I’ve had a few pro fiction sales so far (short stories only). For what it’s worth, here’s my advice:
Write, write, write. You get better with practice. Write every day if at all possible, and a daily target is great as long as you don’t set it too high. NB, I’ve been away and I haven’t written for a week, so I’ll be slow when I start again. Tomorrow I’m going to write 200 words, even if they’re complete rubbish and it takes me all morning.
Revise it. When it’s looking good, put it in a drawer for at least a day, preferably a week or two, and look at it again. That way you’re more likely to see what you actually wrote, rather than what you meant to write.
Run the spell checker and then proof read by hand as well.
If you can, get some feedback. For speculative fiction I recommend critters (www.critique.org) That way you’ll find out which bits are confusing or boring. Critiquing other people’s work also helps. It’s a lot easier to see, say, repetition or wooden dialogue in someone else’s story. Then after a while, you catch it in your own as well.
Do as much market research as practical. It’s too time consuming and expensive to read three copies of everything, but there’s no point sending a 9,000 word SF story to a market that only takes 1,000 word romances. All you’ll do is annoy the reader/editor, and they might just remember your name when you send in a 1,000 word romance, so they’ll be annoyed again before they even start reading. When you can, look closer. The UK has about 10 weekly women’s magazines, and they all take fiction. But they don’t take the same kind of story. For example, Take a Break will print stories which feature ghosts and vampires, but almost nobody else will. Sex is OK in Take a Break and That’s Life if it’s not explicit, but it’s completely unacceptable in People’s Friend. Women’s Weekly is a touch more literary. If the magazine has adverts, look at these too, because they’ll give you a great picture of the readers. If all the adverts are for expensive, fashionable clothes and cosmetics, they probably aren’t interested in stories about old ladies with arthritis. If the adverts are for chair lifts and denture fixatives, they probably won’t take erotica.
Then submit, submit, submit. When you have a story ready to go, look at the market listings online and list a bunch of possible markets. Cut this down to about four, and put them in order of preference, then send your story to the first one. Keep the list! That way when you get rejected from market #1, you can send it off to market #2 with the minimum of effort, and then you can feel hopeful again, instead of depressed. If it comes back from market #4, consider revising. Keep the story out there until you run out of markets or it sells. I sold one story on the 27th attempt!
When submitting, you look for the guidelines on the web site and then follow them to the letter. If you can’t find the guidelines, or there’s something you’re still unsure about, there’s an article here on the format used in the USA for short stories. http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html
If you’re still in doubt, in most cases editors want something that’s easy on the eyes (they’re reading this stuff all day long) with room to scribble alterations and instructions to the printer, hence biggish margins and double spacing. In some cases they also want to know whether you’ve read the guidelines and taken them seriously. At least some editors feel that if you didn’t read “staple the pages together” (most places DON’T want this) or didn’t care, then maybe you didn’t read or care that they want SF between 2,000 and 7,000 words with a happy ending. You don’t want them to pick up your story already half expecting it to be totally unsuitable, do you?
Try to have several stories out at once. I usually average about 10 submissions for every sale, so I try to make at least 5 submissions a month. I currently have 15 stories out with editors. That improves my chances, and it makes rejections less painful.
If you get four rejections in a week, congratulations! You must be writing a lot and submitting a lot.
My goodness, I never meant to write that much. I hope it helped.
© Sheila Crosby 2005
UPDATE: I’ve now sold about 50 short stoties and self-published three books.