Securing publication for a short story can be a lot more difficult than writing it, even if it is a beautiful, perfectly formed moment of literature. During his recent visit to Australia, McSweeney’s managing editor Jordan Bass claimed the journal received in the region of eight thousand short story submissions per annum. Given it only comes out four times a year and usually has around a dozen stories in each issue, that means they only print approximately 0.6% of stories received. Pretty low odds. In an early interview after taking the reins at The Paris Review, editor Lorin Stein revealed they receive roughly a thousand fiction submissions a month. Given TPR only run three or four stories per issue, you’re looking at a 0.13% success rate there, and that’s being generous.
Those are masthead journals of course and no writer starting out should have the expectation of gracing their pages straight out of the gate. There are myriad other journals here in Australia and internationally that are much more suited to early career short story writers but even then there has always been a bit of a veil of secrecy surrounding exactly how to see your name on the contents page.
The Indiana Review recently broke the silence with a superbly entertaining blog post written by their fiction editor Joe Hiland. In this missive, he outlines the types of story most commonly received by the magazine, and why they have no intention of publishing anything that falls under these banners. A thirty-five year old journal out of Indiana University, the Indiana Review receives between three and four thousand fiction submissions a year so it’s still very difficult to grace their pages. Hiland opens his amusing tirade by outlining the importance of spelling and grammar. Amazingly, some writers send in stories without addressing these basics of language. Rejected. The next ones to go are stories with racist, misogynistic or homophobic language in the opening pages. Straight in the bin.
After that it gets interesting. Hiland rejects three specific types of story that he has read a thousand times before. They are as follows:
The Sad Garage Sale
[Insert name of character] is Sick
The first of these involves a protagonist who must dispose of a dead person’s belongings after their passing, a plot that has been well covered by some of the great writers, including Raymond Carver. Hiland counsels against going head to head with Carver, which is sage advice. The second story has the protagonist visiting an often elderly relative in a nursing home, with a few variations. This is a common (and very real) narrative in all our lives and one I too have seen many, many times whilst reading fiction submissions for anthologies and judging short story competitions. It’s tough to reject these because the stories often mean a lot to the writers and they’re often healing to write but if you’re submitting one to a prize or literary journal it’s worth bearing in mind that you’ll be up against dozens, sometimes hundreds of identical tales.
The third story type features drunken students partying it up or academics having affairs with undergraduates. Fun to do maybe, but tedious to read about for the millionth time. Hiland’s full post can be read here and is generally meant as a helpful guide to prospective contributors, though it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that some of America’s most famed novelists often have a combination of exactly these narratives in their novels. Eugenides, Franzen, I’m looking at you here.
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
- Lynden Barber
- Mandy Ord
- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
- Right Now
- Sleepers Publishing
- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre
27 Sep 12 at 12:18
Alzheimer’s stories. SO MANY alzheimer’s stories are submitted. And as Hiland writes. If you can do it well, beautifully, and bring something new to the topic, great.
But sadness is simply not enough....
27 Sep 12 at 12:25
Anything that contains any/all of the following: dead mothers; remote, cold mothers; disappeared mothers; bad/evil mothers; bad fathers; dead fathers; abusive fathers/mothers; photographs, lockets, significant letters, locked boxes, MEMORIES, DIARIES/JOURNALS....
27 Sep 12 at 21:09
Dispiriting. Those percentages tell the tale.
Despairing at the minute chance I have of appearing in a literary journal, or of winning a short story competition, lately I’ve been looking further afield.
I’ve been following the blog of a sf/fantasy writer and it’s interesting how many anthologies there are in those genres. I had a look at romance anthologies, too, out of interest, but they seem to mostly be spin-off stories from established novelists. And there are the collections like The Big Issue fiction issue. (I think these appear twice yearly now, but I’m not sure.) The stories in The Big Issue are a good read.
Some of the writing organisations publish stories in their members' magazines, too. And the women’s magazines publish lots of stories in their fiction editions.
In the end, I guess we have to write what we like reading. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only option is to write the best story I can and try widely to get it published. Wherever the story appears, I want to be able to say that I’m proud of what I wrote....