8 Lessons from a Swinging Published Author
by Marilyn D. Davis
Getting published online and on paper is an achievement that for me has roots going back to 1996. That spring, I read one of my short essays at an open mike held at a local college. I had been keeping a journal and writing poetry since fourth grade, but this was the first time I shared my words with the world--a rather small world of about thirty students, faculty and community members. The subject of the piece was comb collecting. Yes, I collected three shoeboxes full of nasty street combs in the early '70s. (Please don't judge me harshly; I was a naïve twenty-year-old and people weren't yet lacing their combs with cyanide or razor blades.)
During the days before I read the essay, I had changed it from first person to third, making it seem more like fanciful fiction. Afterwards, several people came up to me and said, "How creative! What a great story. You have a wonderful imagination." I felt terrific and only a tiny bit guilty. And then one guy strode up, eyed me knowingly and said, "So . . . you collected combs."
You can fool some of the public some of the time with your writing, but there's always that one wiseguy or gal who will nail you with the truth.
Editors can nail you, too. You think you've submitted a piece of practically perfect prose--inventive, compelling, and without a flaw in grammar or punctuation--and BINGO. You find out otherwise. Or, more likely, you never find out anything.
Thank you for your submission, but unfortunately it does not meet our editorial needs at this time.
You want to reply:
Wait! That was an Eastern Standard Time rejection and I submitted it on Central Daylight Time. If you look again, you might be surprised to discover that now it really does meet your needs. Or maybe the assistant editor ought to take a look. After all, as with snowflakes, no two sets of editorial needs are alike....
The road to publication is paved with crumpled rejection notices.
When it comes to getting published, the goal is to find that unique person who needs exactly what you have written and submitted in the proper form, at the proper time, with the proper numbered SASE. The editor has to receive it on a day when he's not in a bad mood or she doesn't have PMS. The phone can't ring while she's reading it, or he can't be interrupted by the sudden realization that he spaced out on his mother's birthday yesterday and now has to order flowers.
There is more serendipity to getting published than most of us want to acknowledge. However, since we can't do much about that, the next best strategy is to make sure to write something wonderful. Don't submit a piece before you have read it and re-read it and read it out loud and to your best friend and to the cat and to the last three telemarketers who tried selling you long distance phone service.
"I'd love to know how I can save $350 on my monthly bill, but first you have to listen to this and give me your honest opinion."
Never underestimate the usefulness of any captive audience.
Following my "combing out" experience, I began taking adult education classes in writing short fiction. I was determined to learn this genre in five easy steps. Of course I discovered that mastering the art of writing a story takes many years of practice and requires one to have a critique group of peers and possibly a teacher/mentor. So I immersed myself in this effort and began submitting my work--the good, the mediocre and the pathetic. I desperately wanted to see one of my stories in print. JUST ONE and my life would have new meaning.
Give yourself a publication goal and don't get sidetracked, even if it means staying home to finish revising an article or story when you could have been judging the community dessert bake-off.
I learned that whether you are sending work electronically or the old fashioned way, you must abide by the writer's guidelines. If 1.28 inch margins are requested, don't try to get away 1.25--your piece will hit the "Reject" pile before you can say, "What possible difference can three-hundredths of an inch make?" If the submission must be postmarked by midnight on the Ides of March, don't mail it two days later on St. Patrick's Day in a green envelope with a lame apology scrawled on a post-it note. (Circular file!) If the requirement for online submission is an attached Word document, don't copy the text into the body of the e-mail. (Delete!)
Follow the writer's guidelines religiously without sacrificing your more conventional religious practices, if you have them.
Three years ago on my birthday, I received a letter from an editor telling me that my story had won an honorable mention in his magazine's fiction contest. That meant two things:
I was entitled to a monetary award ($50), and my story would appear in the online version of the magazine.
I was thrilled and a little disappointed. Thrilled that he liked my story; disappointed that as an online piece, I could not cradle it lovingly in my arms or offer autographs to friends unless they first printed it out. At the time, online to me meant second-rate.
Try to have a birthday at least eighteen times a year.
Since then, I have changed my thinking about online publishing. The more I surf the Internet, the more professional-quality writing I find--equal to what's in print magazines or journals. Many e-zines have become quite sophisticated in their appearance and substance. They have writer's guidelines, submission deadlines, rejections to send . . . and, of course, the occasional acceptance. Plus, more of them are paying authors for their work.
Search out publishers who have recently won the Powerball lottery.
In the fall of 2000, I sent several first-person stories to be considered for future editions of the Simon and Schuster Chocolate for Women series. The editor wrote me back promptly, saying she wanted to include one of my pieces in an anthology titled, "Chocolate for a Woman's Dreams." Expected publication date: December, 2001. My work--in a real book ... for real money ... sold at a real bookstore! I imagined myself loitering in the aisles of Barnes and Noble, wearing a blinking neon arrow pointing to the sacred bookshelf. "My work is in there and my life has new meaning," I'd shout to passers by. "I can autograph the story even if you don't buy the book."
If you want to increase your chances of becoming published, swing both ways, i.e., online and traditional.
Epilogue: The book has now been published, I can't leave my house without wearing a hat and sunglasses, I've only been escorted out of two bookstores for dis-authorly conduct, and, according to my David Letterman Log, he still hasn't called for an interview.