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Beginning Writer Tips - How to Get a Short Story Published

I’m not a writing expert, but I have gotten more than a dozen short stories published. If you dream of being a published author, short stories are the easiest path to take to achieve that goal. Not that it’s an easy path. No, it’s full of hard work and pointy rocks that will ruin your shoes. It just an easier path than trying to get a novel published. I’m still climbing up that mountain.

So, here’s how you get a short story published:

Step 1: Write a short story.

If you’re looking for how to get a short story published, you’ve likely done this, but make sure you’ve really done it. A short story should have a main character or characters, some type of conflict, a climax, and a resolution, and it needs to do all of that within a relatively short word count. The sweet spot tends to be between 2,000 and 5,000 words. 8,000 to 10,000 word markets can be found, but longer stories are harder to place. A story with a smaller word count often has an edge because it takes up less space in a publication and, if the publisher is paying by word, it’s cheaper to acquire.

If you have a specific publisher in mind, review their guidelines while writing your story to be sure you hit the right genre and word count. Be wary of writing for a publisher that has a very specific theme in mind. If they end up rejecting your story, there might not be any other market for it. It’s okay to go for theme specific markets now and then, I’ve done it, but be aware your chance for publication is lower because you may only get one shot with that story. You’ll have the most success by creating stories that could appeal to a large number of publications.

Step 2: Edit the story.

This step may be more important than step 1. Though I suppose you wouldn’t have anything to edit if you didn’t write a story in the first place. Okay, let’s say it’s as important as step 1.

I suspect as many as half of the submissions a publisher receives get rejected because there are glaring typos and grammar mistakes all over the place. Some markets attract two-hundred submissions for a single spot. Don’t let your piece of creativity get tossed aside with a hundred others because of bad editing. Give your story a fair shot. Make sure your story is at least in the top 50%. Make sure your story is considered on the basis of its creativity, not mistakes you could have caught and corrected.

After you finish writing your story, read it out loud to yourself. The brain tends to fill in missing words and correct punctuation because you remember what you meant when you wrote it. Speaking it aloud forces your brain to hear the mistakes.

Mistakes to look for include typos, verb agreement, point of view shifting, too many adjectives, word echoes, filtering, and passive voice. If you’re not sure what some of those things are, it’s time to do some delightful research into editing. It’s painful, but you need to master these things.

After your first pass of editing, have a friend read it, preferably, a friend who’s not afraid to hurt your feelings. This isn’t the time for nice platitudes. You need your story to be torn apart, rewritten, and polished.

This is where writing groups can really shine. Short stories are ideal for a group to tackle in a short meeting. You’ll also get exposed to other folks’ writing and get a sense for what works and what doesn’t.

Step 3: Find a market for your story.

Okay, so your story is all polished and as great as you can possibly make it, now you need to find a publisher who might want to publish it. You can do a google search for open calls, but you’ll have to filter out due dates that have long since passed. Fortunately, there are some web sites that gather open calls into a large, easily searched collection. My favorite is Submission Grinder.

It’s free and offers searches by genre, payment, and word count. I highly recommend making an account on Submission Grinder and then adding your story’s statistics by highlighting Account and then Manage Pieces. Then click Add Piece. Once you've filled out that form, you're ready to search for publishers for your story.

The more a publisher pays, the more competitive it is. Markets that are award winning and/or SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) eligible are extremely competitive. We’re talking 99.5% rejection rate. These are the top tiers you should eventually aim for. My first published short story was on a non-paying market. Once I’d achieved that, I started going for paying markets. I’m still working my way up the pay scale, trying for a harder market every time I write a new story.

Submission Grinder tells you what a publisher’s acceptance rate is, so you’ll know your odds for if you try for that market. Look for a market that appears to have a steady stream of activity. There’s nothing more exasperating than submitting to a dead market. You get your courage up, send your submission out, and never hear back because the publisher has ceased to exist. Submission Grinder will also tell you when the last reported response was to help you avoid this.

I like to target markets that average a three-month response time. I also tend to hit my second favorite goal market first. In other words, a market I really want to get published by, but not my top goal market. Why? You’ll see.

Step 4: Submit your story.

Okay, so you’ve picked out the market you are going to submit to. Great. Now, go to their website and read their guidelines. Really read them. Another fast way to get rejected is to not follow a publisher’s guidelines. Just like with editing, avoid having your story tossed into the easy rejection pile by not overlooking this step. There’s a standard format most publishers want your story to follow.

