P.4: The First Thing I Learned about Taking Writing Seriously is Don’t Screw Up

You may not be able to have it all, but don’t miss out because you screwed up.

One of the frustrating things about writing — and trying to get published — is that it’s not just about writing. It would be great if all you had to do was create some interesting characters, stick them in a compelling plot, then polish everything up and PRESTO! You’re published.

Unfortunately, there’s much more to it than that — and, unfortunately, very little is spelled out for any of us. No matter how much reading about writing we do along the way, a lot of the times we have to learn the hard way.

Case in point: While I’ve written my share of stinkers, I have a couple stories I’ve written this year that have made it past slush piles at sci-fi/fantasy literary magazines that are high up on my list of goals. One, in particular, has done very well insofar as it’s been held for lengthy periods of time nearly everywhere it’s been sent and I’ve received actual, personal emails about it from editors, with real-live feedback.

So when there was a submission call for a great magazine releasing a themed issue that really fit my story to a T, I got really excited. It should have been one of the best chances I had at being published thus far, but I screwed it up.

What did I do? After I sent it, I realized I misread a key submission guideline. I thought there was a 1000 word minimum when there was really a 1500 word minimum — and my story was just over a hundred words short.

I could have easily made my story comply, adding some description to my characters or adding an extra few lines of dialog. I could have taken it as an opportunity to step back for a few days and see if I could make my story even better.

Instead, it was rejected the next day — probably not even read. That stung, a lot — but especially since it was my fault.

Sadly, there’s going to be a lot of things that sting along the way, when trying to be a writer. Every writer says that. There’s going to be rejection after rejection after rejection, even if your story is good.

But you don’t want to be rejected because you screwed something up — something that could have been fixed.

Thankfully, when I decided to take writing seriously over the past year, I did so promising myself that I’d deal with rejection proactively. I created my own little rule, what I call my Rejection Day Ritual. Any day I get a rejection letter, instead of getting down about it, I write, no matter what — for at least an hour.

It’s been an awesome ritual, keeping me positive and focused on my goals and tasks.

I decided to be proactive about this mistake, too — thinking of how I could come up with a way to make sure I never repeated the same mistake again.

So, I created a checklist. I tried to design it to cover every aspect of the submission process, from format guidelines to word counts to cover letters to making sure I attach everything and send it in the right format.

And I never click send on a submission before I’ve checked everything off.

It’s been a huge help for me so far — I’ve caught submission errors twice since using the list, which means my stories have probably been given a fair shake two more times than they would have been.

If anyone’s curious what my checklist looks like, I copy and pasted it below. Feel free to take it for your own benefit — maybe you’ll spare yourself from sending something with errors in it that could prevent your story from getting the serious reading it deserves.

1. Story Title

2. Submission Magazine Name:

3. Allowed Genres at Magazine (sci fi, fantasy, etc.):
Submission Genre Type:
Does your submission comply?

4. Allowed Formats at Magazine (short stories, poems, etc.):
Submission Format Type:
Does your submission comply?

5. Word Count/Line Magazine Range:
Your Submission:
Does your submission comply?

6. Special Content Magazine Rules (no nudity, violence, violence and character ages, etc.):
Your Submission:
Does your submission comply?

7. Allowed File Formats:
Your File Format:
Is it attached to your email?

8. Any Specific Cover Letter rules (do they want an exact word count? Email heading format? Etc.):
Does your submission comply?

9. Any non-standard manuscript rules (ie if they want it single-spaced, special fonts, don’t want author’s name to appear on manuscript, etc.):
Does your submission comply?

10. Are there any other special rules or requests you can find in the submission guidelines?
Does your submission comply?

It’s nothing fancy, and I’m sure it’s not perfect, but it’s kept me from making further mistakes. If anyone has any other suggestions or improvements, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

For those of us crazy enough to try to get published in a professional market, we’re going to have to fail a lot before we succeed. Most of us will have to write a critical mass of really good stories before one of them sneaks through and gets published. Given how hard it is to do that, we have to do everything we can to make sure we don’t make it any harder on ourselves than it the competition already makes it.

As the Jay Brannan song says at the top of my post, we can’t have it all — but let’s make sure we take what we can get.

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