Tips for Submitting to Literary Journals and Magazines

I had the privilege of being invited by Reflex Press to be a reader for their Autumn International Flash Fiction Competition. I hugely admire them as a publisher of, ‘long, short and very short fiction,’ and have been fortunate enough to have had work published with them previously.

What I gleaned from the many entries sent my way, was inevitably going to find it’s way into a blog post. There were several things that struck me, which I think might be helpful for writers in submitting work to journals. Every reader or editor will have a different take, but this is mine:

  1. Think about your title

Writing short fiction requires that you grab the reader’s attention fairly swiftly, and the title needs to do some of the work for you. It should do the heavy lifting of piquing and reader’s interest, before they begin to read the contents. The Association for Psychological Science says that a series of experiments by Princeton psychologists, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, reveal that, “all it takes is a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger from their face, and that longer exposures don’t significantly alter those impressions.” (Their research is presented in their article “First Impressions,” in the July issue of Psychological Science, if you want to find out more.) I would say that the title of your story will have a similar effect. You may have a great story, but if the title is weak, or even irrelevant to the story, the rest will fall flat. The title is key to a good story and can be the difference between an acceptance or a rejection. Make sure you take time to think about what you want the reader to know. What is the point of your story? What’s the context? And, what do you want the reader to find out? In short fiction every words counts, and this very much applies to the words in your title.

2. Read the guidelines

It’s an easy thing to skip past, but don’t. The guidelines are there for a reason, and you absolutely have to stick to them in order for your story to even get past first reader. Reflex Press has two readers for each story – this is quite common. Those that reached me had followed the guidelines, but there will be many that didn’t reach any of us, because they were too long, in the wrong genre, or highly offensive. If a journal states in the guidelines that they do not accept racist or homophobic content, don’t send it, although I’d question why it’s been written in the first place. If they say, do not send in work over 1,000 words, you may have a gem of a story that is 1,003 words, but it will not get past the first reading, because it’s too long. Cut it or find another place to send it. Have a look at the font and size required. Editors really dislike fancy fonts or multicoloured submissions. You wouldn’t sent a CV off like this, so don’t send in a story that looks like a poster. The most common requirements are Times New Roman 12, but check. I can’t stress this enough. Most journals will tell you they only want one submission at a time and whether or not they will accept simultaneous submissions. Follow these guidelines. It’s important. Find out whether it’s an email submission or an online submission, which format is required, a Word or PDF document, or pasting the story into the body of an email, and take the time to find out the name of the editor. Don’t misgender or mislabel. Do not be tempted to just fire out a load of submissions to different journals in the same format. It’s generic and editors can see that it’s not specific to their journal. At the very least, begin with, Dear *insert journal name* Editor. Make it personal, but keep it professional.

3. Read stories that have already been published

Familiarising yourself with their work, and with the kinds of stories that they publish, will increase the chances of your work being accepted. Don’t send in a love story, if they like dark, twisty stories. There may also be a request to add trigger warnings for certain content, so again, back to the previous point, read the guidelines. Does your work fit what they are looking for? Do you know what style of work they publish? If not, read some of their publications. It really shows when a writer sends in work that clearly doesn’t fit either theme, if there is one, or the type of work that the journal publishes. Some journals will give you ideas of what they are looking for, like SmokeLong:

4. Consider your narrative mode: Tense, person and point of view

We’re highly influenced by what we read, so be careful not to just plump for the familiar. Do experiment, but make sure you’ve got a handle on it before writing and submitting your work. Choosing the right narrative mode for your story determines the perspective and the way that your reader experiences the story. It establishes the relationship between the narrator, reader, and main character, if you have one. This may need a separate blog post at some point.

  • tense (past, present, or future). There are six different tenses in the English language, but only three are generally used in fiction. Past and present tense are the most commonly used. Future tense is rare and difficult to sustain, but as with any rule, there are exceptions.
  • person (I – first person, You – second person, or They – third). Third person narrative is the most commonly used, followed by first person. As with the future tense, a second person narrative is rare, but I’ve used it for some of my favourite stories to create tension.
  • point of view (omniscient or limited). This really comes down to who is narrating the story. Take The Book Thief as an example: Death is the omniscient narrator who switches between first person and a third person point of view, describing all the characters’ thoughts as well as his own. It’s powerful and works in this context, but won’t work with every story.

