Short fiction can be a fantastic way for a writer to explore new genres, build skills or just let off steam, to have a bit of fun and actually finish a piece when a novel can take years to write and polish. Publishing short fiction can also be a good way to build a body of work, to create a network of writers, and hopefully a name for yourself.
The difficult part, when you’re thinking about submitting those precious words, is knowing where to begin. There are countless short-story competitions, thousands of literary journals and zines. You could send out random submissions like I did at first, and hope that one or two land. Or you could develop a submission strategy by taking the following steps:
- Evaluate your goals. A friend of mine wants to make money from a short story. In that case, it pays to look for opportunities (generally competitions) which pay. Some literary journals do pay contributors, but many are not-for-profit organisations which can’t afford payment. However, not everyone is in it to make money. Other reasons for publishing short stories include exposure, publication credits, prestige, the opportunity to have your work read by an admired writer, to learn from a generous editor, the chance to build a network, and the ability to share your work on social media. You need to decide on your motivation for seeking publication before you can build a strategy for submission.
- Research the market. A quick google search of writing competitions or literary journals will unearth a mind-boggling number of opportunities. How do you narrow them down? If you are Australian, it makes sense to first look at local competitions and journals. Alys Jackson’s blog is a great place to start. However, if you write flash fiction, as I do, Australian venues are limited. Don’t hesitate to send your work to international journals. The flash fiction scene, in particular, is far more active in the UK and USA than it is in Australia. Scan the bios of writers you admire for their publications and look at places that have published their work. Follow short-fiction writers, magazines and writing centres on social media to discover call-outs. Or search sites like Submittable for opportunities.
- Stratify by probability of success. If you only submit to The New Yorker, your chance of success is slim to say the least. Then again, will you achieve your publication goals by submitting your perfect prose to any random website? Ideally collate a few levels of submission opportunities, competitions, etc. The top tier might include the most prestigious journals, competitions with the biggest prizes. Essentially, the career-making long shots. In the middle are the well-regarded journals and prizes with slightly better odds of success, and a third tier might include popular zines and journals which encourage emerging writers or publish frequently. You can find information about acceptance rates on sites like Duotrope (has a subscription fee) or Submission Grinder (free to use).
- Consider the average time from submission to response and whether they allow simultaneous submissions. Some top-tier literary journals can take many months (or even longer) to respond to submissions. If they don’t allow simultaneous submissions, it can take years to find a home for a piece. If simultaneous submissions are allowed, it’s a good idea to submit your best work to several competitions or journals in the top tier at once, and if these don’t pan out, move to the second tier options, and so on.
- Keep track of submission opportunities, dates of submission and outcomes. Duotrope and Submission Grinder are useful for this purpose, or you could make a simple spreadsheet. If you have a few stories on submission at any time, each at several journals (as you should if you want to publish widely) it is remarkably easy to make faux pas like submitting the same piece twice or submitting too soon after receiving a rejection.
- Support the literary journals. Publishing is a two-way street. Without readers, literary journals fold. If you can afford it, subscribe to one or two favourites, share your published work and that of others on social media, celebrate your wins, and those of other writers, and promote magazines which feature your work.
Most importantly, keep writing, keep learning and keep sending out your best work, and who knows? After a while, those top-tier journals might be knocking on your door.