Mistakes Short Stories

3 Mistakes I Made When I First Started Submitting Short Stories

These last couple of months have been hard. I’ve accumulated dozens of rejection letters and more heartbreaks than I care to count.

But I’ve also learned things that I had to learn the hard way. Most important of all, I’ve come to realize that writing good stories means we need to be willing to deal with our flaws and celebrate our strengths in a balanced way.

Writing and submitting short stories has been, for me, both a painful and exhilarating journey. One filled with delights, sorrows, and too many mistakes to count. But realizing these mistakes fills me with hope.

I am not the same person I was when I first started submitting my stories. Before this journey started, stories lived in my mind alone.

They were reserved for “later”: I’ll write that story later, I’ll pitch that article later, I’ll start developing real relationships with other writers later, I’ll start working on my book later…

But you can’t live with “laters” cluttering your mind like mushrooms. Because one day it will be too late for “laters”, and our souls will be filled with regret.

This past year, I realized life tastes better when “regretting” is replaced by “trying”, even when trying comes with a boatload of dispassionate and dismissive rejection letters. During these months I eventually understood how to cope with rejection and how to move forward despite the pain.

Today I want to share the mistakes that brought some clarity into my life:

1. Giving up too soon

How many rejections should you expect before you can sell a short story?

I guess the only correct answer is many. But “many” means different things to different people. One rejection may be too many when you’re just starting. Twenty rejections may be the norm when you’ve been doing it for a while. But one thing I’m certain of is that, in the beginning, most people just give up too soon.

I certainly did.

The first short story I ever submitted to literary magazines received 4 rejections before I decided to publish it on my blog. Knowing what I know today, 4 rejections aren’t a lot, and the fourth and last rejection should have given me some hope instead of despair.

It was a “held for further consideration followed by dispassionate rejection.” At the time that sounded catastrophic to my ears. They held it and then decided they didn’t like it? I was devastated.

But right now I know this means that if I’d just asked for a couple more beta-reads if I’d just done more edits if I’d just kept submitting, maybe I would have eventually sold the story.

Instead, I pulled the plug.

I don’t regret that decision, it was the best decision for me at that time. I don’t regret publishing that story on my blog either, because I received tons of amazing reviews and some useful feedback from people I’ve met on social media.

Publishing my story on my blog showed me that there is perhaps a market for my stories and that there are people out there who seem to enjoy my writing.

The mistake of giving up too soon also taught me two important lessons: (i) you can’t know for sure if your next submission will finally lead to an acceptance letter, and (ii) not all rejections are created equal.

Form rejections are hard to deal with. Even today, after accumulating a generous pile of form rejections, I still feel like crying when I get one of those emails.

You know the ones I’m talking about:

 Thank you for sending us your story. We appreciate the chance to review it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us. Best of luck finding it a home elsewhere.

But not all rejections will be like this. Some editors (especially in the semi-professional markets) are willing to send you specific feedback about your story. Cherish this feedback, use it to improve your writing, use it to fuel your passion.

Often that feedback points out very specific flaws in your writing. And if you know about these flaws, you already have an advantage over your younger and clueless self.

2. Publishing as my ultimate destination

It comes the day when you realize that even when you write and furiously rewrite your stories, you’re still ending up with this:

So, your writing still sucks after you’ve been doing it for a while… this is great! You’ve earned yourself a spot at the “not there yet” table. You’re now closer to understanding what makes writing truly compelling and magic, but you still have some legwork to do.

This is not the time to give up. This is the time to be creative and flexible. If publishers keep rejecting your stories but you feel you need to share your stories with the world to keep improving as a writer, there are several things you can do that do not involve publishing your rejected stories right away:

  1. you can write more stories and revisit the rejected story after a few months (or years! no one is judging you!)
  2. you can find critique partners and exchange stories with them
  3. you can join a writing group and exchange feedback with a diverse group of writers

Depending on the type of comments you receive, you may consider extending your story into a novella. Or you may consider removing unnecessary context or infodumps. Or you may even use this short story to develop a scene in your novel.

Maybe that story will never be bought by a professional or semi-professional market, but if you are willing to use it as a stepping stone, maybe that one story will end up fitting into something bigger or different in the future.

