Steve Carr’s latest release, Getting Your Short Stories Published: A Guidebook, tells you all you have to know, outside the actual business of writing the story, about how to increase the likelihood of getting a piece of work into publication. It does this by reducing his experience over the last few years into a few pages and communicating directly what worked for him and what didn’t work - what he wrote in his cover letters, what he included in his bios, what he studied in order to know where to send a particular story, how he learned from submission guidelines and much more.
It also teaches us something on a different level. It’s a record of how to benefit from listening, from research and from observation.
Many writers set out this way: they write a story or two, straight from their hearts or based on what they think makes a good story, and then they send it out to anyone who is asking for submissions, often to several places at the same time. When rejection messages come back over the ensuing time, those same writers struggle with self-doubt and frustration, wondering what is wrong with the world. But Steve’s approach shows us the way to success, not just with short story publication but perhaps in other fields too: listen, observe, research.
Take what a publisher is asking for in requesting submissions - take that exact topic and write about that. Pay heed to the exact requirements as given in that publisher’s guidelines - things like fonts to be used, word counts, formatting and so on - and apply them to that piece of work. Minimise what you tell the publisher outside what the publisher is asking for. And you end up with a simple formula: what the publisher is asking for, the publisher gets. Almost every time, that publisher will publish or at least will want to publish, what you are offering.
Imagine that you worked in a fast food restaurant and someone came up to your counter and asked for a burger with fries (or some such request) and you gave them an omelette with hash browns. What would their likely response be?
It’s normal to perceive the publisher as the purveyor of something, while the writer is the 'customer'. That’s probably because we think of publishers as ‘bigger’ than ourselves - after all, we are only tiny individual writers in the big wide world of multi-national publishing. But if we switch that around, and paint the publisher as customer and ourselves as the purveyor - which is actually how it is, when you think about it - then how to get more acceptances kind of falls into place.
You get more story acceptances by providing what is being asked for.
What about those stories that you have written straight from the heart? The ones which don’t match any existing requests as far as you can see? Is there a place for those, or do we have to always tailor what we write to what is being asked? Steve’s book has an answer to this too. If you want to spend the time, you will be able to find some publication somewhere whose needs match exactly what you have already written. It will be time-consuming and probably frustrating trying to find an exact match, though. Failing that, you could - if we extend our restaurant analogy a little - open up your own specialist ‘shop’ and try to attract customers to what you have to offer. It would probably be a much slower process, but there’s no reason why, after some time, you could not attract those publishers who are a good fit for what you are writing.
The faster and more direct route is to find out what publishers are asking for and to give them exactly that.
Steve goes into some detail about this, and points to many pitfalls for the newcomer in the field. His book is invaluable as a condensed set of experiences, giving every ambitious short story writer a short cut through to more acceptances. But the principle of listening and observing and then doing is one which has a wider application.