First Thursday post of the new year and I’m gonna hop right in with a little bit of a look into the submissions process for short stories.
It’s different than it used to be. Used to be you had to print up copies of your stories and send them in to the very few publications that did their trade in short stories, which costs paper, ink, envelopes, return envelopes, stamps. It was a whole thing.
And some of the reputable magazines and journals out there still require snail mail submissions. I understand some of the reasons why they do it. Chief among them is that if the effort required to submit your story is greater than clicking a few buttons on a website and attaching a file, far fewer people will go to the trouble of actually submitting stories to you. If there’s a significant time and money investment, you automatically raise the caliber of the work that is submitted to you.
So I get that. I really do. On the other hand, there is no reason for a company to remain in the paper age for their submission requirements when their whole world is basically digital at this point. But I digress.
There’s a particular dance, a choreography, to the submissions game. You as an unpublished or little-published author are always following the magazine’s lead. They lead the dance, and if you don’t follow, they stop dancing with you. They find another partner and leave you standing in the corner holding a cup filled with your tears.
That is to say, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your story is if you don’t follow their submission guidelines. They will reject you out of hand if you don’t bother to play by their rules. It’s their house, respect their rules. Simple as that.
When I first started submitting stories, both short and long, I thought it was silly. Who gives a fuck if I don’t follow every last tiny detail of their guidelines? I wouldn’t want to be published by them anyway, sticklers for rules that don’t even mean anything.
Except they do. Everyone that is in publishing has their own preferences. Things that make their job as editors or slush readers easier, and they want to communicate these things to you, so that you aren’t stepping on their toes when you ask them to dance.
There’s a process. You read their guidelines, format your manuscript accordingly, make sure your story actually fits their requirements otherwise, and for extra care you should also make sure your story fits the tone of their magazine. Not doing these things just wastes everybody’s time, and editors do not have a time-turner.
Let’s say you get through the first phase, which is simply “did this bozo follow the guidelines?” and now the editor or assistant or slush reader is actually reading your story. A common thread that I have heard from editors and slush readers alike is that they know most of the time within a page or less whether you’re rejected for a variety of reasons. Maybe the story is boring right off the bat. Maybe there are really bad typos, spelling errors, punctuation snafus. Maybe you showed a baby impaled on a spike in the first page (see: Eragon). Maybe it’s clearly not a good fit for the magazine.
So if you don’t get rejected for failing to follow guidelines, you will probably get rejected for other blatant errors or poor writing.
If you make it past this phase, it’s finally to the point where whoever is reading your story is looking actively for a reason to reject you. You might be technically proficient, even decent at your story, but if it isn’t special in some way, unique against the hundreds if not thousands of submissions editors see – if it doesn’t grab them, you aren’t moving forward.
And if you make it past that phase, that might be called Round Two. Getting Round Two’d is a huge deal. I have been there a couple of times and it means you’re doing something right. I have even been Round Three’d before but ultimately I just didn’t make the cut.
Once you get to a second round or beyond, your story is being seriously considered. You may or may not make it all the way through, but this is a good sign nevertheless. You’re on the right track.
Maybe it’s not QUITE good enough yet. Maybe you need to cut more. Maybe the description isn’t right. Maybe the leaps you took for characters aren’t selling to the editor believably. Whatever the case, getting rejected at this phase usually means your story is GOOD. You’ve gotten close.
If you get rejected, sometimes you get feedback. Feedback from editors is incredibly useful, because the vast majority do not have time to give personalized feedback to every story that comes across their desk. If you got feedback on a story, really take it in. Consider it strongly. You might need it or you might not.
It’s a crazy world out there for short stories. The Internet age has drastically altered the market. In the last five years, e-publishing has turned the short fiction market on its head and it is currently enjoying something of a Renaissance. It is becoming a more viable market once again. This is a good thing, because short fiction is being consumed at a much greater rate now than it probably was in the previous five decades of publishing.
Short fiction is wonderful, and it is a thing I spend my time on because I enjoy reading and writing it quite a bit. I hope to have a successful career in short fiction as well as novellas and novels, and part of this year is dedicated to just that.
I have already submitted a story to an anthology, and intend to continue submitting short fiction throughout the year. One a month at a minimum, but hopefully I have enough going on that I can do more than one per month.
It’s nerve-wracking having to wait to find out if your story got rejected, and it’s absolutely gut-wrenching to submit that first story. But like with any task that requires you to put yourself out there, it is worth it in the end and it gets easier.
So get out those word processors and edit those stories! And always remember to write the hell on.