When to Break the Rules When Submitting Short Stories

In their guidelines, the magazine Bards and Sages Quarterly highly discourages submitting first person or present tense stories.

My first published story with them was both.

The magazine Fabula Argentea lists Anthropomorphism as a hard sell.

The first story of mine they published was a suicide note from a training bra.

One of the most common pieces of advice I hear (that you probably hear as well) about getting published is to stick within the rules. If a magazine says that they only accept 40,000 word Antebellum erotica, your short story about a depressed man trying to find himself is probably getting thrown in the trash bin.

To an extent, this is true. When I first started submitting stories, I would submit to a lot of places that just weren’t a good fit. My work didn’t stand a chance. I see the same thing at the Belmont Story Review.

On the other hand, several of my stories have been picked up despite blatantly violating the rules. While it’s true that some of these have been at smaller magazines that might be less picky, I think the explanation more has to do with the spirit behind the rules.

Bards and Sages has an article on the pitfalls of first person narration. The article essentially says that, while they have nothing against the POV in and of itself, they’ve found that it runs the risk of turning into one long monologue or telling instead of showing.

Now, my story is far from perfect, but it avoids these main problems which is why they were still willing to publish me even though I’d gone against their guidelines.

Similarly, while reading Fabula Argentea, I thought that their sense of humor was a good match for mine, which was probably why they decided to publish “A Suicide Note” despite their wariness of Anthropomorphism.

So pay attention to the rules, but don’t be afraid to bend them if you think your story is a good fit, and be sure to think about the spirit behind the rules and not just the rules themselves.

Your First Sentence is Your Most Important

A close friend of mine has a test she gives to each book she picks up in the store. Instead of reading the blurb on the back to determine if she’s interested, she’ll read the first sentence. And unless that first sentence sings, she’ll put it down.

That’s how long you have to capture your reader: a single sentence. That’s all that they are willing to give you.

And it’s not just novels in a bookstore either. When editors read your work, they’ve usually made their decision by the first couple of sentences. Even if they keep reading, a lackluster opening will leave a bad taste in their mouth.

Now, everyone has a different technique for capturing their reader’s attention, and there is no one right way to do it, but here is a strategy that helps me and hopefully will help you as well.

First, let’s look at some examples of bad first sentences (mine). This is from a novel I wrote several years ago:

At the peak of a green hill, in the center of a long, flat expanse over which there was nothing sat a girl in a red jacket, invisible against the backdrop of bloody red sunlight.

The first thing you may notice that this sentence is weighed down with adjectives. The second thing you may notice is the marks on your forehead from where you fell asleep on your keyboard while reading it.

Not only is it lackluster, but the reader has no idea what kind of story they’re reading. You’ve got a girl on a hill. That’s it. Is it science fiction? Is it a mystery? Romance? It could be just about anything.

When writing this, I made the mistake that a lot of new writers make: opening with description–first the setting, then the characters. And while beginning with description is fine if you’re very talented, if you’re just starting out like I was, it’s probably going to bore your reader.

A much better strategy for writing your first sentence is to begin with the conflict. Here’s an example from Stephen King’s novel The Gunslinger.

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.


I love this sentence. The reader learns so much just from 12 words.

Not only do you learn the conflict (the gunslinger is chasing the Man in Black), you also learn the setting (the desert), the main characters (the Man in Black and the gunslinger), and the genre (western, as implied by the word gunslinger).

Here’s another example from Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly

Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair.

I know this is technically two sentences, but again, I admire the straightforwardness. You can probably guess from this that the book is about drug abuse (meth bugs). The reader automatically understands the character’s struggle.

These two sentences are both straightforward (both are short and have no adjectives), and they both introduce the central conflict.

Again, there are different techniques for writing a first sentence but this is what works for me: introducing the conflict before anything else. This engages the reader and hooks them into reading more.

What’s your strategy for writing first sentences, and what are your favorites? Let me know in the comments.

Dick, Philip K. A Scanner darkly. New York, NY: Random House, 1977. Print.

