Storyville: Ten Tips for Successfully Publishing Your Stories
I know that we’ve talked about a wide variety of craft, process, and submission techniques here in Storyville, but what I’d like to do today is give you ten of my best tips to help you get your stories published. Based on five years of sending my work out, here are the most successful ideas I have for giving yourself a good shot at getting accepted. Obviously, it’s always about the writing, your compelling stories, your unique voice, well written, with emotional impact. But there are other factors that can help tip the deck in your favor.
ONE: READ THE PUBLICATION
I know this sounds obvious, but I’m willing to bet that half of all authors today are submitting stories to places they’ve never read. I know it’s expensive, but you don’t have to subscribe. Check out your local library, used bookstores, and even talk to friends about swapping copies. Send out a used copy of The Missouri Review and get back a copy of Black Warrior Review. Or swap a copy of Shock Totem for Shroud, or F&SF for Clarkesworld. And if the publication is online, you really don’t have any excuse. Read The Collagist, read Tor.com, read Word Riot—make the time. You can learn a lot this way. Not just the kind of stories they are publishing, but what’s current and trending for them. Did you know that The Cincinnati Review likes magical realism? What kind of horror and fantasy is Shimmer looking for? What does it mean when a place says “Lovecraftian?” I know, I’m not perfect, either, I’m sure I've sent lots of stories to publications that I’ve never read before, but I do try to see if I can find out something about each publication one way or another. For instance, the Yalobusha Review—is the cover art surreal, do I know any authors in there (and their voice), do their guidelines give me clues about what kind of literary fiction they’re looking for? Do your best, because the research will only help you be appropriate with your submissions, and that way you won’t waste their time, or your own.
TWO: FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES
You have to make sure you are following the guidelines. Most places are looking for the same thing, typically a document in Times New Roman, double-spaced. But some places want it as an .rtf, not a .doc format. Others want it IN the email, not attached. Is their policy simultaneous or no simultaneous submissions? Do you they allow multiple submissions? (Some do.) What are the parameters on length? You don’t want to send a 7,500-word story to a place that has a maximum of 4,000 words, right? Are there things they definitely don’t want—erotica, non-fiction, poetry, werewolves, vampires, graphic sex, graphic violence, rape, or any sort of abuse of children? I didn’t know Orson Scott Card’s publication was pretty much Rated-PG, with strict rules about content. OOPS! You don’t make that mistake twice. Some places will only let you submit twice a year, or make you wait a week, or a month, after your last submission. Just do your research so that you don’t screw up on something as simple as formatting or timing.
THREE: SUBMIT EARLY OR LATE
There are a couple of points I want to make here about timing. If there is a new publication, sometimes called “fledgling” on Duotrope, you may want to jump in before people find out about it. They still have to put out their first issue, and if the whole world isn’t aware of Foxing Quarterly, maybe you can sneak in before they start getting 500 submissions a month. You are taking a risk, but if a place pays .05/word, you are still getting paid professional rates no matter what, right? That’s $200 for a 4,000-word story. I’m also talking about open calls for submissions, whether it’s a journal or magazine re-opening, or a new anthology. Do you want to be one of the first stories an editor reads? Maybe. I can tell you that as I’ve been editing Exigencies (Dark House Press) I’ve taken certain stories, and once I had several horror stories that were set in a rural environment, I knew I probably wouldn’t take any more. Two stories had cameras in them, so no more cameras. If you submit early, maybe you can beat somebody to the punch. Imagine if there is a themed anthology, let’s just say vampires, and there are only SO MANY ideas about vampires out there. Do you want to be the first to present a story about energivores, vampires that feed on the misery of others instead of blood? Sure you do. Also, there’s the opposite of this approach. Be the last one in. If there is a deadline, and the anthology (or other publication) is still looking to fill a few slots, and hasn’t gotten the quality stories they want, maybe you’ll be that diamond in the rough, yeah?
FOUR: BE INNOVATIVE
If there is a theme for a particular journal, magazine, website or anthology, find a way to be fresh, to reinvent the genre, to be innovative. Like I just mentioned about vampires, instead of blood, what else could give your beast life and immortality? Tweak their characteristics, and make them new. If everybody else is writing hard tech science fiction, maybe go the opposite way, and do soft science fiction, something that’s more focused on politics, culture, or emotional truths. And while you’re at it, keep in mind your format—maybe your story is a list of the ten steps it takes a serial killer to become a murderer, or perhaps it’s nothing but a series of letters back and forth, or a diary entry, or maybe four different sides of the same story, none of them entirely honest. Think of ways to reinvent the genre, the expectations, the format, and the voice. Maybe you’ll stand out in a crowd of the same old story lines, the same monsters, the same settings.
