I’ve had quite a few people with queries about the how of submitting stories to magazines and journals in the last couple of weeks. So I thought I’d pull out the ole soapbox again and take up some real estate at Speaker’s Corner. I know I’ve banged on about submission guidelines before, so some of this will be well-trodden ground. Some may be something new from me at least – who can say?
Submitting is Not a Science
There’s no formula I can give you that will infallibly lead to a story being accepted. When I tell you that two parts of hydrogen mixed with one part of oxygen will give you water, then we’re on pretty safe ground[i]. I wish I could tell you with equal certainty that one part story plus one part magazine with an open submission period equals a guaranteed publication. Alas, I cannot. I can, however, give you some guidelines that will help your chances. No guarantees, but this will assist you to make the most of the opportunities that are out there. Hmmm? What’s that question from the back? Well, kind of like an extreme makeover for your publishing opportunities, if you want to put it that way. No, there will be no whiter, brighter, straighter teeth, nor will any noses be made smaller and perkier.
Research Your Markets
Where to find a market in the first place? There are several sources. Online you’ve got the wonderful www.ralan.com and the equally wonderful www.duotrope.com. These are regularly updated and easily searchable databases of spec-fic markets. They are your friends and want to help you, so please use them wisely. Hard copy sources include The Australian Writer’s Marketplace (for Australia and New Zealand); the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market in the US; The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and The Writer’s Handbook in the UK; and there’s a variety of other handbooks and magazines and journals scattered conveniently across the world[ii]. These are useful tools in your arsenal and remember that knowledge is power. There is also the source that comes under the heading of Professional Contacts – as you move forward in your career you’ll make more and more professional contacts with other writers, editors, publishers. You meet these people by attending cons, joining writers’ centres or writers’ groups, going to book signings at book stores, etc[iii]. Find the right kinds of people and they will pass on info: “So-and-so is doing an anthology on zombie goldfish and I remembered you had that story on zombie goldfish! You should send it to her/him and tell her/him I sent you.” That’s the nicest sort of reference of all – well, except for “I’m doing an anthology for Tor and I want your story on zombie goldfish”. One can dream.
So, you’ve found a market, now research that market. Go to the magazine/journal’s website and check the following (these are merely the highlights):
(a) Is the market you’re looking at appropriate for your story? Will your erotic ghost story do very well at a magazine aimed at children in the 5 to 10 age bracket? If the answer is ‘no’, then please move along.
(b) Is the market actually open? The fact of the matter is that editors are quite busy enough thank you very much and they don’t need to waste their time emailing people who’ve sent them stories out of season. In most case, they simply won’t do it – they will delete or shred your submission automatically and you will not know its awful fate until you email the editor some months later and receive a rather curt email about the agony of delete. And! If it’s a magazine or journal with paper submissions, try to establish before you send off your sub (and the self-addressed envelope and the international reply coupon) if it is still a going concern – if the magazine had closed down completely then trees have died in vain. Equally important is checking when or if there is a closing date – no point crafting a masterpiece if you send it in three days (or months) late.
(c) Is your formatting correct for the particular market? Most places go with the industry standard (see Bill Shunn’s most excellent info here http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html), but some (particularly the ones that take emailed submissions) may well have different requirements. Some online magazines want single spaced, courier new, no indents, a double return between paragraphs, italics instead of underlines, and a partridge in a pear tree. These places are not inclined to re-format your submission when they receive it, so please make sure you provide them with the formatting for which they have asked.
(d) Is your submission of the correct length? Are you above or under the word limit? Will the editor get grumpy if you send a 9000 word story to a magazine with a 4000 word upper limit? Yes. Will they read your sub on the off-chance you happen to be the next Ted Chiang? No. Probably not.
(e) Will you get paid for your story? Is it important to you personally to get paid? The answer should be ‘yes’, because if you want to become a professional writer, then dammit, you should get paid for it. What you do has value. So, check the pay rate. Early in your career, you may well settle for less; as you get more published stories under your belt and as your work improves, then hopefully, the rate of pay will improve.
Follow the Guidelines
This follows on from researching the market and I’ve written about this before, so go to A Note on Submission Guidelines from March of this year by following this link (if I can make it work – I R Baboon when it comes to technical things) https://angelaslatter.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/a-note-on-submission-guidelines/
Write an Appropriate Cover Letter
You should always (unless instructed otherwise) include a cover letter. This cover letter should be succinct and relevant. Editors don’t need to know that you own a cat – not all writers own cats. Not that there’s anything wrong with owning a cat, but the editor does not necessarily need to know that. They don’t need to know how many children you have, or whether your neighbour annoys you by playing the trumpet late into the night. They don’t need to know what inspired your story (if they buy it, then you can put that in your bio). Tell them:
- Who you are as a writer = one sentence, maybe two
- Title of your story and length = one sentence
- Previous publishing credits = if you don’t have many then list them all; if you have a lot then list the most relevant given the market; or the most recent; or the most prestigious; or a combination of those.