King, Stephen. The gunslinger. N.p.: Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc., 1982. Print.

Getting Published in Magazines (Tips by Someone Who is Also Struggling)

You look into a bookstore and see row after row of glossy covers lining the shelves. You think about all the authors whose work you see, all those who have “made it.” Then you think about your half-finished and entirely unedited manuscript that only your parents have read. How do you get from here to there?

For many authors, literary magazines are an important first step in their writing career. Writing short stories is great practice, and literary magazines not only build your résumé but also give you exposure and help attract people to your blog or social media pages (which you really should have if you’re serious about this whole publishing thing).

Now, before I start, I’d like to take a minute to shoot myself in the foot: I am not an expert. You won’t find any of my books in Barnes and Noble and you’re not going to bump into anyone on the subway reading an original Matt Hollingsworth. My credentials include only about a half-dozen stories (which have earned me a whopping $30) and while I do work at a literary magazine, Belmont Story Review, I am by no means a professional.

This does mean, however, that I am not like the authors of most of the “how to get published” articles you see on the internet. I am not far removed: I am someone who is struggling, just like you, someone who has to live this problem day after day. So, friend to friend, here is some advice that I’ve found helpful trying to beat my way into the fiction writing arena.

Find editors

Find people whose writing you respect, who will read over your work and give you feedback. If you live in the Nashville area, The Nashville Writers Meetup helps you connect with other authors in free critique groups.

Another useful tip is to find magazines that offer feedback. Metaphorosis Magazine has a turn around time of only a couple days (one of the fastest of any magazines) and offers fantastic feedback on every manuscript (as does Fabula Argentea although their advice usually isn’t as helpful).

That’s actually how I got my story “Pros and Cons” published. I submitted it to Metaphorosis and they gave me fantastic criticism that helped make my story publishable.

Lots of times authors resist editors “tampering” with their work, but every time a magazine editor has asked me to change part of a story, I’ve found, after my initial anger, that their suggestions made my work much stronger.

Find magazines to submit to

When I first started submitting, I would only submit to the top tier magazines, not because I thought my work was that good but because those were the ones that came up when I typed “science fiction magazines” into the search bar. And while beginners do occasionally (emphasis on occasionally) get published in these magazines, I’ve found that it’s better to start small and work your way up.

So how do you find these smaller magazines? It may put you back $5 a month but Duotrope is quite possibly the most useful website ever made. It lists thousands of magazines along with their payments, acceptance rates, and anything else you might want to know. Poets & Writers offers a similar service for free, but they don’t include genre magazines.

Target your submissions

You’ll want to submit to multiple magazines at a time (it takes too long otherwise), but be careful not to send a million submissions off at random. You have a much better chance if you target your magazines carefully.

For example: I wasn’t planning on submitting my story, “The Ten-a-Penny Parable, until I found Beechwood Review. I read their description of the kind of work they were looking for and almost fell over. They were describing my story exactly. I only ever sent “Ten-a-Penny” in to one magazine, yet still it got accepted.

Carefully targeting your submissions like that can be more powerful than carpet bombing them.

Now, a lot of magazines recommend that you read a full issue before submitting, and while that’s great if you have time, if you’re like the rest of us with a million things to do every second, you might just try reading the first page of two or three stories. This lets you get the feel of the magazine without spending too much time and lets you test the waters to see if you actually like the work they publish.

Formatting is more important than you think

Yes, I know it’s boring. I don’t like it either. But as someone who reads 30 short stories a week from a literary magazine’s slush pile, I can assure you that it’s important.

When I open up a document and see a typographical mess, my first thought is oh great. Even if the story is good, it’s starting off with a black mark.

I have been guilty of poor formatting myself. When I was submitting my story “The Ten-a-Penny Parable” to Beechwood Review, I was supposed to send the work in the body of the email, but instead I sent it as an attachment. (Note: Usually magazines do want you to send your story as an attachment, but the Beechwood Review is an exception.) The editor didn’t even send me a rejection note, just a link to the submission guidelines.

