How SHORT is Short? Navigating the Literary Journal Marketplace

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It is a blustery Saturday here in Michigan, and I’m supposed to be preparing some short stories for submission to literary magazines. Getting a piece published in a mag is one of my writing goals for the year, along with starting Novel #3, which hasn’t gotten off to a speedy start. At the moment, both of those goals seem fairly insurmountable, but even Everest looked that way once upon a time.

Since I’m a newbie at this fiction writing thing, I’m learning all about literary magazines as I go. My husband has much more experience with this topic than I do, so he’s been schooling me on the important elements. First, literary magazines can be divided into tiers. Of course, upon hearing this, I immediately tried to Google what mags fell into which tier. No such luck. My dear husband then enlightened me that the tiers were more theoretical—the bottom of the list (mags with dubious credibility in the publishing world), the middle-of-the road publications, and the cream-of-the-crop reviews. Back to researching.  It didn’t take me long to discover that any magazine willing to pay for submission was probably out of my league.  I’ll save The New Yorker for the “in my dreams” submission list!

The most pressing issue I’ve been trying to figure out is what exactly “short” fiction is. That is, I understand the “fiction” part just fine. It’s the “short” part that has me puzzled. My research has made it pretty clear that no one else knows how short short fiction is either. Some magazines put a cap on the number of words—say 3,000—while others focus on page length. One magazine’s submission page mentioned short short fiction, which sent me on another hunt for a definition. Is what I write too short? Not short enough? Am I writing short fiction or short short fiction or is it flash fiction—is there a difference?  Writer’s Digest, one of my favorite writing resources these days, holds a “short short story” competition where the rules stipulate no more than 1500 words. That’s pretty short, I suppose, but then I found an NPR contest where the story must be able to be read aloud within three minutes. So now I have to time myself, too? This is getting complicated!

I’m not sure I think much about the length of what I’m writing when I’m writing it. My focus is on the characters and the story—not on word count or page length. I’m finding that I’m not liking this “administrative” part of writing—the work that goes into trying to get published. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this post instead of deciding which magazine publishes my kind of short story.

Is it possible to love to write—and hate to publish? Is there a way to make the quest for publication feel less like work?

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