Fellow writer William Shunn provides the classic format for short story formatting here (ignore at your peril). Eventually, this will become such a habitual format that you won’t have to think about it, and any other will look odd to you.
Well, suppose you’ve finished your epic story “Wrecker of Ten Million Galaxies,” it’s in the proper format, and you’re ready to send it to Analog and Amazing for consideration. What’s next? How do you submit it? Do you need a cover letter?
As far as submitting it goes, follow each magazine’s specific guidelines very carefully. Like the formatting situation, this is a test to see if you can follow instructions. Even in these days of near-miraculous communications technology, some magazines and journals require paper submissions only. This remains true even for some science fiction magazines, which seems rather ironic. In cases such as these, you’ll need to learn the arcane rules of postal weights and measures, which was once an everyday part of the submitting writer’s life but now seems hopelessly old-fashioned.
Since you won’t run into this often, rather than stock a postal scale, stamps, and massive amounts of office supplies, I recommend purchasing the supplies as you need them and taking the packaged manuscripts to the post office as necessary to have the stamping done by a clerk. Be sure to include your cover letter with the manuscript, if necessary, along with any reading fee-issues I’ll go into more detail on later.
Fortunately, many periodicals allow you to submit via email these days, which is certainly more efficient than dealing with paper. Generally you do this in the form of an attachment to your introductory email, which will include the cover letter I’ll discuss in more detail later. Be sure to include your manuscript in whatever version they ask for: DOC, RTF, TXT, etc. Again, this is an entry test that you will fail before your manuscript is even read if you don’t follow the instructions.
Increasingly, markets that accept electronic submissions-especially the fully online markets-ask you to submit your story either by cutting and pasting it into the email as a text, or by using a submission form that requires a specific submission format (usually RTF or TXT). Some just want you to cut and paste your story into their form and hit Enter. Whatever the case, again: follow the rules stringently. The periodical is almost certainly looking for ways to cut down on the flood of submissions it receives, and will be happy to wash you out early in the process. Those who get published are those who have stuck tightly to the rules laid out by the publishers.
This may not seem fair. It may seem the deck is stacked against the writer. It is. The publishing industry has always been this way. If you want to publish via the establishment, you have no choice but to follow the rules they dictate.
That said, you do have some freedom when it comes to cover letters. Most short story writers I work with seem terribly worried about cover letters and how to get them right, which frankly I find odd. When I first started-back in the days of postal submissions only-most editors didn’t want to see cover letters, considering them a waste of paper and time. They weren’t interested in being buttered up; all they wanted was to see the story. I think that’s still true, by and large.
Some modern submission formats, like email attachments, require cover letters. Many online form submissions don’t, though they may provide an optional cover letter field. If you feel you need to include a cover letter, keep it short and to the point. Introduce yourself and your story, and include a few of your most recent publication credits and awards (if any). For example:
Hannah Irvana, Editor
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Dear Ms. Irvana,
Please find attached my 10,000-word science fiction story, “Wrecker of Ten Million Galaxies.” I feel that it’s a good fit for Preposterous Stories, and hope you feel the same.
I’m an experienced science fiction writer with recent publications in Preposterous, Superhero Stories, and Whiz-bang. Last year, my story “Songs of the Werewolf” was shortlisted for the Nebula Award.
Thanks for your time and consideration.
And that’s pretty much it. Why bother adding anything more, especially when your credits are as impressive as those I’ve created here? (And rest assured, mine are pure fiction in this example…but yours shouldn’t be in real life). If your credits aren’t so hot, include something writing-related if you can, even if you’ve been a technical writer for five years, or supporting yourself with non-fiction for ten. You have to start somewhere. As you begin making sales, you can build your credits section.
The actual creativity and hard work is up to you. But before you can publish your short stories-at least in the traditional way-you have to get past the dragons at the gate. They’ll test you in a number of ways, and how you submit your manuscript is just one. So be sure to follow their procedures to a T.
One final note. Many literary journals charge a “reading fee” these days, supposedly to cut down on the number of submissions they receive. This reasoning works well in marketing: if you make someone pay for something, they’ll take it more seriously. I’m not sure how valid it is for writers trying to submit their stories, or if the real reason is that the journals can’t be bothered to grow their budgets through advertising or increased circulation…but that’s a whole ‘nother post. The point is, you’ll have to make the decision whether or not you’ll want to grit your teeth and pay the fee, which is, in my opinion, adding another pinprick of injury to the already painful process of submitting articles and waiting, often for months, to get a reply.