A New Rejection Record

I’ve written a couple of posts on my various rejections records, lists of dubious achievements in number, speed, and type of rejections. Because I send out so many submissions, it should come as no surprise that a lot of these records don’t stand for long. Today, I’d like to share a new rejection record with you and tell you why this particular record is a source of motivation rather than a source of frustration.

The record I recently broke (multiple times) was for most rejections from a single publisher. My old record was nine (9). Before I get to the new record, there are some honorable mentions I’d like to discuss.

  • Honorable Mention #1 – Rejections 8; Acceptances 1
  • Honorable Mention #2 – Rejections 10; Acceptances 1

As you can see, after a healthy number of rejections (even a short-lived record-setter) I finally broke through with these publishers. One is a pro market and the other is semi-pro. The reason I mention these two is to encourage folks not to give up on a market just because they’ve been rejected a bunch. Sometimes you have to keep trying until you find the right story. I managed to do that with these two markets, and it’s a highlight of my year.

Now, on to the record.

My new record for most rejections by a single publisher is . . . SIXTEEN (16).

I know, some of you are  thinking, goddamn, take a hint! I might think that too, but let me tell you why I keep trying.

First, this is a professional market with a very low acceptance rate. As with most top-tier markets, they’re tough to crack even with a good story. I know that kind of sounds like an excuse, but I’ve seen editors from similar markets publicly state they turn away quality stories all the time for a myriad of (good) reasons. (Another reason you shouldn’t give up on a market or story, but more on that below).

Second, my rejections from this publisher are getting “better.” Earlier in the year, after a bunch of standard form rejections, I received a second-round rejection (sort an upper-tier rejection), and my last rejection was a short-list rejection, which means I was at least within spitting distance of publication. I’d call that progress.

With these factors in mind, I’ll continue to submit to this market because I have a better idea of the type of story they want, and my chances at publication are better than they’ve ever been (still not great, but better). Again, I’m telling you this because rejections don’t necessarily mean you should give up on a market (or a story, for that matter). If you’re working on and refining your craft (and your submission targeting), then keep trying, keep submitting, and you might find the right story to crack that tough market.

If you’d like to see my other rejections records, check out these posts.

I’v broken a few more records this year, so look for an updated list of my rejectomantic achievements in 2019.


Got a rejection record you’d like to share? Tell me about it in the comments.

My Three-Part Flash Fiction Formula

I write a lot of flash fiction, and I’ve been lucky enough to publish a fair amount of it. What follows is my basic formula for writing stories under 1,000 words. It is not, of course, the only way to write flash fiction or even the best way to write flash fiction. It’s just my way. Okay, with that disclaimer up, let’s dive in.

Before I get to my formula, let’s establish a few things that flash fiction needs no matter how you go about writing it. It needs to have a plot and it needs to be a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. My formula doesn’t ensure these things will happen (trust me), but when I follow my self-imposed rules, I find they’re a little easier to pull off.

Here are the three guidelines I generally follow when I write flash.

  1. Start near the end. What I mean is begin your story as close to the inciting action or event as you can. With 1,000 words or less, you simply don’t have the space for a lot of setup, you gotta get to the meat right away. I notice in a lot of my flash, at least the ones I’ve managed to publish, the inciting event, whatever it is, generally happens in the first few paragraphs, leaving me a lot of space to resolve the conflict I’ve set up.
  2. Keep your character count low. I like a lot of dialog in my stories, and in flash that means I have to watch how many characters are taking up my precious word count with all that talking. As such, I often don’t have more than two characters in my flash fiction (speaking characters, anyway). That way, they can have lots of dialog, which is how I generally prefer to tell a story, and I don’t eat up too much space with it. Having only a few characters also lets me spend some time developing them, again, usually through dialog. Of course, you can have more than two characters in a flash story, and I’ve managed to pull that off a few times, but I probably would still limit speaking parts to two or three.
  3. Limited locations. Same idea as keeping the cast of characters small. I tend to limit the locations of my flash fiction to one or maybe two spots. That way, I don’t have to worry about transitions from one place to another, and I don’t need to spend a lot of time describing new locations. If you read any of my flash, you’ll probably notice a lot of it takes place in a single spot, usually somewhere small and cozy like a bar, a bedroom, a house, a church, and so on.