Fortunately, they allowed me to resubmit in the correct format, and they ended up accepting me. Most magazines, however, wouldn’t have been that generous. Most would have just said “no” without another thought.

Now, not every magazine is the same so it’s important to read their instructions two or three time to make sure you’re doing everything correctly. If you are submitting to a science fiction magazine for instance, the guidelines will probably have a link to this essay by William Shunn on proper manuscript formatting.

Follow it to the letter.

If they don’t specify, there’s still some general rules to remember. A lot of people who submit to Belmont Story Review use formatting similar to this blog post–line spacing of about 1.15-1.5 with extra space at the end of each paragraph. This is, however, incorrect. Manuscripts should be double spaced with no extra space between the paragraphs. If you are writing in Microsoft word, there is actually a pre-built story manuscript format template that you can use.

Using proper formatting will help you stand out from the crowd.

Be patient

I was rejected 17 times before I got my first short story published. Andy Andrews, one of the authors I help manage at my job, was rejected 51 times before his first book was published.

Believe me, I know it’s frustrating, but those who succeed are the ones who keep on submitting.

What advice do you have for getting published? What did I miss? Leave your comments below.

So You Want to be a Publisher…

It’s the first day of Kindergarten, and as a little getting-to-know-you game, your teacher has the students, one after another, say their name and what they want to be when they grow up.

It’s a common exercise, and no doubt that teacher is going to have a lot of future firemen and police officers. But one job she definitely won’t hear is publisher. In fact, a lot of us, even as adults, probably have never even realized that publishing is a career option.

When you think about it, of course, you realize that all those books you see have to come from somewhere. Somewhere along the line, somebody had to sort through a pile of potential manuscripts, pick the ones that he or she thought would make the most money, edit them, design the covers, do the marketing, and a million other things.

Publishing might not be the most glamorous profession, and it’s one that doesn’t always get a lot of recognition, but knowing that you’ve been a part of putting a book or magazine together can be quite rewarding.

Recently, I’ve begun working with the management team behind New York Times Bestselling authors Jerry Jenkins (Left Behind Series) and Andy Andrews (The Traveler’s Gift and The Butterfly Effect), and through the process I’ve learned a lot about the industry. So if you want to join me in the publishing field, here’s five things you need to know to test the waters before jumping on in!

It’s not just one career

There is no job called “Publisher.” There is no individual with that title. The publishing industry comprises of dozens of jobs from copyeditors to literary agents to entertainment lawyers, and while I’m not going to get into the specifics of what each one does, if you’re looking for a career somewhere in the industry, I would recommend researching your options to see which is right for you.

Liking books isn’t enough

If you want to be a publisher, you probably like reading, and while that is a good thing, it’s not always enough.

Reading for editorial purposes is a lot different than reading for pleasure. If you’re an acquisition editor, you have to be thinking critically about which books are going to sell and which won’t (and that’s not necessarily which ones you like the best).

If you’re a copyeditor, you can’t get sucked in like a pleasure reader does. You have to remain at a respectful distance from the book in order to focus in on the minutia of grammar.

At my job, I don’t get to read at all except for the occasional marketing email I’m asked to edit. So while a love of books is a good thing, a career in publishing will involve a lot more than pouring over tomes

 It’s behind the scenes

If you’re someone who wants to be known, who wants to be up on stage getting attention, then publishing isn’t for you. For most publishing careers, your job will be to make other people look good. If you’re a copyeditor, you’re fixing other people’s mistakes. If you’re a literary agent, you’re trying to get other people published.

Whatever you do, you will not be the one getting the glory.

 You do a different job every day

This isn’t true of all the jobs in the publishing field, but it’s certainly true of mine. Some days I spend writing while other days I’m sending emails or formatting transcripts. It all depends on what’s needed at the moment.

When Andy Andrews was coming out with his new book, we were mostly focused on the marketing, trying to get the word out to as many people as possible. At other times, we’ve needed to focus more on his website or blog. For all of us on the team, our job is whatever it needs to be at the moment.

