SUBMIT!: SOME LONG TRUTHS ABOUT SHORT FICTION
© 2016 by By Lisa Morton
Let’s start this by saying that you’ve already studied all the writing guides and taken the classes and read lots of great short fiction, you’ve crafted your own short story and you think it’s good enough to send out into the waiting world.
If you’re a new writer, this can be a daunting process. First off, let me assure you: WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES ALONG THE WAY. As long as you learn from your mistakes, you’re doing just fine.
But maybe there are a few things you can do right up front to help you avoid those mistakes. Listed below are five of the most common problems that editors encounter. Some of these mistakes seem obvious, but are still committed often enough to warrant inclusion here. Follow these five simple rules, and you’ll guarantee your story a leg up in the submission stack (also known as the dreaded slush pile).
1. MAKE SURE YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS CLEAN. What that means, very simply, is this: don’t send in a story full of grammatical errors, typos, punctuation problems, and/or formatting mistakes. Don’t make the critical faux pas of imagining that these things don’t matter, because they do. Gigantically. Let’s put it this way: if an editor has one slot left in their anthology or magazine, and is considering two equally good stories, they’re likelier to kick out one that will require more clean-up work on their part. I advise all writers to pick up a cheap, slender paperback called The Elements of Style (also known simply as “Strunk and White”, after the authors) and keep it wherever they work. It is the bible for all things related to grammar and punctuation, and it’s probably faster and easier to just refer to Strunk and White when you’ve got a question than to look it up online. While Strunk and White won’t solve those knotty “there/their/they’re” kinds of issues, it will help with “lay/lie/laid” and placement of those pesky punctuation marks. Also, if you’ve got an editorially-minded friend who will give your work a read, take advantage of that gift. There are non-English-speaking writers out there who hire editors to go over all their work – yes, they pay editors to proofread even short stories. That’s a good reminder of just how dedicated your competition can be. For proper manuscript formatting, here’s a good guide: http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html . Just remember: Microsoft Word’s default is a space between paragraphs, so you’ll need to change that (remove the space and indent paragraph beginnings instead, unless otherwise specified by the guidelines), and don’t submit works as PDF files, which can’t be easily edited.
- 2. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. Once your story has been proofread (once, twice, five times, whatever it takes) and is ready to send off, after you’ve found your preferred market (in some resource like HWA’s monthly newsletter or its Facebook group) and read their guidelines, read them again. Most editors stand in astonishment at how few submissions actually follow their stated guidelines. This should be a no-brainer, but somehow it bears constant repeating. Sometimes editors have preferred format requirements (“all files must be in Courier 12-pt font,” for example), and you can risk having your submission rejected unread if you don’t follow those guidelines. Pay attention as well to what the guidelines indicate in terms of theme; if the guidelines specify “No werewolf stories,” do not send a werewolf story because you’re just certain that your werewolf story is so sensational it will override the guidelines (it won’t). Also, editors can spot an attempt to add a thematic reference to an existing story – don’t think you can submit your witch story to a ghost anthology because you’ve shoehorned in a single reference to a ghost. Take the time to write a ghost story to submit, or don’t submit at all.
- 3. BE PATIENT. Here’s what you need to understand about anthologies and magazines: they receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions, and the more they pay, the more submissions they’ll receive. It’s not unheard-of for an anthology paying pro rates to receive over a thousand submissions, and chances are that all those submissions will be vying for no more than four or five slots. If you think the math doesn’t add up here (“But most anthologies have 15-20 stories!”), that’s because most of the spaces are reserved for big name authors who are part of the deal the editors have made with the publisher; those big names are considered necessary to help sell the book. So, your story is in there with 999 others; let’s say each story is 15 pages (that’s on the shorter end of the scale – most are longer). That’s a whopping FIFTEEN THOUSAND PAGES of material the editor will be looking at. Chances are there’s a strict deadline from the publisher, which means the editor must read more material than the entire Game of Thrones series put together in a short amount of time. Let’s say the editor has a three-month window for open submissions; even if you submit at the beginning of that time, the editor may choose to hold all response letters until s/he has read all submissions and made final choices, which could be two more months after the submission window closes. Six months is not unusual for response time; you, the author, will understandably be anxious to know how your baby fared, but you have to stay patient and W-A-I-T. Do NOT send messages to the editor asking about your submission. If you start pestering the editor for a response, you’ll just irritate them and risk making yours a name to remember for the wrong reasons.
- 4. DON’T EXPECT A PERSONAL RESPONSE. You’ve waited six months, you’re just sure your submission will be bought for the book or magazine…and then you receive the form-letter “Thanks but sorry” note. You wonder what happened; couldn’t the editor have at least taken the time to provide an explanation for the rejection? Well…no, probably not. Look again at those statistics above; the editor has been sifting through thousands and thousands of pages of material, trying to beat a looming deadline. There are hundreds of responses to be sent, and writing personalized messages to each author is simply not a luxury the editor has.
- 5. DON’T TAKE REJECTIONS PERSONALLY. There are many reasons your story could be rejected – the editor may have a personal vision for the book that your style doesn’t match, or s/he may have already purchased a story from a major writer that’s too similar to yours. All a rejection really means is that the story is now yours again, so it’s time to start shopping. Again, don’t give the editor a reason to remember you in a negative light – don’t go on social media talking about your unfair treatment, or don’t write to the editor demanding a response.
While following these simple rules certainly won’t guarantee you short story acceptances – craft and talent are likelier to do that – not following these tips will almost certainly lead to a lot of rejection letters. Give your story the shot it deserves, hang in there, and eventually editors will be looking forward to seeing your name in their inboxes.
© 2016 by Lisa Morton. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the author's written permission. Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web at https://horror.org/, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL are encouraged.