In early July of 2021, I was on a holiday with my parents in Canmore. This was the first stop in a long journey during which I planned to split off from my parents in Revelstoke, meet my university friends in Kelowna, and then drive across Canada back to Montréal, so I had brought a decent stack of books with me. In that stack was a short story collection by Margaret Atwood called Dancing Girls. The stories themselves were pretty good (honestly I don’t remember the details of most of them), but it was the first page that intrigued me. It looks like this (TeX reproduction because I don’t have access to a good digital camera right now):
This led me to do a quick Google about short story magazines, and the short story publication process. Although I’d had some vague concept that there must be magazines/journals for short stories, I didn’t know that anyone could submit a short story to one of them and be considered for publication. And I definitely didn’t know that you could publish stories in magazines first (over a period of six years, in the case of this Atwood collection) and then later compile them into a “real” print book like the one I was reading.
I loved writing stories growing up. Ones that stand out in my memory are a story about an ogre that I wrote in grade five and a story I wrote about a starving kid who is looking for medicine for his dying grandfather and he experiences some kind of hallucinatory dream (yeah kind of weird, I know, and the conclusion is a total deus ex machina). At various parts of my childhood I thought that I wanted to be an author, but that always meant writing novels to me. Which of course is something you commit your life to, and most likely end up starving when the novel doesn’t get published or doesn’t sell.
I guess in summary I thought that short stories were published because the authors were already famous from writing novels, but the Googling session revealed to me that often it was the other way around. Writing a short story didn’t seem like a massive commitment, so there and then I resolved to write one. I read the stories in Dancing Girls, re-read some stories from Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which I had brought along too but already read a few weeks prior, and scribbled down a couple pages in the middle of the cheap spiral notebook I used for math research. I’d recently done a huge hike with my dad (nearly 50km in one day, over Gibbon Pass, Whistling Pass, and Healy Pass), so the mountains were on my mind and it ended up being about a man going into the woods and hiking a mountain pass.
I had a sketchy outline in my head of the story arc, but I only ended up writing two pages of it in Canmore, and soon forgot about it as my summer travels continued. Fast forward to April 2022 and my friend Steve was over for tea. He was getting into writing some stories for his website, and encouraged me to write a few stories of my own. I dug out my old research notebook from the summer of 2021 and copied down the first pages of my story onto my computer and finally got it done, exactly a year ago today! It was about 4000 words long at the time, and entitled “Mountain Pass” (very creative, I know).
Over the next two months I wrote four more stories. Every set of tips you find online will say that you have to get feedback on your work, so during this time I was sending my work to any of my friends who would read it, and (because friends and family aren’t necessarily the most critical of readers), also online. Unlike with, say, math papers, you can’t just post a story online and then expect to publish it in a journal later; publication outlets typically want the work never to have appeared in any sort of public capacity before. But I found a website called Critique Circle where you can post your story and get feedback from other users. It’s not considered public because you need a membership to view the stories, and a story goes up for only a week at a time, after which time you can choose to remove the story from view. The site works on a credit system, meaning you earn credits by critiquing others’ work, and then spend them to be able to put your own story up for a week.
Critique Circle was a great experience, and much of what I know about writing and editing was learned during the couple months I spent getting feedback and, perhaps more importantly, giving feedback of my own. But ultimately, the comments you give and get on the platform tend to be quite surface-level, and after a while I felt I was getting pretty okay at the line edits on my own. I was looking for feedback on deeper topics like theme and plot structure.
During this time I was introduced to a friend of a friend who also did quite a lot of creative writing. He told me about an online part-time creative writing program that he was due to start soon, and I strongly considered applying as well. Ultimately, I decided not to, mostly for cost reasons, but I was willing to drop some money on learning how to write, so I ended up getting a freelance editor to look at my work. It wasn’t necessarily cheap either, but still significantly less than the creative writing course, and because I paid per story (whose individual cost was based on word count) I wouldn’t have to commit to spending $3600 all at once, and indeed during the last year I only spent a fraction of that. The feedback I got was excellent, consisting of line edits (like you’d get on Critique Circle) as well as a separate letter that analysed some of the themes and plot structures of my stories and suggested how they could be modified for greater effect.
I think ultimately most authors have workshops or small circles of author friends from which they can get quality feedback of this sort for free (in return for feedback of their own), but if you’re starting out and want something one step about the quality of critiques from an online platform like Critique Cirle but are not quite ready to invest or commit to something like a creative writing course, I highly recommend the freelance option, especially for this learning phase. It is not at all economical if you’re hoping to make money writing short stories, but then again you shouldn’t be hoping to make money writing short stories!
