Five Steps to Submitting a Short Story + Lessons I Learned

5 Steps to Submitting a Short Story + Lessons I Learned

When I finally had a short story ready to be seen by others, I researched the process of submitting a short story, adapted it to fit my own needs, and hit submit.

Below are the steps I followed, and what I learned in the process.

Submitting a Short Story Blog Break

Five (Easy but Time-Consuming) Steps to Submitting A Short Story

1. Write a Good short story.

This one’s obvious. Until you have a short story that you like and are ready to publish (or hate and are ready to publish–that’s fine too), all the steps below are a complete, utter waste of your time.

Before my short story “Byresh” was finished, I thought I’d take a gander at finding places where I could submit it. Just see what’s out there. Except that I didn’t know exactly how the story would end or how many words it’d end up having or any of those other important things I needed to know in order to pick publications in the first place.

Besides, if the story isn’t good, it doesn’t matter how much of a “perfect fit” that publication is or how nicely I craft that cover letter. They won’t take it.

Put your effort into the thing that counts.

2. Pay for Duotrope.

Duotrope a crazy powerful search engine for publications accepting work (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry). I can select any number of criteria that relates to the story I’m trying to sell (theme, topic, word count, if they’ll pay me, etc.), and then it’ll pop out a list of publications that meet ALL OF THOSE CRITERIA (and nothing more). Talk about a huuuuuuuge time saver.

And then now, after submission, it’s helping me keep track of where my stories are in play and how long they’ve been out in the big world waiting for responses.

I’ve heard that Submission Grinder is also decent, and it’s free (bonus). And there are definitely other ways to find publications. But in general, reviews on the interwebs were pretty unanimously in favor of Duotrope, and I’m definitely happy with the purchase.

3. Find the Right Market.

Using Duotrope, I searched for the right market for “Byresh.” This took about four more days, or three more deep dives into that search engine than I had anticipated. I hated it more than I thought I would too.

In all honesty. . . *glances around, then leans in to whisper* . . . I don’t really read literary journals. That probably makes me a bad person in the writing community, but it’s true. Short stories have never been my first choice of things to read, and I usually find literary journals to be, um, boring. Oops. I said it.

But now I’m trying to get them to publish my things. I know. It’s bad. It’s hypocritical. It’s probably bad publishing karma and I should buy some subscriptions ASAP.

And I probably will at some point. Forcing myself to read tons of short stories last fall definitely increased my appreciation for them. I’m starting to like them more.

Anyway, all that is to say that I had absolutely ZERO publications in mind when I started searching. I knew I didn’t want to submit to the top tier, because this wasn’t the story to pin that kind of hope on. But aside from those top markets, I had no idea what’s out there.

So I went to the engine. I plugged my criteria for “Byresh” into Duotrope (general fiction, literary fiction, 5000 words, free to submit, submit electronically, have higher acceptance rates, etc.), perused the list of publications it spit out, and glanced through (or fully read, if I was interested) the short stories the potential publications already have online to see if they match my own story in tone, topic, length, etc.

Notice that I didn’t skip this step. You have to read the stories that the market has already published. Because if there isn’t a dark story in the lot, your macabre tale of Uncle Fred isn’t going to get a second look. Not reading literary journals is no excuse for skipping your homework.

Ultimately I found four publications that feel like a good fit. And without thinking too much harder about it, I sent off those letters.

4. Write a Cover Letter (and Format It Properly).

Most publications were normal and had normal expectations on the formatting of my story (like double-spaced, 1″ margins, Times New Roman). Others wanted me to do weird things like format it single-spaced with extra space after every paragraph. Whatever floats their boat. It wasn’t hard.

The cover letter was also really easy. A quick Google Search for “How to Write Cover Letters for Short Stories” turned up tons of articles with examples. And after doing enough research to get a handle on the format, I picked my favorite template, copied it, and swapped out the relevant information.

Example of Short Story Submission Cover Letter

Nothing fancy.

I did some research, found the editor’s name (usually), and then quoted something from their “what we’re looking for” section. Do I think my story is a “glimpse into a different psyche”? Not really. Maybe. I hope. But regardless, the description fits my work generally, and honestly they probably aren’t even thinking about that at all. They’re already on to my story.

Before starting this whole thing, I thought the cover would be the hardest, or at least the most anxiety-producing, part of the process. But it was the easiest.

5. Hit Submit

At this point, it would be incredibly easy to not follow through. You could delete the cover letter, or worse, leave it it to die a withering death in the Drafts folder of your email.

DON’T LET THAT HAPPEN.

Take a deep breath, reread for spelling errors if you must, and then hit send.

