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 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.
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.