A message with a series of excellent questions landed in my inbox this morning, and these I can answer without having to land at LaGuardia:

Dear Meghan — or perhaps I should write to your code name: Fairy Godmother,

I am in need of a little magic and perhaps you’ll be the necessary magician. I live to write, and getting my stories and novel published is a super dream on my bucket list.
Here are some of my “burning questions,” as requested.
M.S.

Dear writer,

Everyone needs a fairy godmother! I’d be happy to sprinkle a little fairy dust over your questions.

Writer’s question: How do I know when I submit to a contest that the people are “legit” and that they are not just taking my money and never reading any of the submissions?

Research! Google is your best friend here. Here are the search terms I’d probably start with:

  • how to find good writing contests
  • best short story contests
  • best short story contests no entry fee (or “best free short story contests”)

You can find several curated lists online. Here are a few I found with a quick search — all of these sources are reputable:

Writer’s question: Is there a list of FREE submissions where cash awards have been awarded and the book published that you recommend?

The sites above are a good place to start. Dig into those lists and check out the previous winners’ books and reviews on Amazon to see if they were published and whether they’re getting good reviews.

Writer’s question: I have written 60 stories and am revising my novel. It appears to get a novel published you must first get an agent, and get shorter stories published. Is there a way to skip the agent and go directly to publishing houses?

You’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, which is excellent. Your first challenge might be just deciding where to begin.

Adding a note about your other publications to your query letter will definitely catch an agent’s or publisher’s eye. Previous publication tells them that you’ve got the chops and have made it past other gatekeepers, and that’s attractive. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd, you know?

That said, agents and publishers won’t rule you out just because you haven’t been published before, or haven’t had fiction published. They want to know if you’ve got a great story that’s well told and well written. If your novel knocks their socks off, they’ll be excited about trying to sell it to publishers.

The Big Five publishers, and some others, will only accept submissions that come through agents, but there are a lot of smaller presses that accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from authors. You do not need an agent to submit to those publishers. You DO need to pick up a copy of the most relevant Writer’s Market 2018 book (there are several in the series and they’re updated each year). Make sure to read all the articles in the beginning — the advice in there is gold.

Writer’s question: I’ve been published in national and local magazines as well as newspapers for articles but can’t seem to get one of my stories published. Any suggestions?

Congrats on your journalistic success! That is fantastic. A background in journalism tells me you know your way around clarity, concision, and editorial/word count requirements. It is absolutely possible to translate that experience into successful fiction writing.

The short answer for how to get your fiction published is to study the market and send out submissions. Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2018 will be indispensable for that project. But before you send stories out, you’ll probably want to know whether they’re on the level. That’s a different kind of research.

Tip #1: Read deeply and widely in your genre. If you’re trying to publish short stories, make sure you’re devouring recently published short stories. Get familiar with the magazines, websites, and publishers that are publishing the stories you love best.

Tip #2: Invite avid readers to respond to your work — and make sure you know their reading preferences. It’s not particularly helpful if you’re getting feedback from people who would never otherwise pick up a short story, or who don’t enjoy fiction in general.

Tip #3: Study the craft of writing. The writing section of your local bookstore is a trove of wisdom, and most of the books contain variations on the same timeless advice, just told from different angles.

Tip #4: Study your favorite authors. Closely rereading the books that inspired you to become a writer will give you a chance to see how different authors handled the tools of the trade: showing and telling, dialogue, exposition, structure, tension, character development, and all the other elements that keep us up at night when we can’t get them quite right.

Do you know of specific magazines that look for writers without agents to publish directly? How do I break through to get stories published?

Magazines rarely, if ever, require writers to submit through an agent, and agents rarely if ever do magazine deals. Since agents work on straight commission (generally 15% of each book deal they wrangle) and magazines don’t pay much, it’s not financially feasible for an agent to spend time pursuing those gigs for their clients.

Writer’s Market 2018 is your best bet for researching magazine markets, and Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market 2018 is what you need for identifying your most promising options for short fiction. I recommend picking both up as soon as possible — after you read those books, you’ll know everything you need to know about pursuing publication for all of your projects.

I hope these answers help. Good luck to you, writer!