By Robert Kerbeck
When I proposed my panel for AWP 2017, Emerging from the Slush: How to Get Your Short Story Published, I didn’t think it would be accepted. I haven’t published a book. I don’t have an MFA, let alone an agent, though I have had a dozen or so stories published over the course of the last year. Also past conference panels focused on the craft of writing, not the often mundane business of submission.
Imagine my surprise when AWP accepted my idea.
Arriving in D.C. last month, the first thing I did was check out the conference room to which we’d been assigned. It was huge, practically the length of a football field. Our panel was at 9 a.m., not the best time slot since many writers were up late the night before, reconnecting with old friends. I hoped we’d have more than twenty people.
The crowd turned out to be far more than that. Minutes before we began, there were only a handful of open seats. By the time we started, it was standing room only. Later, I was told people had been turned away because there was no space.
Why did well over 200 writers show up?
While I think, in part, it was because of the impressive backgrounds of my fellow panelists—Michal Lemberger, Zach Powers, and Sujata Shekar—what the turnout really showed me is that writers want to see their work published.
And they need a little help to get there.
Here are Robert’s Rules to help you get your short story published.
- Find a Good Home – This means reading literary magazines. A lot of them. While you’re at it, buy a few. You can’t expect others to buy the magazines you want to be published in if you’re not willing to do the same. Find the ones that publish writers similar in style to yours. Read the magazines where the authors you admire were first published. Michal had a great suggestion to submit frequently to the magazines in your hometown, as they will often do readings that you can attend. You’ll get to meet others in your local literary community and build a network of writer friends. I recently used Michal’s idea to my own benefit, getting a story published in the Exposition Review, which is based in LA where I live. I’m doing a reading of my story on May 6 as a result.
- KISS Theory – Keep It (a) Short Story – While word count shouldn’t be something that regularly enters a writer’s mind when drafting a story, it’s something that cannot be ignored. The simple fact is that shorter stories get accepted more often and faster. By shorter, I’m talking about stories in the 2,500-4,000-word range. Remember that word count and page limits are things that other types of writers deal with frequently. Journalists are an obvious example, but screenwriters and playwrights as well. If these other writers can create art while working within limits, so can you. Bottom line, keeping it short will greatly increase your chances of publication.
- Non-Fiction, Baby – Allison Wright, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, told me it’s far easier to get into her magazine with non-fiction. The database on the submission service, Duotrope, backs this up. Their percentage of non-fiction submissions accepted is double that of fiction. (I use Duotrope to keep track of my submissions, but many writers create their own spreadsheets on Excel.) In my panel, Zach talked about how he wrote book reviews as a way to build his resume and develop relationships with magazines and journals. Michal discussed what a wonderful time it is for non-fiction writers with so many options: creative non-fiction, essays, opinion pieces, slice-of-life portraits, book reviews. You can even make money writing non-fiction. What a concept!
- Get Personal - It’s important to address your cover letter to the appropriate editor, even if it’s unlikely he or she will be the one reading it. Looking up the name of the fiction editor on the masthead takes seconds and shows your professionalism. Certainly, remind the editor of any personal connections you may have to them, and absolutely mention if a prior submission received a personal rejection letter. Learn to check the online literary journal rejection Wiki to determine if you’ve received a standard rejection letter or a personal one, as sometimes it’s hard to tell. Finally, if I’m submitting to a journal that liked a story of mine that was accepted elsewhere, I’ll let them know (in a nice way) that my prior submission found a home. This lets editors know that your work is getting published. After all, we all want what we can’t have.
- Be Strategic, Not Indiscriminate – Since now you’ve been reading journals and know which ones are good choices for your work, you’re ready to submit. Zach’s strategy is to pick 10-15 of your top tier choices and send your story out. Of course, the big, fancy journals are less likely to accept your work. That’s why you should have a list of second-tier journals, and then a list of your third tier, and so on. The strategy is to aim high but be prepared to keep submitting, perhaps dozens and dozens of times, before your story finally gets published.
- Let Rejection Be Your Guide – Your story is out in the universe. What you want (besides an acceptance!) is a personal rejection. This tells you that your story is working. If I get back ten rejections in a row on a new story without receiving a personal note of some sort—we enjoyed this, we were impressed with your writing, we think you’re the next literary genius—I’m going to seriously consider revising it. Of course, if you’ve sent your story only to top twenty journals, it might not be time yet for revision. However, while the top twenty (hell, the top 100) are tough to get into, they do send out personal rejections when they like something. Use the lack of personal rejections as a guide for when to stop submitting and revise. About half of the stories I’ve had published were pulled back at some point for “fine-tuning.”
- Two for the Price of One – When withdrawing a story that’s been accepted elsewhere, again always send a personal note and apologize for any inconvenience. Let the editors know that you appreciate their time. Offer to send them a replacement story. I did this with Cream City Review and got an immediate note back asking me to send a new story. It was accepted within hours. Michal talked about an important thing to NOT do, which is to try to leverage your acceptance at a “lesser” journal to get the story into a “better” journal. This is considered bad form. Be grateful, not greedy.
- Go on Vacation – Writers’ Conferences are an incredible way to improve your writing, make friends, and advance your career. I met two of my co-panelists at Tin House. As a direct result of my attendance at conferences, I’ve had stories accepted. I strongly recommend Tin House, Bread Loaf, VCFA, and the Iowa Writers’ Festival. Sujata recommended that you apply for scholarships, but go to the top two or three conferences at least once even if the scholarships don’t work out. She recommends Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House, One Story, VONA, and Kundiman
- Be a Volunteer – Offer to read the slush for a magazine, be a supporter or organizer of local literary events, offer feedback on your friends’ stories. These are just a few ways to be of service to other writers. Sujata and Zach both talked about the importance of being good literary citizens, of trying to make the world a better place for writers. Remember what goes around comes around.
- Editors Don’t Bite – Here’s the thing. Editors want to meet you. They want to publish you. You’ve just got to give them the chance to do so. At events like AWP, go say thank you to all of the journals that accepted you. Go say hi to all of the journals that gave you a personal rejection. Go introduce yourself to all of the journals you like the most. At a prior AWP, I introduced myself to the editor of The MacGuffin, who’d given me personal rejections on my prior two submissions. Immediately after the conference, I submitted a new story, and he accepted it right away. Was it a coincidence that he accepted the first thing I sent after we met? I doubt it. Our personal connection helped pull my work out of the slush pile and into the acceptance bin.
I hope you find these steps valuable. More importantly, I hope you’ll let me know if they result in a publication. I can’t wait to read your story.
Based on his short stories, fifteen of which have been published in the last year and a half, Robert Kerbeck was selected for mentorship by the managing editor of Tin House. One of his short stories was acquired by Tica Productions and adapted into the film, “Connected,” opening in late 2017. His non-fiction piece based on his experience with O.J. Simpson was featured on Narratively, and his personal essay about his father, George Clooney, and Yoko Ono can be read on Word Riot. Robert was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was the recipient of the Upstreet short fiction scholarship at the 2016 VCFA Postgraduate writers’ conference. He was also a finalist for the 2016 Writers@Work fellowship. His first play, “Putin and the Snowman,” opened off-Broadway this past July. To learn more please visit www.robertkerbeck.com