How to Publish a Short Story
Part 2: Submitting Your Story
This is the second in a 3-part series on how to publish a short story, based on my experiences with publishing over the last two and a half years. In other words, here’s a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t know when I started. It’s been an enjoyable journey for me – and if I can do it, so can you!
So you’ve found a publication you like, and you’re ready to submit your story. Don’t worry if you’re terrified, that’s completely normal (sorry). Here are some easy steps to follow:
1. Do one last grammar and spelling check.
2. Format your story. The reason an editor asks you to format in a certain way is to make their job easier. You want to be the person who makes their job easier. If instead you are the person who makes it harder, they will not buy your story. They may not even read your story. They don’t have to, because lots of other people sent them stuff that follows the guidelines. This is from editor Atlin Merrick of Improbable Press.
Fortunately, it’s not that complicated. First, here are a couple of formatting possibilities publications may ask for:
- Shunn, Classic, or Modern formatting: These are all the same thing: Shunn formatting. It’s just the basic stuff that editors like to read: things like 12-point font and double spacing. At the top of the Shunn website, you’ll notice you can switch between Modern and Classic: there are only minor differences between the two, the main one being Classic is in Courier font.
- Other specs: Often publications have their own (sometimes unusual) requests. I’ve seen things like different fonts, British vs American English stuff like single quotes vs. double, and a place that wanted a cover page because they were going to print the story out, old-school. I usually copy/paste the guidelines to a document and cross them off as I complete each request.
- If they don’t say: If the publication has no specs at all, use Shunn Modern.
- Editors’ pet peeves: There are some things that are really time-consuming for editors to fix, and they boil down to this: are your formatting settings actually settings?
For example, Shunn formatting says that when you go to indent the first line of every paragraph, you should use a document-wide setting to do it automatically. That way, if the editor decides to make them un-indented for their publication, they just have to change one setting, and everything is fixed.
If, on the other hand, you manually pressed tab at the start of every paragraph, then the editor has to go and delete all those tabs, one by one. Same thing with manually double-spacing your document. So be careful not to do this. (UNLESS they ask for it – yes, I did find a place that actually did.)
- Name and address: Shunn formatting has you put your snail mail address on the top left of the page. I usually skip the street address and just put city and state (I’m in the US). If the press needs your full address, you can give it to them later.
- If they ask for anonymous submissions: Some presses want to “read blind,” which means your story goes to the readers/editors without your name on it. If you are using Shunn formatting, be sure you remove your name/address section on the top left of the first page, your byline from under the story title, and your name from the header. Also remove your name from actual document title: so your story will be Story.docx instead of Story_Author.docx (or whatever naming the press asks for).
- Will the press overlook small errors in formatting that I made by mistake? Yes. Especially if they’re easy to fix. For example, once I forgot to switch the quotation marks from double to single, and the piece sold anyway. Presses just want to know you made an effort.
- The really good news: The submissions page for the magazine Mythaxis says this about following the guidelines: The editor knows he is wasting his time suggesting this, but is allowed to dream of a better world. I’ve heard the same thing from editor Atlin.
Guess what? Most people don’t follow the guidelines. That means, if you do, your story is likely to survive the first round of rejections. In fact, this even skews the statistics: say a publication takes 4% of what they get. But if many people are automatically rejected…your odds are actually much higher than they look. Follow the guidelines and you will get your foot in the door, and from there, you have a shot at publication.
3. Write your cover letter. Most places ask for a cover letter. I like Kel Coleman’s advice very much. My basic cover letter looks like this:
Dear [Editor, Editors, or their names],
Please consider Story Title (Genre, # of words).
[Other necessary information.]
[My legal name]
Pen name: Dannye Chase
Let’s break that down:
- Story Title (Genre, # of words). This looks like “Branwen and the Three Ravens” (Dark fantasy, 6651 words).
- Other necessary information: You won’t have this section for every story. DO NOT summarize your piece unless they ask for it (which is rare), they want to read your work cold, like a reader of their publication would. Some examples of my other necessary info:
Life experience that ties into the story: The main character of this story, Cynthia, is dealing with difficult side effects after treatment for oral cancer. This is something I have gone through myself, and her symptoms are based on my own.
Other info to know about this story: The setting and science of this story are real: the prehistoric fish Dunkleosteus once inhabited a Devonian Age sea in what is now Southeast Iowa.
Reprint status: This story was originally published in the anthology Queer Weird West Tales from LIBRAtiger Press in August of 2022. The anthology was shortlisted for a 2022 Aurealis Award, and included in the 2023 Pride Story Bundle. The rights have reverted to me.
Content warnings: (Some presses ask for these, but you can always put them in even if they aren’t requested. They help the press funnel stories to staff who are comfortable reading that particular content.) It looks like this: Content warnings: Mild sexual content, murder.
- Author bio: Keep this short. Mine looks like this:
Dannye Chase is a queer writer from the Pacific Northwest. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in [publications]. She can be found at DannyeChase.com and on Twitter @DannyeChase.
For publication credits, I put either my top credits or something relevant to the publication. Before I was published, I just said “She writes queer romance and speculative fiction.”
The reason I mention I’m queer is because many publications are looking for under-represented voices, and ask you to self-identify if you are comfortable with that, especially if it ties in with your story somehow.
4. Send your story. Presses use different methods for receiving stories. Here are the ones I’ve seen:
- By email attachment. Most publications ask for a story attached to an email as a .doc or .docx, or sometimes .rtf. They usually don’t ask for pdf’s, because those are hard to edit. They may have directions for how to name your document. If they don’t, “Story_Author Name” is good.
- By pasting the story in the body of the email. This is rare, but some publications want you to put your story in the body of the email. Do not ever do this unless they specifically ask for it, because all your careful formatting can get messed up.
Two other notes on emails:
The subject line: be sure to follow exactly what the press wants here. They get a lot of emails and if you have an unexpected subject line, your email can get misfiled. If they don’t specify, use something like “Submission: (Title) by (Author Name).”
You should also whitelist the press email address. You’ll have to look up how to do this for your particular email setup, but whitelisting means setting up a filter to make sure emails from a certain address never go to the spam folder.
- By form. Publications sometimes use forms specific to their websites or services like Submittable or Moksha (both free to use). Usually this still involves attaching a file, but sometimes presses want you to paste your story into a box on the form.
Two last notes, from my parents:
I used to be a singer. My mom was my first vocal coach, and she always said, “You will get farther on being a nice person than you will on talent.” I mean, you have to have some talent and training. But I sang with bands who had fired rude singers who never showed up on time. I never got fired. It’s the same with writing. If you make yourself impossible to work with – they won’t work with you.
Creative work is very emotional. There is a lot of you in your story. But you must remember, this is a job. You are at work. Do not be rude. Do not write angry emails. Do not trash people on social media.
For writers specifically, being a nice person means hitting your deadlines, answering emails, posting about the publication on your social media, and being generally pleasant and polite. This can help your career in a very tangible way: editors and publishers know each other, and if you have a good reputation, you can get invited to apply to other publications. This has happened to me several times, and it’s awesome.
And my other parent always said, “Make them say no. Don’t say no to yourself.” Don’t self-reject. Send that story to that high-powered publication. Send your first story anywhere. Even if you have to have somebody else actually hit “send” on the email while you scream into a pillow. Remember to follow the guidelines, but then send your story out. You’ll hear a lot of no’s. You’ll also hear yes.
Good luck, my friends! You’ve got this.
Looking for ideas? Get some weird writing prompts.