What I’ve Learned About Submitting Short Fiction

For years, I refused to do anything with short stories. My goal was to publish novels, and that was all I wanted to do. Short fiction was a distraction. A time sink. A different skill, with different requirements. I didn’t want to bother.

But oh, how my friends nagged. And nagged! Every one of them thought it was a really good idea. (And, for the record, they were right.) So, after years of digging in my heels because I wanted to write novels and nothing else, I signed up for Duotrope and gave short fiction a try.

And it’s been a blast. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. There are 3 pay scales, and you should start at or near the top.

The pay scale goes like this: Pro markets pay 5 cents a word or more. Semi-pro markets pay per word, but less than pro markets. They’re 1 cent a word and up. Token markets pay you less than 1 cent per word.

Out of my first 3 short stories, I sent one to a pro, one to a semi-pro, and one to a token market. I thought it was brave of me to try anything more than token markets, since I had never published anything before. But then I sold my semi-pro story. (I’ll talk more about that next week, once I’m sure it’s not a figment of my imagination.)

But that’s when I realized that I didn’t have to start at the bottom. Start at the top and work your way down. There’s no reason to settle for $15 for a 4,000 word story unless you’ve exhausted all your other options.

2. You don’t write query letters for short fiction markets.

When you want to get an agent you have to write a query letter that explains who you are, what your story’s about, and why they should want to represent you.

Short fiction is different. All they want is the story. You might include a couple sentences for a cover letter, but that’s it. (I’ve been doing something like “I’ve included my X,XXX-word story, NAME, below. Thanks for your consideration!”) If you have any important publishing credits, you could list them too. Then you paste in the story. That’s it.

Now, there absolutely are markets that require you to send a query letter before sending them a story. But I don’t think fiction markets do. I haven’t seen any, at least.

3. “Query” doesn’t mean the same thing for short fiction markets.

When you “query” an agent, you’re sending them your query letter. So imagine my confusion when I found this in the submission instructions of a short fiction market:

Query 30 days after submission.

What? Why would I submit, then send a query letter later?

They’re using the original definition of “query”–to ask a question. They mean that you should submit your story, and then ask about it after XX days if they never got back to you. And all the short fiction markets I’ve submitted to have worked that way. They want you to send the story directly to them, then follow up (if needed) after a certain amount of time. Easy-peasy.

Overall? I still have a lot to learn. Short fiction is still a strange, new world to me. But it’s also been much, much easier to jump into than I thought it was. And it’s been a lot of fun!

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