Other than the story itself, what's the first thing you need to have to submit your story? Maybe a top notch cover letter? Perhaps having a personal connection to a decision maker at your publication of choice? Nice though those things are, they aren't the most important thing you need to have. What you really, truly need to have is a clue. As in a clue about what you're doing.
What do I mean by that? I'll tell you.
You need to know your market. Better yet, you know to know who your market is. Your market is not the fan who will buy the magazine to which you are submitting your story. The fan is the market for the magazine. Your market is the editor who holds the power to accept or reject your story. If the editor likes your story, you've probably got a sale. (Not definitely, as the magazine may already have several stories similar to yours already.) So here's the clue you need to know:
Don't piss off the editor with your submission!
It seems pretty simple, doesn't it? I mean, really, is there anyone who would do such a thing? Of course there are. People do stupid stuff all the time. But I'm not here to warn against telling an editor your story is better than any of that crap he's been publishing for the last year. I'm not going to warn against sending an idiotic "do you know who I am" sort of letter. I think you're all smart enough to avoid those stupid mistakes without my help. I'm going to touch on some other things, most of them just common sense, but worth touching on anyway.
First off, read the submission guidelines for the publication. This is very simple and, I believe, done by almost every writer in the business. That's not to say there aren't fools who ignore this simple bit of advice, but I don't think any of you are among those fools.
Second, and far more important than merely reading the submission guidelines, pay attention to what the submission guidelines say. If the submission guidelines say, "We are not interested in publishing fantasy stories." believe them. I don't care if your story reads like the second coming of J.R.R. Tolkein, if your cover letter begins, "I know you don't want fantasy stories, but mine is different," you're going to piss off the editor.
Editors are busy people who have to read a whole lot of fair to poor to wretched stories to find the few gems that end up being accepted. On top of all of that reading, they have to set the contents for each issue, write acceptance and rejection letters, and generally deal with an amazing variety of silly details having little to do with stories but everything to do with publishing them. Even the few minutes required to open (be it an email or a snail mail submission) and read your cover letter (or start reading the story, if you did not mention that your story was fantasy in your cover letter), is time the editor could be spending doing useful work. Then there's the time the editor will spend adding your name to The List (editors always have lists of people who piss them off) and the foul mood your willful ignorance will have engendered in the editor.
So, read and believe the submission guidelines. The editor won't thank you for it because the editor expects you to do it. Don't be the author who fails to meet the editor's expectations in this regard.
Next, the best way to know what to send to an editor is to know what the editor has bought. This is the bit where I tell you to buy copies of the publication in question and read them. This is also one of those areas where many writers fall down. They're too busy writing to read. They can't find a copy locally. Whatever the reason, many writers just make sure what they're submitting isn't contrary to the submission guidelines and assume that's enough. And it just may be enough, provided you're lucky enough to have submitted what the editor likes to buy or if your story is so strong that the editor accepts it anyway. If you want to leave your success as a writer to luck, then by all means ignore this bit of advice. But remember that it may irritate the editor to receive a story that is obviously outside of what the editor usually buys even if it isn't technically violating the submission guidelines.
I'll touch, finally, on the cover letter. Cover letters are, in my experience, only important if you screw it up. There are a lot of things included in cover letters which don't need to be there:
Don't tell the editor all about your story. Let your story speak for itself. Don't list everything you've ever had published by title and publication. Unless it's a major publication within the field, you're not telling the editor anything useful. A simple statement such as "I have made xx professional sales" or "I wrote comic books professionally for ten years" should suffice.
Don't list awards you've won unless it's an award everyone will have heard of. If you win a Hugo, a Nebula, the Philip K. Dick award, the John Campbell new writer award, or something equally big in another genre, your awards aren't going to mean anything to the editor.
Don't delve into personal details. The editor doesn't need (or, most likely, want) to know why you wrote the story or what is happening in your life right now. The editor only cares how good your story is.
I suggest a cover letter along the lines of "Dear
In other words, cover letters really don't make the editor more likely to buy your story, though they can make the editor less likely to buy it.
Like I said at the beginning, this should all be common sense to most of you. Unfortunately, we get submission every week which prove that there are many writers out there who need to learn these few lessons.