So You Wanna Write Short Fiction

BioBrains asked:
I was wondering if you could give a bit more insight into how you are getting your writing ‘out there’. Do you treat it like grant applications and submit to as any venues as you can, fearless (or used to…) rejections? Do you submit to contests? Fees/no fees? How did you first start? Or maybe you did elaborate on that already and I missed it? I’m just really curious…

I know most folks are here for academic fare, but I hope you won’t mind a bit of a detour, as I am in the mood for some writing talk.

First things first: I cannot give advice on writing novels. From what I gather, in order to publish a novel, you first need to get an agent, and then the agent tries to sell your novel. Getting an agent is not easy, and it helps if before writing a novel one has good short-story credits. The short pieces really help to develop the craft as well as serve as bullets on one’s creative-writing CV. I know a couple of excellent short-story writers who recently got agents; I don’t know if they have finished whole novels or submitted excerpts, but I know they have some stellar prior credits. (I personally don’t see myself writing a novel ever, but you never know.)

However, I can give some advice on writing short fiction. I’ve only been doing it for a year but with reasonable success, so take it for what it’s worth. My first piece (a micro) was published on September 14, 2017.

Let’s assume you have written a piece of fiction and are thinking about publishing it.

1) Do you know what your piece would be lengthwise? Do you have a flash (<1000 words), a short story (1-7.5k), a novelette (7.5-15k), a novella (15-40k), or a novel (40k+)? The lengths are somewhat flexible, but not too much. I am quoting lengths from Duotrope, a search engine described below.

2) Do you know what genre your piece is in? Further below you will find some links on how to classify your story by genre, but here are some quick rules of thumb:

2a) Is your piece set in a realistic world, either present or past? Are the beauty of the language, character development and/or setting much more pronounced than the plot? Then this sounds like a piece of literary fiction.

2b) Is it set in a realistic world but is plot-centric? Then it falls under genre fiction, such as thriller, mystery, crime fiction, romance, erotica, some types of horror, etc. (If things are happening in the past, but a realistic past, then add “historical” in front of the genre).

2c) Is it set in a world that’s mostly realistic, but has some supernatural elements? It could be surrealism or fabulism. Under certain conditions, it would be magical realism (I recently learned this term refers to postcolonial narratives).

2d) Is it set in a world that differs significantly from the real one, either present or past, and does so through either extrapolation of scientific advances or through supernatural elements that are critical for how the world operates? Then you are in the realms of science fiction and fantasy, respectively, each with many subgenres. Science fiction and  fantasy constitute what is known as speculative fiction.

I personally write literary and speculative fiction (sci-fi and fantasy), horror, humor, and a smattering of creative nonfiction. Horror and humor tend to cut across the genres listed above, so more on them shortly.

Where to send your story? Now you know that you have, say, a short story (X words long) in the Y genre. Ideally, you read a lot in the Y genre or adjacent genres. You could try sending to the short-story magazines that published the stuff you liked. But if you have no idea where to start from, there are search engines Duotrope (for a fee) and The Grinder (free), both listed below, that let you search by length and genre and tell you which magazines and anthologies (market is the term typically used) are open for the length and genre of the story you have. You can order the markets the search engine gives you according to pay or, if you have the personality of an overcaffeinated bunny as I do, order them according to their response time, from shortest to longest.

A note on horror and humor:

2e) If your piece really scary? Some horror belongs to speculative fiction, but to do so it has to have strong speculative elements. For example, aliens eating humans is dark sci-fi/sci-fi horror, i.e., a speculative brand of horror, and as such could be sent to horror markets or to speculative-fiction markets that are open to dark fiction. On the other hand, Creepy Joe Nextdoor eating humans would be (realistic) genre horror, i.e., one of the genres discussed under 2b, and as such should be sent to markets (magazines or anthologies) that specialize in horror or thriller/crime fiction or even dark literary fiction if the language is beautiful, but it should definitely not be sent to speculative-fiction  markets.

