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F&SF Forum » The Process of Writing

How do you get that first story published?

(22 posts)
  • Started 10 years ago by rrs
  • Latest reply from BrianJackson

  1. rrs

    I recently submitted a Science Fiction story. The story was rejected, as I have been told to expect by my writing instructor.
    The problem is that the rejection letter didn't say what was wrong with the story. How can you ever get published when you don't know what the editor is looking for in a story? Any suggestions as to how to get that first story published.


    Posted 10 years ago #
  2. C.C. Finlay
    Charles Coleman Finlay

    It's not what's wrong with a story that matters, it's what's right. You can fix a story so there's nothing "wrong" with it, and still no one will buy it. You have to find that spark that makes it stand out in some way. No editor can read your story and tell you how to do that.

    If you want to know what an editor is looking for in a story, you have to read their magazines or anthologies with an open mind. I led a workshop once, where we read and critiqued stories published by major magazines, including F&SF, Asimov's, Analog, and SciFiction. The only rule for critiques was that you couldn't point out what was wrong with the story--you had to find what was right with it. What spark was there in the story that caught the editors' attention and made them want to buy the story. Many of the people who embraced that idea, and looked for the things that worked in every story, are selling their short stories now. They also developed a good idea of what markets their stories were best suited for. For what it's worth.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  3. robertbrown

    That's a terrific exercise, CCF. It would be a perfect first week of Clarion, I think. Very inspiring. It's very easy in a workshop to pile on. (Guilty.)

    Also some excellent advice about "nothing wrong with it" stories. As much as form rejections irk people, sometimes "it didn't hold my interest" or "it didn't work for me" is all that can be said.

    rrs, I do understand your frustration, but I advise you to accept form rejections. They are convenient for the harried people who run the magazines, and something more specific would only be counterproductive to you, sending you chasing snarks. As someone who has never sold a story despite several decades' effort, I have some insight to offer.

    Don't lose hope! The only way to sell a story is to keep writing the best stories you can until you sell one.

    Failing to sell a story won't kill you-- I'm still kicking-- and you'll have fewer embarrasments to live down later. (I have none.)

    Posted 10 years ago #
  4. myshortname

    There's nothing wrong with the blueberry pie. Just... people make other choices. You can't blame the blueberry pie, just... no one wants it.

    (my blueberry nights)

    Posted 10 years ago #
  5. BrianJackson


    Don't ask *me*!

    Brian Jackson

    Posted 10 years ago #
  6. Standback

    RRS - In general, although it'd certainly be very helpful to get a good explanation of why an editor didn't like your story, editors really can't spend that much time on each manuscript, and when you think about it for a second - that's not really their job. An editor isn't there to improve your writing.

    The good news is that there's lots of places that do offer constructive criticism on stories. Starting with friends, writers, and critics you know personally, and through writing workshops online and IRL.

    I can strongly recommend Critters, an online workshop for fantasy, SF, and horror stories. It's a great site for getting plenty of comments on your story, and it also requires you to critique other writers' work, which I've always found to be fun for me and good for my writing.

    Best of luck!

    Posted 10 years ago #
  7. steffenwolf

    If I had any suggestions for how to get your first story published, I would have already followed them for sure. :P

    I like Robert's advice "The only way to sell a story is to keep writing the best stories you can until you sell one."

    And just because an editor turned down the story doesn't necessarily mean it's missing the spark. Perhaps your story hit when they had a glut of stories already accepted. Perhaps your story was good, but they'd recently had a lot of stories with a similar setting and they wanted something different. Perhaps the slush reader had a questionable taco for lunch that day, and couldn't fully concentrate on the story. My point is that you have no data to decide why the story was rejected, so trying to guess their motivations by reading the same form letter that goes out to everyone is not going to produce any results. If you can think of something that needs to be changed, go ahead and do so, but otherwise I would recommend sending that story right back out. Or if you have a method of getting critiques, this might be a good time for that. You might want to consider Critters or Baen's Bar if you're looking for places to get critiques. They both have their advantages and disadvantages.

    Also some magazines are more likely to give personal feedback, particularly newer online magazines like Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you submit to some of these, you might be a able to get more detailed comments.

    Keep in mind that any magazine can only print a few of the stories they receive. Some of them are really good. Some of them are not-so-good, but written by a big-name author. If you want to get into print you've just got to keep trying.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  8. BrianJackson

    Pharoah Sanders said: "The Creator has a master plan."

    You'll get published if you're good.

    If you don't get published you'll get something. 'The wheel's still in spin'.