3. Isolating myself

I can’t take the credit for realizing it was a mistake to isolate myself, to begin with. I owe it to my aversion to sharing too much about myself with strangers as well as to my ingrained stubbornness and introversion. I was bullied a lot as a child because, one day, I revealed to one of “best friends” that I wanted to be a writer. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget how my colleagues treated me after I opened my heart to them.

Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.

from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

In the past month, I’ve come to realize that most introvert writers experienced the same thing I did as a kid. If you’re an introvert and you’ve been bullied because of your strange dreams, don’t isolate yourself from others just because you’ve been hurt in the past. It’s not worth it, believe me. Don’t be bitter when you can be better.

Engaging with other writers on and off social media can have a powerful influence on your life. It sure influenced mine.

In the pre-COVID-19 world, I had the chance to join a writing group in my city. It was a terrifying experience to read my drafts aloud, but it was also a very cathartic event. Sitting there, drinking wine, laughing, and listing as others shared their drafts and struggles was a blessing. This will teach you that all writers need to work hard for their craft.

Plus, getting feedback from other writers is priceless. We don’t read a story the same way a reader does. A writer’s brain is constantly examining a story, trying to understand if, why, and how a certain scene evokes a certain feeling or if something just doesn’t fit with your narrative.

Do you want ruthless and point-on feedback? Make friends with other writers, they’ll tell you exactly what you need to hear.

My short story submission strategy

At this point, I have failed to sell a single short story, but I’ve learned a trick or two about this process. This is the process I’ve been using lately:

  1. Write the short story
  2. Let it rest for a while (a few weeks is the best if you have time)
  3. Send it to some readers, ideally 3, for general feedback. At this point, I only want to know if people understood the story and how the story made them feel ⬅️ tip: if people tell you that they wished there was more to the story, you probably need to work on your plot and context a bit more 😅 don’t worry, it’s all part of the experience
  4. Send it to your critique partners ⬅️ if you don’t have a critique partner you reach out to other writers in websites such as Scribophile
  5. Revise the story once again and format it for submission
  6. Submit to top professional magazines first and prepare to have your heart crushed
  7. Revise the story in-between submissions – I use Grammarly and Office’s text-to-speech tool to catch as many mistakes as possible, but the little buggers keep escaping me anyway!
  8. When all your favorite top magazines reject your story, it’s time to move on to the semi-professional market (all of my favorite magazines are part of the semi-pro market!) ⬅️ tip: some semi-pro and even pro magazines pride themselves for always sending personalized feedback to writers. In the speculative fiction market, I know of at least two magazines that actually do this: The Colored Lenses and Metaphorosis (please let me know in the comments below if you’ve heard of other magazines like these two)
  9. If everything fails, move on to the non-paying markets

Never stop looking for new magazines and markets to submit your stories. One day you will find the perfect market for your story. 🤞

I use The Submission Grinder to find new markets. I’m also part of a Facebook group that very frequently posts about open submissions, you can find them here.

Last-minute advice

You need to keep in mind that most magazine editors work on a voluntary basis, who should not hold grudges against them just because your story was rejected. Editors are overworked and there are just too many fantastic writers out there. Never forget that.

When you’re a new writer, you’re more likely to sell shorter stories (1,500 words is a good start) than longer ones (above 5,000 words). You’re also more likely to get accepted in semi-pro markets (unless you’re a literary genius) than in pro markets. And finally, you’re also more likely to be published in themed anthologies than in literary magazines. Why? Because anthologies are a collection of stories within a narrow theme, thus, you’ll have less competition.

Keep a detailed record of your submissions, this will help you in the future. I always keep a spreadsheet with all my submissions and log them all into the Submission Grinder.

If no one wants to buy or publish your story, don’t give in into despair. This is normal. This is okay. Remember why you want to write, remember why you are submitting your stories: to get better!

Thank you for reading this far. I hope my tips helped. Have you made any of these mistakes? Have you found yourself making other mistakes when submitting your stories? Tell me all, I want to know!

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Funny reading this because most readers I know want to be writers but I never did. Not because I’m afraid of rejection but I never felt compelled to write. I’m good reading what others write and I’m here waiting for your next story 🙂

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