A common question that crops up at writing workshops is “How do you go about getting stories published?” So much so that I’ve started building the short version of the answer into my workshop introductions. The short answer goes like this:
McHugh’s 3-step Guide to Getting Published
1 Write the damn thing.
2 Submit the damn thing.
Then I add in a Step 1a – Good.
Step 1a – writing the damn thing good – is the real trick. As Donald Maass says, “Ninety-five percent of a story’s success is in the manuscript.” Put most of your energy into Step 1a. But pulling off a good story isn’t going to get you anywhere if you don’t send the damn thing out into the world for editors to read.
So, how about that? Where do you even start with Step 2?
Approaching the market with your work is daunting. Actually, it’s fucking terrifying when you’re freshly starting out. But having some understanding of how it all works can help get you past that.
Let’s talk short stories, since the process is generally more straightforward than for novels (mainly because the gatekeeping for submitting novels is more complex, but also because there’s more pathways to getting a novel in front of an editor) but most of the principles still apply.
Finding the market
A number of friendly, helpful people provide online lists of short fiction markets accepting unsolicited submissions (ie, ones the markets didn’t specifically ask for). If you’re a writer of science-fiction, fantasy or horror, we’re spoiled – we have Ralan Conley’s Webstravaganza. It’s free, and it lists pretty much every spec fic magazine, webzine, anthology and contest worth submitting to. For everyone else, there’s Duotrope, which requires a modest subscription, but lists markets for all genres of fiction.
But how do you choose which market to submit to?
First, read their guidelines – not just the summary on Ralan or Duotrope or wherever, but the detailed guidelines on the market’s own website. This will give you an idea of whether your story sits in the genre or part of the genre they’re interested in.
Second, read some stories – particularly when you’re starting out, it’s worth browsing the recent archives of a webzine, or picking up a sample copy or buying a short subscription to a print magazine (especially of the top markets) and getting a feel for the kinds of stories they publish before you submit there.
If you’re ever in doubt, submit. The Writers of the Future contest guidelines specify no sexual content or gratuitous violence. My winning story had a graphic description of a mutilated corpse on page 3 and by the end of it I was disemboweling horses and stomping on babies. (The only changes they wanted were to tone down the characters’ cussin’ and remove the word “penis” from the description of the corpse.) If your story’s not right for the market, the worst they’ll say is no.
…Mm, actually scratch that – in my experience, the worst they’ll say is “No, no, no! For the love of God leave us something to hold out for!” But that may just be me.
Formatting your submission
Before you submit, format your story right. By default, you should have all your stories prepared in Standard Manuscript Format – see here. Some markets have their own preferred formatting and, for electronic submission, preferred file types. Submit it exactly the way they want it. If you don’t, you’ll look unprofessional. You don’t want to stand out as unprofessional when the slush reader’s first task is to quickly cull as many stories from the slush pile as possible. See the hoop? Jump through it.
If they ask for a covering letter, or you’re submitting as an attachment to an email, keep your covering message businesslike, succinct and on-topic. Address the editor(s) formally by name (make sure you get the right honorific) and name their publication in your note. Tell them the title and word count of your story, but don’t give them a synopsis unless they specifically require it. If you have any past fiction publications, list your best 4 or 5 by the venue of publication. Ditto any relevant prizes or awards you’ve won or professional workshops you’ve attended (not your Bachelor of Creative Writing – those are a lot like arseholes and Volkswagen Golfs, everyone’s got one). If you’ve got nothing, say nothing – just present your story and thank them for their time. If the editor sent you positive feedback on your last story (ie, a personal response that encouraged you to submit again), thank them for that in your cover letter for the new one. Something like this:
Dear Mr/Ms/Dr EDITOR SURNAME,
Please find attached my fiction submission for YOUR MAGAZINE, entitled STORY TITLE, a story of about #### words. (or, Thank you for your encouraging response to my previous submission to YOUR MAGAZINE. Please find attached my new submission, etc)
My stories have appeared in THIS IMPRESSIVE PUBLICATION, THAT IMPRESSIVE PUBLICATION and SOME OTHER PUBLICATION THAT SOUNDS GOOD. I am a winner of the REALLY SHINY PRIZE and a graduate of the HARD TO GET INTO WRITER’s WORKSHOP.
Thank you for your consideration.
Managing your submissions
Once you’ve submitted, track where you’ve submitted the story, on what date, and what the expected response time is. I use a spreadsheet. Colour-coded. It’s very impressive. When you get a response, record what it was. Treat submitting like a business. You should be submitting more stories more often than you can keep track of in your head.
If a response is late, wait a little while longer, then politely enquire if it’s still under consideration or if they’ve already responded (and in which case their reply has gone astray). Check your spam folder first, in case the filter grabbed the rejection email from their form-reply-bot. I usually give a market a month longer than their nominated response time before I query. Acceptances usually take longer than rejections, so overdue replies can either mean they’re snowed under or that your story is being more seriously considered.
Never send a rejected story back to the same market unless you’re specifically invited to do so.
Don’t reply to rejections, even to thank them (unless it’s a personal response from the editor-in-chief offering you the chance to rewrite).
Never argue with a rejection. You’ll look like a jerk, because that’s what you’ll be.
Always respond positively to a rewrite request (ie, a rejection with an invitation to resubmit if you rewrite it a particular way) and make that rewrite your highest priority. Note that a rewrite request doesn’t mean they’ll definitely buy it, but you’re in with a good shot.
Never submit a story to more than one market at a time, unless both of them specifically say that simultaneous submissions are ok. And even then, just don’t, it’s too messy. Be patient. Sometimes markets close for submissions, because they’ve got too many, filled their next run of issues or they’re just taking a break. Again, be patient. Don’t hassle a closed market.
Expect lots of rejection and respond to it by sending your story out again. Submitting stories is like Einstein’s take on insanity – doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Even if you’re reasonably successful, you’re still likely to get a lot of rejections. I sell about once in every 10 or 11 times I submit – so, yes, for the 30-odd stories I’ve sold, I have well over 300 rejections.
Start at the top and gauge your progress by how far down the payscale you go before you sell. If you don’t start at the top, how will you ever know when you’re ready to step up? This, also, is daunting… Yeah no actually this is fucking terrifying, too.
Make peace with the idea that there isn’t a home for every story, other than maybe your trunk. Your attempts to sell any given story may ultimately fail. I have nearly as many trunked stories as ones I’ve sold, mainly from my early years as a writer, but new ones in need of trunking still crop up every now and then.
Failure is a very real possibility, and you may die wondering. In the words of Carrie Fisher: “Be afraid. But do it anyway.”
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I’ll be delivering a session on getting published at the Conflux Writer’s Day on Saturday 5 April 2014, along with several other CSFG members.