Okay. You've written your story or poem. You think it's good. Your friends say it rocks. Your creative writing instructor gave it an "A" and wrote in the margin, "Excellent work. You should try to get this published."
Yeah! Get it published! Uh, but you've never sent your work out before. What do you do?
Step One: Find a Market
Most beginning writers will find that magazines and webzines are their best options for getting their first works published. Writers can often resell their better works (sometimes many times) to anthologies after the initial sale (and, of course, after the exclusivity clause has passed).
Webzines have certain advantages. They are often easier (and less expensive) to submit to because you can email your work to the editors instead of having to print and mail your submission. Web publications often have a faster response time and are more receptive to work from beginning writers. It's also easier to find out about web-based publications because you don't have to track down a physical copy to review as you would a regular magazine -- the sites are free and quickly accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
On the other hand, hardcopy publications have a different set of advantages. Regular magazines often pay more for work, and a sale to a hardcopy pub has a certain cachet that webzines can't match. Your Aunt Wilma will be ever so much more impressed when you hand her a slick, shiny magazine than if you send her a URL. Also, hardcopy magazines that have been around for more than a year tend to be more stable.
How do I find out about a publication?
Ideally, if you're a writer, you should already be reading magazines and websites that publish the kind of work you want to sell.
But, since there are hundreds of publications out there, you obviously can't read them all, or even find a fraction of them in your local bookstore. Every year, Writer's Digest publishes a big, thick book called The Writers' Market; they also publish similar books like the Novel & Short Story Writer's Market and Poet's Market. The Writer, Inc. publishes a similar annual volume called The Writer's Handbook. All these books contain the listings for many, many markets, and you can find one to many of these books at your local library or bookstore.
However, the information in annually-published books can be stale. You can find more current market information on the Web. Go to www.ralan.com or do a search for magazines or market listings at places like Yahoo!
Gee, I'm really busy, and it looks like I found all the info I need in this market listing ... do I really have to read the site before I submit?
Yes. Absolutely. You need to visit and read through the site. Any information you find on a market list may be incomplete, out-of-date, or just plain inaccurate. There's no excuse to not check out the site before you submit.
97% of all publications with a Web presence also have guidelines posted or offer them through email. Read them and follow them; editors all have different preferences as to how to prepare/deliver submissions. Most print markets do not accept electronic submissions unless they've worked with you before (this is changing). Many web-only publications don't accept hardcopy at all.
And, ultimately, the best way to know what an editor likes is to read what he or she has already published.
Focus on the fundamentals. Do you like the stories and poems presented on the site? Are the stories and poems presented in an attractive, easy-to-read, error-free manner? Is the site aesthetically pleasing and regularly updated? If you like the site and think you'd like to see your work there, by all means submit.
A note on paying vs. nonpaying publications: My feeling is that you should always shop your work around to publications that pay professional rates first -- this means at least 3 cents a word. Some people feel that any pay is better than no pay and won't submit to nonpaying publications. Others feel that making $10 for a story you worked on for 20 hours is such a trivial compensation that the overall quality of the publication in terms of how the site or magazine looks and what kind of exposure it gives to authors is far more important. Ultimately, it's up to you. There are high-quality nonpaying web publications and paying-in-copies magazines out there that publish professional-quality fiction and which do provide important exposure to new and rising writers.
A note on contest/reading fees: If a publication requests a reading or editing fee, run away and don't look back. You should never have to pay to be published. Although some legitimate contests require a fee, I suggest avoiding those, too.
Step Two: Prepare Your Submission Properly and Send it Out
(Most of my comments here relate to preparing work for electronic submission.)
Preparing your submission properly means adhering to the publication's guidelines. Editors don't just make up rules capriciously; they have good reasons for them. One editor may have been burned by Word macro viruses, and doesn't want to receive Word documents from unknown people. Another editor may be using a text-only email package that doesn't handle attachments well, and therefore he or she wants plain text in the body of an e-mail message.
If you do something that lets the editor know you didn't bother to read the guidelines, he/she will not look favorably upon your submission. Put yourself in the editor's shoes: "If a writer clearly didn't bother to take 5 minutes to check out my freely-available site and read the guidelines, why should I spend the 15-30 minutes to read and evaluate his/her work?"
If the editor wants snail-mail submissions in hardcopy only, don't send a disk. If an editor wants to see submissions sent in RTF, don't send an attachment as a Word document. Don't send attachments if they say they only want to see plain text. If you frustrate the editor by sending him/her something he/she can't read, you're not helping your chances.
If the editor wants to see a cover letter, write a good one. Use the same language in an e-mail cover letter that you would in a hardcopy cover letter. Make sure you've checked for grammar and spelling errors before you send -- the ease of submission makes some people sloppy in this matter. Be formal and businesslike, unless you know the editor well and have an established rapport. Don't wax eloquent about your five cats, or try to summarize your story. And don't ever, ever try to be funny unless you're very sure of the editor's sense of humor.
If you come off as a difficult person or a crank in your cover letter, the weary and overworked editor may think, "Gee, this person's stuff is pretty good, but I get the feeling he/she is going to hassle me endlessly if I engage him in any sort of conversation, so I'm better off just sending the standard rejection and not encouraging him."
If the editor accepts attachments, make sure the text of the files is in standard manuscript format, unless the editor tells you he/she wants something different.
Take a little time to learn about file formats and how to make your word processor save files correctly. It's not hard, but you will need to know the difference between an RTF and a PDF.