2f) If your piece hilarious? Humor is sometimes its own genre (think satirical Onion pieces) but is also a style, i.e., you can have humorous realistic or humorous speculative fiction. As such, you could send to straight-up humor markets, or you could send to literary or speculative fiction markets that are open to humorous pieces; many will take funny stories on a case-by-case basis.

When choosing where to send your work, it helps to ask yourself what you want from your writing. It’s OK if you don’t know and it will probably change over time anyway. I started wanting to have anything published and I did (a whole bunch of literary fiction and some humor). Then I wanted to have anything speculative published, and I did. Now I am moving toward wanting to get speculative fiction published in higher-tier paying markets: I have sold stories to token-paying markets (under 1 cent/word) and recently to semipro (1-5 cents/word) but I want to be able to sell reliably to semipro markets and move to occasionally sell to professional-paying markets (6+ cents/word). I don’t expect to get rich, but I would like to one day become a member of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) and/or the HWA (Horror Writers of America), which both require a certain number of words published in magazines or anthologies that pay at least 6 cents/word (5 cents/word for HWA). Also, with at least one so-called pro sale there are other opportunities, such as becoming part of exclusive writing critique groups (e.g., Codex).

It’s a good idea to read widely, use the search engines, and then start submitting. There will be many, MANY rejections, but that’s only natural.

Now as to BioBrains’s specific questions: I tend to submit to magazines and only rarely to contests (there are people who really like contests and do well in them). I have submitted to some literary contests, but haven’t gotten far; I don’t think my literary writing is literary enough for what is usually sought; it is on the drier, less florid, more plot-centric, genre-leaning side. Actually, over time I’ve been drifting towards speculative fiction more and more, as my writing style is more acceptable there plus the speculative element tends to relax me. (Btw, horror writers are the nicest and coolest people you are ever likely to meet, perhaps because they deal with their demons on the page.)

As I don’t think what I write is a natural fit for most literary contests, I no longer submit to them, except very rarely, when Twitter writer friends twist my arm in a “let’s submit to this call together” pact. By the way, short-fiction writers on Twitter are a phenomenal bunch; they make everything so much more fun than it would be otherwise. I will not submit if a contest requires an author to pay money to enter…unless I actually really really like the contest and think I have a realistic chance. I did recently get longlisted in a cutthroat dark-fiction competition, & that story was probably the best thing I’ve ever written; I’m currently shopping it around. There’s also a humor contest I’ve entered some stories in; we’ll see if I place.

The submission game is quite interesting. Literary magazines — even some very good ones — often don’t pay to publish your stories, but encourage simultaneous submissions (sending your piece to multiple magazines at the same time; once one of them accepts, you’re supposed to withdraw from the other places). Speculative-fiction magazines are more likely to pay, but those that do pay typically don’t allow simultaneous submission (i.e., send only to them and wait). No simsubs is fine by me if the magazine takes a few days or a couple of weeks to respond, but it’s downright inhumane if it takes months. I am extremely impatient and will not send to markets that are too sluggish to respond, no matter how coveted they are.

Rejections. So, so many rejections. My best pieces tend to get rejected more because I am more likely to send them to “reach” markets, while the stories that I am not that in love with I perhaps even shortchange a little, but they find homes quickly. (In that sense, it’s just the same as sending to Glamour Magz vs society journals for academic writing). No magazine is a sure thing.

Duotrope reports my success rate of about 25%, which they say is higher than average. I have had stories accepted by the first magazine that I submitted to, and I have had a story accepted after 22 rejections (my maximum so far).

The rest of this post contains some resources I’ve collected over the past year. I hope you find them useful.

Please leave questions in the comments, or if you have something specific you can always email me. 


General resources for short-story writers

Duotrope — statistics on markets (each market’s recent response times and acceptance rate, how much they pay, interviews with editors, listings of markets based on response times and selectivity, etc.); free trial for a week, $5/mo thereafter

The (Submission) Grinder — free search engine with recent publishing market stats, giving you the same type of information that you get from Duotrope for pay (recent response times for rejection/acceptance, acceptance rate, etc.). Plus awesome graphs! It is particularly good for speculative fiction markets; for literary zines, there is sometimes less user-reported data so poorer statistics.