So, that’s my basic formula, and, again, it is not the end-all-be-all of writing flash fiction. It does work for me, though, and I’ve been fairly successful with it. I’ve also found if I follow two of the rules above, I sometimes have room to ignore one. For example, if I start near the end, and I have only two characters, then I can probably fit in a couple of locations. Or, if I keep my character count low and I limit my locations, then I might be able to start a little further from the end and get in a bit more backstory and setup.

To further illustrate my little formula, here are some flash fiction pieces I’ve recently published where you can see those three guidelines in effect (more or less).

This one is pretty much the poster child for my flash fiction formula. It ticks all the boxes. One small location (a bar), few characters (two), starts pretty much at the end.

So, this is one my stories with more than two characters. I think I have three speaking parts in this one, and a whole town full of people are present. That said, I do start near the end, and I restrict my location to one spot (a church). This is an example of where I follow two guidelines so I have more room to mess around with the third.

Another three for three here. Just two characters? Check. One location? Check. Start near the end? Check(ish). This one has a tad bit more setup than usual for my flash, but following my other two rules allowed me a little more space for it.

This is an example of flash stripped right down to the frame. It definitely follows my three guidelines in that it has one character, one location, and it’s, uh, the end of pretty much everything. Of course, you don’t have to go to this extreme to write good flash, but sometimes a story only needs a bare-bones treatment to work.


So that’s how I write flash fiction. How do you do it? Tell me about it in the comments.

Submissions: No Accounting for Taste

The old saying goes one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. That’s applicable to a wide variety of creative endeavors, and writing is no exception. What I mean is that when you send out submissions, whether or not you get published is due to a number of factors. The two biggest are write a good story and make sure that story is appropriate for the market. Another important one, I think, is editorial preference. Even if you nail the first two elements (good story and good for the market), the person reading your story has to, you know, like it, and that is a pretty subjective thing. Let me see if I can illustrate the point with some of my own submissions.

The chart below includes eight stories and five markets – two pro markets, two semi-pro markets, and one token market. I send a lot of stories to these five publishers and they all generally publish the same type of material, namely speculative fiction that includes, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. I also end up sending the same story to these markets after one or more of them rejects it. Take a look.

Pro 1 Pro 2 Semi-Pro  1 Semi-Pro 2 Token 1
Story 1 Accepted Rejected
Story 2 Rejected Rejected Accepted Rejected
Story 3 Accepted Rejected Rejected
Story 4 Rejected Accepted
Story 5 Accepted Rejected Rejected
Story 6 Accepted Rejected
Story 7 Accepted Rejected
Story 8 Rejected Accepted

I’m not using the names of the stories or the names of the markets because I don’t want to give the impression that any of these publishers are wrong for rejecting my stories or right for accepting them. This is just a sampling of my submissions to illustrate my point that editorial preference (which is neither right nor wrong) plays a role in getting published.

If editorial preference plays a significant role, how do you improve your chances of acceptance? Well, that’s where submission targeting comes in. For starters, you should read sample stories from the magazine, which’ll give you a good idea of the content the editors like. That said, I find once I start getting responses from editors in the form of rejections or acceptances, I can really drill down on their preferences (especially if they’re kind enough to give me some feedback).

Sometimes you hit the mark right off the bat. For example, pro market 1 and semi-pro market 2 accepted the first stories I sent them, and that helped me narrow down what to send them next. The result? I’ve been accepted by both markets a number of times. On the other side of that coin are pro market 2 and semi-pro market 1. I had seven and ten stories rejected by those markets respectively before I broke through. The stories they accepted had a very specific style and that told me A LOT about what I should be sending these publishers.

The take away here, for me at least, is there’s no exact formula, no foolproof plan to getting a story accepted. You have to commit to perfecting your style and craft, be diligent with your research, and, yes, accept a fair amount of trial and error. In addition, don’t give up on a market just because they’ve rejected you a bunch. It might be that you simply haven’t sent them the right story yet.


Thoughts on editorial preference? Tell me about them in the comments.

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.

Watch Out. That First Line is a Doozy

I’ve written a couple posts about the importance of the first line in a short story. The idea being that a great first line sets the tone, instantly engages the reader, gets them asking questions about the story, and, hopefully, keeps them reading. These posts were inspired by a Stephen King essay called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. According to King’s essay, a “hooker” is a term once used by pulp fiction editors to describe a great first line that immediately captures the reader’s attention.

