Damo’s Guide to Getting Published More

It occurred to me that submitting stories to short fiction markets is a bit of a mystery to many people, so I thought I would write a post about it that some might find informative. I hope others don’t find it patronising.

Ok, like most people I quite like bragging about my successes so I’ll start there. My acceptance rate is about 1 / 4, which for an unknown writer like me is very good. Clearly I like to assign this to my huge talents as a writer, but realistically it also has something to do with having an organised approach to submitting stories.

Anyone trying to get short fiction published would do very well to start by considering this advice from Robert Heinlein.

  • You must write.
  • You must finish what you write.
  • You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  • You must put the work on the market.
  • You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Yes, these are all common sense. But it’s amazing how easy it is to abandon common sense when making personal decisions. Writing is, for many people, a treasured dream. The reality of exposing that dream to public gaze can create strange behavior. It’s all too easy to waste years believing in yourself as a writer, but never actually write. Once you get going it’s easy to not finish. Once you are finished, it’s easy to endlessly rewrite because nothing is ever perfect. The fear of rejection can keep excellent stories sitting in draws, only to be swooned over by amazed relatives long after the author has died. And it’s very very easy to get that first brutal rejection and be too scared to ever send a story out again. And these aren’t transitory issue. You have to keep objectively checking whether you are breaking these laws because it’s all too easy to lapse in to bad behaviour after a bit of success. So go through the list and with a harsh but honest tone, ask yourself which ones you are breaking.

Have you done it?

Good. If your answer is none, go back and do it again because unless you are Stephen King already you are definitely breaking one of them. Once you’ve found the ones you are breaking, sit yourself down and give yourself a good talking to – don’t do it again! I’m telling myself off for not finishing what I write even as I am typing.

In addition to Heinlein’s Laws here are some other things I have picked up in the last few years that might help:

Be Realistic – publishing short fiction has few rewards at first. Don’t expect to get paid (much). Don’t expect fan mail, or to be reviewed. Don’t expect a book deal, award nominations or any other kind of plaudit. Don’t even expect anyone to read your story. Why bother then, you may ask? Because those first publications are essential to building your belief in yourself as a writer. That self belief is in turn an essential part of developing the craft of your writing.

Be Professional – approach submitting a story like applying for a job. Would you send a hand written job application in pink ink on the back of a serviette? Every story you send out is a piece in the career you are trying to build in writing. Don’t buy into the myth that ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’ people don’t need to be professional and organised, its just that, a myth.

Rejection is Standard – most of what you send out will be rejected. This will hurt. Take the the pain, deal with it and move on. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the paranoid delusion that because your story has been rejected, you have been rejected. Don’t stop sending to a market after a rejection. Repeated rejections from the same market can often come before an acceptance.

Know Your Markets – this is the main mistake most people make. ‘Why hasn’t the New Yorker accepted my Tolkienesque fantasy? Why hasn’t Realms of Fantasy accepted my postmodern prose-poem?’. Most short fiction markets, be they magazines, anthologies or otherwise, serve very niche audiences. Find the markets that serve the audiences that you want your writing to reach. The only way to do this is to read read read read until you find the work you really like. As you get to know the markets you will see where your work fits, or can be made to fit.

Be Organised – keep a record of what you have submitted, where and the outcome. This is essential. When something is rejected, send it on to the next market. If a market has a reading period, note it in your record and send something the day the market opens. If a story has been rejected from every possible market, then and only then consider doing a rewrite. There are a thousand little things that improve your chances of getting a story published, but you won’t notice any of them unless you keep the process organised.

Cascade your Submissions – start with the suitable ‘professional’ markets and as rejections come in send the story out to progressively smaller markets. The judge of a short fiction market is its readership – the more readers the better the market is a good rule of thumb.

Start Small – most short fiction is between 3000 – 7000 words. At the upper end of that or higher, an editors commitment to a story will have to be much higher for them to pick it. On the other hand, a 1000 word story is much easier to fit in amongst other things and more likely to persuade the editor to take a risk on a new and unknown writer.

Develop Your Bio – Let editors know about your other publications. As you start to develop a track record, editors will pay more attention to your submissions. This won’t get a bad story published, but it can get a good story noticed which might otherwise have been missed.

A final thought for when those rejections come in as they inevitably will…some might disagree but in my view fiction is a sellers market. Really great writers, at the peak of their craft, making really great work, are a rarity. Getting your work published is a part of developing your craft as a writer. With some talent, lots determination and an almost infinite amount of dedication its possible to master that craft. If you get to that point then instead of you chasing people people start chasing you. Taking the journey to that point is a big part of the real joy in writing, and the thing that hopefully makes the more frustrating parts worthwhile.

Right, I’m off to finish one of those stories.



Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

9 thoughts on “Damo’s Guide to Getting Published More

  1. Good advice. And people do read the stories and it is important. I’ve been approached by agents, asked to write other things because of stories that have appeared online.

    And when I did get an agent she said that she had been initially interested because I had been published before and won some short story competitions.

    So. Send them off. Then forget about them.

    And don’t worry about being rejected. I get rejected all the time.



  2. Good advice. Publishing credits do generate more publishing credits.

    But I would strongly emphasise reading. Any writer who believes they can write without reading is seriously misleading themselves. And it helps if you subscribe to (or at least buy a couple of issues) the magazines you’re sending submissions to. Magazines can’t survive without subscribers. In the poetry world, magazines are closing because they can’t get enough subscribers to keep going, but they’re running at 98 – 99% rejection rates because they’re overwhelmed by submissions. If more poetry submitters subscribed, there would be more magazines to take submissions and hence the rejection rate would be lower.


  3. I’m not sure dying really classifies as a ‘route’ to anything. Actually it seems that JKT died of desperation after being rejected only once by a major publisher. Thats pretty extreme even for us writers . It usually takes upwards of five rejections to kill off an aspiring novelist.


  4. P.S. I don’t know how many rejections he had, but he’d been trying for nearly 20 years, as I understand it. A Confederacy of Dunces was written c. 1963, but not published until after the author’s suicide in 1981. But my memory may be at fault; it is certainly dim.


  5. I doubt that that’s quite ‘the full story’ but it certainly put me right re the dates. I was under the impression that publication had followed Toole’s suicide quite closely, but then it’s a long time since I came across the story (in a book byAnthony Burgess about the ’99 greatest postwar novels’. It’s also a long time since I read CoD, which I must rectify soon, if I’m going to continue claiming it as one of my favourite books.



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