Of course this is the logical follow-up to that last post. Not only did I teach and tutor throughout college, but I am also a Big Sister. Both roles entail a propensity for giving advice.
I came into this process as a total newb. I have never bothered much with the quality of my short stories – they are primarily ways for me to play around with plot bunnies and themes that I wasn’t willing to commit myself to, and consequently many of them were a mess. And to be honest, while I was vaguely aware of a few big name magazines, I knew very little about them – I am more likely to read short story collections or anthologies.
How does one so haphazard tackle the submission process then? Well, first I had to figure out what works I wanted to submit. I selected four pieces – three short stories and a flash fiction piece, though I ended up primarily submitting one of the short stories and the flash fiction. Here’s what I learned.
Get a Second Opinion
I’m not going to tell you to make sure you edit and refine your short story, because that should be obvious. Shirley Jackson may have sold The Lottery with a practically unedited manuscript, but most first drafts are require a lot of work before they’re ready to see the light of day. I dutifully revised my work quite a bit.
But something else that I really found useful was having a reader sort through my work. As I mentioned in last week’s post, the story that was selected for publication was not the one I was most confident in, while a piece I thought was stronger got a lot of rejections. It’s awfully hard to get distance from your work as its writer, and harder still to look at it through the lens of a reader, to figure out if it’s an enjoyable read.
I don’t mean a beta reader – that’s a rather more involved process, and harder to find. I just picked out a dozen or so stories and had my sister read them, and had her say yea or nay depending on if she, as a reader, found them engaging. Of course her word is not final, but it’s a good way to get a sense of what worked outside my head and what didn’t, to figure out what stories I should focus on revising.
Know Your Market
There are literally thousands of short story magazines out there, paying and not, that publish stories in a plethora of genres. But it’s incredibly important to understand what magazines publish stories like yours. I was submitting SFF works, and SFF magazines can get pretty specific about the subjects they are looking for.
A good way of getting a feel for the kinds of stories that a magazine is looking for is to read the ones they’ve already published. You can do this for free for a lot of magazines that publish online, and it’s a really good way of figuring out if it’s worth submitting your story. Many larger SFF magazines don’t accept simultaneous submissions, so a submission can tie your story up for quite a while – for months, even. For this reason, it’s important to consider if your story would be a good match for them.
It’s also important to understand what exactly you’re selling. The SFF pro- and semipro-zines that I submitted to were usually buying first publication rights, which means that they wanted to be the first place where the story is ever published. They also asked for exclusive publication rights for some amount of time – for example, the story I sold cannot be published anywhere else, including this blog, for 180 days after the magazine publishes it.
The Cover Letter
A phrase that strikes fear in the heart of every reader.
Luckily, the cover letter for a short story submission is a lot less intensive than the one you send to an agent. In the first paragraph, mention the title of the story, the genre, the approximate word count. You can also add a one line summary of the premise, though I didn’t always do this.
In the second paragraph, introduce yourself equally briefly, mentioning any information that may be relevant story (for example, “I lived in India for many years” when you are submitting a piece about the British Raj). This is also the place to mention any significant publishing credits you have, though obviously it doesn’t count against you to indicate you’ve never been published before.
And – this is very important – make sure to provide or omit identifying information wherever it’s asked for! I say this as someone who mistakenly sent in a submission without a signature, requiring the editor to email back asking who I was. Don’t be like me.
Track Your Submissions
This is important! Especially when working with simultaneous submissions, you have to know where and when you’ve submitted a story, as well as its status. And it can be useful to track things like how long it took to get a reply, and if you got a form or personalized rejective. As someone in the public health field I am a devotee of data.
Originally I used an excel sheet to track all this, but then I discovered Submission Grinder, which is a really excellent free resource that not only allows you to track submissions, but also helps you find new markets that suit your story’s specifics. I like the stats feature a lot, where you can see all this excellent data how long it usually takes hear back, the acceptance and rejection rate, and so on. I am aware of a similar website called Duotrope which is supposedly better for literary fiction. But it requires a subscription, and besides I write very little litfic.
Keep Calm and Carry On
The nature of the beast is that you’re going to get a lot of rejections. It’s a tough market to be in, but really very rewarding too – you’ll never forget your first sale. Good luck with you submissions!