Submission Protocol: Summary Execution

In my opinion, one of the toughest things for writers to do is summarize their work into a few sentences. I mean get it down to pitch length, still make it interesting, and avoid giving away the entire plot. Authors aren’t called on to do this very often with short story submissions, but a few markets ask for a brief synopsis in the cover letter.

So how do you write a good summary? Well, I’ll tell you how I do it, but before we get started be advised that story summaries are somewhat rare in publisher guidelines and you should never include one unless the publisher specifically asks for it.

Okay, as with everything submission-related, always read and follow the guidelines. When a publisher asks for a summary, they’ll usually say something like this:

Please put your title, byline, and word count in your cover letter, as well as a brief note about how your story fits the theme.

Brief and fit the theme are the important bits there. When you write a summary or synopsis, keep it to a single paragraph, and make sure you clearly demonstrate how the story fits the theme of the magazine or anthology. Something like this:

Set in the mid-50s, “When the Lights Go On” takes place in a small towns near Arco, Idaho, the first to be powered entirely by nuclear energy in the United States. The townsfolk have noticed terrible changes in themselves whenever they turn on the lights powered by this new energy source. 

What I want the editor to get out of my summary are three things: how my story fits the theme/subject matter of the publication, the general premise of the story, and the primary plot hook. I feel if I can accomplish all that, I’m in good shape.

Here’s another, longer story summary. It’s still a single paragraph, however, and again, my goal is to explain how it fits the theme of the publication, set the premise, and give a plot hook.

In an alternate version of the United States, the country has instituted archaic dueling codes overseen by a government agency called the Bureau of Honorable Affairs. Victims of certain offenses can force their tormentors to face them in state-sanctioned combat. In a “Point of Honor,” the protagonist, Jacob Mayweather, is challenged to a duel by a man he has never met for a crime he does not remember committing. 

This is about as long as I would go with a summary (this one is 70 words). More than that, and I think you risk a) giving away too much of the story, b) losing the interest of your reader (the editor), and c) failing to follow guidelines that include words like “brief” or “quickly.”

That’s how I write a story summary, but why would publishers want one in the first place? I think there are two reasons and editor might request one.

  1. Fit the theme. More often than not, when I see a request for a story summary its from an anthology with a very specific theme. By asking writers to briefly summarize their stories, the editors can determine if the story is going work for the anthology before reading it. If the theme is hard sci-fi and the editors get a submission with a story summary that is clearly epic fantasy, they don’t have to waste time reading that story.
  2. Writing sample. A story summary is going to give the editors a sneak peek at the author’s writing ability. Can they clearly and engagingly describe their story? Do they use punctuation and grammar correctly? This is not to say a badly written summary means the editors won’t read the story or that a good one increases chances of an acceptance, but it’s a first impression that will likely color the editor’s opinion of the story to follow.

What are your thoughts on summaries and synopses? Tell me in the comments.

A Week of Writing: 8/20/18 to 8/26/18

It’s Monday, and here’s my literary ledger sheet for the week.

Words to Write By

Still reading a bunch of Elmore Leonard, and since he’s such a great source for quotes, here’s another one.

“When you are developing your style, you avoid weaknesses. I am not good at describing things, so I stay away from it. And if anyone is going to describe anything at all, it’s going to be from the point of view of the character, because then I can use his voice, and his attitude will be revealed in the way he describes what he sees.”

—Elmore Leonard

This one resonates with me for a couple of reasons. First, I wholeheartedly agree that your style is a focus on things your good at and probably the minimization of the things you struggle with. The other reason this quote speaks to me is, well, I’m not great at describing things either, and if Elmore Leonard can get away with it, maybe there’s hope for me too. No surprisingly, in Leonard’s famous Ten Rules of Writing number eight (Avoid detailed descriptions of characters) and number nine (Don’t go into great detail describing places and things) are my favorites.

The Novel

Late Risers is still with my critique partners, and preliminary feedback continues to be positive. I’m eager to get the novel back so I can start fixing all the problems my critique partners have almost certainly identified.

