How (not) to sell a short story

Despite the title above, this endeavour will almost certainly tip you over the edge. But it will take time...

If you would like to sell a short story, most people will have a quick look online and be heartened to see the likes of '50 magazines accepting short stories!' and '33 great places to sell your work!'

There has to be a number at the beginning of course. At first you will feel that the bigger the number, the better, because obviously having 50 choices is going to be better than 33.

Sadly you are wrong, because out of 50 magazines, you will find that 26 of them don't publish your genre, 17 of them are not accepting submissions, 3 of them don't exist anymore and for three of the final four, your story is of the wrong length/ characterisation/plot type or contains a single element that an editor simply doesn't like (always read the guidelines - you will be astonished at what Editors don't like whilst at the same time finding it almost impossible to distinguish what the hell they actually want from a story).

But that's OK because your efforts have paid off. You have threshed the wheat from the chaff and all your research has narrowed it down to this final publication.

It fits your genre, word length etc. You read and re-read the magazine several times, feeling a warm glow as you discover that their published stories strike a chord with your own unpublished one. With rising excitement you read the submission guidelines and discover that you have avoided putting anything in there that the Editor dislikes, have carefully followed the tediously detailed formatting instructions, right down to having to put your name and story title at the top of each page and adjusting your font size/type/colour/language/orientation to the desired characteristics required by said Editor and finally submitted your precious creation using whatever particular submission technique is required, be that by email, a special submissions page, by post or by courier pigeon - always remembering to add return postage and a small bag of seeds.

submitted your precious creation using whatever particular submission technique is required, be that by email, a special submissions page, by post or by courier pigeon
Pigeon post - The new email...

If, by some miracle, your work is received at the other end with no errors or omissions and follows the publication's submission guidelines to the letter, you will usually receive a jaunty automated message along the lines of :

'Thanks for submitting your work! We receive about 98,000 submissions a week but we hope to get back to you soon (usually 6 to 9 months). Please do not email us! If you do we will immediately delete/destroy/incinerate any other work you send us, blacklist you with every known publication on this or indeed any other continent and ensure that you have absolutely no chance in hell of ever getting published in this world or the next.


Exclamation marks are mandatory. No-one knows why this is so, but it is likely that the dot at the end contains a virus that will immediately infect your computer so the magazine can spy on all your activities.

And that's all it takes. Your work is now going to be read by someone other that your immediate family. This thought alone is enough to strike terror into the hearts of all authors but it is somewhat tempered by the fact that it's all done remotely. Never a word is going to be actually spoken between you and the faceless/nameless person/people who will open up your piece and snort derisively over it before binning it or possibly using it in the cat litter tray because it just wasn't worth the electricity it costs to shred it...

But hang on, you say to yourself - it isn't actually all that bad. In the intervening weeks, and when not desperately searching your emails for an acceptance letter (junk folders too, just in case; or maybe it accidentally got deleted? Or did I misfile it? Did I give them my correct email address? Is the internet down??) you have a chance to re-read your story.

It's a great plot, well-written too and that twist just before the end? Quite sublime. And then you spot it.

The error. A major flaw. A plot turkey.

In short, a major f*** up that has rendered your story line null and void. The character you so lovingly created is lost in a sea of plot debris - Like the Titanic, but smaller and less cold.

For a few moments you hold your head in your hands, waiting for the internal screaming to go away. Then you begin to think fast: maybe you can resubmit? Tell them you sent the wrong file? But you can't, can you? They said DO NOT EMAIL US. But, you think desperately, maybe if you had a compelling reason?

'Dear Editor,

I know you said to not to email you and I am most humbly sorry to beg this intrusion upon your majestic self, but my house was recently struck by a large meteorite. Oh sure, I'm OK, but the funny thing was that this meteorite took out my computer and I therefore have no record of the work I have submitted to you. So on this basis and with this excuse I have resent you my short story. Obviously it's exactly the same as the one I sent just before this thing hit, but just to be on the safe side I would like to request that you delete the old one and just pretend that you never received it. OK?

Thanking you for all your hard work and for consenting to receive, let alone read, my short story.

Grovellingly yours, etc...'

but my house was recently struck by a large meteorite
It's 5 miles wide, and headed for your laptop!

You check and double check your spelling and grammar to make sure you haven't inadvertently added anything, you know, stupid, and press SEND.

You sigh with relief at the thought that you have saved yourself a rejection; that your quick actions have stopped you from a future in which the cleaning of urinals had featured daily.

A week later you get an email.

'Dear writer,

thank you for letting us read your short story!

Unfortunately we can't accept it right now.

It could be that it just wasn't the right 'fit' for our publication, or maybe we have received many of the same genre and were really looking for something else.

It could also be that your email about a meteorite taking out your laptop was obviously a blatant lie, because we already noticed the HUGE PLOT SCREW-UP in your story and rather than be reasonable and ask you to resubmit, we are going to ruin your literary hopes and dreams for attempting to treat us like dumb monkeys.

We hope you manage to find a new home for your work - preferably at the bottom of a cess-pit.

Yours really really sincerely,

The Editor'

I won't say that actually writing stories isn't hard work, but it's got nothing on what it takes to try and sell the damned things.

Good luck!