In the depths of my website are some useful articles I wrote. I thought I would reproduce this one here, out front.
Short Fiction FAQ
Establishing yourself as a writer of short fiction can pay a little money and, more importantly, establish a “track record” which can help in making valuable contacts among your fellow writers, editors, and agents. Short fiction also provides experience with writing to spec (answering calls for submissions), dealing with editors, reading contracts, locating reprint opportunities, and discovering the range of your writing skills.
Question: How do you find good models for short fiction submissions?
I think it’s important to read authors of the genre you intend to write, and it’s better to read as wide a range as possible.
For erotica, the approach I used was to go to a local bookstore and sit down in the coffee shop with a pile of anthologies. I soon became familiar with the most prolific editors and got an idea of their tastes. I also began recognizing the names of frequent contributors, and getting an idea of what themes seemed overused and what might be a fresher approach. Maxim Jakubowski’s Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica series is especially useful to look at, because it contains only reprints; by checking the copyright information on the stories, you can get a broad idea about a wide variety of markets of all kinds (book anthologies, novel excerpts, magazines, online markets).
For romance, I think a good approach is to look at the anthologies coming out in mass market paperback or trade paperback and shelved in the romance section. Most of those will include 3-4 writers. In general, those anthologies are invitation-only, but I think it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the style and story structures.
Question: How do you find markets for particular types of short stories?
I recommend using the search engine on Duotrope, which will let you choose options such as pay rate, length, and theme. They’re a good site, but if you have any doubts about a particular publication, it’s worth checking out Writer Beware.
For erotica calls for submissions, my favorite site is Erotica-Readers.com, because it’s updated regularly.
Question: How do you interpret guidelines on calls for submissions?
So far as guidelines go, I stay as close to the concrete requests as possible: word count, genre, theme, location. If there are no specifics, I look for guidance in previous work by that editor or from that magazine or anthology. Beyond that, I think it helps a great deal to be different, so long as you’re within the basic requirements. Easier said than done, I know!
When writing for a specific anthology, I discard the most obvious story topics and try to take a different angle. For instance, an early sale I made was to a lesbian erotica anthology titled Tough Girls. I immediately realized that a lot of submissions would involve female soldiers, criminals, etc.. My idea was to write about a female soldier, but I set the story in the future on a spaceship, which turned out to be much rarer than contemporary settings. Mingling science fiction or fantasy with my erotica also helped with themeless anthologies such as Best Lesbian Erotica.
I can’t overstate how useful it is to read in the market to which you plan to submit. If you know the tastes of the major editors, you’re already a bit ahead of your competition. If you’ve read a number of stories published in the last couple of years, you have a much better idea of what ideas have been done to death.
Question: Is there a market for erotic flash fiction? Will agents and editors think I can’t write novels if most of my sales are short fiction?
There is not a huge paying market for flash fiction, but there is some. I would browse Erotica-Readers.com regularly.
For publications that don’t specifically mention accepting flash fiction or short-shorts, it rarely hurts to ask. The editor might need something tiny to fill in a gap. I’ve sold a couple of flash fiction reprints for that purpose.
I don’t think there’s any danger of being thought incapable of writing a novel unless you never write one. In my opinion, it’s always a plus to have some publication experience.
Question: What are the word count limits of various types of short fiction?
In general, the story should be as long as it needs to be, but I realize that isn’t much help! I always check the specific guidelines of the publication first, as definitions vary. If a story seems really well suited to a particular market, and is close to the right length but a little too short or too long, I might submit anyway, or I might trim or expand it just a little.
Here are some rough length guidelines:
Flash fiction: usually means less than 1,000 words. Sometimes a market will specify a word count. I’ve done “flash fiction” that was only 100 words long.
Short story: from about 1,500 words up to about 7,500 words. Depends on the market, however. Often, longer stories are harder to place because they take up more room in an anthology. Many markets don’t want anything longer than 5,000 words.
Novelette: 7,500-20,000 words in some markets; The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) defines it as 7,500-17,500 words.
Novella: 20-50,000 words by some definitions. SFWA defines it as 17,500-40,000 words, and anything over 40K as a novel. “National Novel Writing Month” says 50K is a novel. In reality, an adult novel shorter than 60K is very rare. Young adult usually runs 40-60K. I’ve noticed that a lot of electronic markets seem to prefer novella length to novel-length.
Question: What is a possible path to breaking in to invitation-only print anthologies, if I have already sold stories to magazines?
I would first find out which publishers issue the sort of anthology that’s suited to your stories, then look at the list of authors to see if you have any contacts: authors you know, friends of authors you know, authors who share an agent with you or one of your friends, that sort of thing. I would then simply ask how they did it and if they’re willing to put you in touch with an editor. This method is probably restricted to those who’ve already published short stories.
Another option would be to contact the magazine editors who bought your stories and ask if they have any contacts in book publishing, for instance if the magazines and book lines are owned by the same corporation.
A third option might be viable after you have more of a track record with print anthologies: create and submit your own anthology with co-authors, for instance those with whom you share a publisher.
Question: I haven’t been able to find a suitable market for a story within my genre. What are my options?
It might be helpful to think “outside the box.” What are the other themes in your story? There are magazines that publish stories about travel, about environmental issues, etc.. If it’s not an obvious fit anywhere, be prepared to submit to a wide range of places; sometimes a story that’s slightly unusual for a given market is an easier sale. I’ve had stories hang around for years after I wrote them, and suddenly an appropriate market arises. My first novel came out of a story like that.
Browsing Duotrope might be helpful. Writer Beware will let you know about dodgy publications.
Other options, if you still can’t find a market, are to put the stories on your website as free reads; or accumulate enough stories to publish a collection of your stories, or for a chapbook. A small press is sometimes the best option for short story collections. A chapbook can be a useful publicity item that you could sell from your website or at readings, or simply give away, as a sampler of your work. Finally, there’s electronic self-publishing, which is too massive a topic to address here.
You might also want to check out 5 Tips for Writing Erotica.