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How to promote the short stories you write?

If you’ve been following the advice on my website, you’ve probably produced a couple of stories you think are good enough to try to publish. That’s great, right?

Except that I haven’t told you how to do that yet. Thanks to a recent reader inquiry, I realized that I haven’t written a single article about marketing your short fiction. Good to know you guys are paying attention out there!

Here, then, is my short and sweet, quick and easy guide to marketing your short stories.

1. Make sure your story is ready to send out. Lots of writers jump the gun on this one, riding the wave of enthusiasm from their freshly minted creation. So start by making sure the story is really ready to go.

Remember the advice I’ve given elsewhere on this site: after writing the rough draft, put it away and wait at least two weeks before looking at it again. You have to give the story time to cool, which is another way of saying you have to give yourself time to develop some objectivity about it. At first, you’re too in love with it to be able to assess it fairly. Give yourself time. Start a new project to keep your mind occupied while you’re waiting.

I can hear a lot of you saying, “two weeks? You’re crazy. I can’t wait that long.” Trust me: your patience will pay huge long-term dividends. The Pulitzer-Prize nominee you just finished two minutes ago may look very different two Mondays from now.

2. Find the right market. This involves doing some homework, but it’s the fun kind. This homework is about getting out there and finding short stories where they live – in print magazines, print anthologies, and on the web.

How to promote the short stories you write?

Do this now – after the story is written, not before. I’ve seen plenty of writing advice that advocates the opposite approach, but I don’t see how it could possibly work. Your writing requires honesty and passion to be saleable. It won’t be either one if it’s written based on a market choice.

If you’re preparing to market your first story, you might still be scratching your head. For fiction writers, “marketing” simply means finding a place that will publish your fiction. I’ve received plenty of manuscripts for Spacesuits and Sixguns that were obviously sent using the “shotgun” approach – the story was sent to every magazine the writer could find. This “cross your fingers and hope for the best” method is lazy and unprofessional. You want to put your best foot forward, especially if it’s your first story. You only get one shot at a first impression.

To find a market (meaning a magazine or website) that might publish your work, simply choose a magazine that interests you, read at least one issue (preferably more), and determine whether or not your story is a good fit based on what you read. If the editors buy stories that seem similar to yours, give them a shot.

Not sure where to look? For genre publications (sf, fantasy, horror, western, detective, etc.), try http://www.ralan.com. It’s my favorite market source. The site lists both web and print publications, and a wide variety of markets from pro, semi-pro and “4 The Luv” markets. Listings include guidelines for story submission, including length and genre restrictions. Check the listings carefully to make sure you understand when you get paid and how much.

To find literary and professional markets, subscribe to http://www.writersmarket.com. It’s the web-based version of the Writer’s Market you can buy in stores, but it’s updated far more frequently, includes nonfiction and book publishers, and features articles and advice from industry experts. It’s only $30 for a year’s worth of access, and worth every penny.

3. Prepare your submission package. For novels or nonfiction books, this can be pretty involved. For short fiction, it’s easy. If you’re sending a story snail mail to a print magazine, make sure your manuscript is formatted properly (an article for another time) and write a short cover letter addressed to the editor.

Short means just that – no more than two paragraphs. Introduce yourself. If you have any sales, list them briefly. I once received a three-page cover letter listing every story the writer had published. The letter was longer than the story!

If you haven’t been published, don’t mention it in your cover letter. And don’t worry – we all started just that way. This holds true if you’re emailing your submission as well. When I read submissions for Spacesuits and Sixguns, I skim through the cover letter. Sometimes I don’t read it at all. I want to read the story, not a list of stuff you’ve already published.

I try to avoid negatives, but there’s no other way to say this: do NOT go into any detail about your story in the cover letter. Summaries are used when writing queries for novels, but not for short stories. The story itself is only about 4,000 words long; if you wrote it well, I’ll know what it’s about pretty quickly.

Here’s a recent cover letter I wrote for a submission:

Gordon Van Gelder, Editor Fantasy and Science Fiction P.O. Box 3447 Hoboken, NJ 07030

Dear Mr. Van Gelder,

I’ve been an avid reader of F&SF since the mid ‘70’s, and thought my new short story “Drum” might find a home with you.

I’ve published short fiction in the small and professional presses for twenty years, with stories in the British prozine FEAR and Cemetery Dance here in America. “Seesaw” and “Depth of Reflection” were featured in The Best of Cemetery Dance anthology, published by Roc in trade paperback. A partial list of my published credits is available at http://www.locusmag.com.

Thank you for your time regarding the manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

David L. Duggins

That’s it. Short, sweet, and simple. Let the story speak for itself.

You’ll notice that I addressed the cover letter to the current fiction editor of the magazine (I’m not sure how old this letter is, so don’t assume Mr. Van Gelder is still there). Take the time to find out who the editor is and address the letter to her/him. It’s a small thing, easy to research, and a professional courtesy. My name is on the Spacesuits and Sixguns editorial page. I still get “dear fiction editor” submissions. I read them, but a lot of editors don’t. People like to be called by name. I may use form rejections in some cases, but I always address them to the writer and mention the story title in the rejection letter. I remember what it was like when I got rejections that started with “dear writer.”

Speaking of rejection, the story featured in the cover letter above was rejected by Fantasy and Science Fiction. After twenty years of publishing, my stories still get rejected. It’s a fact of writing life. I just stuck the manuscript in another envelope and sent it right back out to another market. That’s a fact of writing life, too. That particular story is still making the rounds. I still believe in it, so I’ll keep sending it out. It’ll find a home eventually.

4. Send it … and get back to work! This step is absolutely critical. I know writers who write one story, send it, wait four months to hear back from the editor, get a rejection slip and are so discouraged they don’t write for another month.

So it got rejected. Okay. That’s one editor’s opinion. There are a lot of us out there. Try another one. And while you’re waiting, start a new story. And start editing that one you wrote a couple of weeks ago. Read some of your magazines, maybe do a little more research. Find some new markets.

If you continue with this pattern, you’ll always have something waiting to be edited, something new you’re working on right now, and something in the mail. This wonderful all-bases-covered scenario builds momentum. Next thing you know, you’ve got five ideas waiting to be written and five stories out for submission on top of the one waiting to be edited and the one you’re working on. Focus on this system. Your productivity will explode.

Keep writing. Remember the “ABC” motto in the film Glengarry Glen Ross? “Always Be Closing.” For us, it’s ABW – Always Be Writing. Yes, selling your stories is important. Professional validation builds confidence, and the money – when there is any – is always nice. But we got into this thing in the first place for love, right? Because we love doing it. You’ve got to keep doing it to keep loving it, especially when the rejections are coming thick and fast. If you get discouraged and stop writing, it’s too easy to forget what you loved about it, and only remember the frustration.

That’s it. Lesson over. Get your stories out there – and then write more!