Ralan.com — a comprehensive and up-to-rate list of speculative-fiction markets, organized  according to pay rate, with critical information (subgenre, response time, story length, editor names, etc.) presented in a compact format

Poets & Writers — information about various publishing markets

Literary Devices

On Writing (Heinlein’s Rules) — by Robert J. Sawyer

How to classify your story by genre (from Suzanne Vincent, the editor of Flash Fiction Online)

Managing story length (same author as above)

How to write a short story (elucidates the “moving parts” of a successful story)

Standard formatting for a short story (many markets link to this template for desired formatting)

A list of tired speculative-fiction tropes as per Strange Horizons magazine. The list is so long and exhaustive that it will likely make you wonder, “Why bother? They’ve obviously seen everything.”

Common tropes to avoid in fiction (from Alisa Golden, editor of *82 Review)

Tropes to avoid in humor (from editors of Defenestration Magazine)

Top Ten Plotting Problems (by Alicia Rasley)

Why Stories Get Rejected, Even Good Ones (from the editors of On Spec)

A Comprehensive and Totally Universal Listing of Every Problem a Story Has Ever Had (hilarious and informative, from the editors of Andromeda Spaceways)

From the Slush Pile (by Marie Vibbert)

Rejectomancy  — this excellent blog written by Aeryn Rudel sheds light on the process crafting short fiction, the expectations that accompany submitting work for publication, and learning from inevitable rejections.

Chris Fielden’s aggregator of short-fiction advice, competition calls, and other writerly goodness

Six Questions For…  Blog by Jim Harrington, where editors and publishers discuss writing flash fiction, short stories, poetry, and novels.

—————————

Publication markets that might be suitable for the type of fiction I write

This is mostly a list for myself. Some of the markets below focus on science fiction, some on literary fiction, and some welcome all genres.

The list is in no particular order, other than by maximum length and/or somewhat by genre (lit/spec; humor has its own list as there are few dedicated markets). I am definitely drawn to markets that are fast and likely to give personal feedback. (If you want a finer search by length, DL Shirley has a great list.)

MICROFICTION (generally up to 101 words)

50-Word Stories (exactly 50 words, weekly best story gets a small prize)

Blink-Ink (50-word stories, themed issues)

101 Words (exactly 101 words)

Microfiction Monday Magazine (M3) (no more than 100 words)

The Drabble (no more than 100 words)

Drabblez Magazine

100 Word Story

Martian Magazine (100 words exactly, science fiction)

A Story in 100 Words

101 Fiction (speculative fiction only, themed issues; 100 words plus a one-word title)

Speculative 66 (speculative fiction only; 66 words sans title)

Nanoism (no more than 140 characters)

FLASH FICTION (generally up to 1000 words, but some require shorter)

Flash Fiction Online

Flash Fiction Magazine 

Jellyfish Review (very fast response and very personable)

Ellipsis Zine (web zines plus print anthologies)

Every Day Fiction  (great variety, but 4-6 months for response)

Smokelong Quarterly

Freeze Frame Fiction

Daily Science Fiction (speculative)

Factor Four Magazine (speculative; up to 1,500 words, prefer under 1,000)

Arsenika (speculative)

The Arcanist  (speculative)

The Molotov Cocktail (dark)

The Grievous Angel (speculative; up to 750 words; newly SFWA )

Brilliant Flash Fiction (check out prompt-based contests)

Zeroflash (up to 300 words, monthly prompts; generally speculative)

CHEAP POP (up to 500 words)

HUMOR (many other zines will take humorous stories on a case-by-case basis;
Lee Blevins has a comprehensive list of humor markets here)

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Robot Butt

Defenestration

The Dirty Pool

The Community Heckler

The Big Jewel

Funny in 500

Jokes Review

Space Squid (SF and humor, slow to respond right now)

The Higgs Weldon

Drunk Monkeys

Fabula Argentea

Jersey Devil Press

SHORT STORIES (consult The Submission Grinder or Duotrope for more listings)

Short stories — literary (woefully incomplete)

Note: Many will also take speculative or slipstream

Split Lip

Occulum

Gone Lawn (fast response)