If it makes you feel better, you can do what I did and create a folder in your email Inbox labeled “Rejections.” Just like Stephen King collected his rejection letters as a sign of success–forward momentum, moving in the right direction, yada yada–so can you. I’ve set a goal for fifty this year. That means I have to submit a short story (or novel) to more than FIFTY places in the next eleven months. I’m ready.

 

And that’s it! In five steps, I submitted the first short story of my life!

*insert happy dance*

Submitting a Short Story Blog Break

Lessons I Learned (So Far) From the Process

1. Aim Higher

When I made my list of potential publications, I purposefully aimed for publications with higher-than-average acceptance rates. It was my first time submitting any story, ever, so I wanted to be successful at it. You know. To feel good about myself.

Therefore I had no “reach” or “dream” publications on the list. I didn’t include the big hitters like Tin House or The New Yorker. At the time, I was content with that. But of course, now I wonder a little….what if my story was good enough to get accepted to those top places? Now I’ll never know.

Good thing it’s not the only short story I’ll ever write.

2. Patience, My Young Padawan

It takes a long time to hear back from anywhere. I expected acceptances or rejections to take a while, but I at least expected to get some confirmation emails. I got one.

3. It’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of

I was seriously afraid of sending my short story out into the world. It made me incredibly uncomfortable, no matter how many times I pumped myself up by thinking about Stephen King’s love of rejection letters or any of those other motivational things (like my own “Miss 100% of shots” motto) that writers tell themselves to make rejection more palatable.

It’s not that I was expecting some laughing clown to show up at my doorstep and ridicule me for not being a good enough writer to get accepted anywhere.

But. I kinda did.

Well, I’m pleased to report that so far, no clowns. No one’s laughing (yet) at my audacity to submit. To think I might be good enough.

So, I’m breathing. And I’m waiting.

And in the meantime, I’m going to keep writing.

Liane Moriarty Crushes the Internal Monologue in Big Little Lies

Internal Monologue in Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

Writing a multiple-perspective novel or need help with challenging internal monologue? Use Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, as a case study. It has three major characters. We listen to their complicated, sometimes stupid, often poignant thoughts, and we learn so much about them–and about ourselves–in the process.

And Moriarty knows how to be funny, even when discussing something deadly serious. Like murder.

My First Reaction, as a Reader

I LOVED this book.

It starts out with a murder at an elementary school’s Parents’ Trivia Night.

Ooh! How serious. Let me grab my popcorn.

But wait. It’s also funny?

The opening pages promises I am in for a funny, clever romp, and it doesn’t disappoint. But it is also a trick. Because while I’m over here thinking this is going to be one of those lighthearted beach reads, suddenly it very much isn’t. And I am completely hooked.

I then spent the whole book wondering who dies, all while falling in love with Moriarty’s characters and silently begging that this person or that person wouldn’t be the person who gets offed. I also annoyed the bazeejees out of John by laughing out loud constantly. Not sorry.

After Some Percolating, as a Writer

While there are probably an infinite number of things I could have learned from reading this book, three things jumped out to me.

1. Throughout the book, Moriarty maintains suspense by constantly reminds the reader that there’s a murder coming. How does she do it?

2. The book is written from multiple perspectives, but there is no clear protagonist. And it works.

And most relevant to the novel I’m working on right now:

3. Moriarty is BRILLIANT with the internal monologue. Need to write an internal monologue that swings back and forth between different decisions or opinions? Or having a hard time writing that dramatic moment when your character learns something huge and has to think about it? Then learn from Moriarty. She’s a pro.

Lighthouse California Coastline

They said I needed pictures in my blog. So here. Pictures! They’re mine, from when I lived near the coast in Northern California. If you squint hard enough, maybe they look like the Australian coastline of Big Little Lie’s world. Maybe.

Murder! – Maintaining Suspense Through the Lighthearted Bits

We start the novel with a murder, and then jump back in time (cued by chapter titles) to six months before the murder and work our way back to the main event.

While the book certainly starts off with a smash (pun very intended), it would have been easy for the story to slow down and get derailed once we start learning about each character and become invested in their lives.

But, to keep us focused on the climax of the book–Someone dies! Who?!–Moriarty brilliantly includes a brief transcript from the ongoing criminal investigation after every chapter (and sometimes in the middle of one), in which a number of parents from Parents’ Trivia Night are interviewed by an investigator.

Notably missing from these interviews? Our three main characters.

Does one of them die?!?!

I tell you. Those transcripts were a brilliant idea.

And they’re funny. They constantly include a comment from one parent that is directly (and hilariously) contradicted by another parent, making for some great comedic relief and a reminder that two people can see even the smallest interaction completely differently.

