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Submissions 101

October 7, 2020

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Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, and a Girl Scout leader. When she isn’t handling her editorial or Girl Scout leader responsibilities, she’s researching fascinating historical figures, rare demons, and new ways to dispose of bodies, interweaving the three into strange and horrifying tales. Her short fiction can be found in Mountain Dead, Dark Tales of Terror, A Hacked-Up Holiday Massacre, as well as other places. Her first novel The Weight of Chains was published by Sinister Grin Press in September, 2015. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
― Pablo Picasso

As managing editor of Apex Magazine and general Apex slush wrangler, I have fielded more than my fair share of questions regarding the submissions process. For today’s FOR WRITERS, I thought I’d create a Submitting Short Fiction 101 lesson to make the submitting process less intimidating for new writers and answer questions I commonly receive.

I want to write for your magazine. What do I do?

Before submitting to any magazine there are two things that a writer should do:

1. Read a couple issues of the magazine, and

2. Read and understand the submission guidelines.

Whenever I suggest to a writer that they read a couple issues of Apex Magazine before submitting, I can hear the internal groan that they won’t let pass their lips, even while the plastic, pleasant smile forms on their face. The automatic assumption is that I’m trying to force them to spend money (buy an issue) or spend something even more precious—their time. They assume I’m trying to get something. That isn’t the case. Here is a completely made up, but also very plausible conversation:

Writer: I’d love to be published in Apex Magazine!

Me: That’s great! You should submit some time.

Writer: So, what sort of story should I write for you?

Me *confused*: We publish dark sci-fi—

Writer: Yeah, yeah, I know that, but what do you really want?

Me: Apex stories?

Writer: But what does that mean?

Me: Well, if you’ve read a few issues of the magazine …

Writer: I would, but I don’t have the money to subscribe right now.

Me:  That’s okay. It’s available for free online.

Writer *clearly frustrated*: I don’t have time for that.

And that right there is it. I can’t tell you how many writers have emailed asking what Apex is looking for right now. They want some sort of magic formula to guarantee them an acceptance. I get that. We all want instant gratification. Unfortunately, that isn’t how publishing works. To be successful, you have to put in the time, and part of that time is researching the markets that you’re submitting to. Now, I am not suggesting that you read every issue of every magazine that you might want to submit to. No one has time for that. But reading three or four current issues? Taking the time to really see what sort of stories are making their way to the top of the slush pile? That’s research. That’s part of the job of being a writer. It’s a small time investment that can help set you up for success. Plus, most great writers are also big readers. Beyond learning about the particular market you’re wanting to submit to, reading can strengthen your writing.

The second part of my answer when a writer wants to write for us is to direct them to read and understand our submission guidelines. Most guidelines will tell you how to format your submission (font type/size, line spacing, etc.), submission windows, as well as what types of submissions publications will and won’t accept.

Apex Magazine’s submission guidelines state to submit your work in Shunn Standard Manuscript Format (modern or classic), with a link to what that is. If you closely read this formatting guide, what you’ll find is that everything suggested – 12 point font, black text, a serif font such as Times New Roman – is a way to make your manuscript as easy to read as possible. The Apex slush team has read and responded to about 4,000 short story submissions since we reopened in late July. All that reading can be hard on the eyes. Anything that is distracting or makes the manuscript difficult to read makes it easier for a slush reader to pass on your story and move on to the next.

Coded Manuscript
Intrepid managing editor Lesley Conner painstakingly reads an Apex Magazine submission.

Simultaneous Submissions and Multiple Submissions

Our guidelines also state that we do not accept simultaneous or multiple submissions. These are terms that seem to trip up newer writers, but honestly are rather straight forward.

Simultaneous submissions would be submitting the same story to multiple publications. Example: If I submitted “Fake Story: A Very Great, but Completely Unreal Submission” to Apex, but then saw an anthology call and sent the same story to that call before waiting to hear back from Apex.

Multiple submissions would be sending several stories to the same market at one time. Example: If I submitted “Fake Story” to Apex Magazine and then sent “Fake Story 2: Even Faker,” and “The Unicorn in My Closet” without waiting to hear back about the first story.

Both of these guidelines are in place to help us manage our slush pile. While we want you to send in all your awesome stories, there has to be some way to manage the flow and give us time to read and consider each one.

What should go into a cover letter?

Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but when I’m reading submissions, I don’t look at the cover letter until after I’ve finished the story. I have never read anything in a cover letter that has swayed me to recommend a story for publication that I had already decided to reject. In my opinion, they aren’t that important, more of a hold over from when submissions were mailed or emailed to publications, rather than using submission portals such as Moksha or Submittable.

BUT, if you really want an answer, I would say keep your cover letter simple. Your formatting shouldn’t distract from the story and neither should the cover letter. A simple guide would be:

Dear Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner (do find the editors’ names, they shouldn’t be hard to find),

Please consider “The Unicorn in My Closet” for publication in Apex Magazine. It is 2,500 words long and is a dark fantasy story.

