Four years of learning the craft: what I learned about short fiction publishing

I am a philosophy professor who has been writing short fiction for about four years now. I got my first acceptance in late 2020, and in 2021 two more acceptances followed. But to reach this point, I had submitted dozens of stories, a total of 50 in 2020 (fewer in previous years).

This blogpost is to help people gain some insights into the process and to help them decide whether writing short fiction and trying to publish it in magazines or anthologies is for them. 

The basic unit of writing and publishing in my profession is the journal article. Journal articles are about 6000–9,000 words in length. I had written one book (co-authored, about 95,000 words) when I started seriously with fiction, but the format of short fiction was much more appealing to me than the novel as it was much more in the ballpark of what I normally write length-wise. Short stories range from 1,000 to 7,000 words (more or less) and they need to be entirely self-contained, with characters, plot, world building and what have you. So, short fiction seemed like a good fit for me. 

I chose speculative fiction, in particular Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror as the genres I wanted to learn to write. This lines up with my philosophical interests (see e.g., also the volume I co-edited with Eric Schwitzgebel and Johan De Smedt Philosophy Through Science Fiction stories)

Below are some of the basics I learned on how to publish short fiction. 

Writing short fiction is hard, getting published even harder

There are two ways to publish short fiction: self-publication on a website or other medium, and publication by third parties. Since I didn’t want to go the self-publishing route, the publication route essentially has two elements: magazines of literary fiction, and themed anthologies. Magazines of speculative fiction include among others Apex, Clarkesworld, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and my personal favorite, Uncanny. As you can see, many of these put stories free to read online. 

To find which magazines are open to submissions and more specifications about the submission process, there are two major listings: Duotrope (paid) and the Submission Grinder (free). You can log your submissions there, which is definitely a good idea as you will need to submit many times to get an acceptance and it is easy to lose track! 

Submitting to magazines: the basics

You format your story (almost always in Shunn Manuscript Format, a particular way of formatting) and submit it together with a brief cover letter. Most submission now happens through some online portal like Submittable or Moksha. In your cover letter, do not summarize your story, they want to judge it independently from that, and do not list irrelevant things (e.g., being a philosophy professor is usually not relevant to the submission unless your protagonist is a philosophy professor or something along those lines). Info on what to include on cover letters here. Shorter cover letters are better. 

Before you submit, check the specifications (on Duotrope or the Submission Grinder) for specifics

  • Simultaneous submission: Is it OK to submit the story to more than one venue? I have to say, I was a bit surprised by this. For academic articles, the norm is that you should not send it to more than one venue at the same time. If you violate this norm and editors find out, it can be a big issue and can stain your record – I know because as an editor I have seen it happen. But for some magazines, it is OK to send your story out to several places. Their submission guidelines tell you. Be transparent about what you’re doing in the cover letter, and withdraw immediately when one of the venues accepts. 
  • Multiple submission: Is it OK to send more than one story to the same venue simultaneously? They will tell you if not. Some also tell you you may only submit a certain number of stories to them in a given timeframe, or that you need to wait a specific time after being rejected before resubmitting
  • Unpublished: This again was strange to me, coming from academic publishing. For academics it is fine to widely circulate draft papers on say, ResearchGate, Academia.edu, PhilPapers, or on one’s own website. This disqualifies a lot of fiction from appearing in print. Even widespread circulation on social media disqualifies the work from any market that insists upon unpublished works. 

Once you send your story, it goes to a slushpile where readers make a first cut. It’s important to keep in mind that it is very hard for an unpublished author to get noticed, to make it beyond the slushpile and to be held for consideration. Many people never ever publish anything. So year #1 submitting was very much a stream of rejections. Let’s briefly go over the kinds of rejections you’ll get: 

  • Form rejection: A line rejecting your story, with no explanation for why. This is by and far the most common response. The slush readers didn’t find your story grabbing enough to rise above the many, many other stories they plough through.
  • Higher-tier rejection: This is also impersonal but sounds a bit more encouraging, e.g., “I wish you the best of luck finding a home for [story title] and I hope to read something new from you soon.” If you want to obsess over this and read tealeaves, then I recommend this.
  • Personal rejection: Common for academic work, very rare for fiction, a line on why your story wasn’t good. This may sounds disheartening but a personal rejection indicates (usually) your story came close but didn’t quite make it.

It is extremely hard to get your stories published! Each of these venues have tiny, teensy acceptance rates of maybe 1–3%. And you compete with people who do this professionally, and with people whose work will get far more consideration because they are known authors (some venues such as Diabolical Plots ask for anonymized submissions, but most don’t). So it is not surprising that I got rejection after rejection. 

After two years of fruitlessly sending stories I realized that I needed to do something different if I didn’t want to go the self-publishing route. 

What was I doing wrong? In 2019, I didn’t submit all that much and began to lose motivation. 