    Brian Jackson

    Posted 10 years ago #
  9. Anonymous

    Learning to write a good story is a long, hard process, and maybe the hardest part of it is learning to be a clear-eyed critic of your own stories. (In fact, that may be a nearly unattainable goal!) But one way to use rejection is to read the rejected story with a relatively fresh perspective and then do what you can to improve it. This is easier to do if your story has been rejected six months after submission; when you get it back from F&SF after two weeks you may have to let it rest for a while :) And when you're satisfied you've made it a little better, send it somewhere else! Steffenwolf is right; the reason for one reader's rejection is something you can't really know, and the next reader may like it just fine.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  10. Gordon Van Gelder

    You get your first story published the same way you get your second, third, and fourth stories published: by writing them, submitting them, and submitting them again when they get rejected. Along the way you try to learn and grow, you listen to good advice and ignore bad, you push yourself and try new things; but as Heinlein's rules say, you must write, you must finish what you write, you must submit it, and you must keep submitting it.

    ---Gordon V.G.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  11. Anonymous

    My first (and only) piece of commercial published fiction was published when I attempted to enter a "bad fiction" contest. I wrote a story, trying to make it as terrible as I could, only to have it accepted as a legitimate, albeit humorous, submission. Fail.

    I also have one piece of published nonfiction, which has been published in a computer security magazine. As I write technical documents all day, this one was just a bit easier to pull off for me than fiction.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  12. SamHidaka

    As a slush reader (at another publication), I can tell you that there are numerous weaknesses that I see quite often:

    - Errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

    - Way too many modifiers -- adverbs and adjectives, parenthetical phrases, etc.

    - Narratives that use too much passive voice. (This is common with technical writers trying to write fiction.)

    - Insufficient POV control -- that is, head-hopping, when there's no good reason for it. (This is also common with technical writers, as well as writers of any kind of non-fiction -- where POV is not really an issue.)

    The above are some of the fiction writer "craft" issues.

    Beyond the craft, there is the "art" of storytelling.

    As with all art, aspiring artists can be taught techniques to help bring out their artistic vision. But no one can teach you talent.

    Many aspiring writers have mastered the craft issues, but have yet to master the "art" of storytelling. The stories from such writers tend to be dull.

    At the other extreme from the dull story is the story that resonates emotionally with the reader.

    (What I refer to as "resonance" might be what Charles Coleman Finlay refers to as the "spark" that makes a story stand out. Or maybe not.)

    For example, two stories could have a very similar line-level writing quality and very similar plot lines. But one of them just lies flat, while the other one comes to life. The difference is that the latter one makes an emotional connection between reader and story character.

    When a writer is able to create that emotional resonance, the story puts the reader in the protagonist's skin and allows that reader to experience the events of the story _as_ the protagonist, instead of just observing the events as a bystander. The writer who accomplishes this has graduated from a competent wordsmith to a true storyteller.

    A storyteller, despite the name, doesn't just tell stories. The true storyteller conjures an experience in the reader's imagination.

    If you can get all the "craft" issues under control _and_ and you can create imaginative experiences, your stories will consistently get selected out of the slush pile.

    After making it past the slush pile . . .

    Steffenwolf is correct that a story could get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality. An editor might already have in inventory too many stories similar to yours. An editor might think your story is well done, but it just doesn't fit in the magazine's editorial vision. Or an editor might like a story, but not like it enough to buy it. In these cases, you're likely to get a personalized rejection in which the editor explains the situation. (If you get a form-letter rejection, the odds are that the story got rejected at the slush stage -- before it reached the editor.)

    But once you are consistently making it out of the slush pile, you will start making sales.


    Posted 10 years ago #
  13. BrianJackson


    Great post, very helpful

    Brian J.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  14. steffenwolf

    "A storyteller, despite the name, doesn't just tell stories. The true storyteller conjures an experience in the reader's imagination."

    Related to this, another weakness that seems to crop up in people who've just started writing--cinematic descriptions. Movies have an advantage in a certain way: you get descriptions for free. In just a moment you can show a scene that would take pages and pages to describe adequately in words. The stories I like the best use the narration as a filter to see through the eyes of the protagonist.

