Part II: An Introduction to Publishing Your Work
Whether you're starting out in your career as a writer or you just have some old stories or poems that you'd like to see in print, here's a snapshot of the short fiction/poetry market and some strategies to get you going.
Where do I start?
I find it's best to approach the publishing world like Han Solo approaches an asteroid field: "Never tell me the odds." If you're looking to land a lucrative book deal or place poems in Poetry or The New Yorker, the odds are really asteroid field-rough. But if you go at publishing with a realistic and smart approach, there's a good chance you'll at least get to see your work in print.
I'd recommend you start by picking up a general overview of fiction and poetry publishing like The Writer's Market or The Poet's Market. You might be thinking, Wait, there's a market for poetry? There is! While poetry is almost never lucrative, there is a significant market for it. Hundreds of Literary Journals here in the U.S. publish short stories and poems, some of which even appear with the magazines at Borders and the other mega book stores (they're there, you've just got to hunt for them). A few more general publications like The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker publish short fiction and poetry, but they're very hard to get in unsolicited. The Market books are great. In addition to an overview, they list the publications you can submit to--addresses and all--and give a summary of each that includes rules of submission, your general odds of acceptance, and whether the journal pays (if it does, it isn't much).
A Good Mindset
It's important to approach the publishing process with the right mindset. First, be prepared for rejection. You're going to get rejected a lot. Publishers print rejections like confetti: in little, colored slips of paper designed for ease of rejection. Second, treat your writing as an art, treat publishing as a business, and separate your goals for each. If you're writing to get published, pick a new career--writing is a tough way to make a living.
Send, Send, Send
An old professor of mine used to remind us that editors don't sneak into your room and rifle through your drawers looking for work. Thus, the first step in publishing is getting your work in front of editors. Most journals allow for simultaneous submissions (submitting work to more than one journal at once). When you're starting off, you're hurting yourself by not taking advantage of this. Your odds aren't good, and publications can take months to get a response back to you.
The Writer's Market lays out a way to track your submissions and list journals you'd like to submit to. A simple spreadsheet system can help maximize your submissions and help with the feeling of rejection. When rejected work comes in, you can just send it on to the next journal on your list.
I think it's a good idea to always have one ambitious submission out in the ether. Don't be afraid to submit to top-tier publications, even if mid-level publications are rejecting your work. You never know when your work might click with an editor.
It's a good idea to read a sample of a journal or magazine before sending your work. If you write long, narrative poems and the journal only publishes short lyrics, you're probably wasting your stamps.
Keep it Simple
Using fancy paper or fancy fonts will make you stand in out the wrong way. It signals to an editor that you don't know what you're doing.
Let Your Work Speak for Itself
Don't tell an editor what your poem or story is about. You shouldn't have to.
I'm Unpublished. Should I Hide that Fact?
I'd actually recommend the opposite. When I edited, I was intrigued by unpublished writers, and I think a lot of editors like the idea of giving a talented writer his/her first publication.
How can I get an agent? Do I need one?
Very few poets have agents since very few make a lot of money. Fiction writers don't need agents to submit short stories to literary journals. I've never tried selling a novel (which is why I'm not discussing them here), but getting an agent to represent you is an important first step in that process.
There were some shots flying back and forth in last week's comments section on the necessity of the writers' workshop. My two cents: while workshops certainly aren't necessary to great writing, it is necessary to hone your craft somehow. This is true even for the most talented writers. You might have the intelligence and diligence to teach yourself. You might work with a great editor and not need any more opinions. Maybe, like Dostoyevsky or Melville, you're just off the hook brilliant. But for most aspiring writers, a good workshop has a lot to offer.
Saber2actual pointed out that a lot of successful writers didn't "blow thirty grand on some masters degree in writing." I wouldn't recommend that you do either. Most programs offer enough financial assistance that you aren't paying much, if anything, out of pocket.
Finally, I liked Mckinley's paraphrasing of Mark Twain, which sums up what a writer must do, lest we lose sight: "a writer has to do three things, write, write, and write." You can't argue with that.