(AND HOW TO SURVIVE SUBMITTABLE.COM)
Author Kurt Vonnegut once said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” I know the feeling. Each new story I write, I consider, “How did I do it before?” I did it without knowing what I was really doing, with odds not in my favor.
Vonnegut also said that writers “have to be jumping off cliffs continually and developing wings on the way down.” My favorite stories of mine surprised me along the way. If you’re being surprised, you may be doing something right.
Publishing your efforts is no less harrowing. When I began getting my short stories published in print journals just before the start of this century, I supported the post office. In those days, you printed out your story on perhaps the best rag-content paper you could find, created a cover letter, and sent it all off to a magazine or publisher with a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for its return.
The challenge is that editors don’t know you, there’s so little space, and the submissions come by the hundreds if not thousands. I once agreed to be the judge for a Writer’s Digest play contest. (I started as a playwright.) I was sent over 620 plays. If I knew by page two it wasn’t a winner, I’d move on.
When I submitted stories back then, each story cost about $2 in postage each way i.e. $4 a story. I received hundreds of rejections. Still, I was looking for the editor who loved my subtle humor. I ended up getting over two dozen stories published this way. You just have to endure the many rejections.
Rejections often came on a three-inch-by-five-inch piece of paper that said, “Thank you for thinking of us. Unfortunately, your piece does not fit our needs at this time.” It would be signed, “The Editors.” At this time? I’d then spend more money on postage to other places. I’d keep track of the rejections on a spreadsheet. I didn’t think about the postage costs.
Now things are different. Almost all literary journals, magazines, and publishers want you to send your stories digitally, most using Submitable.com. It might be called Rejectable.com for the efficiency at being rejected. A few of my friends who’d been published often earlier in their lives are deeply frustrated with Submittable.com. They never get published this way.
I decided to try it for myself with my new batch of short stories. Even though I’ve been published in a number of top-notch journals over the years, I realized that while all of my friends loved hearing I was published, few if any would buy the journal I was in. Rosebud was available in almost any Barnes and Noble store, but others, such as the Clackmas Literary Review, a consistently beautiful book, could only be bought from the college itself.
This time, I got to thinking, “With this being the new age, why not get published in an online journal?” At least friends might read it once you gave them the link. Thus, I started my new journey.
Submissions often have a reading fee to support the cost of Submittable. I decided right away if the fee was over $5, the cost in postage, I wouldn’t submit. Some journals seem to exist only for making money this way. Beware of contests that ask $15 or more dollars. I came across one that wanted $40.
On Submittable, you’re allowed to write a cover letter. Do that. It’s your best chance for editors to get intrigued by your piece. Don’t give spoilers. Make the editors curious.
All said, you’re likely to be rejected. As writers, we’re in the rejection business. If you get rejected, and there’s a name of the rejector, write that person a thank you. You can do so by clicking “reply” on the rejection. The point is to get them to remember you positively for the next time you submit.
Editors almost never get thank-you’s. Rather, when I was an editor, I was told how stupid I was in rejecting them and that their cousin told them it was good and would make them famous. “You lost your chance,” they would say, accompanied by an expletive. Yes, that was the way to win me over. Those of us in the office would put the most outrageous letters on the company refrigerator.
My goal in sending out these short stories was not to end up on any company refrigerator. If any of my stories received six or more rejections, I'd relook at it to see if the first page was grabbing enough. Would a reader understand the goal of the protagonist? Does the ending satisfy? Often, I'd find things and tweak my story, then send it to new places.
Another approach to finding the right place is to simply look up online the journals you know of or have heard about. One of my former USC students, John Fox, created a list, constantly updated, of the best short story publishers, which you can see at his Ranking of the Top 100 Best Literary Magazines. Some of them require you to mail your story the old-fashioned way.
Keep track of your rejections, if after two or three rejections by “the editors,” cross them off your list. They aren’t personal. Go for places that look more promising or the editors give you their names. There are always more places. Keep a spreadsheet of your submissions. When you get accepted, highlight the publication on your spreadsheet.
I’m happy to say after over a hundred rejections, I started getting acceptances. Most recently, “The Aviator, Eastward” appeared in Barbar Literary Magazine, the same place my first story was published in this batch. The short story follows a young woman, Callie, still living at home in Los Angeles, meeting her secret boyfriend, Harley, at a graveyard. He has news for her. You can read it here:
For my first story online, “Views from an Italian Bridge,” click here:
Barbar has also accepted a third story, but with no publication date yet.
My short story “Light-Headed” has been accepted in a print anthology out of England. I’ll write more on that in the future. It has the same character of Callie from “The Aviator, Eastward.”
My story “Dietmar and His Very Bad Week,” will be published in the next issue of Rosebud later this year, Issue #71. Get it at Barnes and Noble or online.
This is all pushing toward my goal of getting all the stories published first in journals and then as a book.
By the way, you are not likely to get rich in getting short fiction published. At best, you might get $15 per story but more likely nothing. A book might bring several hundred dollars in advance. You write and publish this way because you’re compelled to.
As Vonnegut also said, “Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of the writer.”
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.