How to get a short story published

Written by jason belasco
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How to get a short story published
A short story can be as long as 50 pages. (writing book image by AGphotographer from Fotolia.com)

Writing a short story is a great way to get your foot in the door of the writing industry; you can experiment with different narrative styles and play with characters, situations and tone. A short story can be as short as a paragraph or as long as 50 pages, so you have tons of freedom.

While assistant editors and interns at literary magazines are regularly drowned in mailbags full of submissions that are commonly referred to as a "slushpile," getting your short story published is easier than you might think.

Other People Are Reading

Make Sure the Story is Publishable

Check spelling, punctuation and grammar meticulously. Having typos and mistakes is the easiest way to get your story thrown in the recycling bin. The only exception is if you want to get crazy and creative, such as writing a first-person story from the perspective of someone who has incorrect grammar. The rule of thumb is, if you have a well-thought-out idea behind those spelling mistakes or that lack of punctuation, you're fine.

Make sure the story makes sense. A good test is to hand your story to a friend, roommate or family member. If the person asks you why the gorilla was in the bathtub and you thought you wrote a story about horseback riding in Montana, you may want to do a little revising. It's important that the reader can clearly follow everything that's going on.

Determine whether it is actually a short story. Admittedly, this is rather a mushy criterion. But you don't need a Ph.D. in comparative literature; just use your best judgment.

Decide What Market You Want to Publish In

Thousands of magazines and websites publish short stories. Submitting to all of them would be expensive, time-consuming and futile. You must narrow the field and send your story to the publications that are most likely to publish it. In other words, you have to find a "fit."

First of all, if this is your first time submitting a story for publication, you probably want to stick to smaller magazines or those that specifically try to help out novice writers.

Next, decide if you want to make money from getting the story published. If so, good luck: Even many of the most highly respected literary journals won't pay for stories. To make serious cash, shoot for big, glossy publications with a hefty bankroll, or work toward publishing a collection of your own short stories. For your first short story, you should really just be satisfied with getting it published in an unpaid journal.

Also consider whether it is crucial to see your story printed on paper. If not, online literary sites might be your best bet. There are a lot of them, and it still counts as a legitimate publication. The downside is that there's no guarantee the story will get read. But is it crucial that a lot of people read your story? Again, there are a number of small journals with circulations in the dozens that may publish your story if you're not particularly worried about being known to readers coast-to-coast.

Does your story have a particular ideological/cultural background others may identify with? This is the question many first-time writers forget to think about. There are dozens of magazines out there for all conceivable ethnic, cultural and religious groups, as well as lifestyle magazines for people with particular hobbies or occupations and magazines for specific geographic regions. Figure out the target audience for your story and you'll improve your chances of catching an appropriate editor's eye.

You should also consider paying to have your story read. There are hundreds of short-fiction contests across the country with prizes ranging anywhere from £32 to a couple of thousand dollars. If you think your story can win, shell out the £6 to £9 per entry. Just make sure the contests are reputable. Find out who last year's winners were, and make sure these are real people, and that your story will get read. Many smaller magazines also have required reading fees, but every submitter gets a free subscription to the magazine. If you're interested in reading short stories as well as writing them, this is a good way to feel like you're not getting bilked out of your reading fees.

Finally, think about any of your connections who might be able to help you. This doesn't just apply to you if your dad edits "Harper's." Almost every college and most towns have a literary magazine, and if you're interested in being published, you might want to get to know some editors. They'll be able to give you inside tips on what the magazine is looking for, and if they like you they'll probably read your stuff first.

Make a Detailed List of Publications

There are two main ways to find publications for your story.

If publishing your short story were your religion, the annually updated "Novel & Short Story Writer's Market" would be your bible (see Resources). It lists thousands of magazines, with short descriptions of each that should be enough for you to know whether you're interested in submitting there. Because you've figured out what kind of magazine you want to publish in, you should be able to use the Writer's Market with no problems. Just flip open to the section on Small Circulation Magazines and find the ones that sound right for you.

You can find print and online magazines on the Web, too. Google's magazine listing is a fairly comprehensive and well-maintained list of magazines with websites (see Resources). Again, they're broken up into categories, and knowing what kind of magazine you're looking for will help you wade through the endless possibilities.

Most of these magazines will make available a set of writer's guidelines that will let you know both what they're looking for and what format requirements they demand. They use these guidelines so they have to do as little work as possible. Some of the guidelines are industry-wide: Don't send your only copy of the story, double-space your manuscript, print on one side of the page in a clear and simple font, and include a brief cover letter.

Some magazines can be incredibly picky about some of the specifications, such as demanding paper clips rather than staples or that your name not appear anywhere on the manuscript, so it's important that you get your hands on some guidelines for every publication to which you submit your story.

One of the most common requests made in these guideline pages is for "No simultaneous submissions." That means that if you submit your story to that magazine, you're not allowed to send it to any other magazine until you get a response. Unlike the other guidelines, you can almost certainly ignore this. The odds of you getting published in even a single magazine are fairly low, and two at once would be uncanny, but simultaneously submitting does risk blowing your relationship with the magazine. In the rare case that your story is accepted at two publications, just call or write all the other magazines considering your story and tell them not to bother. You probably won't encounter too much resentment. Send your story to 10 to 20 magazines.

