all this–and I didn’t sell any stories. Now I do it, and I’m selling stories.
Do this enough, and you might get an agent who will do all the work for you – for a cut, of course. (That’s when your work will become “caviar” instead of plain “fish eggs.”) But if you had an agent, you wouldn’t be reading this. Put in the work. Put in work every day. Nothing will happen if you don’t make it happen.
Guest post contributed by Richard Risemberg. Richard was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has been working there in a number of vernacular occupations since his teens while writing poetry, articles, essays, and fiction, and editing online ‘zines. He’s survived long enough to become either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, depending on your point of view, and is still at it. You can learn about his own novels at Crow Tree Books.