As an editor of a quarterly fiction journal and a published short fiction writer, I know full well the rigors of getting a piece published. I've both written and received my share of rejection letters, and I know it is easier to give up than to press on. Having also had the privilege to write and receive a handful of acceptances, I know that it's worth the struggle. In this article I will lay out guidelines for finding the right markets and tracking your submissions.
First things first: you need to write and you need to edit. No matter how much research you do or how many submissions you make, if the work isn't good, really good, it will not get published. The good news is that once you have a tight story down on paper (or should I say up on monitor?), with discipline and determination, you will get it published.
Let's assume that you have the story all ready to go. Now you have to find the right place for it. Start by looking at the story and decide what nook it fits into. If your story fits a certain genre, like science fiction, then start by looking at sci-fi magazines and journals. If your story deals with mental illness, look for publications that identify themselves with the subject. I recently published a story on OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). After 18 rejections, I found a literary journal that focused on mental illness and substance abuse for its theme. They accepted, and paid for, the story. In our publication we look for literary fiction; if you send us Harlequin romance, you won't get far. It may not always be clear what genre or specialty your story is in, but the better you can categorize it, the more likely you will be to find the right market.
Once you have a target genre or theme you can begin your search. Obviously you're going to start with publications you are already aware of. Reading literary journals that publish work similar to your writing style is a must. You need to know what is currently being published. Larger, more prestigious publications like the New Yorker and The Paris Review are handy, but be sure to include smaller presses in your selections as well. Titles like Tin House and AGNI are indispensable if you want to know what's happening in short fiction today. Beyond that you have a slew of online journals like Smoke Long Quarterly and Ramble Underground [full disclosure - I'm the editor and publisher] that are publishing fresh new voices. Most likely these are the markets you will be breaking into.
Hit the book store and ask for the short fiction section. Seek out one or two of the "best of" anthologies, (e.g., The Best American Short Stories, or The Pushcart Prize). While you can't submit your stories directly to them, you can read the best short fiction out there and see the publications in which they originally appeared. By doing this you have a hit list of the best small presses accepting submissions today. Next, ask where the writing section is, and look for the resource books (e.g., Novel & Short Story Writers' Market. These resources list tons of small presses publishing short fiction. Try to find one that lists the genres and themes accepted. Other important details include length of time in existence, circulation, when submissions are accepted, and if they nominate for awards.
Surf the internet. Use directories like NewPages.com or Duotrope.com to find listings of current publications. New Pages does reviews of small literary presses, and Duotrope will allow you to search short fiction markets based on genre, story length, and pay scale. Along with any results meeting your criteria, they show the publications' acceptance rates and average response times as reported by other writers. Do searches for "short fiction" or "fiction journals" to find online publications. Nowadays many web journals attract a closer readership than their print equivalents. These markets are usually easier to break into and the finer ones carry the same prestige if your work is accepted. You're more likely to find success in the print journals after you have a few web credits to your name. Beyond the strictly online journals, many print journals have a presence on the web as well. You'll find in many cases that these publications will accept e-mail submissions, making the process cheaper and quicker for you to submit your work. Whether the target format is online or in print, view each web site's links page for a listing of other like-minded publications to target.
Once you find a target you like, read a copy or some sample work to get a feel for the publication, and check their guidelines to be sure it's a good fit. Simultaneous submissions (submitting your story to multiple publications) are a must at this stage of the game. Since the plan is to send your story out to many publications at once, any journal refusing simultaneous submissions would not be appropriate. Also check for acceptable story lengths and open submission dates to further narrow your search.
When you have decided on a few (15-20) publications to target, create an A-list and a B-list. Your A-list is going to be your preferred list, which you will target first. Response times (the time it takes to hear back from an editor) average about 3 months, with some as short as a week and some as long as a year. With this in mind, plan on a two-phased approach: first send out to your A-list, then wait a few months and send out to your B-list. You do not need to hear from the A-list before sending to the B-list, but you want to give enough time for the A-list to accept your story before the B-list does. If you send it out to both lists at once, odds are the B-list will accept it before the A-list had a chance. If you wait for the A-list to respond, it may be a year before the B-list gets a chance. I can't speak for you, but I'm not that patient.
Before sending out your work, read each publication's guidelines again and be sure you have followed them as best you can. This is a big sticking point for editors, trust me. Also prepare a cover letter including previous credits, brief (very brief) bio, and contact information. Do not attempt to explain your story. The story should do that on its own.
Now you are ready to hit the post office or click the send button, but wait -- you need to track your submissions. You don't want to do all this research over again or send to the same place twice (this looks silly). On the other hand, you do want to know who's considering it and who rejected it. Most of all, if it is accepted, you want to be able to inform any other editors who are still considering the story that it's no longer available. This helps establish a relationship with those editors. Plus they see you as a serious writer, and they can't help thinking, "Damn, maybe I should have taken that one." The next time you submit to them, they may just recall your name -- as an editor, I do this all the time.
To track my submissions I use Microsoft Excel, but any spreadsheet will do. If you don't have the software, the old pen and paper still works. Create a spreadsheet consisting of seven columns: Story Title, Journal, Type, Date Sent, Response Time, Response, and Notes. Story title is in case you are tracking multiple stories. Journal is the publication targeted. Type is how the journal is published, Print, Online, or Both. Response Time is taken from the journals guidelines and it tells you when you might expect an answer. Response is simply Yes or No (mostly no, but don't be discouraged -- that's the nature of the business). Finally, I have a notes column for any extraneous information like feedback received from an editor or the publication's web address. Whenever you make a submission, add it to your list and then wait or, better yet, start writing another piece. As you receive responses, update the list. I flag my rejections with the color red and the acceptances in green. I take great pride, as will you, when a piece is accepted and I go down the list to inform the other editors who are still considering the story that it has been accepted elsewhere. Also, update those entries to show that they were notified of publication.
Remember, most published pieces were rejected numerous times before finding the right home; take rejection in stride. Constantly search for new target markets, updating your A and B lists as you see fit. Follow published guidelines to the tee, and keep track of all submissions and responses. Above all else, keep writing and submitting work.
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