- Thank them for their time.
Here’s one I prepared earlier:
I am a Brisbane-based writer of speculative fiction. Please find enclosed my story for consideration, “Blood and Breath”, approximately 4500 words in length.
My previous publishing credits include:
- “Sister, Sister”, to appear in Tartarus Press’ Strange Tales III Anthology late in 2009.
- “Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope”, to appear in a to-be-announced Drollerie Press anthology.
- “The Piece of Ice in Miss Windermere’s Heart”, New Ceres Nights anthology edited by Tehani Wessely and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press), April 2009.
- “The Jacaranda Wife”, Dreaming Again edited by Jack Dann (HarperCollins), 2008.
- “I Love You Like Water”, 2012 anthology edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Ben Payne (Twelfth Planet Press), February 2008.
- “The Nun’s Tale”, Canterbury 2100, edited by Dirk Flinthart (Agog! Press), October 2008.
Also please find enclose a self-addressed envelope and an international reply coupon for advice of rejection or acceptance. [or Please use the email address at the top of the page to advise me of rejection or acceptance.]
Many thanks for your kind consideration of my work.
Don’t be overly familiar with an editor and do not assume that humour in your letter will get you lifted out of the slush pile any faster. Equally, don’t assume that the editor will know who you are because you met four years ago at a con or because you’ve had 3 stories published elsewhere. And do not, oh, please do not, assume that the editor is a male. “Dear Mr Susan B Anthony” will not go down well at all. If you’re not sure, then go with something gender-neutral or do a little Googling – it’s amazing what you can find out. If your cover letter goes over one page, then go back and start again. So, succinct, relevant and professional.
Use the VanderMeer Stratagem
There’s also what I like to think of as the VanderMeer Stratagem – mainly coz Jeff VanderMeer told it to me. Pick your markets and go “top-down”. No, not an exhortation to remove one’s shirt, but rather start by sending your submission to the best market first: the one that has the highest prestige, the biggest circulation, the highest rate of pay. If you get rejected from there, then go to the next best market and so forth. You have nothing to lose in doing it this way. If your story does happen to be brilliant, then chances are it will be accepted pretty quickly – isn’t it best to have the top market pick it rather than the lowest ranking one? Because the lower-paying market will probably be able to pick up that this is a fabulous story just as well as the better markets. And before you accuse me of market-elitism, know this: not all markets are created equal. Deal with it.
There’s a variation I like to add to the above and that is this: you can mess with the VanderMeer Stratagem by sending first to the markets that take electronic submissions. Why? Because oftentimes they have a much faster turnaround time than the paper-based markets. You need to weigh up how long you’re willing to have a story out in one place against the advantages of going top-down. Of course, if the top market also happens to be one that takes electronic subs and has a fast turnaround time (and let’s face it, who doesn’t want faster rejections?) then you’re laughing.
When to Query
How long is a piece of string? Well, generally, it’s about 3 months long. Most places will state very clearly in their submission guidelines when you can query the status of your submission. Strange Horizons says very clearly 10 weeks. Fantasy Magazine and Clarkesworld (both have online submission processes) have a nifty little status’o’metre that you can look at online to see how your story is faring – and both of them tend to turn stories around in a week or so (we loves them, Precious!). Shimmer says its process takes about 3 weeks. Fantasy & Science Fiction, even though a paper market, turns submission around in a laudable and consistent 8 weeks. Just check when your particular market allows queries – if it doesn’t say, then go with the three month rule – and mark the date on your calendar. Do not, repeat do not, query before that date. Don’t make an editor (or a poor unfortunate slush-pile reader) angry – you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.
In summary: find a market; research a market; select a market using the VanderMeer Stratagem; follow the submission guidelines; write a succinct and relevant cover letter; don’t query too soon; and, above all, behave like a professional.
As always, these are just my stray thoughts and are open to dispute, discussion or expansion.
I think my brain is empty now. Interestingly enough, there’s a school of thought that thinks my brain is empty most of the time. Oh well. Now I’m going to go and edit a crime novel for someone.
[i] Of course, chances are I will also tell you to mix that water with two fingers of Jameson whisky and that will lead to happiness. That is incontrovertible proof that I should only be listened to for so long.
[ii] Just note that because I’m listing these here does not mean I’m endorsing them – you need to go and do the research and test-runs for yourself before you make a decision to purchase/beg/borrow/steal a copy (and no, I’m not endorsing stealing, either).
[iii] See the post on Networking for more on this https://angelaslatter.wordpress.com/2009/06/10/networking-%e2%80%93-not-a-dirty-word-it-just-feels-that-way-sometimes/.