Get Your Foot in the Door

Many writers throw themselves at the door of the big glossy high-paying magazines hoping for a prestigious short story sale that will launch their career. There’s nothing wrong with that but the odds are enormous and the frustration increases with every rejection slip. Faced with rejections, writers often give up before their careers ever get a chance to get off the ground.
One thing you can do to reduce your chances for rejection is to start off with some of the lesser-known or lower paying magazines and then build upon your successes. Standard, Glimmer Train, Fantastic and The Sun all publish fiction and encourage emerging fiction writers. They also agree that it is often a writer’s passion for a story that unlocks the door to publication. But beyond that, each magazine has a defined focus as unique as each writer’s set of fingerprints. Read on for some tips from the editors of these four magazines.
If the main character in your story looks to God for direction and strength, Standard Magazine might be a good possibility. Editor Dr. Everett Leadingham has a clearly defined focus. “Three things are important: Believable characters and story line, not too-predictable ending and to be within the framework of Standard’s mission—showing Christianity in action.” He also warns that, “Writers often give everything away with their titles and first paragraphs.”
At Glimmer Train the emphasis is on literary short fiction; no blood and gore, no graphic violence, and no science fiction. “We look for work that is extremely well written and that is also emotionally affecting,” explains editor Linda Swanson-Davies. “The pieces we print influence how we look at ourselves, other people, the world at large. We want to be somehow enlarged by a story and the perspective it offers.”
If your main characters are more likely to be quirky creatures from another planet, they might be more at home somewhere else, say a galaxy such as Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. Editor Ed McFadden looks for fantasy and science fiction in all their forms. “Usually the story must have something new or different about it—cutting edge. While I do publish traditional fantasy, space opera, etc., these stories must be exceptional. For a new writer, a new idea or concept would provide a greater chance of publication. And it must entertain the reader. That’s what this is all about.”
What if your story seems to defy categorization? Perhaps you need a magazine that defies categorization as well. The Sun Magazine is open to just about anything. “We like personal writing that’s deep and genuine,” explains editor Sy Safransky. “No cynical or fashionable or trendy writing. Our writers don’t shy away from strong emotions, whether joyous or sad.” His vision for The Sun Magazine is crystal clear. “I want The Sun to be a magazine that tells the truth; a magazine that sees the world as it is, without flinching; a magazine that celebrates the power of love without ignoring the destructive forces around us. I think that most of the writing we print is top-notch. But sometimes I’m willing to publish something that isn’t so skillfully written if it gets me closer to the heartache and the glory of being human. To some other editors, upholding certain literary standards may be more important. Each approach, I believe, has value.

Choose the Right Market for your Story

Increase your chances for a sale by making sure that your story is a good match for the publication you have chosen. Study the markets well before you send out your work. Start by reading the magazine and the writer’s guidelines. It should be obvious but often basic editorial needs are overlooked. Don’t send a 5,000 word story when the limit is 1,500 words. If the guidelines say they don’t publish fiction, don’t expect your short story to be the first to make them break with tradition. Most magazines now have a website and you can get the guidelines there. When you go to a writer’s conference, pay attention to what the editors say they are looking for and what to avoid. Editors want to say yes to your story. It makes their job easier if the first story they pick up out of the slush pile is a winner. Make it easy for them to say yes.
“Follow my guidelines and write a good story,” says McFadden.
Leadingham agrees that writers need to “show evidence that they have researched enough to know what Standard is–a denominational, take-home Sunday School paper. Show me some good writing skills (grammar, spelling, elements of fiction-writing) about a subject that fits our mission—showing Christianity in action.”
Ease the way for acceptances by paying attention to a magazine’s submission guidelines. For example Glimmer Train prefers submissions via their website and Standard likes to have the stories emailed to them. On the other hand, Fantastic Stories and The Sun don’t accept email submissions at all.
Swanson-Davies explains, “It’s very wise to be familiar with a pub before submitting work for publication. It’s silly to send a romance novel to a literary short story publisher, for instance. Read the pub’s guidelines before making submissions. Read your story aloud before deciding to submit it: you’ll catch errors, hear its strong points, feel—or not feel—the story’s strength. Do you use lots of adjectives, adverbs? If so, you may not be choosing the RIGHT nouns and verbs. Every word counts—choose each with care.”
“Write honestly and movingly about something that’s important to you,” says Safransky.
“You have to be familiar with the publication. Blind submissions only waste everyone’s time.”
Do editors read every story from start to finish? Some do and some don’t. “It depends,” says McFadden. “There are many manuscripts that can be ruled out after a few pages. You would be surprised at how good I am at telling you all about a story, including how it will end, after only reading a few pages.”
“I want to see how the author ends the story,” adds Leadingham. “Sometimes good beginnings fizzle away into nothing endings. At other times poor beginnings turn around by the end. In a few cases, I don’t read past the first page.”
Strive to hook your reader from the very first line. Strong writing and an evocative story will keep Swanson-Davis turning pages. “Usually a few paragraphs will tell us how strong the author’s writing skills are. If they are top notch and the story holds our interests, we will read on.”