I have some other news about another book I can’t share right now, but I’ll fill you all in just as soon as I’m able. 🙂

Short Stories

I finished a new science fiction short story last week, and it’s currently being worked over by my writing group. I expect to have a version ready to send out this week. I also revised a flash fiction story and got that out the door.

Got a few more submission out last week.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 1
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 0
  • Shortlist: 1

A pretty good week for submissions, maybe not in volume, but the overall results were encouraging. The acceptance is from Factor Four Magazine, a new pro market I’ve been trying to crack since they opened. The story I sent them was a brand new one, and it’s always great to get those one-and-done submissions, especially with a really good market. The submissions last week put my at 83 total for the year.

The Blog

Two more blog posts last week.

8/20/18: A Week of Writing: 8/13/18 to 8/19/18

The usual weekly writing update.

8/22/18: Accepting the Unacceptance 

In this post I discuss the rare and unfortunate unacceptance.


Uncanny Magazine is still open for submissions, and there’s a story I’d like to revise and send to them. I’d also like to finish up the initial revisions on the new story I mentioned and get that out the door.

Writer Pal Spotlight

This week we’re going to do something a little different. Instead of directing you to my own meager accomplishments, I’m gonna point you at two brand new novels by two of my writer pals you definitely need to check out.

First up is Vox by Christina Dalcher. If you haven’t yet heard of this book, get out from under that rock and go buy it.

Next is Texas Ranger co-authored by Andrew Bourelle and some guy named James Patterson. 🙂

That was my week. How was yours?

Accepting the Unacceptance

I’ve had a good year for acceptances, and I’m up to an even dozen so far. But, as they say, in every life a little rain must fall, and one of those acceptances is, well, not an acceptance anymore. Let me explain.

Earlier this year I received an acceptance for a story with a promise of publication in around three months. When I didn’t hear from the publisher by the end of that period, I sent them an email asking for a status update. Then I checked their website and discovered it had disappeared. I followed up by checking Duotrope and learned they’d been marked as “Permanently Closed.” I waited a month to see if they’d respond to my email. They didn’t, so I sent the following withdrawal letter (more or less).

Dear [publisher]

It appears [market] has closed and is no longer publishing fiction. At this time, I’d like to withdraw my story [story title].

[personal note]


Aeryn Rudel

Did I have to send a withdrawal letter? Probably not, but as I’ve said before in these circumstances, you don’t know what’s happening on the other side of that email. No publisher wants to go under, and though I would have preferred notification that my story would not be published, I also understand this is not personal. It’s just the fallout from what is certainly a bad situation for everyone. I sent this letter because I want to submit the story elsewhere, and if the publisher were to start up again, I don’t want there to be any confusion on that point. I also included a personal note thanking the publisher for accepting the story and expressing my condolences the market would no longer be publishing.

After comparing notes with Michael Bracken, an author whose knowledge on the subjects of submissions and rejections far exceeds my own, he called this an example of the unacceptance. If you’d like to learn more about that particular phenomenon, Michael was kind enough to write a guest post about it a while back. You can find that post right here: The Unacceptance Letter by Michael Bracken.

Do you have any experience with the unacceptance? Tell me about it in the comments.

A Week of Writing: 8/13/18 to 8/19/18

Finally managed to squeak one of these things out on a Monday. Here’s my writing week that was.

Words to Write By

This week’s quote comes from one of my favorite speculative authors, C. J. Cherryh.

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.

– C. J. Cherryh

When I finished the first draft of my novel Late Risers (currently with my critique partners), some friends and family were surprised by my rather subdued celebration of that milestone. I think C. J. Cherryh’s quote speaks to that a bit. You see, the first draft is the easy part for me (well, less difficult), and maybe it’s not all garbage, but significant portions of it are destined for the revision dumpster. The hard part, the crucial part, the absolutely gotta-nail-it part is the second piece of her quote, “edit brilliantly.” That’s the process I’ve started, and that’s the process that will determine whether I end up with a salable novel or something destined for the trunk.

The Novel

Late Risers is still with my critique partners, and I eagerly await their notes. One of them is a good friend who lives nearby, and he’s been giving me tidbits of feedback as he goes through the book. Based on what he’s told me, I’m happy with the things that are working, and I’m not surprised by the the things that aren’t. So far, so good, but I know there’s going to be a lot of work to do once I get the manuscript back and start going through the notes.

