By Roz DeKett
Note that I haven’t titled this ‘How to have your stories accepted’ – if only I had that formula. However, in the past couple of years (between working on a novel) I’ve written three short stories and a short memoir piece, and all four have found their way to publication via contests or literary journals. I’ve also had a novel shortlisted in a competition.
Four pieces published isn’t many, but nonetheless I see a pattern or two along the path to them being accepted. These things might or might not work for you, but I think they helped me.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Keep submitting, but use an editor’s eye
It goes without saying that you have to not worry about rejection and keep submitting.
(Track your submissions; I use a spreadsheet that records the title, the date sent, where sent, and when a response is expected.)
The first of the four I wrote was a short memoir piece, specifically to submit to a contest in 2016. It was the first time I’d tried anything like that and it didn’t make even the longlist. Well, I thought: I’ve written it. I should keep sending it out. So I tried a literary journal, but they rejected it too.
By then it was a few months since I’d finished working on it (with much re-editing and polishing; I’m not a fan of sending anything out until I’ve inspected each word as though it’s a bug under a rock) and I decided to edit it again. The first paragraph was nice enough but I struck it, wove the main image from it in further down, and cut a few other words and sentences. I tried another literary journal and boom: accepted.
I also did this with the first short story I wrote, though I left it a little longer before editing again. Five rejections in, I tackled it again, not structurally but by interrogating each word. If a word couldn’t put up a defence I removed or changed it. I was submitting this story to contests; after the edits I sent it out again; it was selected for publication, placing third.
What I learned: Don’t be resistant to running a newly critical eye over your story, especially if you haven’t looked at it for a while and it’s been rejected a few times. A final tweak might be all it needs and the fix might now be quick and obvious.
Consider doubling up on contest entries
Two of my short stories were very different from each other in style. One was a more traditional literary approach, the other more experimental. I submitted the second, more experimental one to a contest. Then I studied the judge and thought maybe the other story would appeal more, so at the last minute I sent it in too. And that was the one selected for publication.
I then submitted the rejected story from that contest to another as an afterthought, as I’d already entered my third short story, which once again I’d spent months writing and thought was my best so far. The “afterthought” story (which I’d re-edited as it had been rejected several times by then) was the one that made it; this was the one that took the aforementioned third prize.
What I learned: It’s very hard to predict what contest judges are going to like. If you have two very different stories (assuming both meet the contest rules) and you can afford the contest fees, it may be worth throwing both in the ring. For journals, this probably isn’t a good tactic as they have a different agenda.
Follow the rules
Whether it’s a journal or a contest, read and follow the rules. They might call them ‘guidelines’ but guidelines they are not: they’re rules. Break even one and your story will not be considered.
It’s not just the rules; it’s what competitions and journals tell you they want to see. Matching this as closely as possible can only be helpful.
Left with my third short story, I debated what to do. I’d already entered it in several contests (and as we know, that is not cheap) and it had failed to make it. I still thought it was my best story; I’d spent months writing and rewriting it.
Once again I cast a critical eye over it. And once again, I removed the first paragraph (I’m starting to think I should do this as a standard practice!) and wove an image from the opening into the narrative later. This time I did restructure it slightly as I saw a better dramatic flow. I also changed the title: it took me two days to come up with something I thought captured the essence better than the old title.
Then I found a journal that was extremely specific about the type of fiction they wanted and I thought, that sounds like this story. I submitted … and it was accepted.
What I learned: Don’t give up. And edit. And be very specific in your choices of where to send your work. And … don’t give up.
Good luck with your submissions, and happy writing!
Photos from Wikimedia Commons; the first one is ‘Boy Studying’ by Lewis Hines, 1924.
Follow me on Twitter @rozdekett
© 2018 Roz DeKett