Making the Short Story Work for You
When you reach a road-block with your novel, what do you do? Go for a long walk? Vent on social media? I go to a tried-and-true backup that I know I’m good at: short story writing. I got my start in short stories in college, so they’re a comfort blanket for me. And I’ve found interchanging novel-writing with short story-writing provides a unique honing of writerly skills that I would otherwise lack if I only concentrated on my novel:
You learn to complete a story arc in a finite amount of time. And I mean that both figuratively and literally. When writing short stories that you intend to submit for publication, you often have to work within finite word counts. You have drabbles, which are 100 words or less; Flash Fiction, which is usually 300-1K words; and traditional short stories, which can be anywhere from 1k-7k words. (Anything longer is considered a “long” short story or a novella.) And because it’s not a novel, which can take months to years to write, you’re usually working on short stories over the course of a few days to a few weeks. It provides you a much faster turnaround for your writing-investment.
It gives you a sense of accomplishment. You can (usually) write several short stories in the time it would take you to write half a novel. Getting your work published and out into the world gives you an ego boost that can help you survive the Imposter Syndrome doubt that comes from wondering if your novel will ever take shape/take off/ be successful.
It provides you that essential bit of marketing credit that shows yourself, agents, and other professionals that you are able to produce quality, marketable work. Not sure how queries work? Try a dozen of them for your short stories. Get those under your belt and then use what you learned to hone your novel queries.
Which leads me to my next point. You bit the bullet and wrote a short story. Now what do you do with it? There is a VAST amount of resources out there for finding markets that will publish your short stories. I find anthologies are a good way to get in with other quality authors, and sometimes writing to a specific theme is a good exercise for your imagination.
There are many paying and non-paying markets available, and while it may be tempting to go for the non-paying markets first, I would only attempt those for the initial publication credits—paying markets are the way to go, especially if your Grocery Budget depends on your writing income. Paying markets will offer anywhere from a token payment (<1 US cent per word) to a pro payment (5+ US cents per word). Some offer flat fees (e.g., $5, $15, $50) and others, like anthologies, only pay royalties that are split between the contributing authors.
So you know you want to submit your stories, but you’re not sure where to start. I got you covered. Below are some of my favorite, tested ways of finding submission calls.
Online Submissions Trackers
There are a ton out there, but these are my go-to's for user-friendly searches and having lots of up-to-date market information:
Duotrope.com: This requires a paid subscription ($50/yr), but it’s a fantastic resource for getting published. Not only does it track your story submissions and provide a thousand watts of database statistics and info about 7,600+ literary markets, but it ALSO puts out a weekly newsletter you can sign up for which lists upcoming themed calls for submissions. I subscribe to the “FICTION” newsletter, and it’s gotten me 90% of my publishing credits.
The Submission Grinder: Perhaps the most well-known free writing database. Like Duotrope, it lists recently added markets and allows you to track your submissions. Like Publisher’s Marketplace does for book stats, this database can provide insight into acceptance rates for publications and how long submissions take.
Literarium: another free submission tracker that lets you search markets and get an at-a-glance view of their pay levels. You can also search by genre and word count.
I know, I know. It’s a black hole for social media nowadays. But I’ve found some great genre-related source for submission calls. Not only do they post story markets, but you can also ask questions about submissions—this is especially helpful if you’re new to the whole submission process. Here are a few of the genre-specific groups I’ve found that post about open calls for submissions on a regular basis:
Misc. Fiction and Paid Opportunities
Writers Post No Fee Calls for Submission (posts only free submission opportunities)
Fantasy/ Science Fiction
Most writing associations have free newsletters that will grant you info about open submission calls, but the trick is in finding the right ones. There are a lot out there, and you can easily get lost trying to find the ones that suit you best. Here are a couple that have served me well:
Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity: A curated blog that lists calls for submissions from paying markets across many genres. They are arranged in descending order, with the most recent posts first.
The Horror Tree: Don’t let the name throw you off, it tackles Sci-Fi and dark Fantasy submission calls as well as Horror.
NewPages offers a list of open submission calls, as well as writing contests and literary events. You can filter by genre and by type of submission (e.g., book, chapbook, anthology).
WriteJobs is also another small source for Fiction and Poetry submissions, as well as contests that don’t require an entry fee. It’s a bit clunky to use, but the info is good.
DOs and DON’Ts of Submitting
There are several things to consider before submitting your work to a short story market:
DO be polite and courteous. Author Heather Webb recently wrote a really great Writer Unboxed article on “Being a Good Literary Citizen.” Be professional in your interactions with editors—they talk to each other, and they have long memories for people who piss them off.
DO follow the submission guidelines listed for each market. Don’t assume what works for one will work for all. Sometimes contests, for example, will remove all personal information from the submission so the judges can read blind. In those instances, use the cover letter to provide your contact info.
DO provide a cover letter. It makes a first impression, like your literary handshake, so utilize it to your advantage. When I offer my submission, I usually use a template like this: “Dear Editor [include their last name, if you can find it], I’ve attached my short story, “[Story Name]” (X words), for consideration in your [Themed] anthology/magazine. [Provide a 1-2 sentence bio listing your writing history and past publication credits.] I hope you enjoy the read, and I look forward to hearing back from you soon!” If you are a BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or other diverse-group writer, include that in your bio! Editors love to hear from those groups in order to provide their readers with diverse offerings.
DO check SFWA’s Writer Beware site before submitting your work to see if that market has any red flags. According to their website, Writer Beware’s mission is to “track, expose, and raise awareness of questionable, illicit, and/or nonstandard practices in and around the publishing industry.” They are a good way to tell if a market is too good to be true.
DON’T follow up with a “why haven’t you responded to my submission” email. It IS ok to professionally query, after a reasonable period (~3 weeks, or more if stated on their website’s submission guidelines) to ask about the status of your query. I use a template like, “Dear Editor, on [date] I submitted my short story “[Story Name]” for your consideration. As it is past your stated submission response time, can you tell me the status of that submission? Kindest regards.” But don’t demand an answer, and if your query doesn’t garner a reply, assume it was a rejection and move on to the next market.
DON’T assume a rejection is the final answer for that story. There are going to be plenty of rejections—that's in the job description. But when a market sends you a rejection—form or personal—use it as an opportunity to reevaluate your submission. Is it polished to the best of your ability? Are you being scrupulous in following the submission guidelines? If the answer to those questions is a resounding “YES!”, then keep submitting. Find another market and keep going. Statistically speaking, you are bound to hit the jackpot with a success if you keep putting your work out there.
These are all the things I wish I’d known out of the gate. Get writing and use the short story as a tool to give yourself a mental break or to get started with padding that writing resume. With the right application, the short story can get your work out into the world on a faster schedule than a novel can, and it’s a great way to supplement your income.
Best of luck!