Many contests and magazines use the Submittable platform to accept and review the large volume of manuscripts they received from writers. When a publisher uses this platform, it’s great for us as authors because we can use the app to keep track of what we have submitted, and where it currently is in the process. Also, by using the submittable app, you can see what publications have submission dates that are closing soon, and which are going to be open for a while.
When you see an opportunity that falls into your area of expertise and which has a reasonably distant closing date, you can tailor a piece to fit that slot. The key to successfully getting a story accepted is to build the theme of the contest or magazine into your work so solidly that the story would fall apart without it.
Even if nothing currently offered has a reasonable closing date, knowing the trending themes publishers are asking for is crucial to building your backlog with salable stories, so if you don’t have a Submittable account, you should get one.
What I hope to do in each story I begin writing is to identify what the theme the publisher wants stories written to means to me.
Your story will be up against many entries, so you must make yours as unique as is possible. Analyze the theme and try to think creatively—think a little wide of the obvious tropes. Look for an original angle that will play well to that theme and then go for it.
To support the theme, you must layer
These three layers must all be driven by the central theme and advance the story arc.
The theme is introduced, either subtly or overtly, at the first pinch-point. Many times, we are given a specific word count we cannot exceed. So, with that in mind I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc, and when writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the important events in place at the right time. If you try to "pants" it, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.
When you assemble your outline, ask yourself
It’s easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere in short stories, and you don’t want that as your work will be summarily rejected.
As an author, most of my novels have been epic or medieval fantasy, based around the hero’s journey and detailing how the events my protagonists experience shape their reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey is a theme that allows me to employ the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.
These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.
But what if you aren’t really writing anything for submission? What if you just want to write a short story for your backlog, something to have on hand in case something promising comes up?
First consider the length—if you have no particular place to submit to in mind, keep the length down to 3000 to 5000 words. If you keep it shortish, you can easily tailor it to fit within a wide range of wordcount parameters.
Then consider the theme. What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?
That is what your theme is, and what you must write to. Make that theme so intrinsic to the story that it wouldn’t exist without it.
Then, write the best story you can, have it beta read by your critique group, and use their input to iron out the rough places. It really helps to have your group’s involvement, especially when you must edit your own work to the best of your ability. Let it rest for a few days, and then look at one more time before you submit it.
Connie J. Jasperson is the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.