A Short Story from the Slush to the Cover

by Bill Patterson
published in Community

For all too many writers, the short story market is like a black box: stories go in, rejections come out.  I’ve been on the receiving end of those rejections, even when I’ve been notified I’ve made the ‘final round’.  So, I decided to find out just how one gets from the slush pile to the cover.

I’ve been submitting works to a professional magazine I’ll call ‘Fantastico’ for about a year now.  I would send them a submission, receive an email that the story made it to the final round, then about a month later, a rejection.  After the fifth story, I wrote to the editor, asking (oh, so politely!) why I was getting bounced.  Was I doing something wrong?  Was there an element in my stories that made them fail?  A couple of weeks after my query, the editor sent me a very long explanation of just how stories get chosen for Fantastico.

First, some background on the magazine.  Fantastico publishes monthly with four or five stories per issue.  The submissions run about 250 stories per month.  The Editor in Chief reads all of the stories.  Here’s how he addressed my inquiry.

The Premise:

“When I evaluate submissions, I don’t read and then immediately accept/reject.  I will read a block of stories, ten at a time, and once I’ve read them I set them to the side for an hour or so.  When I come back, the stories I remember get passed to the next level.”

What this tells us :

Make our stories memorable, in a good way!


“The last round of stories is usually 30-40 stories.  I do an initial elimination off a single reading, getting the number down to 12-15. . . . Nit-picky stuff can mean the difference between a rejection and remaining in the hunt.”

What this tells us:

It’s not enough to be memorable.  We must have a good grasp of the craft.  Spelling and grammar, yes, but also continuity, timelines, believability, plot, characters, setting.


“[I rejected] an author who apparently feels an editor should overlook copious grammatical and spelling errors in a submission.”

What this tells us:

Editors have enough work to do just pulling together an issue.  They don’t have time to go back and forth with me about craft issues.

This is not to say that editors won’t edit.  I had one story accepted by another market.  Huzzah! Or so I thought, until the story came back festooned with little red marks.  This was something that passed grammar and spell checkers plus my alpha and beta readers.  Editors will edit—they just don’t have the time to correct obvious errors.

So, what’s the difference between making the final fifteen and getting accepted?

Tangible Factors:

“I work a lot of different combinations of stories to see which I feel works best.  Usually, I come out of the round of 40 with two or three stories that, in my head, are already selected for the issue.  So at that point, I have to find a way to make the issue work.”

What this tells us:

One of the ways an editor has to “make the issue work” is a hard factor like total word count.  An issue of Fantastico will have a given number of physical pages.  On those pages are the stories, ads, editor’s column, standard features, and graphics.  The amount of space (and thus words) for stories is fixed.

Let’s say that out of the available space for fiction, the editor has selected four stories that are a lock for the issue.  Unfortunately, the remaining space for story number five is only about two thirds of the maximum submission size.  If we are in the habit of writing stories that are as big as possible, we’ll lose to a smaller, tighter story.

Intangible Factors:

“So getting to the final round out of hundreds of submissions doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing something wrong.  What it means is that sometimes, your story just doesn’t work with the other stories I’ve already selected. […] If you’ve made it to multiple final rounds, then I’d expect your stories to continue to do so–and eventually, you’ll break through.”

What this tells us:

Beyond the hard factors like maximum word count are such intangibles such as how well each story fits or compliments each other.  This can be some of the most maddening rejections.

Sometimes, the puzzle pieces just don’t fit.  I had an excellent story for this market, but its format just didn’t jibe with the others.  That didn’t mean it wasn’t a good story, it just wasn’t a good match for the others.  It is maddening, but that’s just the way it is.  An ace is a great card in poker, but if you have four jacks, an ace is pretty much worthless.

• • • • •

So there you have it.  A great premise gets you past the first hurdle.  Good craft is required to get your story to the final round.  The story has to fit within the remaining space.  It must appeal to the readership.  After that, well, it’s mostly intangible—how well does your work fit with the other selected stories.

The real lesson is to keep trying—never stop writing and submitting.  Someday, you, too, will break through.

HeadShot_2013Bill Patterson has been published in JournalStone’s SF anthology “90 Minutes to Live”(2012), as well as Mutation Press’s SF anthology “Rocket Science” (2012).  He was nominated for the British Science Fiction Award (Non-Fiction category) in 2012.

He joined National Novel Writing Month in 2007, and has participated in every November and many Camp NaNo events, winning nine of the past ten such challenges.  He has served as co-Municipal Liaison of the Central NJ Region since 2011. He and his wife of 30 years, Barbara, live with their two sons in Central New Jersey.


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