In the previous two posts I examined first lines in some of my published stories to see if I was, well, any good at writing a first line. Since I’ve had kind of a bumper crop of acceptances this year, I thought I’d revisit the concept and see if I’ve improved. Here are the first lines from five flash fiction stories I published this year. Let’s see how I did.

1) “New Arrivals” published by Havok Magazine

Senior Agent Howard Townsend parked his Ford Explorer at the head of an old dirt road.

This is not the greatest first line I’ve ever written. “Senior Agent” is kind of interesting, but Ford Explorers and dirt roads not so much. I think what saves this is the first paragraph, which is a lot better. This one received two rejections before Havok accepted it, and that’s not bad. Still, if we’re just rating first lines, I’d give this one a C-.

2) “The Food Bank” published by The Arcanist

A beetle the size of a battleship came out of the afternoon sky, its gargantuan wings buzzing like the drone of a thousand helicopters.

Okay, this is pretty good if I do say so myself. At the very least it should illicit a WTF from the reader. Giant beetle, droning wings, a thousand helicopters, that’s not bad. This story also received two rejections before it was accepted, but I’d give this first line an A-.

3) “Simulacra” Published by Ellipsis Zine

Ice and a snow weren’t the best material for the task, but Jason didn’t have much else to work with.

This one is okay, and it’s another where the first paragraph is better. The first line gives you a little info and starts with the main character doing something (important for flash, in my opinion), but it’s not exactly a knock-your-socks-off first line. Just one rejection for this story before it was accepted. I’d score this first line a C.

4) “Two Legs” published by The Molotov Cocktail

There had been no meat for too long.

Sometimes a good first line is short and simple, and I think this one is pretty good. Not my best, but solid. The word “meat” conjures all kinds of sightly disturbing images. This story received five rejections before The Molotov accepted it. I rate the first line a solid B.

5) “The Inside People” published by Ellipsis Zine

Victor wiped the spittle from his mouth after another coughing fit and stared up at the tower.

Not bad. Kind of gross, but not bad. It creates an image, I think, and maybe invites the question, “What’s wrong with Victor?” The tower by itself isn’t particularly interesting, but combined with the coughing fit, I think it works. This one received two rejections before acceptance, and I’d rate the first line a B-.


Does a killer first line help your chances at publication? Maybe, a little. You still have to write a good story, but a solid opener that pulls the reader in and gets them asking questions can’t hurt. That said, of the fives stories here, only one of them had what I would consider a great first line. The rest were solid to mediocre, and I think it was the first paragraph that did the heavy lifting. So, a killer first line is a good tool to have at your disposal, but it’s just one piece of the getting-published puzzle.

Got any great first lines of your own? Share them in the comments.

Go for the Goal: 100 Submissions

This year I set a goal to send 100 short story submissions. It’s similar to the 100 rejections goal, but the focus is a bit different. Let me explain why I’m doing it and subjecting myself to all those rejections. 🙂

Why 100 submissions? Here are my top three reasons.

  1. Number goals motivate me. This is more about me personally than any sage advice on submissions. I’m kind of a stats nerd, and these kinds of goals, as arbitrary as they are, keep me focused and push me to keep writing, submitting, and so on. Your goal needn’t be 100 submissions if you’re not a numbers person. It could be broader. Some like submit to more pro markets, for example.
  2. It keeps me writing new stuff. In order to send out 100 submissions, you need a fair amount of material to send. So I’ve been writing a lot more short stories this year. Sure, a lot of it is flash, but I’ve been pretty consistent with a new story every week or so.
  3. It’s pushed me to diversify. I’m primarily a horror writer, but the simple fact is I run out of horror markets pretty quick. There are a lot more fantasy and sci-fi markets, generally, so I’ve been writing more in those genres, with some success. Hell, I even wrote and sold a mystery story this year. Of course, a lot of my sci-fi ends up being horror/sci-fi and my fantasy is generally dark fantasy, but, hey, it still counts.

So, how am I doing with this goal? Let’s look at some numbers.

  • Submissions: 73
  • Pending Submissions: 8
  • Unique Stories: 26
  • Acceptances: 9
  • Rejections: 55
  • Withdrawals: 2

I’m satisfied with those numbers, and I’m well on my way to hitting my goal (and then some). I’m also happy with my acceptance rate so far (about 14% based on completed submissions), though I’d always like it to be higher. As usual, there have been a fair number of short-listed stories that ended up getting rejected, and I feel confident those stories will find a home and increase my acceptance rate down the line. Out of my 100-plus submissions, I’d really like to hit 15 acceptances, and I feel like that’s doable (he says, jinxing himself).