Short Stories

I write a lot of flash fiction, but I really struggle to complete those stories in under 1,000 words. Last week, I submitted a story to a market that capped stories at 800 words, so I cut one of my flash pieces down to size. It was a good exercise in keeping only what you absolutely need, and I honestly think the story is better after losing 200 words.

Got a few more submission out last week.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 0
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0

No rejections last week, but I have a number of stories pushing that 60-day mark, so I expect a response pretty soon. The two submissions last week put my at 81 for the year. My pace has definitely slowed in the second half of the year, but I only need 19 more submissions to hit my goal of 100.

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

8/14/18: A Week of Writing: 8/6/18 to 8/12/18

The usual weekly writing update.

8/17/18: The Rejection Reversal with Michael Bracken

The prolific and talented Michael Bracken shared a rare type of publisher response he recently received and let me blog about it.


I’d like to pick up the pace on my short story submissions this week, so I’ll focus on that. I’ll also continue to read through the 35,000 words I have of another novel and continue to tinker with its outline.

Submission Spotlight

This week I’d like to call your attention to a newer market that publishes flash fiction (and just a bit longer) and pays a professional rate of .08/word. The market is Factor Four Magazine, and the speculative genres they’re interested in are: “. . . science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, super hero, or any combination of these . . .” Definitely give them a look if you have a story that fits. Guidelines in the link below.

Factor Four Magazine Guidelines


That was my week. How was yours?

The Rejection Reversal with Michael Bracken

The accomplished and prolific Michael Bracken reached out to me recently to share a type of publisher response he’d never received before. If Michael Bracken, award-winning author of over 1,200 short stories and several novels, has never seen it, it’s probably pretty unique, right? Anyway, Michael gave me permission to blog about this rare occurrence, so let’s take a look at the letter he received.

Dear Michael,

Re: [story title]

We reluctantly rejected your story because we couldn’t find a place for it; however we liked it very much indeed, and have now created a place for this story in [our next issue], if it’s still available. Please let us know if that suits you.


[editor’s name]

[publication name]

Michael said he received a rejection from this publisher about six weeks before he received the letter above, which is essentially an acceptance. Pretty cool, huh? Kind of a rejection reversal. If you follow my blog, you’ve heard me go on and on about how editors reject good stories for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the story or the writing. This is a sterling example. Michael’s story was originally rejected not because the editors didn’t like it, not because it wasn’t a good story, but simply because it wasn’t a good fit for the issue they were putting together. That story obviously resonated with the editors, so they made room for it in their next issue, reached out to Michael, and he’ll add this one to his impressive list of short story publications.

I’m not gonna hold my breath that any of my recent rejections will suddenly turn into acceptances, but it’s inspiring to know these things happen, and that good stories do eventually find a home–sometimes with the same markets that rejected them! 🙂

Michael Bracken is the author of several books and more than 1,200 short stories. Learn more at and follow his blog at

A Week of Writing: 8/6/18 to 8/12/18

Another week of writing in the books. Here’s how I did.

Words to Write By

I’ve been reading a fair amount of Elmore Leonard, a writer whose style I really enjoy. Today’s quote is another of his pearls of wisdom.

“Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”

― Elmore Leonard

This is another one of Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing (it’s #3). I agree with it, and I try not to use anything but “said” in dialogue if I can help it. In fact, lately, I’ve been using fewer dialogue tags of any kind, as I often find I just don’t need them. Of course, there are folks who disagree with this rule, and I get that. Elmore Leonard wrote in a pretty specific style, and since I’m typically going for something in the same ballpark with my own stuff (though I would never actually compare my work to the great Elmore Leonard’s), his rules, including this one, work for me and help me tighten my writing.

Leonard also says the following about dialogue tags, and I think this is the real heart of the rule.

“The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.”

― Elmore Leonard

I believe dialogue tags are a little like adverbs. We sometimes overuse them (especially the more descriptive ones) because we don’t trust the reader to get what we’re saying without them. In other words, as Leonard says above, we’re “sticking our noses in” when we don’t need to.

