Short Story Long is a series delving into the how of crafting, submitting, and publishing short fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. It seeks to explain, as simply as possible, how to go from title to conclusion, and from submission portal to publication.
Here is a typical scenario: you have written a short story which changes the fundamental composition of the universe or a poem which maps the void. Both of these wonderful pieces of writing sit unread in your notebook. Or, maybe, what you have is nonfiction which will forever change the rules of writing. Because you do not know how or where to share your work, the world remains blind to your art—the drafts folder stored in the cloud never spills its rain.
We need to change that. Here’s a short story long.
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: This is a literary magazine’s bat signal. It lets the world know it is looking for contributions. Most submission calls are announced on a magazine’s website and its social media channels. The first step to publication is knowing when submission windows open and close. These are dependent on the magazine’s location, frequency of publication, and the magazine’s capacity to process submissions. When a call is made, it often comes with submission requirements prospective contributors need to meet in order for their work to be considered for publication.
The best way for a writer to be notified about calls for submissions is to follow and read literary magazines (on their website, social media channels, and subscribing to their newsletters)—the latter helps a writer to know what kind of submissions a literary magazine generally looks for, the former allows a writer to know when to start polishing (not commence writing) their work. Most submission calls are cyclical; getting into the rhythm of having works-in-progress or nearing completion is a key step in the submission process.
SUBMISSION PORTALS: Most literary magazines use these to collect their submissions. Some portals are located on individual magazines’ websites. Most, though, use Submittable: a free submission manager. Sign up and create an account. Once you have done that, the Discover window shows you all the available submission opportunities from every organisation which uses Submittable. You can narrow down your search by filtering opportunities according to your need: there are free and paid options (i.e. you have to pay to submit); there are opportunities which ask for writers from certain backgrounds only; and there are some which ask for specific kinds of submissions. Submittable always presents submission opportunities in order of closing date: those which close sooner are at the top. If an opportunity is of interest, click on it to be taken to its submission requirements.
Navigating Submittable is easy. If you save an opportunity, you will be notified about that specific opportunity if it opens again. If you follow a magazine you will be notified about any opportunities they will have in the future.
SUBMISSION REQUIREMENTS: Every magazine has a distinct voice and focus. Knowing what a magazine is looking for is crucial to successfully submitting work for consideration. Submission requirements might limit eligibility by using any of the following: nationality, gender, race, geography, or topic and theme. A prospective writer must ensure they meet a magazine’s submission requirements. There is no point in submitting speculative fiction to a publisher of nonfiction. When a magazine says they only want Vulcan writers writing from Tatooine, they mean it. Hobbits need to look for their opportunities elsewhere.
Common submission terminology:
Blind submission: some magazines request that no personal details—name, surname, or any other identifying characteristics—be placed in the submission or appended to the file name. This is done so readers can read and consider a piece “blindly”—without being biased.
Deadline: the last day on which a writer may submit their work. It is, generally, not advisable to write for a deadline. It is better to constantly work on something, revising it as often as possible. Editors can spot—despise and reject—rushed work.
Emerging writer: one who has not published a novel or a collection of short stories or poems. Any writer who has managed to publish such works is classified as having “arrived”—a term which can also encompass a writer without a novel, short story or poetry collection if they have won a major literary award.
Formatting and format: most magazines want the standard—MS Word, Times New Roman, 11/12pt, and 2.0 line spacing. Exactly 0.00000 magazines ask for submissions typed in Comic Sans or Wingdings. Incorrect formatting or using the wrong submission format is a filter magazines use to reject work.
Original: the submission must not be plagiarised or based on other works. It also means the writer has secured all necessary permissions needed to quote or use sections from other writings or works. A common example is the use of song lyrics—it is the writer’s duty to ensure they have been given permission to use an artist’s lyrics.
Minority writer: one who falls within a recognised marginalised and underrepresented community (either because of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation).
Multiple submissions: a writer may submit more than one piece of work to the same publication in the same submission window.
Previously unpublished: the work being submitted for consideration should not have been published anywhere in the world and in any medium (this includes personal websites and blogs and social media platforms).
Single submission: a writer can only submit one piece of work per submission window.
Simultaneous submission: a writer may submit the same piece of work to multiple magazines under the condition that, if it is accepted at one magazine, it shall be withdrawn from the others as soon as possible.
Theme or focus: these show the kinds of work editors are looking for. Editors know when a writer name-drops arboreal species into a short story to make it fit with that month’s forest theme. This kind of work is roundly rejected. Ideally, a writer should write the story they want to tell and then shop around for the right home for it. People who are passionate about trees know the correct way to describe an Afrocarpus falcatus—the person who makes the mistake of saying it a small tree in their post-apocalyptic romance exposes themselves as a fraud. If you are not about that tree life, leave them alone.
Word count: refers to the minimum or maximum number of words a story can have in order to be considered. Word counts are not suggestions, they are rules. They indicate what each publication is reasonably willing to consider and publish. Sometimes, if a story warrants it, an editor will allow a writer a larger word allowance. But this is not to be expected.