    Trying to imitate this in prose rarely works very well, IMO. Prose can never imitate cinema well in this respect, and concentrating on this weakens the other aspects that prose can be better at. Cinema allows you to watch amazing events happen, but well-written prose allows you to experience it. Instead of describing every detail of a scene, describe only those details that the protagonist would actually notice. Several birds with one stone that way, characterization and description, as well as pacing. A person walks into a building they've never been in before--what do they see? A warrior might note the number of guards and their weapons, their level of alertness, and so on, in order to judge the military preparedness of the castle as a whole. A thief might note the number of windows, count the candlesticks, shadowy corners. An aristocrat would notice the material and cut of other people's clothing, to judge their relative social worth, but would be very unlikely to note the servants at all. A peasant who'd never been in a castle at all would be overwhelmed, noting fragments of everything but not quite understanding the relative importance of one versus another. If all of these things were described by the same person, then you 1. probably spent so much time describing it all that the pace has been totally killed. 2. have lost an opportunity at characterization, because describing everything is as bad for differentiating character as describing nothing.

    Also, using the amount of description for pacing is a useful tool. A thief running from guards in hot pursuit is going to notice much less than a thief casing a potential target. This might seem obvious, but I've critiqued a lot of stories that halt in the middle of an epic battle to describe a scene or describe backstory, so when this happens I picture the character standing in one place and staring into the depths of memory like JD from Scrubs, an easy target for the enemy.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  15. rreugen

    rrs, if you REALLY want for a member of a magazine's editorial staff to explain to you why the story is rejected all you have to do is go to, read the FAQ's, then post the story in the appropriate conference.

    Every story posted there is critiqued by the Slush Readers from Jim Baen's Universe.

    It's just as simple as that.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  16. FreeLiveFree

    I think what Steppenwolf describes is the reason my fiction is never published.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  17. steffenwolf

    FreeLiveFree: which reason, cinematic descriptions? Keep in mind I'm not an editorial staff member, so I just make it up as I go. :) It makes sense to me though.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  18. BrianJackson


    Most stories in F&SF seem to start with a bunch of exposition and character names in the first sentence or paragraph.

    That should get you started.

    Brian J.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  19. FreeLiveFree

    I think that I don't describe the scene carefully enough to is what I mean. I don't think that I draw the readers in.

    Of course, some of the stories that I write that are brillant, I re-read later and find multiple problems with.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  20. MattHughes


    The trick is to use only those few, necessary details from which the reader's mind can confabulate the whole.

    Try this experiment: assemble a group of people and say to them "A ship out on the ocean." Then ask them if they have an image in their minds.

    Then ask: How many of you saw a sailing ship? A warship? A yacht? A freighter? Was it coming or going or just sailing past? Was the sea rough or smooth? Night or day?

    Each person will have seen a complete image, full of details you never provided in those six short words. That's the power of confabulation, and it's the writer's friend.

    Here's a description of a setting from the first story I sold to Gordon Van Gelder. Note how few details are set out, yet ask yourself if your mind can still conjure up a complete image:

    "The house was dilapidated, the paint peeling and some siding sprung loose. Dank weeds had invaded and occupied the front lawn and the porch sagged when I topped the front steps. There was a faint smell of boiled vegetables.

    There were symbols painted on the front door. They seemed vaguely familiar but my uncertain memory could not produce their meanings. There was no who's-there beside the door, the house having no integrator to operate it. I struck the painted wood with my knuckles to make my presence known.

    There was no response nor any sound from within. A second knocking brought no result so I tried the latch and the door opened inward.

    I stepped within and called for attention. There was no answer. I looked about and saw a small, untidy foyer from which a closed door led left, a stairway went upward and a short hall ran back to what appeared to be a rudimentary kitchen.

    I called again and heard what might have been a reply from behind the closed door. I opened it and looked into a cramped and fusty parlor dominated by an oversized table draped in black cloth on which was scattered an arrangement of objects and instruments I could not immediately identify. The opaqued windows let in no light, and the only illumination was from some of the strewn bric-a-brac that emitted dim glows and wavering auras."

    What matters here is that the protagonist is advancing through the setting toward the next event in the conflict. Cluttering the setting with unnecessary detail would only slow the forward momentum. My approach is to let the reader see what he/she needs to see while I keep the story moving. Confabulation takes care of the rest.

    Forward motion, not detail, is what draws the reader in. I've sold short stories that have virtually no description of setting at all, as if I were presenting a play with just the characters and a couple of props lit by spotlights on a darkened stage.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  21. PatrickM


    I read that whole scene as if it was a My Little Pony playset and figure and it works brilliantly.

    Posted 10 years ago #
  22. BrianJackson


    Confabulation! That's just the word I've been looking for!

    Between that and "Recursion" I have got it made, thanks.

    Brian J.

    Posted 10 years ago #

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