The Cardinal Sins of Submission

As I work my way through the fantastic stories and poems that have been submitted to Gallows Hill Magazine, it seemed a good time to share with you all some of my top tips for making it out of the slush pile. We all know publishing is a competitive business; there are hundreds of stories submitted to each opening, and that’s something to be celebrated. Writing is more accessible than ever, and equally, there are always new venues opening up to showcase the very best of genre fiction. But that means that if you want your story to stand out, you need to do everything you can to present yourself and your story in the best light.

Here are a few things you can do to ensure you don’t commit the cardinal sins of short story submissions.

  1. FORMATTING is vital. Seriously. I can’t stress this point enough! When an editor is reading through dozens of submissions each day, ‘quirky’ formatting will do you no favours. Presenting your work in bold font, unusual typefaces or without appropriate paragraphs and punctuation will elicit a pained groan from the weary editor, and giving them a reason to mark your story down from the start is a Bad Plan. Most publications will list the expected formatting for your submission, but when in doubt, always use Shunn standard format for your short stories. Learn it and use it.
  2. GUIDELINES are there for a reason. Don’t subvert them. It doesn’t make you clever or special; you just look like an arsehole. If an editor requests a hard limit of 5k, sending in your 7000 word story is an auto-rejection. If the guidelines request a HEA (happily ever after), then your story that culminates in a beautifully tragic murder of one of the main characters isn’t going to fit, and it’s a waste of your time and theirs to send it in. Read the guidelines, stick to them, and you’re already halfway there.
  3. SUBMITTING CORRECTLY will also stand you in good stead. If the publisher asks for a cover letter, provide one – and think about what you’re writing. They don’t need (or want) to know about the trophy you won when you were 9. But if you’re a member of the HWA or your story was recently nominated for a Stoker, then by all means let them know. Send to the correct email address, or via the submission portal if directed to do so. Don’t find the editor’s personal email to send it to them directly; it only makes you look like someone who isn’t willing to follow the process, and is therefore likely going to be difficult to work with. Address your email formally and politely, and if in doubt, address it as “Dear Editor”, NOT “Dear Sir”!
  4. And DON’T SELF-REJECT. Have confidence in your writing and in yourself. Once your story is the best it can be, get it out there! I know how hard it is for a writer to open up to criticism and send each story out there. Our writing is often intensely personal, and taking a risk on rejection is difficult. But if you’ve read the guidelines, crafted a story that fits and believe in it, then send it off! Take a chance and see what happens.
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What Was Lost

I really miss editing.

There. It’s said. My name is Cara, and I used to be an editor. Under a previous nom de plume, I was a freelance editor. I edited horror anthologies and novels, and I was deeply proud of what I achieved. Helping other authors make their writing be the best it possibly could be was just as much of a thrill as creating my own stories.

And then life threw a curveball into my path. My impossible baby came along. Much wanted, but unexpected nonetheless. I planned to take three months of maternity leave before easing back into my freelance work; I didn’t want to take too much time out of a fast-moving market that I loved being part of. But then towards the end of the third month, I found myself standing at the side of the road calmly weighing up the pros and cons of throwing myself in the path of the next bus to come along.

Postnatal depression had hit with a vengeance. Out of nowhere I could barely face waking up each morning, let alone returning to work as I had planned. I spent the next two years on a high dose of mirtazapine just to be able to find an equilibrium once more.

For the last six months I’ve been able to stop my medication, and one of the best parts of not taking anti-depressants any more is that the fugue has lifted. I couldn’t write whilst I was taking them; now the inspiration and drive has returned. I can use the pain as a spur to dig deep and take my writing to places it has never been before.

I thought long and hard about whether to take up the mantle of my previous name when I resumed writing, but eventually decided to mentally ‘wipe the slate clean’ and choose a new name for myself. That meant I’m now starting from scratch. I still see a handful of names I recognise now and again, but mostly the publishing world is full of new faces. That’s great – but it means I’m finding my feet all over again, establishing my reputation from the beginning.

That in itself wouldn’t inhibit me from starting up freelance editing again, but for now the chronic pain issues I have with my spine after my pregnancy are uncontrolled. I can’t commit to editing a client’s novel when I don’t know if I’ll be able to get out of bed tomorrow.

For now I just keep writing. There’s so many submission calls and brilliant new publishers around that I have more than enough stories floating around to keep me busy – but every now and again, I stop and wistfully remember the days when I had the privilege of reading an author’s story before anyone else. Being able to guide them in shaping it into the book they wanted people to read was an honour, and I hope that one day I’ll be in a position to do that again.

Until then, if anyone is looking for a beta reader, I’m all ears!

Rejection and how to handle it

If you’re an aspiring author, then perhaps the most important lesson you need to learn is how to deal with rejection, because believe me, you’re going to encounter a hell of a lot of it throughout your career. It can be all too easy to take it as a personal insult when a story you’ve devoted months, maybe even years to, comes back with nothing more than a cursory:

Thank you for submitting to Really Busy Publishers, but we’re going to pass.

Lesson Number One – Just because they turned it down, that doesn’t mean it’s no good.

Publishers have dozens of different reasons for declining a story. Your voice and style might not be a good fit for the house style, they might already have published something similar recently, your story crosses into genres they’re not comfortable handling…none of those mean it was no good. I found that the hardest part of editing anthologies was sending the rejection emails to those who didn’t make the cut. There were many times that I genuinely enjoyed the story, but it just didn’t have that innate sense of being ‘right’ for the anthology and the other chosen stories. So take it from me, if the editor says they liked your story and you would be welcome to submit to a different call, they probably mean it! I never said it to anyone if I didn’t really mean it.

Lesson Number Two – Think about why it might have been rejected.

Be honest with yourself. Did you read and follow the submission call? Did you format your story in line with the publisher’s request? Did you proofread properly, or was it strewn with tiny little mistakes throughout? It’s hard to self-critique, and that’s why it’s great to have a trusted author friend or beta-reader to bounce ideas off and ask for honest feedback on how to improve if you’re struggling to see the wood for the trees.

And finally;

Lesson Number Three – Don’t forget the stories that were rejected.

Just because they weren’t right for one publisher doesn’t mean there isn’t a home waiting for them somewhere else. I’ve spent the last six years writing and polishing short stories. I would say approximately half of them have been published now, and some of them went to four or five different publishers before they were picked up. There’s no shame in that. If you believe in your story, keep sending it out there – and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be submitting it yet.

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If you have any further lessons to learn, please share them in the comments below!