I was originally going to write an emotionally meaningful post tonight, but I did my ecology volunteering this morning, so I've been up since 4:45 a.m. And my family is in town. So emotional post next time, polishing post tonight.
I haven't had a ton of story publications, but I have been reading slush for a professional fiction market for... um... six years now. As such, I'm bringing all my tips from that angle.
(Since the category is polished, I'm going to assume you've proofread. Don't be that writer with the otherwise awesome story with a typo in their very first paragraph. This actually happened this month, and almost every slush reader mentioned that in their comment. It's not the kind of thing that really makes a difference between publishing and not... but it looks bad.)
1. Read the guidelines, and follow them. It seems like I shouldn't have to say this. And yet, there are a startling number of people who don't do it. I know some of it is accidental, such as uploading the wrong file. And sometimes you're uploading the story at 10 pm at night when the baby has been screaming all day long because she's teething, and you can't remember your own name, let alone how many words your story is. Unfortunately, that situation is impossible to see from my end, and we see so many blatant disregards of our rules. I think it feels to me like a lack of respect. If you don't respect us enough to follow your guidelines, why should we give you the respect of paying you professional rates for your story?
2. Be professional in your demeanor. Writing is art. Publishing is art with a side of business. It ends up sometimes as this messy collision between insecure artists (aren't we all?) and people trying to make enough money to keep their publication afloat so they can keep publishing good stories. It astonishes me the number of people who put down their work, or who try to make jokes in their cover letters, or who say "this is something I wrote in an hour last weekend." I don't even know what that last one means; does it mean you haven't proofread it yet? Is the worth of a story really determined by the amount of time it took you to write? Just pretend your story is going out on a job interview. You wouldn't make jokes or insult yourself in a job interview, so don't do it in a cover letter for your story.
Those two will get you consideration without being kicked out. But actually getting published? That's much tougher to pin down. Some of the biggest mistakes I see, especially for us, is stories that are the wrong size for their current word count, either too large or two small. And every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. It makes a difference.
There is one thing that seems to matter more than the others, so I'll quote a previous post by an authority on the subject*:
3. Don't worry about trends. Write what matters to you. It's hard to set hard and firm rules about what stories or trends I hate. Because every time I do so, someone comes along with an exception to the rule, and I have to shut my mouth all over again. Sheer originality is a good thing too, but an old idea well-told can be a glorious thing.
The real kicker is a good tale combined with good emotion. One of my slushers has been complaining lately about the number of stories featuring difficult situations faced by wide-eyed children. It's something we see often – where the writer has gone for the biggest emotional punch possible. Sort of like, "It'd be sad if the main character had cancer, but it would be EVEN SADDER if he got the cancer while rescuing puppies from communists!" (You see this type of thing in anime all the time too – all the characters have to have a horrifically tragic backstory). The instinct is understandable. Emotion is what attaches us to the stories we read. However, I'm beginning to think that it's not the amount of the emotion that matters. Rather, it's the truth of that emotion, and how well the writer projects it.
Hopefully those thoughts are of use to at least some of you! Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go sleep for hours and hours and hours.
*Me, from a few months back ;)