Getting Your First Short Story Published
I’m far from being a professional writer, but I have had a few stories published online, both for money and for exposure, by various literary websites.* I’ve also read manuscripts for a literary agency and literary magazine, so I know a little bit about what it’s like on the other side of the slush pile, too.
Getting that first story online somewhere can seem almost insurmountable — without having been published, it’s tough to know what to include in your cover letter, how to format your manuscript and whether or not your story is actually ready to send off.
It’s a paradox, but it’s my theory that it’s easier to get published once you’ve already been published, much like how it’s usually easier to get a job while you still have one. It’s kind of like a screening process — they know that someone else deemed your work worthy at one point. But it’s not impossible, especially if you focus on newer literary websites and publications that are actively looking for writers.
Below, I’ll help you figure out how to get that first short story published using what I did as an example. Of course, I can’t help with the most important part: writing that story in the first place. Getting to the point where you’re capable of producing something publishable can take a long time and tons of writing practice. If you think you’re at the point where you know you have something people want to read, then the following advice is for you.
Get the right format
So you’ve typed up a nice Alice Munro-level short story into Microsoft Word. Ready to send it off to [insert literary journal]? No, you’re not, unless it’s been properly formatted! The guide I always use is William Shunn’s and I’ve never had a problem. Check it out here.
Suffice to say, it should look a little like this, but check out Shunn’s guide for particulars:
As a person who has also read through manuscripts, I’ll say the best fonts to read were Cambria, Times New Roman and Courier. Shunn recommends Courier, but honestly, I prefer the former two when reading and most of the manuscripts the agent I worked with received were in the former two, as well.
Writing a cover letter
Like a lot of newer writers, I used to stress about the cover letter, but it turns out the cover letter is usually the easiest part of the process. The letter I typically send out looks like this:
“Dear [editor name],
My name is Ashley Burnett and I’m submitting my short story, “Title”, for your consideration. It stands at just over 1,200 words.
My work has previously appeared on Necessary Fiction, Wyvern Lit and The Toast with more forthcoming.
Thank you for your time.
Short, sweet and to the point. Unless the website actually asks you to list what the story is about, you don’t really need to. After all, they’re presumably going to read it. I usually don’t list genre either, since I try to target genre publications, but you can include that if the magazine or website is accepting of a wide variety of genres. If you don’t have any work published, you can put a small bio in as a substitute or add a bio to your letter in addition to your published worked. I usually leave it off, since they’ll ask for a bio after they choose your story.
As for the editor name — yes, you should try and find out who the editor is and list their name. But usually it’s not actually read by the editor-in-chief, until perhaps the final stages. If you know for sure who will be reading it, put their name. If not, I’ve used “Dear Editors of [publication]” before with no harm done — honestly, I think it’s kind of nice to address them this way since it’s usually other editors or even volunteers doing the reading. Make sure you don’t just put “Dear Editors” — personalize it with the name of the publication.
If you want to err on the side of caution, of course, put the editor-in-chief’s name! I’ve done that before, too, and it was fine even though it was actually the managing editor who was reading everything.
Make sure your story fits the publication
Don’t send your 5,000 word story about a Southern family’s fall and degradation to a sci-fi flash fiction website. Always make sure your story fits into the publication you’re sending it to — most websites/magazines plead with writers to actually, you know, read the publication to find out what they publish.
A little tip I use is reading aggregate sites like Longform, which has a section for fiction and posts what the short stories are about/what website published them. If you’re too lazy to read the full stories, check out the summaries and see if any have similar themes to your story. Submit to publications that seem like they’re into the kind of stuff your story covers.
For instance, my short story “Quota” was published in Wyvern Lit. I found the site through Longform, which posted a short story they published about sea monsters. That sounded a lot like my story, which was about a woman from Atlantis. I submitted and they accepted and it was a much faster process than usual!
Submitting to websites or magazines of which you are a long-time reader is also good and how I got published on The Toast. I knew the kind of content they’d like, because it was the same content I liked as a reader.
Multiple submissions, simultaneous submissions, etc.
Important: some publications prevent you from submitting your story to more than one magazine/website at a time. This is super, super annoying and worthy of a separate rant, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles as you stress eat from another rejection.
So what does that mean? Well, you can either play by their rules or submit to other publications against their will. Honestly, you’re very likely to get a rejection, so it usually doesn’t matter. But on the off chance that two publications want your work, you absolutely risk burning a bridge. It’s up to you to make the decision.
I personally try to submit to places that don’t mind multiple/simultaneous submissions. It just makes more sense, since these places usually take at least a month and a half to reply and most top-tier literary magazines take four months (I’ve had a short story out now for 7 months — it’s still “in progress”). It doesn’t make sense wasting an entire year trying to figure out if two stories will make it in while you sit on a pile of other ones.
Your story is a living organism, constantly changing. It’s not dead as soon as you send it out to one publication. If you get a rejection, keep working and reworking it. The publications will most likely reject you via form letter with no suggestions, but that just means you need to turn to others — ask your writing group, your friend, your mom or whoever to look over the story and see what needs to be fixed.
Probably the one thing that helps me the most is taking time away from my manuscript. I don’t write it and immediately send it out. I wait at least a month to get some perspective, that way I can read it fresh. I personally don’t like having others see incomplete work, so that’s what works best for me.
Oh, and a tip: you will be surprised on how much stuff gets past spellcheck. I found so many egregious errors as a reader. And the flow was so off sometimes — I recommend reading your work out loud to see if anything sounds off. A pretty elementary tip, but something a lot of people skip.
Rejection — Oh, the Rejection!
Guides like this always mention the rejection you’ll face, but I don’t think you get the full idea of how much rejection you’re up against until you actually start submitting. If people understood how much rejection they’d face, they probably wouldn’t bother.
You will be rejected constantly. You will be rejected for reasons you don’t even know, because these editors don’t care enough about you to tell you. That’s how little your work means to them. And then they’ll ask you to subscribe to their magazine!
But after awhile, you won’t feel it anymore. It’s great practice for the gentle indifference of the world at large.
Should I pay to have my work looked at?
A lot of top-tier literary magazines that allow online submissions now ask you to pay a small fee (anywhere from $1 — $4). In the grand scheme of things, it’s not such a big deal, but there are still plenty of websites and magazines that don’t charge. For the most part, I don’t really think it’s worth it, especially with the odds stacked against you. Charging a fee, however, will mean that a lot of writers are deterred, upping your chances a little… if you’re good.
How do I find places to submit my work?
Longform is a great option, but a simple Google search will turn up tons of publications depending on what genre you’re looking for. Always Google a publication if you’ve never heard of it before to see how legit it it and check out sites like Absolutewrite and Duotrope to see what they say about response times, etc. Also check out Every Writer’s Resource– they have lists of the top literary magazines, sci-fi magazines, etc. and list whether they accept online submissions.
Side note: I still can’t believe some magazines are mail submission only! Like, why not just have me strap my manuscript to my carrier pigeon while I’m at it?
So, there you have it. Hopefully I’ve helped demystify the process a little bit. Remember: this is all from my experience. I’m no expert, but I thought getting some advice from someone actively submitting would be helpful to a lot of newer writers. A lot of guides I read as a beginner were so clinical and seemed written by people who had never actually submitted anything.
So, good luck out there, and don’t let the rejections get you down. And if I missed anything? Let me know in the comments!
* If you want to read my work, click here!
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