Got any submission goals of your own? Tell me about them in the comments.

Submission Protocol: When to Withdraw

Withdrawing a story from a publisher is an oft-discussed topic in writer circles, and there are a lot of opinions on when and if you should do it. My views have evolved on this subject over the years, so I thought it might be a good time to revisit it. It should be noted that I’m specifically talking about withdrawing a story from a publisher that has been unresponsive for a considerable amount of time. There are other times when the decision to withdraw a story is much more cut and dry (sim-subs and defunct publishers, to name two).

When should you withdraw a story? Well, again, there are a lot of opinions, but here’s a checklist or series of “if this, then that” scenarios you might consider before pulling the trigger on the withdrawal letter.

Step 1: Has the publisher exceeded their stated (1) response time by a reasonable (2) period? If yes, go to step two. If no, then wait until that time has passed, then go to step two.

Step 2: Is the publisher responding to submissions on Duotrope or the Submission Grinder (3)? If yes, consider waiting until they’ve exceeded their actual (4) response time. If no, then go to step three.

Step 3: Has the publisher indicated on their website or social media they are working through submissions? (5) If yes, and the publisher has given a deadline, consider waiting until that date has passed. If no, go to step four.

Step 4: Does the publisher allow submission status queries? (6) If yes, and all criteria from the previous steps have been met, then send a submission status query and go to step five. If the publisher does not allow them, do not send one, and go to step five.

Step 5: Has the publisher responded to the submission status query (or responded in general if they don’t allow them) and resolved the submission with a rejection, an acceptance, a further consideration letter, or an update of some kind? If yes, congrats; you’re done. If no, and a reasonable amount of time has passed, then go to step six.

Step 6: Assuming the publisher has not responded to you, have they responded to any submissions on Duotrope or The Submission Grinder or left any indication on their website or social media about submissions since the first/last time you checked? If yes, it’s reasonable to wait and not entirely unreasonable to go to step seven at this point. If no, go to step seven.

Step 7: Send a withdrawal letter.

(1) The stated response time is usually in the publisher’s guidelines. For genre, I find it’s somewhere between 30 and 90 days. If the publisher does not list a stated response time, look at Duotrope or The Submission Grinder for an average response time and use that.

(2) What’s a reasonable amount of time in this situation? That’s really a gut check thing. A month past the stated response time for a query letter is reasonable, I think. Waiting a month after the submission status query to send the withdrawal letter is also reasonable. Still, this all comes down to what you are comfortable with, so take my checklist with a grain of salt and do what works for you (while still following publisher guidelines).

(3) If you don’t use Duotrope or the Submission Grinder, I’d recommend you do. If not for tracking submissions, then as a market database, and, of course, an excellent way to gauge publisher response times.

(4) The actual response time can vary dramatically from the publisher’s stated response time. It’s often longer, but there are markets that routinely have actual response times far shorter than their stated response times. Obviously, you won’t have to worry about the latter when it comes to withdrawal letters.

(5) It’s a good habit to check a publisher’s Facebook and Twitter for updates about response times. Many publishers also post a lot of great advice about submissions and writing in general.

(6) Even if a publisher allows submission status queries, they might mention a specific period of time they want authors to wait before sending one. Always check the guidelines before you send that letter.


If you do make it to step seven, what should the withdrawal letter look like? Here’s an example of one I’ve used:

Dear Editors,

I submitted my short story [story title] to [publisher name] on [date submitted]. I sent a submission status query on [date of query]. At this time, I would like to withdraw the story from consideration.

Best,

Just give the publisher the facts: story title, when you sent it, and when you sent the submission status query (if you sent one). I also think it’s a good idea to alert the publisher you’re withdrawing the story in the subject line of the email. Something like: – Submission Withdrawal – [Story Title] – [Author Name]. If the publisher assigns any kind of tracking number to the submission, you should also include that in the subject line or body of the email.

Keep the letter short, to the point, and, above all, professional. You don’t know the situation on the other end of that email, so be polite, move on, and send the story somewhere else.


Thoughts on withdrawing a story? Tell me about it in the comments.