To some people, this may be a turn-off, but to me, it’s a fantastic selling point. Who wants to spend their life doing the same thing every day? A career in publishing provides variety.

Being a people person helps

My boss regularly reminds me that we’re in the people business. Not the book business. Not the money business. The people business.

While this may not be true for editors, those in the marketing arena really have to understand people. They have to be able to get along with and talk to people. Those who are going to create the best opportunities for themselves are the people that others like to be around.

This is a hard lesson for me to learn because I have all the social graces of a very non-socially graceful person, but with practice I’m improving.

So you still want to be a Publisher?

Do you still want to be a publisher after reading my write-up?

If you do: good news! You don’t need any special degree. I, of course, have a degree specifically in publishing because I’m just awesome like that but most of the people on our team don’t. They’re just people who happened to end up in the industry and decided they liked it.

So if you’re someone who loves books and wants to be behind the scene putting them together, jump on in. The water is fine.

How to Write a Cover Letter

If you’re submitting a short story to a magazine, they’re probably going to want a cover letter. But what exactly are you supposed to put? This is going to be the editor’s first impression of you, and, like any first impression, you want it to be positive.

When I first started submitting, I was clueless about how to write a cover letter, and judging by the submissions I’ve gotten at BSR, a lot of other writers are too. So I did what I always do when I’m clueless: I asked somebody does know. In this case, my writing mentor.

Here are the Golden Rules she gave me for writing a cover letter.

Rule Number One: Your cover letter does NOT sell your story

Too often, I’ll get a cover letter that thinks it’s a query letter. While a query letter and a cover letter sound alike, there is a key difference. The job of a query letter is to sell the work. It starts with an exciting hook and a summary of the story. It should go something like this:

All his life, Marvin has thought that he’s just a normal dairy cow. That is until one day on the farm, when he is visited by the god Hermes who informs him that he is actually the reincarnation of the Greek Titan Chronos, who had been locked away for years in the underworld by his son Zeus. If Marvin is to have any hope of eluding Zeus’s grasp and saving his humble dairy farm, he must come to master his godly powers before it’s too late.

This would make a decent query letter but a very poor cover letter. Remember, your cover letter is not supposed to sell your story. All it’s supposed to do is briefly introduce yourself and your publication credits. Including a summary just makes you sound unprofessional.

Rule Number Two: Keep it simple and to the point

Here is one of my cover letters:

Dear [editor’s first and last name],

Please consider my short story for publication in your magazine. I have been previously published in Nebula Rift, Fabula Argentea, and Bards and Sages Quarterly.


Matt Hollingsworth

Notice I don’t list all my publication credits: only the three that I’m most proud of. Also, don’t include a bio unless asked. And if you are asked to include a bio, you probably don’t want to mention anything too controversial such as your career as a stripper or your crippling drug habit (unless these are relevant to the story).

If this sounds formulaic, that’s because it is. Your story should be where you show your creativity, not your cover letter.

Rule Number Three: Read the directions

Every magazine is different and sometimes they want the cover letters to be formatted a specific way. Sometimes they ask for a short bio (usually in third person) or your contact information. Sometimes they’ll ask for naked pictures although I’ve been told that’s a red flag.

I’ll admit, I’ve been guilty of skimming the instructions. I’ve submitted in the wrong file format. I’ve included my name in the cover letter when the submission was supposed to be blind. And I was rejected for it. You will be too.

I know that submitting is exciting and you want to get your work out there, but if you want to have a chance at publication, you’ll need a cover letter that both sounds professional and follows the rules of the magazine you’re submitting too. Don’t let your hard work be rejected because of something so simple.

Belmont Story Review

The literary magazine, Belmont Story Review, where I work, is currently accepting submissions for our second issue. The magazine is edited by the former head of the Missouri review, Richard Sowienski. We pay honorariums to all our authors. If you have a story to tell, we’d love to hear from you. Read our first issue and submit here.