The Novel

The novel is still with my critique partners. Well, the first wave of them, anyway, and I expect it’ll be a couple more weeks before I get anything back. Early feedback is positive, and so far the issues brought to my attention seem pretty easy to address. That’s not to say there won’t be larger issues, because of course there will, and I’m prepared to put in the work to set them right.

Last week, I also started going through the 35,000 words that I’ve written for the next novel. I like what I have so far, and I’m currently tinkering with the outline. I’m not quite ready to dive into full-on draft mode yet, but soon.

Short Stories

I heavily revised a short story last week, and I think it’s one of my best. It had been through my critique partners a few months ago, and there were a lot of notes. So I finally got my shit together and dove in, cut away a good 1,000 words, and ended up with something tighter, leaner, and I hope a whole lot better than what I started with. I subbed the story to Uncanny Magazine which recently opened to submissions.

Got a few submission out last week, including the aforementioned story to Uncanny.

  • Submissions Sent: 2
  • Rejections: 2
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Publications: 0

One of the rejections was for a shortlisted story from a pro market. That particular story has now been shortlisted by three pro markets, so it’s come close, but no cigar yet. I sent it out yesterday again.

The two submissions last week put my at 79 for the year (I’m actually at 80 total with the submission yesterday).

The Blog

Two blog posts last week.

8/6/18: A Week of Writing: 7/30/18 to 8/5/18

The usual weekly writing update.

8/10/18: Good Stories Get Rejected Too

This post is about dealing with the rejection blues with a positive attitude and some hard data.


This week I’m going to continue to assess what I have with my next novel while I wait for feedback on Late Risers. There’s also a couple of markets open to submissions that I want to sub to, and I need to revise at least one story for that purpose.

Submission Spotlight

As I mentioned above, I subbed a story to Uncanny Magazine. They’re an SFWA-qualifying market with pro rates (0.8/word) and very well respected in the industry. They haven’t said exactly how long they’ll be open to fiction submissions, so if you have something that fits, get it in. Link to the submission guidelines below:

Uncanny Magazine Submission Guidelines


That was my week. How was yours?

Good Stories Get Rejected Too

Rejections are tough, and getting bummed out is a perfectly reasonable reaction to being told your story isn’t going to be published, but it’s important to have a little perspective on rejections. This is the very core of rejectomancy, understanding that a rejection probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. It probably doesn’t mean you wrote a bad story or that your writing is terrible or any of the other catastrophic scenarios we writers like to read into a simple “not for us” form rejection.

But, hey, I’ve said this a dozen times on the blog, and since writers are supposed to show and not tell, let me show you something.

Last month two very cool pro markets opened their doors to submissions for a short time: Cemetery Dance magazine and Diabolical Plots. In addition to opening their submission doors to thousands of hopeful writers, these two markets did something awesome. They gave us a look at the actual submission stats. So let’s take a look at those numbers and see what we can see.

Cemetery Dance

  • Stories submitted: 1,750
  • Number of slots: 20 or 25

Diabolical Plots

  • Stories submitted: 1,288
  • Number of slots: 24

Now it might be easy to take a look at these numbers and despair. I mean, we’re looking at a sub two percent chance of acceptance for each market, but I would urge you to come at this from a different angle. With so many submissions and so few publication slots, the editors are going to turn away a lot of quality work. They have to because they can only publish two dozen or so stories out of the hundreds submitted. A rejection from one of these markets probably means you wrote a story that isn’t quite to the editor’s taste or is similar to one they’ve already accepted or half a dozen other reasons that have nothing to do with your writing ability. Want further proof and from the horse’s mouth? Check out this recent blog post from Brian James Freeman, one of the editors of Cemetery Dance magazine

All I’m trying to say here is don’t let the numbers or a rejection get you down. I firmly believe good stories eventually get published, especially when they’re written by diligent authors who follow the guidelines and continually work on their craft. Personally, I think a lot of it comes down to putting the right story in front of the right editor at the right time.

So keep writing, keep submitting, and keep going.

Oh, and a big thank you to the editors of Cemetery Dance magazine and Diabolical Plots for making their submissions stats public. I think that information is immensely helpful to writers, and this writer really appreciates the peek behind the curtain.