Riggwelter (fast response)

Sick Lit Magazine (no length limit; magazine emphasizes author-editor interaction)

Jersey Devil Press (<4,200 words; they like wacky, humorous, beautiful fiction)

Literally stories

*82 Review (very short fiction and art)

The Nottingham Review (quite fast)   (“…looking for diverse characters, voices and settings in stories that focus on the ordinary, mundane aspects of contemporary life…”)

The Fiction Pool

Storyland

After the Pause

Necessary Fiction

Hobart

Atticus Review

The Forge Literary Magazine

Fabula Argentea

3Elements Review (quarterly issues, story must include three specified words)

Short stories — speculative (shamefully incomplete)

(List of pro-paying zines that qualify for SFWA membership can be found here; directory of semipro zines can be found here; the best thing is to use The Submission Grinder and seek open markets for your story by length, genre, payment, and/or response time)

Asimov’s

Analog

Clarkesworld

Intergalactic Medicine Show

Fantasy & Science Fiction

Fireside

Strange Horizons

Apex 

Compelling Science Fiction

Galaxy’s Edge 

Unidentified Funny Objects (anthology)

Liminal Stories

Lightspeed Magazine

Nightmare Magazine

Uncanny 

Diabolical Plots

The Dark

Interzone

Black Static

Three-Lobed Burning Eye

Abyss & Apex

Metaphorosis (SFF with focus on quality of language, atmosphere; very fast, gives personal feedback)

Syntax & Salt

Andromeda Spaceways

On Spec

Asymmetry

Exoplanet Magazine

Aphotic Realm (dark fiction)

The Martian Wave

Kzine

Kasma SF

Alien Dimensions (“Set it in space, in the future, and include some friendly non-humanoid aliens”)

Liquid Imagination

Altered Reality

—————————

Here are OTHER PEOPLE’S LISTS that I found very useful (some skew literary, some SF):

http://letswriteashortstory.com/literary-magazines/

https://thewritelife.com/where-to-submit-short-stories/

https://thejohnfox.com/flash-fiction-submissions/

https://michaelalexanderchaney.com/2013/09/13/top-ten-literary-magazines-to-send-your-best-flash-fiction-and-maybe-get-accepted-pt-2/

https://michaelalexanderchaney.com/2013/09/06/top-ten-literary-magazines-to-send-very-very-short-flashes/ (microfiction venues)

https://thewritelife.com/publish-a-short-story/   (emphasizes some up-and-coming markets that are, as Doutrope would say, approachable)

http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/extremely-helpful-incredibly-comprehensive-g/        (as promised, they are incredibly comprehensive)

http://www.sfwa.org/about/join-us/sfwa-membership-requirements/ (click to see the markets that qualify for the membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America)

http://semiprozine.org/semiprozine-directory/ (directory of semipro zines)

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/best-websites-read-free-and-good-science-fiction-f/

https://michaelalexanderchaney.com/2013/12/18/your-first-flash-publication-8-amazing-writers-respond-with-advice-for-your-first/

https://dlshirey.com/the-short-list/

Ralan.com — a comprehensive and up-to-rate list of speculative-fiction markets, organized  according to pay rate, with critical information (subgenre, response time, story length, editor names, etc.) presented in a compact format

7 comments

  1. Thanks for this roundup and comprehensive list of resources. I’m not considering this myself, but will forward to a family member who keeps talking about submitting stuff but is still a bit clueless.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write this and to also compile this super useful (meta)list of resources. My favourite pastime is to write. I must admit that being a college professor I already spend too much time sitting down at a desk – so that is a bit of a concern since the writing only takes case of my mental wellbeing and not so much my physical health..

    Both the naive child and the cynic (on some darker days in academia) in me still consider becoming a full time writer to be a viable back-up career option. To make sure it will indeed be viable (and to not just write for the drawer and my hard drive), I do want to get my work out there and you seemed (and now confirm) to know what you were doing.

    So… thanks again for answering my questions and happy writing!

