I wrote a story! Yes!
I know the feeling. You finished a short story, and you’re all fired up. You want the whole world to read your story. Immediately! The whole world is waiting for your short story! This is the short story that’s going to change the world! You already have Pushcarts dancing in your mind like visions of sugarplums!
First, some questions to ask yourself.
- Overall, am I satisfied with my story and feel good about sharing it with readers? Have I put it aside for a while, so that I could read it with a more objective eye? Have I revised it more than once? Did I run it by my workshop or other readers I can trust?
- Have I read my story out loud to catch any usage issues, awkward syntax, choppy sentences, words left out, words inadvertently repeated, spelling and grammar errors, sloppy punctuation, language that doesn’t flow well, anything that just doesn’t make sense? (If you used as many exclamation marks as I did above, take them out. Now.)
- Did I give the editor a reason to keep reading past the first paragraph, preferably past the first sentence or two? (Editors figure if they’re not hooked within a paragraph or two, their readers won’t be, either.) This does not require an explosion, although explosions are permissible.
- Did I create a character (or characters) that readers will find interesting enough to stick with from p. 1 until “The End”? Did I bring them alive in compelling scenes?
- Did I create dramatic tension and sustain it (but not through withholding basic information that the reader needs to have to understand what’s happening, which is just annoying)?
- Did I establish the time period of the story if it is not set in the present, so that the editor is not surprised on p. 9 to discover that the story takes place in 1870?
- Did I create a setting so that characters do not seem to be hovering in space, unless they really are hovering in space? (Then use setting to establish that they are hovering in space.)
Great. Now, about those literary journals.
- Do I feel that my work fits the overall aesthetic of this journal? Do I really enjoy the work that this journal publishes? Comb through a resource like NewPages.com and read as many journals as you can. Two others: http://www.pw.org/toolsforwriters and http://www.thereviewreview.net/. Great lunch break activity.
- Have I read the submission guidelines? There’s no sense submitting your 10,000-word story to a journal with a 5,000-word max, or your 5,000-word story to a journal that publishes flash fiction only. And many journals accept submissions only during certain months.
- Does the journal seem to publish only “big name” writers, emerging writers, brand-new writers, or some combination thereof? The same writers issue after issue? Do you care?
- How do I feel about the editorial staff of this journal? The journal’s website should list the editors.
- How long as this journal been in operation? Does that matter to me? Does the journal have a good reputation?
- Is the journal an online publication, a print publication, or some combination of these?
- If online, does the journal archive work and include other content on the site? What kind of content? Is the website attractive and easy to navigate? Are the stories presented so that they’re easy to read? Would you be proud to send your story link to your friends and family? Does this matter to you?
- Does the journal accept simultaneous submissions? What is their acceptance rate and response time?
- Is there a fee to submit? How do I feel about that?
What matters to one writer may not matter to another, but you should know what matters to you.
So now you know where you want to submit.
- Most journals use an online submission system now. Many use Submittable. The submission guidelines for each category may be included there as well. Be sure to read them.
- What to include in the cover letter box: Not much. Seriously. Keep it professional. Yes, your work is what counts, not the content of the cover letter box. But make a good first impression. Show that you take yourself and the journal editors seriously. This is not a big joke. Keep it simple. Start with something like, “Thank you for considering this story for publication in ______(insert correct name of journal here; watch for cut-and-paste gaffes)__.” Saying something like “I enjoyed the stories in your spring issue (including a couple of titles of stories you really did enjoy)” is a nice touch. Not necessary, but nice. Then include a brief, professional bio, similar to bios you see in the publication. I would recommend that you not include information about your pets, family or relationship issues, personality disorders, medical conditions, addictions, financial challenges, athletic and musical abilities, hobbies, or love of rainbows and butterflies. Do not brag. Do not be self-deprecating. Do not be overly witty. You do not need to include anything resembling a CV or resume (you are not applying for a job), a long list of your awards and quotes from famous people about your talent (which can make you look, well, pompous), or a synopsis of your story (your story should speak for itself). A “thank you for considering” sentence and a short bio. Really, that’s all you need.
- Unless the journal specifically asks for something else in the guidelines.
- Attach the story in a standard, double-spaced format. One space after periods. Save your creativity for the story.
- Be sure to include your contact information (unless you’re submitting to a contest and asked not to include identifying information on the manuscript).
- All that said, a mildly quirky cover letter or a couple of punctuation errors in the story aren’t likely to be deal breakers. The story is what counts. All editors want a fabulous story to land in the submission queue.
- Most writers submit their stories to multiple publications. Most publications have no problem with simultaneous submissions. If you receive a decline response, don’t take it personally. Blow it off and wait to hear from the other journals, or send your story out to a couple more. If you believe in your story, yes, keep sending it out—but you may want take another look and possibly revise if you think you may have been too hasty in sending it out the first time. There is no need at all to respond to the editors’ form letter responses. Keep in mind that journals can receive hundreds or thousands of stories to consider for each issue. They can publish only so many.
- If your story is accepted by one publication (congratulations!) immediately withdraw it from the others. You can do this with a click of a button in the online submissions system. No need to email the editors of the other journals (unless they don’t use an online system). If you don’t withdraw your work, massive headaches can ensue, believe me.
Very important: Once you submit your story, try to forget about it. Go right back to writing. You have more stories inside you. Write them.
Barbara Westwood Diehl is founding editor of the Baltimore Review. Her fiction and poetry have been published in journals including MacGuffin, Confrontation, Potomac Review (Best of the 50), American Poetry Journal, Measure, Little Patuxent Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Gargoyle, Superstition Review, Word Riot, Bartleby Snopes, Penduline Press, Northwind. NANO Fiction, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.