In this paragraph list your most recent publications, preferably two or three. Or if you’ve never been published you could say something like “I’m previously unpublished, and would love for my first publication to be in Apex Magazine.”

Thank you for your time and consideration.

That’s it. Keep it short and simple. Let your story sell itself.

Do you accept submissions from …

Let me stop you there. No matter how you were going to end that question, the answer is most likely yes. The only submissions we don’t accept are simultaneous/multiple submissions (both of which are a timing issue), mailed/emailed submissions (please submit via our submissions portal, submissions sent through email or mail fall into the black hole, never to be responded to), or previously published stories (Sorry, we buy first English rights. If your story has been published somewhere else in English, those rights are gone.). Other than that, the answer is yes, please send us your submission.

If you were going to ask if we accept submissions from:

  • Countries outside of the US – Yes, please send us your submission.
  • Nonnative English speakers – Yes, please send us your submission.
  • Translated fiction – Yes, please send us your submission.
  • Previously unpublished writers – Yes, please send us your submission.
  • A cabin in the middle of the woods – As long as you have access to wifi to submit through Moksha, yes, please send us your submission.

Should I respond to rejection?

No.

But I want to thank the editor for their time!

Meh. Still no. I mean, if you can’t help yourself and have to send a quick thanks, that’s fine. I’m not blacklisting anyone for saying thank you, but it isn’t necessary. (Quick note, Apex Magazine does not have a blacklist. Or if we do, Jason hasn’t shared it with me, so I’m not adding anyone to it.)

Responses to rejections fall into three categories:

  • Thanking us for our time.
  • Asking for feedback.
  • Being nasty.

As I said, thanking an editor for their time is fine, but unnecessary.

Moving on to feedback.

I can’t give feedback on every story that Apex Magazine rejects. Even if I read every story (which I don’t, most are read and rejected by our first readers, I’m just the one sending the notification), I don’t have time. Maybe that sounds like a copout, but remember, we’ve responded to 4,000 stories since July. No one could give constructive feedback to that many stories. It isn’t possible.

If you’re truly looking to better your writing craft, there are places to receive feedback from others that don’t involve putting more work on the shoulders of hardworking magazine editors. Find a critique or writers group. Ask a writer you are friendly with to be your writing buddy and critique each other’s work. Take a writing class. Jason Sizemore teaches writing classes through the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and they’ve been online recently because of Covid, so they’re open to all.

If you really want one-on-one feedback from a professional editor, find an editor who is currently open to freelance work. There are lots of them. And yes, you’ll have to pay, but this is their job. I wouldn’t expect to walk into your place of business and ask you to give me your work for free. Please don’t expect that of editors, either. Especially when free options such as critique/writers groups exist.

That leaves nasty responses. Ah, that warm, fuzzy feeling of self-fulfillment and pride from working to make sure you find the best stories to publish in your magazine that is soured by an unhappy writer sending you vitriol and hate.

Nasty responses to rejections come in all forms. Everything from the indignant “I already sold that story somewhere else! Somewhere better!” to the accusation that we rejected the story because the author isn’t diverse enough (Sorry, but no. While we do want to publish diverse voices, we do not penalize writers for not being diverse.) to threatening to sue me (Yes, that happened.) to my new favorite from earlier this week: “If I was Donald Trump my story would've been published!” (Seriously? Donald Trump? This writer has obviously never read an issue of Apex Magazine. Know your market!).

No matter what sort of angry rant you want to throw an editor’s way, remember that it isn’t helping your case. Your story was already rejected. At best, you’re giving editors like me tasty tidbits to share on Twitter – I have no shame! I don’t share names, but if you email me ugliness, I will share it with my Twitter followers for a good laugh. It’s fair game. At worst, the magazine you’re submitting to may have a “do not publish” list, and being nasty to their editors could land your name on it. Like I said before, Apex Magazine doesn’t have such a list, Jason and I are way too sweet for that, but other markets might. Why risk it?

Parting Shot

To make the submission process as simple as possible do these things:

  • Read a few issues before submitting. Know your markets.
  • Make sure your manuscript is easy to read. No fancy formatting.
  • Understand the submission guidelines.
  • Don’t sweat the cover letter.
  • Don’t respond to rejections.

I won’t say submitting is fun. It’s full of nerves and anxiety and waiting. That’s normal, but if you focus on your story and making sure you’re always striving to write better, then soon you will find yourself on the desk of the editor-in-chief. Don’t let a few guidelines keep you from that desk.

FOR WRITERS

FOR WRITERS is a bi-weekly feature from the Apex Magazine editorial team covering various aspects of writing. Visit our archive to read more FOR WRITERS content!

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