Thursday, 11 April 2013

Submitting short stories for publication - an honest history

Stories take on a life of their own - let them go!

Now that I am a fully signed up advocate of reading and writing short stories, I thought I’d take an honest look at my experience of submitting short stories to journals and anthologies, in the hope it will help those who are considering doing this or just starting out.

A few years ago I’d been writing strange little stories with fairy-tale-like content that were childish but not quite for children, that made it as far as my writers’ group and my mother. One of them, over ten heavenly and strange weeks, somehow grew into a whole novel. I loved my novel when I’d finished it, but much researching of agents and publishers brought home the hard truth that, with absolutely no publication history, it was unlikely anyone would take it on unless it was either brilliant or a cinch to market.

I recognised that it was neither, and decided that if I wanted anyone to notice me I better try to get some work out there that wasn’t such a big risk for both me and a publisher. So, I started writing short stories for adults, or at least readers heading towards adulthood.

 Someone at my writers’ group told me about, a section of which functions as a gigantic list of looming deadlines for lit mags and anthologies, some with themes, some new, some elitist, some terrible. I began submitting stories that matched themes or styles.

I had read time and again that one should be business like about the submission process, to avoid the clash of fragile new-writer’s ego with a fat stack of rejections. This message must have sunk in. I made myself a big ugly spreadsheet and started posting off; somehow colouring each line in green was enough satisfaction and rather than ‘actively waiting’, as some writers describe the period of agony while waiting for a response, I forgot about each submission.

It helped that I did so many, as no particular submission haunted me. I’d recommend this approach for that reason as well as the fact that it ought to improve chances of publication, as long as you’re not submitting willy-nilly. It’s worth the 15 minutes of research to discover whether your story is a good fit for a journal or publisher first.

So I was surprised, and then elated, when my first acceptance appeared. This was followed by more surprises. The same story was accepted by two anthologies, so I had to choose and let one down. It was hard to be firm rather than greedy for seeing my work in print at that stage, but I realised it wasn’t a good idea to potentially annoy two presses just as I was getting started. I was shocked again by my reaction to seeing my first published story out there. I felt strangely upset – it had gone out into the world, it wasn’t mine anymore, and I felt embarrassed about all the people reading it. This sounds completely irrational given I had pursued publication, and it was; I got over it.

Over six months or so I built up a writer's CV of my published stories, the odd second prize or longlisting, and writing courses I had attended. This had a snowball effect – as it grew I could add it to new submissions, who would see that someone else had vouched for me. Ultimately, I’m certain that this publication list was instrumental in getting me my creative writing PhD place.

Having thought of short stories as a way to improve my writing and get something published, I’m now completely hooked and am writing a collection, rather than a novel, for my PhD. If you are a new writer wondering how to get a bit of attention, be taken seriously, and improve your chances of publishing something longer, I’d recommend making the investment of time and effort and writing/submitting some short stories . This is not a cynical exercise; it will genuinely improve your writing, it will teach you to be business-like about getting your work out into the world, and if you’re lucky you will also get hooked on reading and writing the short form.

My only word of warning: don’t send out stories you are not proud of, at least at the time of writing. They do take on their own life, and with online publication, are both long-lived and easy to find!

Here are a few useful resources for submitting short stories: