Making your submission strategy work for you

By Melanie Harding-Shaw

Note: This content was originally posted on my website. If you already read it there, it is largely the same other than an update of my submission stats at the end.

A few people have asked me to walk through the mechanics of how I manage short fiction submissions and why I do it the way I do. Specifically, short-story submissions to traditional publications. Indie publishing is another totally valid route, but not one I have experience with. Novel queries are similar, but with some different variables. As with everything, this is just what works for me. Everyone is different and there is no one “right” way.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE IN WRITING REJECTION

If you follow my page on Facebook, you will have seen I often post monthly stats for how my writing and submissions have gone. That’s partly about keeping myself motivated. Forcing myself to see the progress I’m making. It’s also just in case someone else needs to see it, and particularly in case someone is feeling like a rejection of their writing means they are no good or they need to give up. I decided on a submissions strategy when I set out with short fiction that means I get rejected a LOT. So, I hope you can see from my posts that you are not alone in your rejection and that persistence will pay off. That a piece can be rejected over and over, and then get published by a great publisher. The Rejectomancy website is another great resource on this topic.

WRITING WILL NEVER BE PERFECT, BUT IT CAN BE COMPLETE

There is a necessary prequel to this, of course. You have to stick at a piece of writing until it’s complete. You have to do your best to polish it until it shines and maybe find someone else to look over it because the human eye will read what it expects to see and you will definitely miss stuff. If you can’t find a human, at least find Grammarly or equivalent. But most of all you have to be willing to just say: “It’s as done as it is going to get. If someone else is willing to publish it, then I am ready to have it out in the world.” There is a tipping point where the return on that third or seventh rewrite of a short story is not worth the investment of your precious time, and you really need to move on to writing the next thing because that is how you grow. It will never be perfect.

REJECTION IS NOT ABOUT YOU, AND OFTEN IT’S NOT EVEN ABOUT THE QUALITY OF YOUR WRITING

You don’t have to internalise a rejection (easier said than done). It’s not about you. It’s about the fit of a particular piece with one publisher in the context of all the other pieces they have recently published or are about to. Or it’s about the judge’s particular interests in that competition. Or about trying to ensure equity across different writing types and writers for that grant. It doesn’t make it any easier, though. It will still hurt and it’s OK to feel that. A lot of my approach is designed around managing my vulnerability, counteracting self-sabotage. It does get easier the more you do it.

YOU NEED TO KNOW WHAT YOU WANT AND WHERE YOU ARE TRYING TO GET TO

M Darusha Wehm recently tweeted a wonderful thread about figuring out what you want to achieve with your writing. They also spoke about short fiction strategies at NZ’s last Nat Con and their submission approach was pretty similar to mine, as is Andi C Buchanan’s who has also written about their short fiction submissions strategies. They are both far more established and successful writers than me. There is nothing particularly new in what I have to say, but as a newbie I think it can still be helpful to set it out for others wanting to start going down the short-story road.

I was thinking about a few things when I planned out my short-story submission strategy, starting with what I was hoping to achieve. This graphic is a bit old now and was primarily aimed at novel publication, but last time I thought about goals and dreams for my writing generally this is what I came up with (note the distinction between dreams I can’t control the achievement of, and goals that I have control over):

Graphic of Melanie's writing goals for 2019 (like query 3 agents at a time all year, write 3rd novel) and dreams (like first short fiction pro-sale, and get an agent), and longer term dreams (like making 50% of her income from writing/remote working by 2025)

GOALS TELL YOU WHICH MARKETS TO TARGET

Specific to my short-stories, my main goals were to:

·      Demonstrate a credible publishing history to agents I was querying

·      Start making an income from my writing to build a second career

·      Make connections with readers and other writers.

To meet those goals, I needed to try and get into the more reputable magazines and anthologies, and I needed to focus on those that pay. The question of professional payment for writers and the ethics of publishing is an entirely separate topic I won’t go into, and I would note that the question of professional payment to editors, slush-readers, and all the others involved is equally challenging as raised by Clarkesworld magazine recently in a tweet thread. I would hope that everyone’s aim is to achieve financial sustainability for the entire publishing eco-system. That we’re all working towards everyone being paid fairly for their work. Until that happens it doesn’t matter how inclusive publications are, there will always be those who can’t afford to take the time to write. Voices we won’t be able to hear.

What did that targeting actually mean for me? For the purposes of my genres—speculative fiction, mostly Sci-Fi/Fantasy—I was aiming for as close as I could get to SFWA pro-sale rates ($0.08USD/word), and ideally SFWA qualifying markets, because it gave me a benchmark. That’s an important function of those kinds of professional organisations and part of why they are so important to support. When I started, I also tried international competitions, but quickly found that was a way to spend a lot of money on entry fees without much chance of a return.

And because I also want to make connections, I include local Australasian publishers in my approach even where they may not meet my other criteria. Local publishers may not pay as much or have as large a readership, but they can be amazing supporters. Certainly, that was my experience of Breach Zine who did my first ever interview and nominated me for awards, which I was very lucky to see result in being a finalist in the short story category for the Sir Julius Vogel awards from my first year of publication. But beyond that, we are a small community and we should all be supporting each other to succeed in whatever way we can. I can’t afford to buy subscriptions to every magazine I’m interested in, but I can offer my stories to them. I will sometimes compromise on pay, but never on contractual conditions. There’s no excuse for exploitation.

SUBMISSION GROUND RULES CAN HELP MANAGE IMPOSTER SYNDROME AND ANXIETY

I knew the kinds of places I wanted to target, so the question was how to find them and what order to submit. I suffer from imposter syndrome and anxiety as I’m sure many people do. I was always going to feel like my stories weren’t good enough and that I had no right to submit somewhere. So, I made myself some ground rules.

1.     Don’t self-reject. Start from the top and work down. I’m never going to get in my dream magazines if I don’t submit to them. As long as the story fits their publication, I will start with Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Escape Artists and the other wonderful publishers I am finding the longer I look. They get thousands of submissions a year. They’re not judging you and remembering you were the writer that sent that thing they didn’t like (although if you’re rude, you can bet they will remember you). They honestly won’t mind that you gave them a shot. Their whole business is based on writers submitting. And sometimes if you become a familiar name to them, or they are particularly generous with their time, they will start giving you feedback and you can learn what kind of story will work for them (reading their publications helps with that, too).

2.     Send rejected stories right back out straight away. Unless I get feedback on a rejection that I agree with and can do something about, I send my stories straight back out again as soon as they’re rejected. No waiting around. Same day, same hour if possible. (But always make sure you recheck the formatting against the guidelines! Especially whether it needs to be anonymous or not).

3.     Keep writing new stuff and have lots of pieces out on submission. It is harder to obsess about when someone is getting back to you if you have 10-20 pieces out at any given time like I do. It’s still possible though. I am absolutely guilty of staring at the little black dot of my submission on Submission Grinder and willing a response to come. A watched submission never boils : ).

4.     Aim for quick turnaround markets first. The wait can be painful. It can make the rejection feel worse. Start with the magazines that get back to you in a few days, then a few weeks, and only go to the ones with longer turnarounds if you are happy to forget about it for months. Conveniently that means starting with F&SF, Clarkesworld and Asimovs, which matches the first rule.

5.     Set progress targets if they’re useful. At least xx submissions in a month/year. Or if you prefer, at least xx rejections in a year so you can feel more positive about getting them. There’s lots of writing about those kinds of targets around if you google. If you want to set a target around acceptance, it could be acceptance into a particular market but you don’t have any control over that. I have a goal to try and improve my personal record for getting into a market with the lowest acceptance rate. It’s a little broader. It’s a little more achievable because I’m just looking for an incremental trend line in the right direction, not an end point. It lets me celebrate steps along the way. I’ve got into a few markets with a rate around 5 percent. I’m still trying to crack those harder ones.