Here it is:

Look for any variations the publisher might want in your submission. If they use an email submission system, what do they want the subject to be? Some markets do anonymous reviewing, so they don’t want your name on the actual manuscript. What font do they want? What font size? What file types do they accept? Do they want a special font that can only be obtained by visiting Mongolia with a gift of gold? Well then, decide if this market is really worth the effort.

Honestly, you get to be picky about what markets you submit to, just as they are picky about what stories they accept.

In your cover letter, don’t assume the editor’s gender. If you can find out the name of the publication’s editor, use that, and use both their first and last name so you don’t have to worry about Mr. or Ms. designations. Read up on how to write a cover letter.

Don’t forget to attach your story to the email or upload the file to the submission form. Verify that you are submitting the version you really want to submit. Make sure editing marks have all been removed from the copy you send.

Step 5: Track your submission.

As soon as you submit your story, record that you submitted the story. You want to track the name of the story you submitted, where you submitted it to, the status of the submission (Waiting, Rejected, Accepted, No Response), when the submission was resolved, and personal comments you may have.

Why do this? You don’t want to accidentally send a story that has been rejected to the same market again, and you want to start building up data about markets and how they respond to you. What markets have a quick turn around? What markets respond quickly? Did the editor reject you but write a personal response? That’s something to put in the comments. You’ll want to hit that market again with a new submission.

Submission grinder helps you track your submissions. That’s great, but I also track mine in a spreadsheet as well. Data is your friend. Make sure you have access to your submission history. Check it whenever you are getting ready to make another submission. Let it help you find the best markets for your work.

Step 6: Write another story.

It will be months before you hear back about your submission. Don’t just sit around waiting. Write another story.

Most publishers don’t want you to submit your story to other markets while they are considering yours, so that means submitting to each of them one at a time and waiting months in between. Years can pass before a short story finds a home, if it ever does. Don’t wait. Write and submit and then write and submit some more. You want to build up what I call the “churn.” You want to constantly be sending stories out while responses are constantly coming in. When I was going full out to get short stories published, I had up to a dozen submissions out at a time. Full time writers can have a hundred or more submissions out at once.

Step 6: A submission gets a response.

After months of waiting, you finally get a response to your submission. If it’s an acceptance, congratulations! Follow their instructions, approve the requested edits, sign the contract, and viola, you’re a published author!

But odds are very high that it will be a rejection. I’m not sure if anyone in the history of writing has ever gotten an acceptance on their first ever submission. Maybe it’ll happen for you, but it probably won’t. But that’s okay, there’s a plan to handle this.

Take a look at your rejected story. Edit it again. Rewrite it. Submit it somewhere else. After all, you’ve been writing the whole time this submission was out. You’re a better writer now. Every time you rewrite and improve the story, you have a better shot at getting an acceptance. This is why I don’t submit to my favorite publication first. I submit to a reliable one. If I’m lucky, I get precious editor feedback. I rewrite the story, and I submit it to the publication I’m really dying to get into. (Although if an editor is being generous with feedback, it doesn’t take long for that publication to become my top tier favorite.)

Never ever re-submit a story to a publication that has rejected it. They’ve made their decision. Update the story’s status in Submission Grinder and your own spreadsheet and find another market to submit it to.

I had a story get rejected a dozen times before getting it accepted somewhere. The truth is, the story that finally got accepted was vastly improved over the original draft. The process of rejection and rewriting slowly transformed the story into something worthy of being published.

Also keep in mind that a rejection doesn’t mean a story is bad. Your story may not have fit in with the other stories being published in a given issue. Maybe they already had a zombie superhero story for that issue. Once a publisher weeds out the stories with bad grammar and the stories that don’t follow their guidelines, what gets picked quickly becomes a matter of the editors’ personal tastes.

Step 7: Keep going.

It can take a long time to get anything published. I’ve gone an entire year of trying and failing. I’ve gotten hundreds of rejections.

An acceptance wipes away the sting of a dozen rejections. Someone thought your story was good enough for their publication. You are a good writer. You have talent. Keep going. Keep writing.

Just as I finished writing this, I got my biggest acceptance to date. It was for a story I’ve struggled to get right for a long time. I never thought it was good enough. I’m a terrible judge of my own work. You probably are too. Write the best you can and let the publishers judge. If you keep at it, ultimately, one of them will surprise you and say yes.

The End

This is why I don’t write blog posts very often. They get way too long. Anyway, I really hope this helps some folks out. I spent a long time getting this process wrong. I hope this shows someone the path to becoming a published author.

If you liked this post, consider subscribing to this blog. I don’t update it very often because I’m busy writing fiction, but, when the moon is right and the stars align, I may post something useful again.

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