Eighteen months ago, when I became Managing Editor for the literary journal The Write City Magazine, I got 1-2 submissions daily in my in-box. This year that number has doubled. Perhaps it’s due to the pandemic and writers having more time. Perhaps more people are trying their hand at fiction and starting with short stories. Perhaps the magazine has a wider footprint as we’re getting a lot of entries from outside the U.S. Whatever the reason, that’s close to 30 short stories I read every week before forwarding about half on to my three associate editors for their feedback.
Unfortunately, while the quantity has mushroomed, the quality has not. Increasingly, the submissions meander, have no discernible arc or ending, and are either overly wordy or conversely, so obscure it’s hard for us to even tell what the story is about.
So to improve your chances of getting published in literary journals, which can lead to landing an agent, a publishing contract, and a fan base of loyal readers, here’s my recommendations, paired with remarks from my associate editors about recent submissions.
It may be short, but it still needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
That means forward momentum. Introduce us to a character who has a conflict which propels them forward and then show us the challenges in the way toward their goal, until at the end there is either a plot twist we didn’t see coming or a character who is different than they were at the beginning. It’s no different than a novel in this sense – there must be a payoff. To quote one editor recently, “I kept waiting for this to get to the point and it never did.”
Pick one central theme.
Because you don’t have the luxury of 300 pages (for example, our maximum word count is 1800), you only have time to focus on one major through-point. What is the over-arching theme or emotion you’re exploring in your piece? Don’t jump around. Everything that happens must relate to this theme. Concentrate on the here-and-now. Pick one thing and develop it better.”
And P.S. The theme doesn’t always have to be serious. I’d love to see a well-written submission that used humor to explore a familiar human challenge. Some days it’s seriously depressing to read five stories in a row about the death of a parent or a child.
Watch your pacing.
When you only have 1500-4000 words, you cannot afford to spend a great deal of time delving into back story, excessive world-building or vast amounts of description. Winnow these down to specific evocative details that pack a bunch and carry the story forward and/or flesh out the character. “No tension, no surprises.” “too many side roads that weren’t important to the main story.”
Less is more.
This is where we see writers violating the guideline of “show, don’t tell” because they think they need to dump loads of extraneous detail into the narrative for us to get it. You don’t have the word count to wander into sub-plots or diversion. One main character. One main conflict. One main goal. Short stories are about one experience, not an entire person’s history. “Don’t tell us his whole life story – show us one incident that changed or affected him.”
Clarity is paramount.
Make sure you don’t raise questions you don’t answer. Don’t bring in secondary characters you don’t need. Don’t tell us about what happened “before” unless it serves the current story. Don’t confuse us or leave us dangling about motives, or relationships between characters. “I literally had no idea what was going on in this story.”
Develop your characters.
It’s no different than a longer work – readers need to identify with your main character and understand what’s in their heart and mind, know what makes them tick. This can be done deftly with telling details, through showing how they relate to others, or by writing in close POV so we’re privy to their thoughts. If possible, stick with a single POV and make them real to us. “We never get to know the main character, so we don’t care.”
Polish your writing.
Even when the piece is short, you still need to watch your spelling, your punctuation, your word choice. Eliminate fluff and filler, make sure your similes shine or eliminate them. Long, convoluted descriptions may impress your writing pals but they take up precious word count which can be better used on strong plotting and character development. “Too wordy and overwritten” is a frequent comment from my editors.
Spend some time on your title.
It’s the first thing I see when I open your piece. Pique my interest. Is “Pinhead” or “Darkness” or “Home” really the best you can come up with? On the other hand, don’t pull out every fancy word you know just to show off. Brainstorm a bit and come up with a title that will catch not only my attention but those of our readers.