The Submission Checklist

So, your piece is perfect.  It’s been checked and rechecked by you and maybe a beta or two.  Time to send it out the door.  How do you get that thing published?  Well, let’s talk about what you need to consider before you send it out:

1.) Research Your Market: Where to submit?  How do you find a good home?  Well, you could Google markets.  You could search on The Submission Grinder (for free, or Duotrope, not free) since they are up-to-date and invented for this purpose.  Or even check your favorite blog for their Publisher’s Spotlight to point out places.  Ahem.  Ask around.  If you find a good list of publishers on a blog, go to the sites themselves – a lot of times listicles are old and the publisher may have closed.  It happens.

Things to note when researching:

  • What have they published?  Not what they say they want, what is actually available on their website to read?  Read it.  Think critically about whether you could see your writing among their published pieces.
  • Do they pay?  How much?  What rights do they buy?
  • What’s their turn around time?  What’s their deadline to submit?  (Do you expect to hear from them in 3 days or 3 months?)
  • What don’t they want to read? (Vampires, zombies, explicit content, etc.)  Don’t send your kids’ story to a publisher of erotic Cthulhu shorts and vice versa.  (And if you do please post that rejection letter in the comments, I could use a laugh.)
  • Do they allow simultaneous submissions?  How about multiple submissions?  Take that into account and don’t think you can get away with a sim sub if they tell you ‘no.’  Don’t be that guy.

2.) Read the Guidelines: Technically this is part of step one, but it’s so important that it bears repeating.  The number one reason publishers reject work (and their biggest pet peeve) are people who submit their story anywhere without bothering to look at what the market wants.  If there’s more on their list of requirements than what I noted above, follow them!  Again, don’t be that guy.

3.) Format your manuscript to their specificity: This is usually somewhere in their guidelines.  Don’t ignore their instructions, that’s an easy way to get on the editor’s shit list.  If they say submit anonymously, do it.  I advocate for the William Shunn manuscript style if they don’t have any particular formatting preferences.  Why?  It’s clean, legible, professional, and most places prefer it in this style so you won’t have to reformat your manuscript every time you submit to a new market.  And let’s be honest – a one-and-done submission is extremely rare.  Most likely you’re going to have to shop your story out to more than one home and anything that cuts down on your time is for the best.

4.) Write a cover letter: Unless they tell you “Don’t send one” feel free to write a little note introducing yourself.  It should be short, sweet and to the point.  My basic letter looks like this:

Dear Editors,

Please consider my short story, “Title Goes Here” for Your Publication Title.  It is approximately 1,000 words in length.

My work has been published in Daily Science Fiction and I prefer to publish under the name Liz Schriftsteller.  Thank you very much for your time and kind consideration.

Sincerely,

My Legal Name they should cut the check to if accepted

There are other things you can include if they ask, like some biographical information.  If your day job involves specialized knowledge of your piece (for instance, if you’re a cop and writing a police procedural piece) most publications are interested in that.  They don’t really care how many cats you have or if you’ve never been published before.  Don’t worry about including that sort of info.

4.) Submit! Seems obvious, right?  But don’t psyche yourself out.  Trust your writing, trust your ability to follow directions and hit send.  You’ll never get published if you don’t take that first step and submit.  AND we’re not quite done…

5.) Record your submission: Start a spreadsheet, log it in Duotrope or The Submission Grinder, whatever you have to do to remind yourself that it’s out there.  Why?  Well, you don’t want to accidentally send it out if you’ve got it in a market that doesn’t allow simultaneous submissions.  (We’ll talk more about the pluses and minuses of sim subs at a later date, put a pin in that.)  You also want to know when is a good time to query if you haven’t heard back.  And why track on those sites?  Well, you’re contributing to an open-source resource that will help other authors get a good gauge on the publication’s timeline and rate of acceptance.  Be kind, share your data.

6.) Query: If you haven’t heard back past the expected time, don’t freak out.  More often than not, it means they love your story and are still thinking about it.  Or they might be really behind.  When you did your research you should’ve made a note as to how long their turn around time is (most publishers list this.)  If it’s past that date (expected rate of return: two weeks, it’s been a month) feel free to send a note asking how it’s coming along.  Always check your spam filter to make sure you didn’t miss a note from them first.  Check it afterwards to make sure their response didn’t get lost.  This will help both you and the publisher keep track of your piece.

And, that’s about it!  I could go into more detail about each of these bullet points, but this is more of a reminder about how-to rather than an in-depth look.  If you’re hungry for more details, I highly recommend Rejectomancy’s articles on submission procedure for further reading.

Happy Submitting!

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The Content Checklist

Congratulations!  You’ve just finished writing your story!  I assume that you’ve already done your first editing pass to get rid of all the grammar errors and get your word count down.  (You have done that, right?)  But you’re not done yet!

Before you submit that bad boy to a publication you need to re-read your piece and judge it like an editor might.  Here’s some basic things editors look for to get you started:

  • The Beginning: Does it take forever to get going?  Pretend the editor has 100 stories to read today and they can only accept 10 of them for publication.  If your story can’t grab their attention by the end of the first paragraph they will toss it.  (Note: not all editors do this, but be wary of anyone who has a super-short rate of return.  You probably have very few words to impress them.)
  • Pacing: On a related note, now that you’ve got their attention, don’t lose them!  Don’t over-pack your plot.  Don’t rush the ending, but wrap it up after that climax; don’t waste words by drawing it out into five different endings.  (*Cough*Return of the King*cough.*)
  • Conclusion: Is it a good ending?  Be objective.  If this editor stayed with you all the way to the end you want them to be glad they spent their time with you.
  • Completeness: Did you solve all your problems?  None of this “To Be Continued…” nonsense.  I have a personal pet peeve against anyone who ends a story with a cliffhanger.  If you read this story as a stand alone piece in a magazine would you be annoyed that that was all there was?
  • Real threats: Was it an important problem?  Don’t rely on paper tigers or deus ex machina to get you out of a jam.  (This is one reason why twist endings* are so hard to pull off: important stakes always beat consequence-free conflicts.)

“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” – Emma Coats

  • Characters: Are your characters easily identifiable & likable?  If not likable, are they at least relatable or entertaining?  Do you have too many?  Does everyone in the story have something meaningful to contribute? If not, cut it!
  • Interesting: Is the story engaging?  How about the characters?  If there’s something important you’re trying to say, make sure it comes across clearly and edit out anything that draws focus or contributes nothing to the narrative.
  • Dynamic:  Did anything happen or was this just an atmospheric piece?  (Seriously, no vignettes, I can’t say this enough.)
  • Market:  Read your competition (I don’t mean the other submissions; anything that’s been published is still competition.)  Make sure your idea is unique.  Last I checked publishers are really sick of zombie stories and paranormal romance.  If you wrote something too common you don’t necessarily need to toss it, but maybe hold off until the timing is right.
  • Offensiveness/too dark: This is going to depend on the publisher, but in general, don’t be gratuitously graphic with violence or erotic content.  And keep in mind that even mild content can be too depressing to print.  Check out this feedback from my personal rejection files:

“Superb writing, but the story is just too much of a downer for us. We don’t insist on happy endings, but we prefer to avoid stories that leave us contemplating suicide.”

Ouch.

Seriously reader, learn from my mistakes.  There’s a reason why I always revert back to this checklist before submitting.  If you find yourself breaking any of these “rules” make sure you know why and ask yourself if you’re talented enough to pull it off.

Otherwise, edit it!  You’ll be glad you did.

 

*I’ll do a separate post later on why twist endings are hard to pull off and why it’s better to avoid them.  For now, just know that if you have one it could become a problem.