The short story market is one of the hardest to break into. There are thousands of well-known writers pumping out short fiction, and thousands more just like you, struggling to get themselves published for the first time. But there are several things you can do to set yourself apart from the rest and start working your way to the head of the pack.
Attention to Detail
First things first, make sure your manuscript is professional. Use a plain, 12-point font, times new roman is the norm. Double-line space the entire manuscript and only left-justify your text. Use a minimum one inch margin on both sides of the page, and top and bottom. Put your name, address and contact number in the top right-hand corner of the coversheet, put your story’s title and your byline in the centre of the page. Rights being offered should go on the bottom-left corner and approximate word count on the right. Thereafter, make sure the first three words of the title and the page number appears in the page header on the right-hand side. Place your title about two-thirds of the way down the first page, your byline immediately underneath, and start your story one double-spaced line below that.
If this manuscript was for a short story competition you would normally need to remove the coversheet and delete any occurrences of your name from the final draft. Though you should always check the competition’s guidelines as some do differ.
If you can submit an error-free, professional-looking document, you will already have beat out all the dreamers who think they’ll get their story noticed if it’s printed on pink paper, bordered with little stars, or hand-written in old gothic. None of these strategies will give you an edge; they will only make you look too eccentric to be worth an editor’s trouble.
Choosing a Title
Though an editor may want to change your title, a title can sometimes make or break your entire submission. Don’t alienate yourself by selecting a title like ‘My Dog Rover,’ or ‘The Story of My Father.’ Instead, go for something mysterious or edgy, like ‘Bark the Dead Down,’ or ‘The Meanest Old Bastard from Here to Melbourne.’
Know When to Take Instruction
Get on-line, not just for e-publishing, but for print publications as well. Find out what your target publishers are looking for in terms of genre and submission criteria, such as format and word length. You would be surprised at how many new writers will attempt to submit a piece that is 3,000 words too long, or is on a topic completely unrelated to the regular content of the publication they are attempting to break into. If you can follow a publisher’s submission criteria to the letter and are sensitive to what their publication is trying to accomplish, you will find yourself pulling even further ahead of the other writers.
However, you don’t always have to listen to the dictates of publishers. Many editors will tell you that if you are submitting a piece to them, do not submit it to any other publisher at the same time. If they find out they have been wasting their time on your piece while you’ve gone with another publisher, they could blacklist you. Although, authors will tell you a different story. Rather than having eager publishers fighting over your work, the truth is that you will probably submit your story, wait for months to hear from the publisher, and then get a letter of rejection. Is your time really that much less valuable than that of an editor? Experienced authors say submit, submit, submit. Just be sure to keep a list of all the places you have sent your manuscript so you can withdraw it if you get lucky.
While it may be hard or even impossible for a never-published author to get their manuscript in front of an editor, one strategy for breaking in is to enter short fiction contests. These contests usually come with some prize money and an opportunity to be published. However, beware of scam contests. Any contest that says you’re a winner and then asks you for money is a scam. Any contest that says you’re a winner but wants to publish your work without paying you is a scam. Don’t be fooled – research contests as thoroughly as you would a publisher. A reading or entry fee is pretty much the norm, but again beware, watch out for high fees in return for small prizes.
Get Tough or Get Out
Being neat, professional, competitive and a contest-winner may help to put you at the head of the pack, but these do not make up a never-fail formula for success. The truth is, your stories are going to be rejected a disappointing number of times. Just remember that this does not mean your story is bad, and it does not mean that you will never succeed. It just means that you are going to have to learn to accept rejection. Some of the greatest authors in literary history have been able to paper their walls in rejection slips.
If a rejection contains comments of any kind from an editor, you know you’re on the right track. You made them care enough to want to teach you something, and this is no small feat. Whatever an editor has suggested, consider it carefully. Try making some of these changes and resubmit.
Don’t Forget that this is a Job
Like every other stage of the process, this is hard work. Writing is like any other job, to do it well, you have to work your butt off, and deal with bosses that are going to give you a hard time every chance they get. The biggest mistake a new writer can make is to give up when things stop being easy. As soon as the creative juices don’t seem to be flowing, or they can’t get part of the story just right, they quit. This attitude is all wrong. Writers that are getting published aren’t better than you; they’re just working harder than you. Authorship can offer huge payoffs, but only to those who are willing to quit playing and do some real tough storytelling.
One last thing you can do to advance further ahead of the pack is to do your research. Writers used to depend on annually published directories like the Fiction Writer’s Market to get the scoop on submission criteria and publisher addresses, but today the Internet is the place to be for the short story writer. The new frontier when it comes to short story publishing is on-line. The form is ideally suited to on-line publications, websites and as a downloadable for hand-held devices. So warm up your mouse and start pounding that keyboard, you’ll never know unless you give it a go.