Submitting short stories online - Explain it like I'm 5
September 27, 2022 11:34 PM   Subscribe

I've recently started submitting a few short stories for publication in online journals. I am finding the submissions process pretty challenging to figure out. Mefites who do this regularly, can you share your systems with me? I am very, very new to this stuff.

1. How do you keep track of the different submissions deadlines for different online magazines? A spreadsheet? Is there an online calendar of different submissions deadlines? So many times I've found a likely-looking online journal and their submissions are closed and there's no indication when they might open.

2. Formatting - this is a real bugbear. I have been using Shunn's Modern Manuscript Format for my stories. But some online journals want submissions in a slightly different format, e.g. Shunn's format but with 1.5 spacing instead of double-spacing, some others want single quotation marks instead of double quotation marks, etc. Some want British English spelling and some want American etc. I am using Mac Pages and I do not find it a good programme for word processing at this level. e.g. I cannot get the Smart Quotes feature to work perfectly for love nor money, and recently submitted a story with all my dialogue in straight single quotes rather than curly quote marks because the find and replace function would not replace straight with curly/Smart quote marks. How long do you normally spend on formatting your manuscripts? I spent at least 3 hours yesterday trying to get my story to format correctly in Mac Pages. Is this normal? What are some ways you use to approach this?

3. Genre - I worry my stories will all be rejected because they don't fit cleanly into a genre. I like short stories that are, I guess, 'tinged with weird', but not fully supernatural or science-fiction; and where the ending is ambiguous. I get a sense they are too ambiguous for straight-up genre fiction journals but certainly not literary or serious enough for anything else. Any advice on this front?

4. I've been keeping a log of what stories I submit where so that I don't simultaneously submit the same piece to different places at the same time etc. Anything else I should track?

Any other advice for someone just starting out in this area? Also, would you advise me to write stories aimed at particular journal readerships (e.g. more straight-up fantasy etc) or just write my stories and then try and find a place that might accept them?
posted by unicorn chaser to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
1. & 4. I learned about the Submission Grinder -- the search engine lets you exclude publications closed to submissions, and the site provides a submission tracker with a free account -- from this AskMe.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:17 AM on September 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

I came here to recommend the Submission Grinder too! Definitely check it out.

For 3., there are a ton of magazines out there with every niche available. I'm guessing you probably write what would be termed 'weird' fiction' which can be grouped under the general umbrella of 'speculative fiction' though all these genre boundaries are very fuzzy and not worth getting into heated discussions about . . . On the top of my head, I can think of Bourbon Penn, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Neon Magazine.

But best way to find out is to read the magazines, see where else the writer of the pieces have published.
posted by moiraine at 1:29 AM on September 28, 2022

For 2, in terms of format: I use double spacing, double quotation marks, Times New Roman, and British English. I have changed my quotation marks to curly quotes (MS Word).

I haven't really encountered too many manuscript formatting difficulties? Some places do want anonymised submissions, and some want the cover letter within the document itself, which I adjust appropriately. But it hasn't been a massive time sink in general. Most are fairly ok with the MMF, or approximately MMF.
posted by moiraine at 3:16 AM on September 28, 2022

For 3, I find Duotrope really helpful. It's not free, but there's a 7-day free trial. The cool thing about Duotrope is that when you look up a journal, there's a section for "people whose work was accepted here also had acceptances at these journals." So if you know even one journal that publishes work that's like yours, you can find other journals that may be publishing that kind of work. They also provide statistics on things like percentage of submissions accepted and how long it takes specific journals to reply. And they let you set up a submission tracker.
posted by FencingGal at 4:12 AM on September 28, 2022

In addition to Duotrope, which has been a mainstay for me in the past, I can recommend the newsletters from Freedom with Writing and also the blog Published to Death. Those have posts with hand-picked items, some of which are relevant to fiction and some that aren't. I've found success through them before. Submittable's Discover function helps me find deadlines that are coming up with a handy filter.

I use an MS Word spreadsheet to keep track of these things; in fact, my master document started in Open Office and is now nearly eleven years old. I also track whether or not each journal does simultaneous submissions and how long to expect to wait for an answer before querying about it. Noting any other issues (this person said please send more, this guy was a dick about it, this place has another opportunity) will help as well.

It sounds like you and I write in the same vein, as far as genre goes. I won't kid you; it's frustrating. You gotta keep chasing those unicorns, but it may be some comfort to know that there aren't a lot of them. Even so, people are much less strict than they once were about staying in one's lane in respect to weird and SF elements.

Take a look at your writing and see if it might be adaptable to a non-traditional market, like podcasting, social media storytelling, or self-publishing. I admire writers like Chuck Tingle and Joseph Fink of Welcome to Night Vale who basically willed their genres into being using the internet. This requires marketing and management skill, something entirely different from writing.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:53 AM on September 28, 2022

Oh! And one more piece of advice. Watch out for scams and, what's more insidious, presses that are unable to get it together to publish or pay you. When my novel deal foundered, someone reassured me by saying that small presses are like restaurants -- often there one day and gone the next. This is more likely to trip up short fiction writers than outright scamminess, especially if you follow the rule of thumb that writers are supposed to BE paid. (Many journals request a small fee for submissions, and most contests do, and there's nothing wrong with that per se, but unless the opportunity is fantastic and my entry would be strong, I don't do those.)
posted by Countess Elena at 7:59 AM on September 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have not encountered fussy formatting requirements when submitting to North American SFF magazines. I wonder if this is a literary magazine thing? Or an international market thing?

When submitting, I definitely prioritize markets that have more favorable submission guidelines, unless they pay very well or are super prestigious. So a publication that asked for 1.5 spacing would go to the bottom of my list unless it was, like, the New Yorker.

However, for differences that are regional, another approach would be to plan your submission schedule by region - spend 3-6 months sending an American-formatted submission to all the North American magazines, then reformat and move on to the EU, and so on. Writing is an art, but it's also a part-time job, so I tend to value efficiency over other factors.

I've never used Mac Pages, but I do all my writing in Google Docs these days. LibreOffice is another solid free option. If a word processor didn't do smart quotes that would definitely be a dealbreaker for me.
posted by toastedcheese at 8:31 AM on September 28, 2022

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