Blog Series: How to Publish Short Stories Part I

Photo courtesy of the old typewriter I purchased at the Covered Bridge Festival

Part I: The Manuscript

Do you write short stories but are struggling to publish them?

To successfully publish short stories, you need three primary things:

  • Quality Manuscript (Blog Series Part I): if you don’t have stories to submit, you’re likely starting at the wrong place. Write some stories! Then, format and edit it correctly or the form rejections will come quickly.

  • Market research (Blog Series Part II): how do you find magazines and publications to publish your work? Where do you submit?

  • Submission plan (Blog Series Part III): how do you write a cover letter? What should be in it? How do you keep track of what you’ve submitted?

We’ll cover each of these in detail. You can’t skip any of them. Trust me on this… every lesson I’ve learned, I’ve learned the hard way.

There is a method to the madness. I’ll help you with the manuscript, show you how to identify markets and publications, and teach you the best submission methods.

Short stories can be a terrific way to establish credibility, build readership, and even make a few bucks. In addition, if you ever want to publish a book, you will significantly strengthen your novel’s query letter with a list of published short stories (in paying markets) for the potential agent/editor to peruse and wow over.

It’s also important that you manage your own expectations when it comes to your writing and accept a few facts about the short story market. I’m talking about money and rejections.

You’re not going to make a lot of money selling short stories. My biggest payday was $60. My lowest payday was $1.50.  It’s possible to be published and not receive any payment at all. It’s an accomplishment! Just be aware, the paying publications carry the weight when it comes to publishing credits. I recall the first short story I ever sold – the first money I’d ever made as a writer – and how excited I was. My wife and I spent that entire paycheck on a celebratory dinner at McDonalds. The goal is never the money, but you should endeavor to get paid. We’ll talk about that.

You’re going to receive rejections. Lots of them. One of my future blog publications will focus on rejections and how to use them – very important to understand this. But for the topic of short story publication, just be mentally prepared to receive them. Remember, it’s not personal. They don’t know you.

 

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Let’s start with the manuscript. This is the most important part of the process and it’s the part so many writers get wrong. The manuscript is your product. And like it or not, it comes down to marketability and whether the publisher believes people will want to read it. It’s the foundation for everything that follows. Bottom line: if you get the manuscript right and follow the instructions I lay out for you, be confident - it’s not if you get published, it’s when.

Get the manuscript right.

The number one reason editors reject manuscripts: Poor Craft. (I’m talking grammar errors, misspellings, lack of editing, bad formatting, etc.).

Two things will guarantee you will never be published: Not writing and not editing. It’s that simple.

People tell me they’d like to publish a short story, but they don’t know how to submit, or where to submit. When I ask what they’ve written, they tell me they haven’t actually finished anything yet, but they’d like to or they’re thinking about it.

Folks, no matter if you’re writing short stories or novels, start with writing the story. All of the research in the world is useless without a story. Write often. If you don’t have a story written or finished, stop reading this and go finish it! Then come back. I’ll wait…

Once you have a story (or better yet, a few stories), only then can you start the process. The publication process begins with editing, revising, and editing… and then revising. The biggest mistake I see in writers who can’t get published – they simply don’t spend the time perfecting their work and end up with a pile of rejections and don’t understand why.

Let’s pause a second. I need to say a few words about editing specifically. It’s critical. I’ll reiterate… it’s absolutely critical to your success. I could dedicate an entire blog series to editing alone (which I plan to do in the future). But for now, let me say this about editing – when you first think you’re done, you’re not done. You need to do a full end-to-end edit for flow, content, craft, and everything in between. When you believe in your heart it’s ready, read it out loud. You’ll find more. A basic rule of thumb for editing: the delete key is your friend. Use it.

You’ll find a ton of resources on the web about how to perfect your craft, how to edit, etc. Tons of content out there. Blogs, Youtube videos, books. So much so that it can be overwhelming. Some of it is good stuff, some of it will lead you astray. Below are four sources that I recommend. By no means am I claiming these are the only options, nor am I claiming they’re the best options, but they’re viable options and in an ocean of content, these will absolutely help you.

  • Reading – I know, I know… everyone says this. Most likely, you already read a lot, but if you don’t, you need to understand one thing: successful writers will tell you that reading is the most important aspect of developing craft. It’s how you learn to recognize good writing and bad writing. Check out my blog post Read Like A Writer. It’s this simple – if you don’t read, writing is not your thing.

