You may not be able to dig your way out of debt by selling short stories to The Saturday Evening Post as F. Scott Fitzgerald used to do, but now is a great time to be writing short stories! Today there are more opportunities to publish micro, flash, and short fiction than ever before. There are literary journals, online magazines, and anthologies that are actively seeking new material, and you might just be the writer they’re hoping to find. But the questions remains—how do you get out of the slush pile and into print?
Now, this particular blog isn’t about HOW to write short stories. That’s another beast entirely. I’m blogging about how literary journals work and why some stories get accepted and others don’t. Keep in mind that even if you are writing brilliant pieces and you follow every bit of my advice, you still may not get published, at least not immediately. But don’t be discouraged. Like anything else, persistence is key. I received my first rejection letter when I was sixteen. I didn’t get anything accepted until I was twenty-nine when I sold two stories to two places within twenty-four hours. If I could endure thirteen unlucky years and still break through, I’m sure you can find a home for your creative work, too!
The worst mistake writers make is submitting without thinking. If you’re writing men’s adventure stories, don’t submit to the feminist literary journal. If you write exclusively about New York City, then please don’t send your stuff to a regional journal that focuses on the deep South. You would think this is obvious, but I promise you a lot of writers mess this up. The secret fix is easy: read literary journals. It’s just that simple. You can find quality print journals at your local library, and most of the online publications are free. Explore and read the places before you submit to them—buy the journals if you can afford them. Not only will you be saving yourself a lot of time and heartache, you’ll be supporting a good cause.The more you read the small magazines, the better idea you’ll have of who publishes stuff similar to you. Some journals are all about dirty realism. Others are looking for experimental flash-fiction. Some like to mix literary with genre and want humorous but intelligent science-fiction. And a lot of places vary issue to issue. Regardless, you should know why you’re submitting to that publication and not just shotgunning away. The shotgunners aren’t really writers—they’re just posers desperate for attention. For more information about journals, subscribe to www.duotrope.com--highly recommended.
Let’s pretend that you’ve found ten journals that are up your alley—you write splatterpunk horror stuff, and now you’ve found a bunch of magazines looking for the goriest stories out there, talk about a match made in heaven. But here’s the thing: even if you’ve found the right place, you still have to remember the reader. I know I already blogged about this a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating. When you submit a story, you’re submitting it to a lot of overworked readers and editors who have to slog through a lot of bad stuff. Think about those poor guys for a second. They’ve had to read so many submissions about moody teenagers and mousy housewives that they want to rip out their eyeballs and run away from their MFA programs for good. And out of all those submissions, they can only accept one, so they’re always looking for a reason to say “No!” I’ve read submissions and edited literary journals for almost a decade now, and I promise you that boring stories with sloppy sentences get rejected so fast that they sound like F-4 Phantoms taking off.
A lot of writers forget that they’re telling a stranger a story. And sometimes they forget to tell a story at all. Now, I know that fiction is pretty subjective, but I think most slush-pile readers want to know that the ten-to-twenty pages in front of them will actually go somewhere. I think good short fiction gets in late and leaves early. I know I said I wasn’t going to discuss craft here, but I will say this: the sooner you get to trouble, the better. Don’t spend the first three pages describing a couch before you bring in the crazy, alcoholic step-father with the chainsaw. Get there ASAP. Since you only have a few pages to tell your story, I think you should get to the main conflict in the first paragraph if not the opening line.
Look at these two different openings:
She carefully and delicately taped the shiny and glossy flyer of the grumpy puppy on the telephone poll. She did this every week, rain or shine and she loved her routine around her tiny neighborhood. She only wished the kids would stop tearing down her advertisements.
Three days after Thomas buried his wife, he bought a pistol and started walking around the city at night. He wasn’t sure if he would ever use the gun, but he wanted to feel prepared in case anything ever happened.
Which one grabs your attention more? Which one confuses you? One knows that there is a person trying to make sense of the words and sentences. One is just rambling. Don’t confuse the reader.
Similarly to remembering the reader, you should also make sure everything about your submission is professional. This means you need to correctly format your submission. Your manuscript should:
After you’ve tightened your story, put it in the correct format, and mailed it off to the journals you admire, you wait…and wait…and wait…AND THEN YOU STILL GET REJECTED?
You know what you do then?
You submit again. And you keep the faith.
I encourage you to send to the places you think are out of your league. The worst that will happen is that you’ll be rejected. Keep track of where you’ve submitted, who has rejected you, and especially note those journals that sent you encouraging and personal rejection letters. You’ll have other stories to send them later!
Ultimately, you should write the type of stories you would want to read. I believe that. The rest relies on you being intelligent about submitting. Send only your best work and only submit to the journals you enjoy. And believe in yourself. If you get discouraged (and you will) you can always revise the story! Not every editor will want to publish your story about a homicidal frog, but so what? Keep that story in the mail. Write other stories and submit those, too. Subscribe to literary journals, discover new writers, see where they’ve been published, seek out those magazines, get involved, talk to other writers, celebrate one another’s successes and drink to your losses. Writing can be incredibly rewarding, but it is only rewarding to those who really put in the blood and the sweat and the time. I had a story get rejected twenty-seven times before it found a home. One of my best stories ranked up forty rejection slips before being accepted at a journal that had previously rejected it. You have to stay hungry. You have to want it. You have to get in the ring and go the distance. The bell just rang. Go take your best shot!
Writer living in Central Texas.