How I Submit Short Fiction

Later today I'll be doing a thread on Twitter about how I submit fiction to markets. However some folks prefer to read things as one clean blog post. For convenience, I'm reformatting the advice right here.

Several newer writers recently asked me how I submit my short stories. For this mental exercise, let’s pretend I just finished a new short story. This imaginary story will be "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants." It’s 3,408 words long and is Fantasy.

How do we figure out where to submit this thing?

I start by visiting The Grinder on Diabolical Plots.  Its Advanced Search tool lets me sort out magazines that pay well, take stories of this length and genre, and what is open (and closed). 

Then I make my list. Four factors play into what moves a market up the list:

1) Which ones take stories of this length and genre?

2) Which ones pay the best?

3) Which ones respond the fastest?

4) Which ones publish stuff closer to this story, and thus are a better fit?

"Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants" is at the sweet spot for short stories: most SciFi/Fantasy magazines accept stories in the 3500~ word range. At over 5k, the list would start shrinking.

"Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants" is a Fantasy story rather than SciFi, so Analog Magazine doesn’t fit, but Podcastle does. Thus Podcastle goes on the list, and Analog doesn't.

I mostly submit to markets that pay the SFWA pro rate (8c/word). There are a couple of semi-pros that I particularly enjoy and might submit to, but pros go first. That’s your personal choice.

What defines "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants”? Let's imagine what it is. Let's say it’s got 1) anti-ableist themes, 2) is about non-human POV characters, and 3) does a deep dive on character psychology. Every story has defining characteristics, and you should use those to hone in on what the most fitting market is. Mostly you get this sense by reading the markets. You can’t write stories for the ongoing community dialogue without reading. And if you hate everything a market publishes, it’s probably not a market for your fiction.

With this imaginary story, I refine my list by looking for markets that like those three elements I listed.

Sometimes the best market for a story is temporarily closed. Strange Horizons rules, but was recently closed for a long stretch. Yet they pay well, and they love non-traditional main characters and deep psychology, and they’re sensitive to ableism. They might like these ants.

I might decide Strange Horizons is the best fit for "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants." Then it would be a question of whether I wanted to wait until they were open. Would it be two weeks? No sweat. Six months? Then I would send my story to other high-profile markets first. If they rejected it, then hey, Strange Horizons would reopen in a bit. (To be clear, Strange Horizons IS open right now and you should send them stuff. This was just a hypothetical situation for an imaginary submission.)

But the first market I submit "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants" to rejects it. Often my first choices reject my work. That’s why it’s good to weigh markets with fast response times. If a magazine often makes writers wait over 100 days, they go lower on my list.

When "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants" gets rejected by the first market? I send it right out to the second one.

If the second rejects? To the third.

And on, and on until a sale or bust.

It’s important to maintain that submissions list. Don’t self-reject. Rejecting stories is an editor's job. Keep sending your stories out there. My Nebula-winning story “Open House on Haunted Hill” was rejected several times before it found its market (and then its audience).

Sometimes you’ll get a personal rejection that gives pointed feedback. I’m pretty good at sniffing whether an editor is off the mark. We’re all fallible. If they’re onto something, I might revise and show it to a couple people to see if the problem is still there.

But in every other case? The story goes right back out to market.

Do not revise every freaking time your story comes back. Soon you’ll hate your story, yourself, and your dog. Don't do it to yourself.

When I submit, my cover letters are short. Yours should be, too. Here’s what the cover letter for "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants” would look like if that story was real:

Dear Editors,
Attached is "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants," a short story complete at 3,408 words.
I have previously published stories in Uncanny, Nature Futures, and F&SF. This story is about confronting ableism, and I am disabled.
John Wiswell

That’s it!

If you don’t have notable fiction sales, it’s okay to skip that line.

If you don’t have a notable credential related to this specific story (like my disability line), then skip that line.

In short fiction, cover letters are NOT a sales pitch like they are in novels. Most of the time they’re just how an editor gets in contact with you to accept or reject. If editors want more information, they will say so in their submissions guidelines. Personally, I side-eye magazines that do weird things like ask you to summarize the story in a cover letter.

Let’s say "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants” sells quickly. Yay!

Let’s say "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants" never sells. All my listed markets reject it. Bummer, but not a tragedy. I can sit on a story and use it if an editor solicits me down the line, or if a themed anthology opens up that fits it. Furthermore, as a writer grows, they won't necessarily want everything they’ve written to be on the internet. This story might not be my best work. "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants” might just be a growing experience for me.

What do I do while "Arm-wrestling for Fire Ants" is on submission? I write another story! Hopefully several. I draft them, revise, get betas, etc. Waiting for your one special story to get rejected stifles you. Creativity fills the time, and builds your craft.

I often also offer to beta for other writers, to give them a hand. Again, short fiction is about community. We help each other.

And that’s everything I can think to cover. Hope this thread is helpful for some folks. Patrons, please feel free to hit me up with questions in the comments here. I'm happy to clarify and expand.

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