It's very important to look at the publication at least once before you send it in. Editors like to say that the No. 1 thing they look for is familiarity with their magazine. Don't bother trying to read through 15 previous issues, though. As long as you have a decent idea of the kind of fiction that they print, you'll be fine.

Finally, remain realistic, but still only submit to publications that you respect. It's better to not publish a story at all than to see it in a lousy publication.

Here are some publications you might want to consider: "The New Yorker," "Zoetrope: All-Story" (Francis Ford Coppola's publication), "Painted Bride Quarterly," GlimmerTrain (an online publisher), "Skive Magazine," "Storyteller Magazine" (Canadian), "Zyzzyva" (a West Coast publication), "Conjunctions," Theatlantic.com, "The Believer Magazine," "Libbon" and Firstwriter.com (numerous magazines).

Prepare Your Submissions Packets

You have your story, you have a list of magazines, and now you have to roll up your sleeves and make sure the former arrives at the latter. Take a trip to an office-supply store and get yourself the following items: page-size manila envelopes (8-1/2-by-11 inch or bigger; one per magazine on your list), letter-size envelopes (one per magazine on your list) and at least three stamps per magazine on your list.

Also make many photocopies of your story. If you're seriously invested in getting published, your expenses for a single story should run between £9 and £32.

Next, write a cover letter. Remember that your cover letter is one of thousands written by people just like you who want to get stories published, so keep it short. Editors say that just a few sentences usually suffice. If you have been published before at all, definitely let the editor know; on the other hand, you might get some sympathy points if you make it clear you're a novice willing to take any kind of constructive criticism. Throw in a line of sincere praise for the magazine that explains why you want to be published in its pages. Do not try to explain or contextualise the story. Just give your brief description of it. Don't write a lot of personal biographical information, and definitely do not beg. Make your cover letter quick and let the editor get to the story, which should speak for itself.

Now send out your story. Address it to the editor who will be reading it, by name if possible or To Whom It May Concern. Mention the name of the publication, but feel free to cut and paste in your word processor and send out 10 or 20 nearly identical letters.

Make out a pile of self-addressed, stamped envelopes (SASEs) for each one of your submission packets. Include these so the magazine can respond to you with an acceptance or rejection, and hopefully some editorial advice, without shelling out for a stamp.

Sit down and label all of your manila envelopes and collate all the copies of the story with all the cover letters and SASEs. Before you dump all of them into the mail, double-check to make sure you have an accurate list of exactly what magazines you submitted to, and when you sent out the envelopes.

Keep a detailed list of what you sent to whom and on what date. That way, you won't mistakenly deluge a single magazine with multiple submissions at the same time, and you'll also be able to track which magazines have got back to you and which haven't. Usually, magazines will state their response times along with their writer guidelines; the times will range from two weeks to six months.

Understand Your Rights

Don't be disappointed if the first couple of responses you get are rejections. If you are rejected by all of the magazines to which you submitted, either go back to Step 2 and re-evaluate your goals of publication, or go back to the beginning and try the entire process again with a different story.

If an acceptance letter does come, after you've taken a few minutes to savour the feeling of self-fulfillment, remember that you are entering into a business deal like any other, and you need to protect your own rights. These come in two categories: how the story will be presented and what happens to the story after it's published.

It's easy to forget that your story is really your story when an authoritative editor tells you have to edit out the talking donkey character. Of course, there's no law against caving in to the editor's every whim, but even the most domineering editor will be disappointed if you don't stand up for your own work. When an editor suggests changes, they are almost always sincere suggestions and not commands. So make sure you're satisfied with the final text. Most respectable magazines should also let you see an advance copy of any illustrations that will accompany your story; if this is important to you, make it clear to the editor.

The legal status of your story after it is published depends on what rights you end up selling to the magazine. Though you automatically own anything you write when you write it, there are several categories of copyrights and publication rights that can be sold for any piece of text.

The most commonly sold rights are first serial rights, which give a magazine the right to publish the story first and once. If you sell first serial rights, ownership of the story remains with you, and after it is published, you can sell it to other publications that don't demand first-time rights or to book anthologies--or to anybody who wants to buy it.

If you are selling the magazine or website anything other than first serial rights, it's important to communicate with the editor and make certain both sides understand exactly what the other side plans to do with the story after publication. Other categories of rights include one-time rights, second serial rights and the lucrative category of TV and movie rights. These can make you a fortune, but it is unusual for anyone to purchase these rights to a previously unpublished short story. There is one notable exception: Francis Ford Coppola's fiction magazine, "Zoetrope: All-Story," buys the motion-picture rights to every story it publishes (see Resources). Outside of such special cases, though, you'll probably just want to sell the first serial rights.

With all of your work done, all you have to do is relax while the employees of the magazine lay out the issue.

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