Most newcomers to writing begin to learn their craft through the discipline of short fiction. Be it flash fiction or longer ’short stories’, it’s a good way to learn aspects of dialogue, characterization and structure. Shorter works are by no means “easy” to write, but they’re less daunting than a novel-length project. Once you’ve amassed a few stories, you might want to get them published. Be aware there are hundreds, if not thousands, of would-be writers sending their work to the same titles – due to time constraints, editors will pay more attention to manuscripts that follow their guidelines, so give yourself a head start by following these seven tips to ensure your work gets read!
It goes without saying but don’t send your first drafts to publications. Read and re-read your story, preferably leaving a couple of days between reads, until it’s as good as you can make it. If you have a critique group, ask them to look it over, or find a few helpful writer friends to beta-read for you. You can take or leave their comments but they might spot inconsistencies or awkward prose that you’ve skipped over. Remember you are writing this story to be understood by your reader, not just by you.
Now you’ve got your story to a publishable standard, you’ll want to find it a home. You can always Google terms such as “short story magazine” or “short fiction online” but I’m guessing you don’t have time to trawl through the pages and pages of results you’ll get. I’ve been asked whether a first-time writer should aim high or start small. I don’t see why a new writer shouldn’t try for the big-name titles but be aware that the competition is fierce. You can start small for your first couple of credits, and work your way up, or just start at the top. The most important thing is finding a magazine or website that runs fiction that your own piece can sit alongside without embarrassment.
Once you’ve identified magazines or websites that you think could be a good fit for your work, read some of the material they’ve already published. Many websites publish fiction for free and have back issues available, and some print magazines are often available as single issues so you can sample them. List the titles in terms of where you’d most like to see your story. Will your work fit in with what they already publish? After all, there’s no point sending a gory horror tale to a website that publishes noir fiction. Don’t think of this step as a waste of time – it’s important to know what the market is currently publishing, and besides, you could encounter some brilliant writers!
Are the titles open to unsolicited submissions? Do they have a reading period? Do they charge for submissions? (If you’re new to the process, I’d advise you avoid these until you have a few publishing credits to your name) Do they have a word limit? If they do, then stick to it. If they don’t want anything over 2000 words, then they’re not going to accept a 15,000-word piece. Check if they accept multiple submissions – i.e. can you send more than one piece at once? Also check if they accept simultaneous submissions – if they don’t, then if you submit your story to them, you won’t be able to submit it anywhere else until you get a reply. Some titles will send you a note whether you’re accepted or rejected, but some won’t – see if they give you a timeframe within which to expect a reply. Also, double check their guidelines in case they run “themed” issues. You can use the theme as a prompt for a piece (as long as you submit before their deadline) or you may already have a piece that fits the theme, but don’t send something that doesn’t fit.
Many magazines or websites will ask you to submit your work in the body of an email in order to cut down on transmitted viruses found lurking in attachments. However, some titles will still request attachments – make sure you adhere to their guidelines. If they say to submit as an RTF, don’t send as a .doc file. Likewise, if you’re going to send something in Word format, make sure it is the 1997-2003 compatible .doc format – not everyone will have access to the Word 2007 .docx format. Laying out your work is another hurdle – many magazines or websites recommend the standard manuscript format found here.
Most places will ask you to simply send a submission, in which case your covering letter/email/note can be as short as “Dear Editor, (Insert their name if you know what it is – a browse of the site will normally yield this kind of info) Please find attached/enclosed/below my submission, titled “Blah blah blah”. It is approximately x words long. I look forward to hearing from you. Kind regards, Aspiring author”. If you’ve had any prior publishing credits, you can insert them after the word count, but keep it brief. e.g. “I have had work previously published in A, B and C.” Some titles may request a bio on the point of submission, in which case include the bio after the covering note – if they want a bio, they’ll give you a word count, but most bios are between 30 and 100 words.
If you’ve polished your piece to the point of perfection, and you’ve used their submission guidelines as a checklist, then what are you waiting for? Get submitting!
I find it helps to keep a list of what I have sent where, and when I sent it. I use an Excel spreadsheet, with story titles down the side and magazine titles along the top. I color the cells yellow when I submit (as well as entering the date) and then turn the cells either red or green depending on the reply.