If you are sending out electronic submissions, be sure you understand your e-mail program, and make sure you know how to format a plain-text submission properly. Make sure your e-mail program is sending plain text and not HTML, because HTML is pretty unreadable to people using text-only email software. Special non-ASCII characters like em-dashes and typographer's quotes will need to be converted to plain text characters, or they'll mess up your manuscript with nontext symbols. Most word processing programs have a "Find/Replace" feature, so this is pretty easy to do. Italic text will need to be indicated with underscores (or whatever the editor prefers).
Make very sure your spacing and line width is set properly so that submissions don't wrap badly (72 characters is a safe line width). Some word processing programs won't give you this info, but many text editing programs will. Set the margins, then when you export the file, have it change soft returns to hard returns, then open the file in a text editor like BBEdit or Notepad (or TextPad, which is a better program) and cut and paste it into your e-mail program.
If the editor can't read your submission easily, you've got a 90% chance it'll be automatically rejected.
Make sure your system is virus-free; sending an editor a virus is not a good move.
Step 3: Be as honest as you can in your dealings with editors and publications
Simultaneous submissions are iffy. Editors don't want them because they don't want to go through the trouble of reading/evaluating something if it's already taken. Writers have a strong urge to send a single story or poem to to several markets simultaneously because of the long waits and the low chances that an editor will take something. It's frustrating. If you do this, and a story/poem gets taken while it's under consideration at other markets, be fair to the other editors and promptly send them a courteous letter notifying them that you must withdraw the submission from consideration.
Speaking from experience, it's really, really awkward when you get two acceptances at the same time for the same piece from different publications. You have your pick of where you'd like the story to appear (which is good) but if you mis-handle declining the offer from the editor of the less-preferred publication, you risk creating hard feelings that can haunt you in the future.
Don't try to resell published stories unless the market accepts reprints. If an editor buys a work and then finds out he/she's gotten a retread, he/she is gonna be pissed. This is a good way to burn a bridge and develop a bad reputation.
Editors do talk and compare notes, particularly if they're actively annoyed with a specific writer. And editors have a way of moving up in the world and turning up where you least expect at conventions and such. Today's bush-league zine editor might be tomorrow's acquiring editor at the major book publisher you try to sell your first novel to.
Don't plagiarize. I probably don't need to say this, but if you plagiarize someone else's work, you're gonna get found out, and once you're found out, you are done.
Don't resend rejected stories unless you've rewritten them significantly. Generally don't resend rewritten stories unless the editor has asked to see a rewrite or if it's been a while between submissions (I'd say at least two years, unless there's a new editor or 1st reader). Some editors have long memories, and if they recognize the same submission under a different title, they'll almost certainly reject it and they might view future submissions from you with suspicion.
Step 4: Be patient ... and be professional
Once you've sent a submission, wait at least two months before querying unless the editor has indicated shorter response times are normal. If you get no response, query again after another two months. If you still get no response, send a third query indicating that the editor should consider the story withdrawn if you receive no reply.
Dammit! They rejected my submission!
If an editor rejects your work via email, don't hit the "reply" button unless you're going to thank them for their time and offer them a new submission.
Don't ever send a publisher a nasty letter, unless you're sure you'll never have to deal with the editor again (and in most cases, you can't be sure). Particularly don't send them something like "Neener, neener X Magazine already bought my story, idiot!" So what if your story sells to another publication? Magazines aren't interchangeable -- what is publishable one place is not necessarily publishable elsewhere. And you've just demostrated a lack of good grace and sense. Likewise, don't demand an explanation if none was given, unless you really want the editor to really give you a piece of his/her mind.
Yay! They bought it, they bought it!
By all means, celebrate. No sale will ever be quite so cool as your first one.
If there's money involved, make sure you've got a signed contract, and make sure you understand the terms of the contract. Know what rights you've sold and retained. Be sure you understand exclusivity clauses, etc.
However, don't constantly send queries as to when your work will be published or posted. And, once a story is posted, don't deluge an editor with requests for corrections/changes unless the errors were introduced by the publications' staff.
Don't ever, ever start shopping an accepted story around just because you feel it's taking too long to be published. In the print world, it is not uncommon for a backlogged publisher to take two years to publish a story or poem. In the Web world, six to eight months lag time between acceptance and publication is not uncommon, nor is it unreasonable. If you think a publication has gone down, query the editor. If a message bounces, wait a week and send again. If you have a signed contract or otherwise have made an agreement with an editor, then resell the story out from under him or her, you've burned a bridge.
Step 5: What to Do If Things Go Wrong
As Neil Gaiman said, there's many a slip 'twix cup and lip in the publishing world, particularly if you're dealing with the small press or semiprofessional publications.
Sometimes, you can have a signed contract and never get published because the magazine runs into financial problems and ceases publication. In some cases, you should get a kill fee for your orphaned story. If you think a publication is going or has gone under, follow the querying advice I gave above. If after the third query you get no satisfactory reply, you can safely consider your story to be freed of the contract and ready to submit elsewhere.
Sometimes, your story gets published ... and you don't get paid. This will happen to you, sooner or later. If polite communication with the publisher does not remedy the situation to your satisfaction, you may need to see legal counsel. I don't recommend calling a private lawyer over a $30 or $50 sale -- it's the better part of valor just to write small unpaid sales off your taxes (if you live in the U.S.) and chalk it up to experience. Instead, what you should always do is to contact relevant writers' organizations to lodge a complaint -- organizations like Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and Horror Writers Association can be very helpful to authors who run into trouble with publishers. Sites like the Rumor Mill at http://www.speculations.com/ and Preditors and Editors at http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/ are also useful.
Whatever you do, if you think you've been screwed by an unscrupulous publisher, don't stoop to their level. What I mean by this is, don't go around on web boards and newsgroups slagging the publisher in public. Namecalling and vicious language can easily backfire and make you look like a troublemaker that other editors don't want to deal with. Speak the truth, but do so as politely and professionally as you can.