6.     Keep learning. Use spreadsheets and graphs. Find patterns. Discover which publications like particular kinds of your stories so you can target them first next time. Even if it was rejected, if it got through to the second round or they took the time to give feedback then my writing is probably a good match for them. I have a couple of outlier stories that didn’t fit much with my other work or with many publications. But one particular publisher seems to really like them. They’ve accepted one and held another. I suspect they wouldn’t be interested in some of my other work, but this particular subset is a great fit.

7.     Save my successes for a rainy day. Screenshot or print the nice feedback and acceptances and put them in a folder, keep a table of your results, celebrate your achievements publicly. When it all gets too much, I make myself go read those positive messages again. I remind myself how far I’ve come. And the flip-side to this is make sure you celebrate everyone’s else’s successes as well.

Depending on your goals, you might add other rules. These are just the ones I use. If you need feedback, target the magazines with the highest personalised rejections. If you need a mental boost, start with magazines with higher acceptance rates. Maybe try your hand at micro or flash fiction that doesn’t take as long to write and where there are a range of small presses who will be happy to publish you. It’s always OK to target by what your headspace needs, but I think it is important to do it on purpose rather than because you feel you are not good enough.

I recognise I write from a life of relative privilege. If you are from a marginalised community, your rules to protect yourself might also include focussing on the markets that have proven to treat marginalised voices with respect and who actively work to make their publications reflect the diversity of human experience. Markets whose submission guidelines explicitly welcome your voice. Or that might not affect your decision at all.  Even if you aren’t from a marginalised community, you might choose to target those publications because they match your values.

How do you find information on markets that meet these criteria? Duotrope (paid) and The Submission Grinder (free/donation) will both give you stats on pay rates, acceptance rates, personalised rejection rates and turnaround times. You can search by things like story length and genre.  I prefer submission grinder because of the fantastic graphs it produces. They both cover literary and genre fiction, although I think submission grinder leans towards genre more. Here’s a screenshot to show you what I mean. I find the tide of red rejections makes me feel less alone.Screenshot of Submission Grinder logs for Fantasy and SCience Fiction magazine over the last 12 months. 0.61% acceptance rate from 1,945 submissions logged.

To keep up with new submission calls in speculative fiction, check out places like this Facebook group for open submission calls, or SFWA’s monthly market update. Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association and Spec Fic NZ both also post some submission calls if you’re in this part of the world. I’m sure the same kinds of groups exist for literary fiction and other genres if you hunt them out. And connect with other writers! Share opportunities with each other. (Note – Twitter seems to be far more effective a tool for connecting with writers you haven’t met than Facebook. Give it a try and come find me there if we haven’t connected already.)

I keep my own excel spreadsheets as well, partly as a back-up and partly because it gives me more control. I have tabs for upcoming temporary submission calls, markets I target with various stats, my submissions and results, my stories with all the places they’ve been rejected from. I can look up how many times a market has rejected me or held me. I can look up a story and see where I’ve sent it and whether it was held for second-round consideration and what feedback it got, if any. It’s probably not the best set-up, but this is what some of that looks like (sorry if it’s too small to read, this is already super long so trying not to make it too big):

Colour-coded excel spreadsheets that log Submission calls, rejection stats by story, colour-coded submission records, and table of potential markets.

So, where did that get me? I usually have around 10-20 pieces out for consideration at any one time. My acceptance rate sits around 12 percent. I’ve sent out 163 submissions this year, and have had 17 acceptances. I’ve got into two SFWA-qualifying markets, and two other markets that pay pro-rates. Plenty of room for improvement, but I’m heading in the right direction.

I hope this was helpful. As with everything, it’s just my way of doing it. My way of coping. There are many ways to go about it and many different goals you may be trying to achieve.

Good luck and don’t let the rejections get you down!

Melanie's submission stats for 2019. 9 closed/no response, 129 rejected, 17 accepted, 19 published/to be published, 14 pending response, 163 submissions total

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