  • On Writing by Stephen King – I’m not suggesting you become a Stephen King fan. I’m not even suggesting you read his short stories (though it wouldn’t hurt). What I am suggesting is that you read On Writing to glean the expertise of one of the best-selling fiction writers in history. I’m talking the mechanics here. The last half of the book focuses on craft. I’d bet many of you already own a copy. It’s a terrific read and I guarantee you’ll learn.

  • Strunk & White’s The Elements of StyleThe tiny, gray book. The Elements of Style is nothing but mechanics and the use of the English language. A writer can violate grammar rules. I do it all the time. Most of us do. But if you’re breaking the rules and you don’t know it, you will not sound impressive. Despite what anyone says, it’s difficult to read a book marred in grammatical errors. The Elements of Style provides quick reference to grammar rules and writing suggestions. I highly recommend it. My copy is on my desk, next to my computer.

  • Editor (Example) – This one may be controversial, but if you have a hundred bucks to spend, have your short story edited by a professional editor. At least do it on a few of them. Especially if you’re stuck in the quagmire of rejection. I’d recommend a “development” edit. A good editor will point out the weaknesses in your writing and help you overcome it. I totally understand if money is a blocker; editors aren’t cheap, but this is about you and your writing. If you’re stuck, invest in your development.

Beyond those four, critique groups are popular and perhaps you should seek one out. It may help you obtain objective feedback. At the very least, connect with someone who can provide feedback on your work without the fear of hurting your feelings. You need to develop as a writer and objective feedback and critique is the best way to do that. Assuming you can take it, of course.

You must realize, the publications to which you’ll be submitting receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions. The surest way to blow it coming out of the gate is to submit work that is poorly-written or poorly-edited. Spend the time to do get it right. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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I’d recommend adding some basic information to your cover page. Your name, phone number, email address, word count, and title. Make it neat. A lot of white space. I always put all of this information on the first page, then I start the actual story on page 2.

Word count is also very important in the short story market. Publications range in this area as far as what lengths they want. If you’re using MS Word, the word count will appear in the lower-left corner. Round up or down to the nearest 10 (i.e. 3,550-words, not 3,553 words). If you don’t have MS Word and your software doesn’t have word count (or god forbid, you’re typing manually), a general rule of thumb is 250 words per double-spaced page.

As a general guideline (it will vary by publication), word count breaks down as follows:

·      100 – 1,000:  Flash Fiction

·      1,000 – 7,500:  Short Story

·      7,500 – 15,000:  Novelette

·      15,000 -  40,000:  Novella

·      40,000 +:  Novel

Every publication will want to know the word count. Have it on the front page. You’re going to put word count in your cover-letter (cover-letters discussed in Part III), on your manuscript, and many publications use an electronic submissions portal – you will identify word count there as well.

When we discuss finding publishers in Part II, we’ll be discussing Submission Guidelines. Word count will be a part of those requirements every time. So if you’re targeting the short story market, keep your word counts within the short story range as you write and edit.

The last topic regarding manuscript preparation is format.

Folks, don’t try to get fancy here and do some weird font or bizarre formatting to catch attention. It won’t work. Short story publishers are busy. Paying markets want professional grade manuscripts. The manuscript needs to be publication ready when you submit it. Do not expect publishers to read your amazing story and clap their hands in awe and then do the hard work for you. They won’t. You are not the only good writer out there. Publishers have plenty to choose from.

Do not make your manuscript stand out for the wrong reasons. Seek perfection in the writing, in the editing, and in the formatting.

Here’s what you need to know for formatting: Standard Manuscript Format.

Use it. Many publications will have this link in their Submission Guidelines. It’s there for a reason. I’m not saying you’ll be rejected if there are slight deviations, but why set yourself apart as the writer who chose not to follow their instructions? Or worse yet, as the writer who doesn’t actually know what the Standard Manuscript Format is.

Let your story define you. Make it easier for editors to select your story. As soon as they pop open your document, the editor’s first impression will form immediately. Make them have to read it to reject it. Don’t make it easy to trigger the form rejection due to sloppy presentation.

 


I hope this helped you prepare your manuscript. Now it’s ready. The editing is perfected (by the way, if you’re anything like me, you’ll never feel it’s done). The formatting is beautiful.

Now it’s time to start the submission process. Yay! But who are you going to submit it to? How do you find magazines who will publish it?

Stay tuned for Part II of this series: Where to Submit