  3. You are welcome, BioBrains. Please feel free to email about anything specific. I hope you will take the plunge and start sending things out. Honestly, the publishing game and how to optimize submissions is not too hard to figure out, especially for someone with an analytic mind. And let me tell you, the tough skin you developed over the years of getting banged up during peer review of academic papers and grant proposals? Priceless. With it, you’re already ahead of the curve for the publishing game, because there are a lot of rejections. (Btw, there are quite a few scientists turned excellent writers, especially in speculative fiction. So I’m not the freak I thought I would be when I started out.)

    After a year, in addition to achieving publications, I’ve started seeing some measurable success: in the last month, I’ve placed on the longlists of two really cutthroat competitions (e.g., the humor one I mentioned in the post; I’m really delighted to have been longlisted), and have started getting receiving actual money from story sales. This morning I signed the contract with a semipro magazine, where I will share the issue table of contents with several people who are household names/bestselling authors of sci-fi. I think this is just fuckin’ amazing!

  4. Thanks so much for this very helpful discussion & list! I have not been writing fiction officially but am thinking of branching out. This is incredibly helpful.

  5. Thank you for this extremely helpful post!

    I’m wondering whether you have any views on the use of pseudonyms. I teach English, and if I eventually start publishing I suppose it could be an advantage to have published fiction under my real name, at least if I were to apply for any teaching positions with a creative writing component. (Where I’m based in Europe these are still few and far between, but I’ve recently seen some ads calling specifically for creative writing experience.)

    At the same time, I’m rather reluctant to mix work and pleasure in this way, as the publish or perish culture is very real in academia here, and is threatening to destroy much that is at the heart of the humanities by compelling scholars to hack larger pieces of coherent reasoning into small parcels to gain more publication credits in the neoliberal university system.This is a somewhat separate issue, though, but one that I find hard to discount completely.

    As a result of my own biases (and my perception of the job market), I’m also much more open to publishing creative nonfiction under my real name and to refer to that in applications than I am to “genre” fiction. I know nothing prevents me from publishing different types of fiction under different names, or to wait before using my own name, but somehow this seems like a decision I should make early on…

    I seem to recall that this issue was discussed on Fie’s blog some years ago too. Any thoughts?

    // Longtime reader/lurker

  6. Hi silvicultrix, thanks for delurking! I hope you’ll join us more often in the comments. As for pseudonyms, for me personally publishing under my real name is out of the question until I retire. I use a lot of strong language in many of my stories and some recent ones are disturbingly gory (body horror gory) or otherwise explicit; I cannot afford my sophomore class googling my name and stumbling upon them, let alone people reviewing my grants. I am thinking of filing a DBA (doing business as) which would allow me to legally sign contracts under the pen name, rather than have to disclose legal name to every publisher. I have a fiction pseudonym (different from my academic blogging/writing pseudonym used here and for Academaze). I recommend thinking hard about the pseudonym and definitely picking one right away. Pick a name, then get an email address, a website, and a Twitter handle under that name (or Facebook/Instagram; I only have Twitter). It helps if the name is a bit unusual so you know all the social media handles haven’t been taken.

    Folks whose professions are in the humanities often don’t use pseudonyms for literary fiction and creative nonfiction. But even they will often use pseudonyms when they write genre (especially genre that many look down upon, like romance or horror).

    I think a man in my position would be much more likely to use his real name. Sometimes I wish I were that carefree. I simply can’t afford the potential professional backlash if people were to find out what my brain can conjure (also that I don’t spend every waking hour working, or, more specifically that I don’t spare 100% of mental cycles on work but rather use them for something else brainy). If you feel the same way, I’d say pick a nice pseudonym—it can be a little gimmicky but not too gimmicky—get an email/website/social media handles and start submitting! Good luck!

  7. I really appreciate the advice. I hadn’t thought that much about students googling me, more about reactions form colleagues / reviewers, but it seems that choosing a pseudonym will allow me to write more freely than I could if I were to have all these potential audiences constantly in mind. I want to write for people who will judge the fiction at face value (and I really don’t need anyone questioning the way in which I spent my time outside of work), so this is actually an easy decision.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail!

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