FIVE: EMBRACE SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS
I never understand when I hear an author say, “Oh, yeah, I have that story out to three places right now.” Three? Is that all you can manage? Don’t strain yourself. Why not ten, or twenty? What are you waiting for? I can understand if you have ten stories out, and there are only so many places that are right for your story. I do get that. But, for instance, if you write literary fiction, there are HUNDREDS of journals you could submit to. Embrace the simultaneous submission—it’s your friend. Now, I know that some places don’t allow simultaneous submissions, and that’s your call—hit them up one at a time, or avoid them all together. Or, ignore the rule, that’s your choice. But if there are ten horror publications that all pay professional rates, and you only have one horror story to shop right now, why not send it to all ten? With acceptance rates so low these days, anywhere from 1% for the elite, to 10-20% for other quality magazines, the odds are against you. If there IS a publication that I really love, and they have a no simultaneous submission rule, I either hit them up first, if they have a short period, or take a chance if all of the places I’m submitting to are really difficult to get into (say 1% or below). What are the odds that TWO (or more) elite magazines will take your story at the same time? They are REALLY long. But if you only submit to places that allow simultaneous submissions, don’t be shy, send your stories far and wide. At one point this year I had eight stories out to over 100 publications—this was not a shotgun approach, I did my research, these were all appropriate submissions, I guarantee you. Life is too short—go for it.
SIX: WRITE IN DIFFERENT GENRES
This ties in directly to what I just talked about. Because I don’t write ONLY horror stories, I can send my writing to a large variety of magazines. What genres do I write? Well, I write fantasy, science fiction and horror. I write transgressive, grotesque, and magical realism. I write Southern gothic, neo-noir, and literary fiction. Yes, some publications overlap in genres, such as Shock Totem being open to horror, fantasy, and crime. But notice they don’t want science fiction. I even thought about writing a western, once I saw Nik Korpon post a story at a cool new online publication, The Big Adios. Stretch yourself, step outside your comfort zone, and write in many different genres. I can assure you that the same story that you sent to Cemetery Dance PROBABLY wouldn’t be a good fit for Ploughshares—unless you’re Brian Evenson or Stephen Graham Jones.
SEVEN: AIM HIGH, BUT BE REALISTIC AND PURSUE ALL OPTIONS
You don’t HAVE to send every story to the absolute best publications in the world. I can tell you that a year and a half of me doing EXACTLY that with my MFA thesis stories has just been CRUSHING at times. You can aim high, and work your way down, to “easier” and easier places. You can start with the best pay, and work your way down to little or no pay. You can start someplace in the middle, and just aim for publications that you think are cool. You can see where your friends are publishing, and submit to the same websites and journals, regardless of how elite they are. Do whatever you want—a win is still a win, an acceptance always feels good.
EIGHT: TRY DIFFERENT LENGTHS
Experiment with different length stories, as not all guidelines are the same. I’ve had stories published that were 50-words long, 300-words long, and 1,000-words long—all considered flash or micro-fiction. Most of my work is typically in the 2,000 to 4,000-word range. But I’ve also published some longer stories, 5,000+ words, and even 7,000-words long. I have written one novella, which is 20,000-words long (and boy are those tough to shop). Experiment with various lengths. That’s why I love the WAR battles here at LitReactor.com, I always come away with flash fiction, and short stories, of varying lengths. Have fun with it, it’s still your voice.
NINE: AIM FOR BOTH PRINT AND WEB
Typically, from my research, web publications are easier to get into than print. Now, that’s a general statement, it isn’t always true. But you’ll probably have better luck with online submissions than elite print journals. Also, one of the nice things about being online is people can read your work immediately, you can post a link, send friends and editors to your work, it’s a body of fiction that can be immediately accessed. So why not write some flash fiction and get it online? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m less protective of a 1,200 word bit of flash fiction than I am about a 5,000-word story. It’s the time and effort that I’ve put into the story. Doesn’t mean the longer story is better, just different. But really, if you spend one day writing a 500-word bit of flash, and three months on a 4,500-word story, which one are you going to want to place at a more elite publication? I think you know the answer. (Unless that online publication is paying pro rates, then go for it, right?)
TEN: THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX, AS FAR AS PLACEMENT
You have a story, it’s the perfect length of 2,500-words, and you don’t know where to send it. Of course you started with elite print journals and magazines. Then what—elite online publications? Then what? Well, how about checking out all of the anthologies that are looking for work, if your story fits the theme. What about audio rights, why not submit to a podcasting website? What about self-publishing your story as an eSingle on Amazon and sell it for a dollar or two?
Obviously, you just want to write the best story you can. But when you are ready to submit, you have a lot of options. Do your research, read the magazines, and follow the guidelines. Try to stretch yourself, expand your genres, and mix up the formats of your stories, as well as the length. Aim high, but also be realistic, and find someplace cool to place your work, sometimes thinking outside the box. Embrace simultaneous submissions, putting in the time you need to in order to send each story to five, ten, or fifteen places—you’ll thank me for this, I promise. But in the end, the last piece of advice I can give you is to never settle—make sure that no matter where you send your story, elite print journal or cool online website, that you’ll be happy with the placement. The rewards come in dollars, exposure, the company of your fellow authors, accessibility to your work, as well as the art and product that surrounds your words—there are so many ways to be compensated. You can always write more, yeah?
I mentioned a few cool online journals, so I'm linking to those stories. Here is Nik Korpon's western up at The Big Adios, "A Hundred for the Crows." How about The Collagist? Here's one by xTx entitled, "The 33rd Word for Cold." And how about Tor? Here is Rachel Swirsky and "Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia."
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