I submitted my first story ever to a contest called Inkspotter on July 2nd, 2008. Two months later, I submitted my second story to Apex Magazine. A day after that, I received my first rejection letter, from Apex Magazine.
In the three years since those first stories, I have collected 192 rejection letters, a handful of fanzine sales, one pro level sale, and one, SFWA-qualifying pro sale. I heard an anecdote that Ray Bradbury had 800 rejections before his first sale, so, by that metric, I’m not doing too bad.
I’m convinced that there are only two things required to become a published author. One is the dedication to write. The other is the ability to take a rejection. If you possess those two qualities, you will be published someday.
Writing isn’t magic. It’s a physical activity done by actual human beings. If you want to be a writer, all you have to do is put your fingers to keys for an hour a day, everyday. That’s it. You’re a writer. You can call yourself a writer, introduce yourself as a writer and no one can call “boo.”
Now, to be a published writer, well, that’s a different beast entirely. It’s easy to put down a hundred thousand words. That’s only a few months if you write 1000 words a day (which, if you’re writing for an hour a day, should be no problem whatsoever). What’s far more difficult is to throw your piece to the rabid, dejected, cynical, I-hate-your-hanging-modifier-butt slush readers.
Or that’s what I hear. You see, I have an enormous ego. Everything I write is the bee’s pajamas, the cat’s knees. It’s the next Pynchon-Wolfe-Rothfuss hybrid hypernovella that will garner me a Hugo for Best Screenplay without even being nominated in that category. I send it out with nary a thought. Then I throw it in the “Finished” folder and move on to the next story. A few weeks later, I get a rejection and open up the story for an edit. “Oh my god. What have I done?” I think, correcting coma-splices, adding a subplot, destroying the deus ex machina, striking out all the adverbs and expletives.
Now is where I hook you. I lied when I said that it only takes two things to get you published, when it is really the third point that matters: editing.
Editing is tougher than writing an epic fantasy with two fingers while fire ants make nests in your eyes. It’s more painful than having every editor in NYC flog you with proof copies of A Dance with Dragons. It’s more time-consuming than the Lord of the Rings extended editions. Editing is where you reject yourself, and when you can become your own worst slush reader, then you have it.
Editing means developing empathy for editors. It’s the ability to see through a dozen pairs of eyes at once, recognizing errors that you may have glanced over several times.
The error that always trips me up is giving my readers too much credit. I know a lot of authors have the opposite problem and need to explain every little thing in detail so no ambiguity remains (cough Poe cough), but that’s never been the case for me.
For example, in my story “Walls of Paper, Soft as Skin,” (published in BCS #73) I try and pack as much character and world-building as I can into 1000 words, while still trying to maintain a certain, minimalist style. After I completed and rested the first draft, I went back and cut as much as I could from the story, halving the word count. The ending makes this story; however, I didn’t want to beat the reader over the head with the ending, so I left it ambiguous. Too ambiguous. Because I was so wrapped up in the world and the story, I didn’t need the vital clues that I cut out. Readers did. Scott Andrews (editor of Beneath Ceaseless Skies) and I worked harder on clearing up the ending than on any other part of the story.
That’s it; that’s all. Writing, editing, and taking rejection. If you can develop those three qualities, you’ll be published. Of course there are numerous supplementary things that help. Joining a critique group, market research, constantly reading both bestsellers and classics, organization, social networking, but these aren’t necessary. I am a Grinder. I don’t have an “in” with any editor. I don’t have any friends with sway. I got published through years of hard work. I write, I submit, I get rejected, and I do it all over again the next day. Every day. I may be too gung ho submitting. I may not be a very good editor. My prose may be too simplistic or too expositive, my characters cardboard, my setting contrived, my plot broken, but, you know what? I’ll get better. I want to get better. I have the drive to get better.This is why I will be a bestseller someday.