Do you write and submit short stories to anthologies and magazines? If so, you really need to read this, from the award-winning editor, Amanda Pillar. Thanks, Amanda!
I’ve worked on seven anthologies over the past six or so years. I’m onto the eighth, the Bloodlines* anthology to be published by Ticonderoga Publications. I’ve also judged a couple short story and flash fiction competitions. Over the last six years, I’ve noticed reoccurring issues with authors’ submissions. While I will not reject someone outright for forgetting to use standard manuscript format, or for misspelling my name, there are editors who will. So it’s these basic mistakes that may be hindering authors from getting published. There are other issues as well – the quality of writing, willingness of an author to be edited, attitude of an author (if you’re rude, people won’t want to work with you) and so on.
But to help, I’ve compiled a list of 22 common problems associated with short story submissions, shown below in no particular order:
- Proof read your work. More than one or two typos (on the first 2 pages) are not your friend. In fact, it looks like the author rushed the submission or that they cannot proof read their work. The latter can leave an editor worried about the entire editing process to come.
- Read the submission guidelines properly. If it asks for fantasy, don’t send science fiction and vice versa. If I say I want urban fantasy, do not send stories that are set in the future, or contain aliens, etc.
- Send your manuscript in standard format unless otherwise asked for. This is an example http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html. (I tend to ask for Times New Roman font, because I hate Courier New. So check the guidelines to make sure!)
- Do NOT send a blank email with an attachment. Your precious story could end up deleted unread. You would be surprised how much spam can come through a dedicated submissions email address, so if you’re sending blank emails with attachments…
- Relating to Tip 4, put your cover letter in the body of your email. Do NOT send an essay. A couple of paragraphs will do. I’ve seen cover letters that are longer than the stories (well, almost). The editor will most likely not read your entire list of publishing credentials, so just put the most relevant.
- Check the name of the editor you’re submitting to. If it is listed, USE it. Not ‘Dear Editor’, ‘Hello’ or worse yet, nothing. I’ve heard there’s some confusion as to the use of ‘Miss’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’. Unless you know they’re married, or they say they have a preferred option, go with ‘Ms’. If they have a problem with it, well, you tried. It’s better than nothing!
- When writing your story SHOW don’t TELL. I cannot stress how important this one is.
‘Bob and Jane ate the dinner Jane had made. The steak was overcooked. Bob didn’t like it.’ That is telling.
This is showing: ‘Bob and Jane smiled at each other over the dinner table. Picking up his fork, Bob tentatively cut into the blackened steak Jane had set before him. She tried so hard, but she just never seemed to get it right. Bob took a hesitant mouthful and tried to hide the grimace that swept across his face.’
- Avoid info dumps. They are definitely not your friend. They’re more like an enemy. If you have a paragraph or three that are explaining some fundamental feature of your story, it can usually be done quicker and without the background detail. For example, pretend this paragraph is three paragraphs long talking about how vampires were really spawned from a human and demon liaison. Instead, you could show this in simple dialogue:
“You mean vampires are real?” Jane asked.
Bob nodded and adjusted the silver stake strapped to his belt. “Some human banged a demon. The result: blood drinking undead progeny.”
Saying this, don’t just use dialogue to get around your info dumps. This is simply an example of how you can do it.
- Make sure you know your genres. This will help avoid Tip 2 from happening. Google is your friend. There’s lots of data out there on what is fantasy, what is scifi, etc.
- Make sure your first page is absolutely POLISHED. Some editors will not read past it if the writing doesn’t hook them. And remember, the editor is under no obligation to read your entire story. Some have limits: they’ll read one page, two pages or six pages before they stop reading if you haven’t hooked them. You never know what it is going to be.
- Make sure your story has a plot. Even if it is less than 1,000 words long, it can still have a plot. There’s a character, something happens to them, there’s a resolution. That’s a plot.
- Make sure your story doesn’t have plot holes. Things can’t just happen because they suit your story; they have to make sense. Otherwise, you end up with a Prometheus-style cluster-fuck.
- Short stories – as a general rule – do not need prologue-style paragraphs.
- Choose your characters’ names with care. Nothing too confusing. Gender neutral names are fine. Just nothing too long, or with too many apostrophes or hyphens. I’ll forget it, and potentially, I’ll forget your character or remember them as ‘that one with the stupid name’.
- It’s the 1960s NOT the 1960’s! Enough said. Unless the 1960s owned something.
- Don’t overuse exclamation marks. Capitals or italics usually do the job without the need for an exclamation mark.
- Incorrect uses of apostrophes is a personal pet hate of mine. Don’t do it. Ever. If you’re not sure, check. It’s vs its, you’re vs your, kids vs kid’s. Make sure it’s right.
- If you’re lucky enough to get personalised feedback, don’t argue. Say ‘thank you’ and move on, even if you disagree.
- If you’re submitting to an anthology of mine, avoid rape scenes or the needless denigration of women. It is usually done for shock value alone, or to show a character is a misogynist. You can shock people and show your character hates women without resorting to these two points.
- On the same page of Tip 19, do not send me stories condoning paedophilia.
- Make sure your story is standalone. I see lots of stories that are the start of something much longer.
- Last but not least: Voice. Make sure your story has a strong, unique voice.
*For those of you wondering, no, this is not aimed at the Bloodlines authors who submitted recently to my collection. I have experienced nearly all of these issues for every anthology I’ve ever done. And it’s happened to a lot of my editor friends as well. This list was compiled in the hope that for the next collection we editors undertake, these issues won’t be reaching our inboxes.
Amanda has had numerous short stories published and has co-edited the fiction anthologies Voices (2008), Grants Pass (2009), The Phantom Queen Awakes (2010), Scenes from the Second Storey (2010), Ishtar (2011) and Damnation and Dames (2012). Her first solo anthology was published by Ticonderoga Publications, titled Bloodstones (2012). Amanda is currently finalising the Bloodstones’ sequel, Bloodlines, due out in 2015.
In her ‘free time’, she works as an archaeologist.