COVER LETTERS AND BIOGRAPHIES: Cover letters basically ask for a writer’s biographical details (where they are from, their education or writing background, or list of previous publications). For Submittable, the cover letter and the biography are the same. Some magazines, however, state that a cover letter should include a brief synopsis of the submitted story. When in doubt, a writer should keep their cover letter short and simple—“fun” or “quirky” biographies are touch and go. Unless a writer is submitting to Werewolf Review it is doubtful whether the average editor wants to know that the writer “has been known to forage for prey at the full moon.” (And even then…) Where a writer does not have previous publications it is best to disclose this as simply as possible: If accepted, this short story (poem, or essay) would be my first publication. Most editors understand that not all writers come to them with bylines from the most established literary magazines. It is also incorrect to assume prior publication in New York-based Prestigious Literary Magazine will secure future publication in Litterae Obscurus run from someone’s basement.
SUBMISSION FEES: Some magazines charge writers for submitting their work. Submission fees are typically used to compensate the magazine’s readers or editors for the time spent sifting through voluminous submissions. The fees can also be used to pay contributors whose work is later accepted for publication. Fees are also used to pay for the magazine’s operation costs. It is important to remember that submission fees reflect a magazine’s economic considerations and not the quality of the work it receives or publishers. Submission fees remain some of the largest hurdles for minority writers—each writer must carefully assess their economic situation before committing to paying submission fees. Submission fees vary, are nonrefundable, and do not place an obligation on a literary magazine to provide unsuccessful writers with feedback.
ACCEPTING PUBLICATION: The status of a writer’s submission—on most submission portals—is shown as either received, in progress, declined, or accepted. Emailed submissions might garner a reply acknowledging receipt. How long it takes for a status change depends on a magazine’s capacity and submission volume. Some magazines can respond within two weeks, others can take six months. Patience is part of the process.
If a submission is accepted for publication, a writer should pull it (i.e. let other magazines considering that same piece that it is no longer available for consideration) as quickly as possible. When prompted for a reason, simplicity is best: This submission (short story, poem, or essay) has been accepted for publication elsewhere.
It gives editors no pleasure to reject writers, and it gives writers no pleasure to be rejected. But rejection is a big part of the submission game. The simplest remedy to rejection is this: move on and keep writing.
Is The Snob Review better than Three Homies And A Notepad? There is no clear verdict on this issue. “Prestigious” literary magazines might appear more impressive on paper because of the privilege they have managed to secure (and selectively dispense). That same privilege might also be what makes them blind to the quality of some submissions, especially from minority writers. Those three homies could provide a better editorial and learning experience and have a small but intensely dedicated readership. Similarly, the Paris Clout Magazine might send a writer their rejection letter ten months after a writer has turned down guaranteed publication in Hometown Magazine. A bird in the hand…
Ultimately, each writer makes their own choices about which publication opportunities they accept and decline.
When a piece is accepted for publication, an offer for publication is made. The typical offer goes like this:
“We enjoyed reading your story—Last Submission Before Giving Up On This Whole Writing Thing—and would like to publish it in The Last Homely Journal…”
This is the best news a writer could receive. The writer must let The Last Homely Journal know that they—the writer—accept the offer.
The simplest response is this:
Dear [insert relevant contact] I accept your offer of publication and look forward to working with you to make this piece better.
It is also prudent to let the editorial team know if a more recent draft of the submission exists. A revised draft (fixing spelling or grammatical errors, making sure the red couch did not become the blue couch in the same scene, or tightening sentences) is not the same as a substantial reworking. It is, generally, not permissible to rework a story to the point it morphs into a new work.
If a writer rejects a publication offer, they must also write to the editorial board notifying them about that rejection.
PAYMENTS: Some publications pay, some do not. Whether a writer chooses to submit to a non-paying magazine is up to them. The reality is that most literary magazines are passion projects run by individuals who invest their own time and money into them. Although most magazines would like to pay their contributors they often cannot afford to—sometimes the staffers are not remunerated either. Until the literary arts are better funded by national and private institutions, contributors are not likely to be adequately compensated for their work.
RIGHTS: Writers should read up on the rights agreements for each magazine they submit to. Most literary magazines insist on a time-based, geographic restriction. These restrictions are normal and help to ensure magazines are not publishing material which has been previously, or is currently, published. After the period of restriction has lapsed, the writer is often asked to credit a publication as the “publisher of first instance” if a particular work is later published in a writer’s collection, anthology, or volume. The onus to check the rights situation rests with the writer; every writer is encouraged to ask their potential publisher for a clear explanation of how various rights work. If a particular magazine republishes a writer’s work in a later volume which is offered for sale, it is common for the writer to be given a once-off payment.
PUBLICISING ACCEPTANCE: Once publication has been secured for a piece, the writer can change their biography to reflect where their work can be found in the future. This can be done in the following style:
His/her/their work (stories, essays, poems) is forthcoming in Such And Such Journal.
Some magazines may request a writer to keep news of a forthcoming publication private. Most, though, allow writers to share their good news. Being reserved is key, no one likes a sore winner.
This is permissible: I am happy that “Thank God For Literary Magazines”—my short story about surviving the slush pile—has found a home in This & That Review.
This is not permissible: sharing lines, paragraphs, or screenshots of an accepted draft.
Although offers of publication are rarely rescinded, all writers should know that a baby in the womb is a long way from a king on the throne—when in doubt, silence is preferable to noise.
Acceptance of a publication kick-starts the editorial process, when a piece is edited and made the best possible version of itself.
But that is a short story long for another time.
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel “The Eternal Audience Of One” is forthcoming from Scout Press (S&S). His work has appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Brainwavez, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek!, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Santa Ana River Review, Columbia Journal, New Contrast, Necessary Fiction, Silver Pinion, and Lolwe. He was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek!
Image: The U.S. National Archives/Public domain