Lessons learned from a year-and-half of submitting short stories

So, in August of 2016, after five long years of slogging through the barren wasteland of my first novel, I sat down at the kitchen table and actually read it cover-to-cover.

And nearly passed out.

Several critique partner reviews confirmed my fears. The novel was an unsalvageable wreck. Sure, the writing was good enough, even great in spots, but the nonsensical plot and bland characters made for a smoldering dumpster fire of a book. A hot mess I promptly banished to my desk drawer before indulging in copious amounts of alcohol and self-pity.

Fast forward a month, and I decided I didn’t have it in me to embark on another soul-crushing novel. Especially a failed one. I felt lost. Hopeless. When I confessed this to a writer friend, he suggested I try my hand at short stories — something I’d never been interested in before. I mean real authors write novels, right? Short stories — meh, not so much. I’d always considered them to be the bastard step-children of the novel, exiled to the basement, invited out to mingle with the rest of the family during the holidays…maybe — if guests weren’t over. So, it was with tentative fingers that I punched out my first short, then my second, and a third…and was hooked.

A year-and-a-half later here are my stats:

  • Total submissions. 141 to 107 different publications.
  • Stories accepted for publication. Three (2%). One of which was not published as the anthology was subsequently cancelled.
  • Honorable mentions. Two (1%).
  • Stories short-listed for publication. Two (1%). Neither were ultimately published.
  • Personal rejections. Five (4%). These bits of positive feedback were like cool glasses of water on a scorching hot day.
  • No response, AKA the submissions black hole. Seven (5%).
  • Open submissions still out there…somewhere. 25 (18%), and — drum roll please…
  • Form rejections: 97, or 69% of my total submissions. Include all rejections outside of honorable mentions and that percentage climbs to 79. Assume the 25 open submissions still outstanding will be rejected (and they probably will) and you get a whopping 96% rejection rate.

I should be pissed, right? But I’m not. Actually, I couldn’t be happier. Here’s why:

Writing short stories will up every aspect of your writing game. And I mean every aspect.

Think about it. How long does it really take to knock out a 4,000-word piece? (which is fairly long in the world of shorts.) A week if you focus? Two at most? Three if you really plot it out and go nuts with the prose? Listen, if you only wrote one short story per month, you would have twelve different works in a year. That’s twelve opportunities for publication. Twelve opportunities for feedback from your critique group/writing partner/writing coach/loving spouse/whatever. Twelve opportunities to figure out if you write better in first-person, present-tense or first-person past-tense. Maybe it’s third person. Maybe it’s second. Who knows? But you’ll have time to figure it out. Oh, and don’t forget about all the improvement going into your plotting, dialogue, prose, pacing and character development skills.

By the way, if you don’t have anyone reading your work and giving you constructive feedback, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Don’t be that guy/girl hunched in a dark office thinking you’re the next Shakespeare. Odds are you’re not, and you need to hear that to improve. Get yourself a coach. Or a group. Or a writing buddy. And do it ASAP. You won’t regret it.

Do you know what you like to write? Do you really?

I started out with a few literary pieces. Shot them off to The Atlantic and The New Yorker and Glimmer Train. Hell yes, my stories were good enough to be published by these literary icons.

Not so much.

After a mountain of rejections, I realized something. I didn’t even enjoy the literary genre that much. Not my forte.

So, I asked myself what I really wanted to write. What genres did I already love? Psychological thrillers. Horror. Post-apocalyptic worlds. Check. All things dark with just enough light shining through to make things interesting. Yes! By all means sign me up!

A few short stories later and I nabbed an honorable mention in The Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. More than a thousand entries. I couldn’t believe it.

You can do it, too. Explore. Try new ideas. Get out of your comfort zone. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Read the full post on Medium.

Caleb Stephens