The investigation interviews make me wish I could see older drafts of this novel. My suspicion is that they were late editions, added in during a later draft to amp up the suspense in response to reader feedback.

I can just hear it now.

Beta Reader: “I really like your characters. But by the time I got to the end, I’d totally forgotten someone was murdered. That snuck up on me.”

Moriarty: “Well shit.”

Moriarty goes home, cries (Isn’t that what we all do when we get feedback? Just me?) and then wonders to herself, How do I maintain suspense throughout the novel and keep people reminded of the murder without talking about it directly (because in the story, it hasn’t happened yet and no one knows it’s coming)?

Then, brilliant writer that she is, she comes up with the investigation interviews. And we stay invested in the promised pay-off.

California Coastline

No Clear Protagonist in This Multiple-Perspective Novel

Big Little Lies is a great example of a multiple-perspectives novel. Sure, there are lots of them out there, and you could argue that it’s been done better elsewhere. Probably has. But I loved this book, and that’s enough for me.

The book jumps between the perspective of three characters: Jane, Madeline, and Celeste.

We start with Madeline. Then we switch to Jane, and I decide she’s more important. I don’t even realize how important Celeste is until a quarter of the way through the book. And then we end the book on her.

So who is the true protagonist in this novel? If the basic golden-rule for protagonists is that they must make a choice, then I think the main character here is Celeste. With Jane a close second. And Madeline a distant third.

I then did a quick analysis of “screen time.” Who do we hear from the most?

And the answer surprised me. Madeline has 33 chapters, Jane has 31, and Celeste has significantly fewer, at 25.

Suddenly, I wonder if my impression that Celeste has the biggest growth is because we end on her. Or because her story is more dramatic. And Madeline is far from a distant third. She’s the glue that holds the three women’s friendship together. She has the most “screen time,” and while her story may be more subtle than Celeste’s, I’d argue that many readers probably relate to her story the most (ex-husband, wayward teenager, turning forty).

So the big question is–does it matter? Does it matter if there’s no true protagonist?

I think the answer is no. All three characters go through their own complete narrative arcs, where they want something, make choices, and grow as people because of those experiences. No one is more important than the other, and I’m equally invested in all three.

And that’s all I need to love this book.

Crushing the Internal Monologue

Only in novels can we get inside someone else’s mind. And it’s through this process, through observing someone’s thoughts and behaviors and then interrogating ourselves against them (Do I agree? Would I have done the same thing?), that we build empathy.

Seriously. Did you know that there’s scientific proof that reading literary fiction builds empathy?

Because of that (and because I couldn’t stop mulling over it after I read it), I think the best part about this book–and the skill that I’d most like to emulate–is Moriarty’s excellent use of the internal monologue.

*SPOILER ALERT (after the picture of the ocean, because I’m a nice person)

California Coastline

Moriarty is great at the short quips. But what she really crushes are those long internal monologues where the character is thinking something out. Percolating on some information. Changing their opinion mid-thought and then swinging back to their original idea once again.

*SPOILER ALERT (Again, just in case you didn’t pay attention to the first warning)(I mean it this time)(It’s here)

Madeline’s Internal Monologue About Rape, Feminism, and Her Marriage

The internal monologue that stood out to me the most was after Madeline learns that Jane was raped. In one short chapter (34), Moriarty brilliantly captures a person’s mental process as Madeline swings between all the ways she feels about Jane and her story, while constantly going back to the thing she’s most interested in and worried about–her own marriage and children (and her ex-husband and how much of a pain it is to live near him and his new wife). Human things. She’s worried about her friend, but worried about herself too.

The execution is excellent.

Honestly, just go read Chapter 34 yourself. I don’t think I can do it justice.

But here’s the gist–and what I love about it. Have your book open and ready to follow along.

How It Plays Out:

Madeline tells Jane’s story to her husband Ed, and he calls her a silly girl (read the chapter for context, cuz he really is a good guy). Madeline then thinks:

It was stupid for them to be fighting about this. A rational part of her mind knew this. She knew that Ed didn’t really blame Jane. She knew her husband was actually a better, nicer person than she was, and yet she couldn’t forgive him for that “silly girl” comment. It somehow represented a terrible wrong. As a woman, Madeline was obliged to be angry with Ed on Jane’s behalf, and for every other “silly girl,” and for herself, because after all, it could have happened to her too, and even a soft word like “silly” felt like a slap.

She recognizes where she’s being irrational, acknowledges Ed’s intent, and yet is still angry with him because the malignant tentacles of rape culture are present in his comment about Jane being a “silly girl” for getting raped.

