Although the landscape of the short story market seems bleak today compared to what it was in the past (perhaps in the 1920’s when F. Scott Fitzgerald was receiving $4,000 per story from The Saturday Evening Post), writing short stories is still one of the best ways an aspiring writer can break into the publishing industry.
Last week I talked about why you should start your fiction writing career with short stories. This time, I’m going to elaborate on the processes (my own approach) involved in submitting short stories to literary magazines. Here they are:
Pick a Fiction Genre
Choosing a genre becomes as easy as it sounds once you reflect on the genre of fiction you love reading. Is it fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, thriller…or do you prefer literary fiction? There is a great probability that the genre you enjoy reading is the one in which you would feel most equipped to specialise. This is because, over the course of reading many stories under that genre, you have become familiar with many of the elements that define it.
The best advice anyone can give you is that you should write whatever feels natural to you. Write that story that comes from your heart. Chances are that before you finish writing it, you will discover what genre it falls into. If your subsequent stories fall into the same genre, then you have already picked a genre without knowing it.
Research Literary Magazines
While no one can fault you for simply writing that story that whispers fervently to your heart every night, researching potential markets in your genre is essential for boosting the chances of your stories getting accepted, as it will help guide your hand toward tailoring stories that befit your target markets.
To discover markets in your genre, use the Grinder or Duotrope. I recommend the Grinder to new writers because I don’t see the reason you should spend $5 per month on Duotrope when its counterpart basically offers the same service for free.
Moving on, most literary magazines are online and have a ‘Submission Guideline’ page, which typically details everything from the types and lengths of fiction they publish to how to submit to them, their pay rates, and their response time.
Read Your Target Magazines
Every serious writer makes out time for reading. Since you are currently targeting short story markets, why not commit some time to reading stories published by your target markets. This won’t only help you improve your craft; it will also earn you a deeper understanding of the type of fiction each magazine on your list publishes, influence your short stories, and maximise your chances of selling to your target markets.
The great thing is that most magazines offer their electronic issues for free on their websites. Hence, you don’t have to spend on subscriptions if you don’t want to.
Write Your Short Stories
No matter how in-depth your market research is, and no matter the number of stories you have read, if your writing fails in quality and your story is not original and evocative enough, you will end up knee-deep in rejection letters.
Therefore, learn the basics of compelling storytelling. Try Larry Brook’s website, Story Fix. It’s rich in storytelling tips that will transform your writing career. Writer’s Digest is another rich resource. Also, read books on crafting great fiction stories, and if you have the money, take out a fiction writing course.
While writing with a particular magazine in mind can improve your story’s chances of getting accepted in the magazine, it can also limit the number of potential magazines you can submit to. The smart way to go about this is to target top-tier markets. This should naturally compel you to aim to attain their high standards. Thus, even if the top-paying magazines reject your stories, you would have better chances with the lower-tier markets.
Revise and Proofread Your Story
Every writer knows this: first drafts are a mess. With your first draft, you have merely spilt your creativity onto the page and fleshed out your story. Now it’s time to employ your critical self and review what works and what doesn’t work in the story, and also correct any grammatical and typographical errors.
For many writers, putting a story down for a few days or weeks can help them return to it with a fresh eye and improve their chances of spotting any problems with it. You just have to discover what works for you.
Once you are done revising your story, then it’s time to send it out for critiquing. While you can ask a family member or a friend to critique your story, be mindful that they aren’t in the publishing industry and thus their responses might demoralise you or award you undeserved praises.
The best people to ask to critique your story are fellow writers. This is why every aspiring writer is advised to join a critique/writing group. There you can critique the works of your group members and in turn get constructive feedback you can use to improve your own story and craft. Here is a list of online critique/writing groups.
Format Your Short Story
The majority of literary magazines prefer William Shunn’s Standard Manuscript Format. Therefore, it’s ideal that you use that guideline when formatting your story. However, some magazines may specifically state in their submission guidelines that you use Arial or Times New Roman instead of Courier New.
It’s also ideal to save your story in .RTF, .DOC, and .DOCX, as while most magazines accept submissions in the RTF format, a few may specify .DOC or .DOCX. Beyond these mentioned differences, the Standard Manuscript Format is generally accepted.
Submit Your Short Story
This is where your market research pays off. You already know where you want to submit your story. When submitting your story, you want to keep an eye on each magazine’s submission guideline and what it says about the following:
Most top-paying magazines don’t accept simultaneous submissions. Therefore, if you are going to submit to one, avoid submitting the same story to another magazine. A lot of writers ignore this rule, but you have to consider the possibility of two magazines accepting the same story at the same time and how you are going to handle that.
Are you going to email the editor of one of the magazines and tell them that they can’t have your story after spending their precious time to consider it, at the risk of getting blacklisted by the magazine?
Alternatively, if a magazine accepts simultaneous submissions, their submission guideline would usually state that you should inform them immediately if you sell the story to another market so that they can pull it from their queue. Please do exactly that.
If a magazine says you shouldn’t submit more than one story at a time, please avoid doing so. Otherwise, you risk all your submissions to that magazine getting rejected.
If a magazine says they don’t accept reprints, you will merely be soliciting a rejection letter by submitting a previously published story.
When a magazine says that they don’t accept anything below or above a certain word count, it simply means that if you submit a story below or above that word count, you are inviting a rejection.
While writing may be your passion, you definitely want to get paid to do it. To reduce the possibility of getting underpaid, you can start by submitting to top-paying markets first. Then as your story gets rejected, you work your way down to the lesser markets.
It’s, however, worth noting that the higher a magazine’s pay rate, the more competition your story will meet and, perhaps, the longer you may have to wait for a response. If you are going to submit to top-paying markets, start with those whose response time is short, so you don’t wait months for a single response (which can be a rejection) when you can walk the story through many other markets within that time.
After Submitting Your Story, What’s Next?
After you have submitted your story, it can take anywhere between a day and a year to get a response. Most magazines reply within three months. Generally, the longer your story remains with a magazine, the greater the chances that it will be accepted there.
Don’t waste your time checking your email every minute. Instead, invest the time in writing more short stories. When you have many stories going around, you increase your chances of making at least one short story sale every month.