How to Get a Short Story Published
Nothing has motivated me to write more than getting that first acceptance email. I’ve been writing and submitting short stories for three years now, and I thought I’d share a few of the things that I’ve learned so far.
Note that most of my experience is with speculative fiction markets. Literary fiction is a whole different ball game.
Before You Submit Your Story
Edit, edit, and edit some more.
Only submit your best work. Never send out anything that hasn’t been through at least three drafts. Even better, run it past at least one other set of eyes if you get the chance. And for heaven’s sake, turn on the spell checking function in whatever writing software you’re using, and fix those spelling mistakes. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been presented with stories in workshops where Word lights up the manuscript like a Christmas tree. However, no matter how many times you check your story, there will be at least one typo that you will not spot until the first time you see your words in print.
Where does your story fit on the size chart?
Your word count is going to determine where you can submit the story. Stories over 10,000 words only have a handful of potential markets, sadly. Stories that are 3000 words or under have the most markets – if you want to get a lot of stories published, I’d recommend to aim for that size.
What’s your genre?
Speculative fiction covers science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, slipstream and sometimes genre-bending experimental fiction. All these genres have sub-genres. You need to figure out where each of your stories fit in the specfic spectrum, and target the appropriate publication.
Do Your Research
Read, read, read
Read short stories in your genre, and other genres too. Note what works for you, and what doesn’t. Note what sort of stories particular editors seem to like. If you can afford it, subscribe to a couple of publications and read them. Try to at least read a couple of stories at any publication you want to submit stories to. That will give you a feel for what they’re looking for.
Where can I find speculative fiction publications?
There are a few websites that list publication opportunities. Submission Grinder is free, but difficult to navigate. Duotrope requires a subscription but may be useful if you’re sending out a high volume of stories. Ralan specialises in specfic publications. Horrortree covers horror and dark specfic. And you can check out my page of speculative fiction markets. I would recommend joining some Facebook groups where publications advertise that they’re looking for submissions – search for these under ‘Open Call’.
Anthology or magazine?
When I got a story published in an anthology for the first time and excitedly told everyone I knew, I was surprised to find that most people didn’t know what an anthology was. It’s a collection of short stories by different authors, usually based on some theme. The advantages to getting published in an anthology: you may get a physical copy of a book with your name on the cover! And usually the small press publishing the anthology does some publicity to sell it. The disadvantages are: most anthologies don’t pay more than a free copy of the book (sometimes only an e-book copy) plus discounts if you want to buy a copy for all your relatives for Christmas, and the small number of places available can make it difficult to get accepted.
However, writing for anthologies can give you practice in writing to a deadline, and in writing stories that fit specific criteria. I’ve seen anthologies based on animals that caused the apocalypse, fairy tale rewrites, and stories that must include cats and bicycles. If that sort of thing sparks your imagination, you’ll still have a story you can submit elsewhere if it doesn’t get accepted.
You’ll find you have to keep an eye on deadlines with magazines/online publications too, as many of them are only open to submissions for a month at a time, or sometimes only a week.
Once you’ve decided where to submit your story, consider the following:
What sort of story do they want?
Some editors can have exasperating story requirements. They’ll have vague criteria like “Give us stories that surprise us.” And then they announce they need to adjust their guidelines because apparently, I am too surprising. However, they’ll often include a helpful list of things they don’t want to see, like zombies or vampires or computer games that turn out to be real. Pay attention to those lists.
What sort of writer can submit stories to this publication?
I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’ve heard one of the FIYAH editors say he gets a lot of submissions from white people, despite it being a publication for writers of the African diaspora. And then these same white people argue that he should publish them. Don’t be that writer. You wouldn’t try to push your article about the best brand of crochet hook to Trout Fishing Monthly, would you? So if a new publication exploring the untold stories of left-handed lesbian llama farmers should appear, take a look out your window. If you can’t see at least two llamas, don’t hit that submit button.
Did you read the formatting guidelines? Okay, now go read them again.
Some publications have fiendishly complicated formatting requirements. Yes, they’re a pain in the butt, but if you don’t get it right, your story is going to get rejected.
Don’t argue with the editor
If your story gets rejected, don’t argue about it. You’re not going to change the editor’s mind, and you’re definitely not going to get a reputation as a mature and competent writer if you start abusing the people who decide whether you get published or not.
How To Handle Rejection
If the thought of getting that first rejection email terrifies you so much that you’ve never sent a story out, then you might want to start off submitting stories to contests instead. Most contests will never notify you that you didn’t win. There are drawbacks to focusing your efforts on contests, though. I won the first contest that I ever entered, which gave me a false idea of how easy they are to win. I haven’t won another one since. Usually there will be hundreds or even thousands of entries, so you don’t have much chance of winning. The other drawback is many contests charge fees. I tend to look on it like buying a lottery ticket – it’s okay to have an occasional flutter, but I wouldn’t make a habit of spending my money that way.
Get straight back on that horse
Before you submit a story to a publication, line up a couple more publications that you could submit that story to. Keep records of your submission. When the first publication rejects your story, just send it straight out again to the next publication in your list.
Don’t think of it as a rejection slip
If you’re getting rejections, then congratulations. You’re a writer. You wrote a story, and polished it, and finished it and then you had the courage to send it out into the world. Give yourself a pat on the back and a treat of your choice every time you get a rejection. Set yourself goals for the number of rejections you want to get this year, and celebrate when you reach that goal.
Other Points To Note
My story is on hold – what does that mean?
If you’re lucky, a publication may ask to put your story on hold. This means your story is a runner-up in the selection process. If they don’t have quite enough stories that they consider top tier, they’ll go to the on-hold stories to pad out their next issue. The hold means you need to wait until you hear from the editor before you submit your story elsewhere.
Get yourself a bio
I’d recommend you write up a couple of versions of your bio before you start submitting stories so that you don’t find yourself stymied when you’re filling in a submission form and find they want you to send a bio right then and there. It’s best to have a short version and a longer one. Bios can be a real pain to write. I got stuck trying to write mine and got some help from Black Wolf Editorial who offer a helpful custom bio service.
So I’ve got a contract – now what?
First of all, congratulations on having your story accepted! Paying markets will nearly always send you a contract. Short story contracts are usually a lot less complicated than book contracts. The contract should say how much you’re getting paid for the story, and how long they can publish your story for. Digital-only publications may only want rights to your story for six months or a year. Occasionally they may also want the right to publish your story in an annual anthology. Once their rights expire, you’re free to explore the reprint market for that story. Remember, as with a book contract, never sign over your copyright to another party. The publication is purchasing the right to publish your story under specific conditions. They do not own the story – the copyright always remains yours.
Having a story accepted is not the same as having it published
So far I’ve had three stories accepted for publication that were never published. It’s a sad fact of the short fiction business that so many publications operate on a shoestring, and many collapse each year. Check what your contract says, and carry on. Now you know that your story was good enough to be published in one publication, so it’s good enough to be published in another.
So, what are you waiting for? Go hit that Submit button!