To be sure, motivations can differ and there is nothing wrong with putting your stories on your website or even writing entirely for yourself, but I wanted more than that. 

How to get your fiction published

2020 came, lockdowns hit, Covid misery abounded and after the initial shock of isolation and all those reports of people dying and the general sense of dread and isolation I wanted to try again. Starting fresh, I abandoned all my old “trunk stories” (stories that don’t get published anywhere in spite of dozens of submissions) and wrote some new work. In the course of 2020–2021, I have three stories accepted for publication, two in magazines, and one in an anthology. The ratio of acceptance to submission went way up (I still need to submit a lot). 

So what did I do differently? I’ll put some loose thoughts here on what helped, realizing there is no unique way to publication. 

1. Read more short fiction

This one is kind of obvious and yet I wasn’t doing it, or not enough. I was submitting to magazines I didn’t read. You need to do a lot of reading of mags to see what they want. Each magazine is different in what they like/dislike. You can of course look at their list of “hard sells” (e.g., here) but hard sells don’t really tell you all that much. I’ve seen zombie fiction in magazines that say zombies are a hard sell, etc. Reading stories in those mags gives you both a sense of what contemporary short fiction looks like, and what they are looking for. 

2. Write from the heart and from a sense of urgency

It’s weird to give this advice, but I was getting to the point that I tried to write stuff I thought would please other people (obsessing over whether there was enough pacing etc). Obviously, you write for others not for you if you want to publish. But first and foremost… you need to put heart in your story. If you don’t even like it, who will? 

My first ever story published, I wrote in middle of pandemic times. I felt such a sense of dread and loss, and fear, and being cut off from everyone and then I thought: this is maybe what being dead is like. OMG imagine if you are dead and still conscious! My thoughts then moved to my father-in-law who dreaded this scenario so much that he asked to be cremated. I then started wondering “what if my father-in-law was right,” and thus, the story was born. 

3. Write what you know (yeah, yeah, I know), or rather, play to your strengths

Write what you know is such stale advice and yet so valuable. What people mean by this is not what I thought they meant. It doesn’t mean only write stories about your milieu or set in your hometown, but rather write the stories that play to your strengths.You don’t need to be an elf to write about elves. 

In my case, I am a philosopher and I write about philosophical ideas. My fiction tends to be cerebral, idea-heavy, and generally slow-paced (I know it’s possible to do fast-paced philosophical fiction cf Asimov, but so far my stories are slow). And that’s okay. Imagine if everyone’s fiction were the same, and if we’re all doing cookie-cutter prose. How dull it would be? Play to your strengths and write the stuff you think you can write best. 

4. Know what to take from writing advice/writing guides

I have read several writing guides, from Le Guin’s Steering the Craft to Stephen King On Writing (A Memoir), and in addition also watched several online master classes: Neil Gaiman’s on Masterclass (it had some useful tips but for the price, I thought it was disappointing), Brandon Sanderson (several things on YouTube etc), and Maggie Stiefvater’s writing course (super-useful, I thought). 

In the end, you get so many rules crammed in your head it becomes almost impossible to write. It seems like you need to juggle a million balls, from world building, to character development, to point of view, to pacing and plotting, to making your sentence-level prose beautiful, to make sure your dialogue moves along, etc. So much to think of! I cannot imagine learning academic writing that way keeping a gazillion things in mind as I write a philosophical argument.

But then, it dawned on me that my discomfort with all those rules is just a part of the learning process. In every process from novice to expert, you will first feel you need to pay attention to everything. But eventually, you do a lot of those things automatically. When I play music, or when I draw, or when I write philosophy, my brain does a lot of the stuff that needs done subconsciously. 

An experienced writer thus can take a lot of things on board: how to write a consistent character, how to know how long to spend at a scene, how to write fluent dialogue, which descriptions work. She will automatically turn a sentence active, insert some actions in a long stretch of dialogue to ground the reader (i.e., avoiding “whiteroom dialogue”). In that respect, I had an advantage as non-fiction already requires us to do a lot of this: smooth, sentence-level prose, active sentences, transitions between paragraphs that don’t disorient the reader. But all the rest I had to learn. 

It will probably help you not make some elementary mistakes to read/watch a few beginner’s writing guides. They’ll help you to avoid an over-long beginning, for instance, or too many adverbs. But you need to think that it’s a craft to learn gradually and as you get better a lot of this will come naturally. 

5. Use Peer critique

It’s super-scary to send your story to peers for critique, but I have done this for each story that found a home and I am so grateful to you to take the time and to help me become a better writer! Peers can help you identify where the story loses momentum/interest, where there are inconsistencies. 

I got one very valuable tip from Gaiman’s masterclass: “If someone says that something isn’t working for them, they are always right.” — this is true. Tastes differ, but you need to pay very careful attention when a critic says they don’t like something. The solution they propose isn’t necessarily the one that works for you. But signaling that something is not working is very valuable info. (Academic-wise I have fairly thick skin as it comes to people critiquing my work, still it feels very weird and vulnerable to send your stories to peers!)