An Ever-changing Market

It’s important to be aware of current trends in the fiction market but be careful. Knowing which topics to avoid is as important as knowing which trends to follow. Sometimes, by the time you write toward the trend, it’s already finished.
“Certain subjects seem to come in clumps,” says Leadingham, “like the writers had a meeting somewhere that I wasn’t invited to attend and decided to submit the same kinds of articles in the same month.”
If you hear an editor speak about a need for cozy mysteries featuring nurses with insomnia and you just happen to have a story like that in your bottom drawer, go for it. But be aware that a lot of other writers heard that same editor speak about the same thing and very likely raced home to write just such a story.

On Taking Chances

Writers need to be brave; brave enough to submit and brave enough to face rejection. Don’t listen to unsupportive friends or spouses who spout statistics about the odds against you. Do your market research, write your story, make it as good as you can, and then, send it out into the world. Sometimes you’ll make a match and sometimes you won’t. But it’s a cinch that you can’t sell what you don’t submit.
Leadingham encourages new writers to persevere in spite of the odds. “Statistics are against the writer. I have space to publish less than 10 percent of the manuscripts I receive. However, new writers should keep two things in mind: (1) Don’t take the rejection personally. I don’t know you. I am simply making the decision that this particular piece does not fit what I need right now. (2) Some other editor may be looking for such a piece. Don’t stop with one rejection. Send it to other editors with similar magazines. Keep trying.”
McFadden agrees that persistence is the key. “Rejection is part of any career. I tell new writers that achieving publication requires persistence. Keep sending out your work and try not to get discouraged by rejection. Most magazines and book companies get far more manuscripts than they can publish. Many times rejection has nothing to do with the quality of the story, but the economics of the business. To increase your chances of publication two major themes will always help. A) Know where and who you are sending you story to. Read the magazine; read interviews with the editor and the editors guidelines. Example: Sending me a story about cats is a waste of time regardless of how good the tale is—I hate cats and have said this on many occasions. B) Be professional and present yourself as a professional—follow the guidelines!”
“Rejection is absolutely unavoidable,” adds Swanson-Davies. “It is NOT personal. (We have sometimes hated one story an author has submitted, but LOVED another.) We have a great deal of respect for writers and appreciate the work even of writers who have not yet developed the skills that will make their work publishable, as long as it’s cleared that they’ve invested themselves in their stories. There are not enough publications that are able to stay alive to publish all the good work that is written. Authors should submit their work to publications that publish work the author admires and enjoys. (If you share the editors’ tastes, you’ve got a big advantage—you’re probably already striving to produce work that would interest them.”

Final Thoughts

No matter how many tips the editors share, or how many submission guidelines you read, the final step is up to you.
Safransky reminds writers, “The only way to have any odds of getting published is to submit work. Don’t be afraid of failure. You’ll only regret that you never tried.”
Swanson-Davies loves to discover new talent. “Writers should know how much fun it is for an editor to call an unpublished writer and ask to publish their work,. Being unpublished is not a disadvantage. And one more thing: READ! So often people are driven by their need to write and don’t spend time or money on other people’s writing, but it’s going to be VERY tough to adequately sharpen one’s skills without knowing what great writing looks like. The writers who read and love great writing have, by far, the best chance of achieving it themselves.”
Remember that editors want you to succeed; they want to buy good stories for their magazines. Without a steady influx of new manuscripts, the magazines would soon go out of business. But think before you act, cautions McFadden. “Don’t just send your stories out willy-nilly. Understand the market you are trying to break into and craft your fiction toward that market. Another approach is to just write what you want, then try and find a market for it. The former is how most professionals do it, while the latter is how most newbies do it. Neither is wrong. Try and find you own voice. I get so many manuscripts that are just imitations of Tolkien, or Dick, and these stories fail. Have something to say without being preachy. The best stories I have read or have published have a meaning beneath their entertainment.”
“Make a game out of the rejection slips rather than taking each one as a rejection of you as a person,” suggests Leadingham. “It is just part of the business. I have several writers who must send me more than 50 manuscripts a year, yet I might publish them only four or five times in a year. They just keep plugging away.”
Knowledge really is power. Get to know the magazines you want to write for, and get to know the editors behind the magazine. There’s a lot they can teach you.
“The best advice I have for writers,” Safransky concludes, “is not to listen to anyone’s advice. Beyond that, I agree with Woody Allen’s observation that eighty percent of life is just showing up. If you want to be a writer, write. Write every day if you can. Don’t worry if someone else —particularly an editor you’ve never met—doesn’t think your work is any good. Remember, too, that talking about writing is only that: talk. Talking about writing is as different from writing as talking about breathing is from taking your next breath.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.