I’m not going to disclose the identity of my editor here since I didn’t run this post by them and I’m not sure how actively they are looking for more editing work, but they are a successful literary fiction author in their own right, with—I think—a novel forthcoming. (If you are looking for an editor yourself, reach out to me by email and I might perhaps be able to send you details privately.) Maybe I will still choose to do a more formal creative writing course in the future, but in the meantime I already learned a ton from my freelance mentor.
Submissions and rejections
So with a handful of finished short stories, I set to work submitting them to literary journals. I mostly focused on Canadian ones, of which there aren’t really too many, but luckily most of them accept all different kinds of stories, so it seems typical of Canadian authors to keep submitting to the same dozen or so big ones over and over.
There are ton of guides online about the short-story submission process, so I won’t go into a load of details on how it’s done, but honestly it’s super easy (the hard part is writing the stories in the first place!). I more wanted to talk about it from a personal perspective, and point out a few similarities and differences with the other main thing I submit for publication, namely, math papers.
First off, as I already mentioned earlier, short story magazines usually want stories that have never been published before, including on websites like blogs. This is in contrast with math papers, which are often posted to the arXiv months before they end up in a peer-reviewed journal. This is also why you won’t see my actual stories in the writing section of my blog, as much as I want to share them with the world!
Secondly, with math papers you can only submit to one place at a time. Submitting to two places at once is a great way of getting yourself blacklisted, and because there aren’t that many trusted journals out there (even fewer that are both trustworthy and open-access, which is something I value). With short stories there are tons and tons of magazines out there and most of them allow (and encourage) you to submit to multiple places at once, provided you notify them immediately if a different magazine picks up the story they are currently considering. This is great, since you have lots of options, but also greatly increases the rejection rate, since the magazines now have to deal with a huge pile of stories. (Incidentally, one of my stories was accepted to a magazine that doesn’t allow simultaneous submissions. I wonder if the stats are different for those outlets, since presumably they don’t receive quite as many submissions at a time and for that reason their acceptance rates may be higher.)
This gets me to the topic of rejections. I’m not going to say some trite thing about rejection and how it’s the first step to success or something, but if you want to publish stories you just have to get used to being rejected. It’s more or less the default response. I thought I’d share a few stats about my own rejections, both on the math side and the fiction side, which should encourage you to collect some rejections of your own!
I’ve written seven math papers and made twelve submissions to math journals in total. Here’s the breakdown of what happened:
Currently pending: 2
Two of the five acceptances were following revise-and-resubmit decisions, but I didn’t count those as rejections. Of the nine resolved submissions that’s an acceptance rate of 55.6% and a rejection rate of 44.4%. From what I hear this is pretty typical, and there is generally a sense in the math community that any paper with correct results will eventually get published somewhere, it’s just that better, more impactful, papers will get published on their first try, and usually in higher-ranked journals.
With short stories the acceptance rate is much much lower, but the simultaneous submission policies mean that generally you can make lots of submissions at once. Of the short stories I’ve written, I’ve submitted six of them and made twenty-nine submissions total:
Currently pending: 8
Of the twenty-one submissions about which I’ve heard back, I had an acceptance/rejection split of 9.5% to 90.5%, so out of of the pending ones I’m of course expecting a ton more rejections, but you really learn to get used to it. Because of the different ratios, I definitely still get pretty bummed when a math paper of mine gets rejected, but don’t really feel much at all when one of my stories is rejected. I just look for another open submission call and submit again!
Writing and editing my short stories definitely became a big part of my year off from school. I’ve been working part-time and travelling a bit, which has given me lots of time to write and edit. This September I’m returning to school to do my Ph.D., so the reality is I’ll probably end up writing fiction a lot less, but I really hope short stories will remain a part of my life. The long-term goal would be to get a dozen more stories published and then group some of them (and some unpublished ones) into a short-story collection that I could query to traditional book publishers. But at this stage it’s a long way away, and I’m just focusing on enjoying the process of drafting and editing.
I guess to end off I should discuss my two accepted stories. One of them is “Mountain Pass”, the very first story I wrote (as an adult) and the one I described earlier. It is in issue 79 of The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature. I’ve already been sent a copy so I thought the issue was already out, but it seems from their website that it’s still forthcoming. Two issues come out every year so my story should appear sometime this year.
The second accepted story I’m not sure if I can disclose yet, as I only just got the email yesterday that it is to be published. It’s one of my shorter ones, and I wrote the original draft in one sitting on a flight from Vancouver to Tokyo. What’s exciting about this one is that it will appear in an online format that is free for all to read. I’ll announce it and post a link as soon as I can!