Submitting again

With that experience gained I got back into submitting, a bit more thoughtfully to magazines that I had read and felt like they might fit, and to anthologies that sound like they fit. And in November came my first story acceptance, with an appreciative email from the Editor! 

One thing to realize that submitting to magazines is a numbers game (see this excellent article). 

You can get a sense of whether you are writing at “pro level” (publishable) if you get more personal and higher-tier rejections. If not, no worries, it takes a while to learn. And even so, there’s a lot of luck involved. It’s possible a fine story just doesn’t make it out of the slush pile. 

It all depends on whether slush readers and editors felt moved by your story. Whether a story moves someone is to a large extent subjective. You can weigh odds in your favor with likable characters, exciting worldbuilding, a plot that hooks people but ultimately, it’s up to them. And it’s entirely possible you spend years sending out stories that get nowhere, in which case you might re-evaluate how you want to publish your stories. Or perhaps you also just don’t want to bother with all this and self-publish from the start, which is perfectly fine.

There are lots of mags out there. You don’t need to stop with the most prestigious. Any publication in a magazine, also one that doesn’t pay is an amazing accomplishment (yes, magazines pay readers sometimes and I was surprised by this!). 

You don’t need to conclude that if your stories aren’t getting published in top journals with pro-market pay rates that they aren’t publishable. It would be a bit like only sending your papers to Science and Nature and then after PNAS doesn’t bite concluding the papers are unpublishable. By the way, Nature has a fiction publication (Nature Futures), and their acceptance rate is not too horrible. 

Some traps I fell into

There is so much writing advice out there, it’s overwhelming and as I said above, it comes down to getting skilled and practiced. But, I think the following might be useful for philosophers or other academics who write fiction.

1. Too slow beginnings

Since you are competing in a cut throat market and slush readers very, very quickly get bored you really need to start your story as soon as possible, probably sooner than you are comfortable with. One thing that helps me is just write the story and then see how much I can cut to still make sense in the beginning. Usually, a lot of setup and description goes. You can always add in the essential bits (e.g., character description) later as you go along. 

2. Boring and unengaging characters

There are lots of ways to make characters. One way is to take stock figures like in a sitcom (this is Maggie Stiefvater’s way) and then flesh them out from there (e.g., the serious and studious one, the helpful and warm one, the bubble and slightly off-key one). Just one of each. Then you flesh them out using bits from real life, e.g., people’s existing mannerisms. 

But, it’s very easy to lose sight of the fact your characters need to be lovable. The reader must root for them. If the reader loves your characters, you can get away with a lot, including a slow plot. For that, you need to give your characters moral stakes and moral aspirations, as well as emotional depth. Without it, characters quickly become cynical, jaded, boring, flat. Without the moral and emotional stakes, your reader won’t care about them. 

3. Not enough attention to promises and payoffs

This is something I learnt from Brandon Sanderson (see his many Youtube videos). Every story early on sets up some promises to the reader, e.g., this story is a heist where it seems nothing will go wrong and everything’s meticulously planned! This story is a romance where the characters sabotage themselves! This is a road trip on self-discovery! 

Each of those plot devices very early on signal to the reader certain expectations, and you need to keep your promises. You need to deliver on the expectations. Otherwise the story will lose momentum and will not be interesting. Whenever you are plotting think: does this scene advance character development and bring me towards the plot (ideally both)? Does this scene help to deliver on the promises I set up? Break too many promises and the reader will disengage or get bored. 

4. No emotional depth

As a philosopher writing fiction, I fall into this trap often. I love to work out an idea, but without emotional stakes and emotional investment, it just all feels flat. For recent stories, I try to find emotional hooks and emotional stakes. What works well for me is to follow Maggie Stiefvater’s suggestion to start with mood first. Often, my fiction starts with an idea (what if?) and then I also decide on a mood. Do you want a heartbreaking love story? An epic of self-discovery? 

In conclusion

I hope that this piece has given readers some idea about whether writing fiction and trying to publish it in magazines is for them. Just to make clear: I’m really still a beginner and will need a lot more practice before my work is where I want it to be. I still have problems about how to turn a high-level idea into an emotionally compelling drama. But I find it helpful to see how in fiction, perfection really is the enemy of the good. At some point if you want to be published, just put yourself out there, get some critique partners, practice and learn from the experts, read a lot of short fiction, and try! 

2 comments

    • I am not sure how to quantify it. I don’t really write all that much–I currently have about 20 or so stories, written over 4 years. But also, some people might just be naturally better at writing fiction than I am so I need to put consciously more effort into it to become better (though maybe that’s not true–I dunno. You keep on hearing about people who just sit down, write their first novel without much in the way of formal training and become instant successes. I am not that kind of person).

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