Then, because Madeline is HUMAN, she promptly switches to thinking about her ex-husband Nathan and his annoyingly healthy, seemingly perfect new wife Bonnie.

That’s what was behind her sudden fury with him in the bedroom. It wasn’t really anything to do with the “silly girl” comment. It was because she was still angry with Ed over Abigail moving in with Nathan and Bonnie. . .

And then her thought process, half a page later, swings right back to Jane’s story.

What would she have done in Jane’s situation? She couldn’t imagine herself reacting the way Jane had. Madeline would have slapped him. . .

Perhaps this man specifically picked out girls who he knew would be vulnerable to his insults?

Or was this line of thought just another form of victim-blaming? This wouldn’t have happened to me. I would have fought. I wouldn’t have stood for it. He wouldn’t have shattered my self-respect. Jane had been completely vulnerable at the time, naked, in his bed, silly girl.

Madeline caught herself. “Silly girl.” She’d just thought exactly the same thing as Ed. She’d apologize in the morning. Well, she wouldn’t apologize out loud, but she might make him a soft-boiled egg, and he’d get the message.

Aaaaaaah! Brilliant, right?!

As Madeline processes Jane’s story, she swings from self-righteous anger to judgement to embarrassment at being so judgemental. What’s more relatable than that? She’s human, and I think people love this book because of moments like this, when they recognize themselves in Madeline’s imperfections–her judgement and conflicted feelings and all.

Also, notice how the words “silly girl” are repeated throughout the chapter. Does it count as the chapter’s motif? Can there be a motif in just one chapter? (Literary experts, do you know what this is called?) Anywho, repeating the word throughout the chapter is well-done and brings emphasis to all the right places.

Celeste’s Self-Deception and Dangerous Rationalizing

Another place that Moriarty’s internal monologue skills shine are with Celeste.

There’s a crazy amount of self-deception in this book, and Celeste is the queen. We, the reader, know what is going on. We can see it clearly. So why can’t Celeste?! She’s infuriating. Or at least, she would be–except that we can see into her brain and listen to her rationalize and justify her husband’s behavior daily.

It’s terrifying. And so real. Reading an article on domestic violence will never, ever make me understand the challenges that women go through in this situation–the emotional conflict and inner turmoil–more than a novel like this.

And that is what makes novels the best thing on the face of the whole wide world. Building empathy by introducing us to people different than us.

Conclusion

My secret dream: Someday Liane Moriarty will write a little blurb for the book jacket of one of my novels, saying something quippy about how I made her laugh and how my character’s internal monologue made her think about people differently.

Seriously though. I love her style and enjoy her writing so much.

And I know that as I start revising my current novel, I will be pulling down my copy of Big Little Lies to study the mechanics of those internal monologues. Their length, their pace, their swing and duck and roundabouts. It’s going to be a great study tool.

Personal Milestone: I Submitted My First Short Story Ever!

Submitted - Personal Milestone: I Submitted My First Short Story Ever!

This week I submitted my first short story ever!

This is a huge personal milestone for me, since for who-knows-how-long, I’ve been hemming and hawing and finding a million excuses not to try doing it. I don’t have a good enough story. The story isn’t ready yet. I’ll toss this one and do better on the next one. I don’t have time to monitor the submission process. I’m not sure it’ll get accepted, so there’s no point. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

You understand. You’ve probably been there too. Is there a writer who hasn’t?

Well I finally did it.

One of my goals for 2018 is to publish a short story in a literary journal, magazine, or online publication. Basically, to have someone say yes to my story and put it somewhere where other people can read it.

*Psssssttt*

Did you know that if you don’t submit anything, you can’t get published?

Crazy, right?!

Maybe my all-time favorite motto comes from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

It’s pretty applicable to almost every important thing in my life. Like when I’m considering pursuing a promotion, negotiating a discount, or asking my husband to bring me another lowball glass of whiskey. When I start chickening out about things, I use this quote to summon the courage to do the damn thing.

In this case, I had to force myself to submit my short story.

And it actually turned out to be a bit of a pain in the ass. I didn’t realize there were so many steps to the process, and I learned a lot.

But I’m glad I did it. It’s a huge personal milestone, and a check mark next to one of my 2018 goals.

Learning How to Write Place with Caravans, by James A. Michener

Caravans, by James A. Michener

In December, I was perusing my mother-in-law’s large bookshelves for a holiday read, and stumbled across Caravans, by James A. Michener. I’d heard great things about his ability to write place, and learning how to write place is on my (long) list of “Things I Need to Learn to Do Better as a Writer.”

Turns out, it’s both an excellent master study in how to write place–and a great adventure story!

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