The best advice I can give is, don’t keep jumping about. Find your tense, person and POV, and stick to it. So many stories begin well and start to flounder because there’s a lot of jumping about and the story unravels. Unless there is a clear reason to keep changing, stick to what you’ve chosen. Changing tense can be one of the most frustrating things for a reader, unless it’s needed and expertly done. The Book Thief is written in the past tense, with flashbacks and occasional flash forwards, but unless you’re Markus Zusak, leave it alone.

4. Don’t underestimate your reader and don’t attempt difficult themes unless you feel confident you can handle them

There is a tendency for many, and particularly new, writers to tackle either assault or suicide. These are important subjects, but they are often badly handled and over described, with heavy writing and a blow by blow account. Assume your reader is intelligent, because most of them are. Don’t give them every detail and keep the sorded details out of it. Some of the most powerful stories I have read on these issues are the ones where what has happened is only hinted at. Don’t hit the reader over the head with a sledgehammer. They’ll pass out. Even journalists won’t give you all of the details in an article, so don’t do this in fiction. It will really kill a story and make the reader wince.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is, find the space between the words. Some of the power of what you write will be in what you don’t say. Toni Morrison explains this brilliantly in an interview in The Paris Review on ‘The Art of Fiction’ (no.134):

“The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”

Interview with EllipsisZine Editor, Steve Campbell


Ellipsis Zine is an online and print literary magazine for beautifully written fiction & creative nonfiction.

How and why did you begin Ellipsis Zine, and how long has it been running?


I set up Ellipsis Zine in June 2017 and initially wanted to create an online space for flash fiction I liked to read. I hadn’t been writing flash very long and thought that a website with a mixture of work I enjoyed reading would help improve my own writing, while also offering a new space for writers to submit to. I wasn’t sure how well that was going to be received but pretty soon I was swamped with great submissions. Following on from the wave of excitement during the first month, I took the plunge and opened a call for work to be published in print and I was completely overwhelmed with the response.

What have you learned from your experience as Founding Editor?

It’s all subjective. I’ve declined work that has almost immediately been snapped up by other publications and reading them again, it was clear I was wrong to pass on them. There can also be any number of factors for a piece being declined, it’s not always because the piece isn’t ready. The magazine may not be the right fit. Timing can also be important – and not always something that a submittor can do anything about. If a piece submitted deals with the break up of a relationship, for example, I would generally pass on it if I’ve published a similar piece recently.

What do you do with your time outside working on the Zine?

I work in a marketing department, with a background in design, and so the setting up of the magazine and print zines has been a fairly smooth process.

The editorial team has expanded. Can you tell me who is on the team and how or why they were chosen?

I have a great team of flash writers helping me behind the scenes. Stephanie Hutton, Amelia Sachs, Richard De Nooy, Helen Rye, Jennifer Harvey and Christina Dalcher. It was Richard who first suggested putting together a team, to help strengthen the website and have a team to help compile the zines, and as a sounding board for ideas and advice. Working in a bubble can be difficult at times, so having a team of writers to work with has been invaluable.

What are you looking for in a piece that you hope to publish?

We want to publish stories that make us forget where we are, stories that introduce us to people, places and things we’ve never seen before and stories that stick with us long after we leave them. In the same way a great song, novel or film, hangs around with the audience. We want a great piece of flash to be something that will be read again and again, and something that will linger.

Can you tell us about the process from submission to publication in the online and print zines?

With print online submissions, I try to get back to everyone within seven days. If selected, I may put forward minor edit suggestions and then provide a date for publication. This is usually scheduled around a month or so later, depending on the time of year. With the print publications, the time between submission and selection is a little longer. With the last few zines, I’ve had one or more of the editorial board compile the list of published work for me. Again, once chosen, we ask for minor edits to the work. Once the zine is compiled, I will send page proofs to all writers, to ensure I’ve copied everything over correctly. At this point, writers have the opportunity to make any last minute changes. This is usually a week or two before publication.

Do you have any advice for authors sending you submissions?

That’s a tough question, because I tend to want to publish a wide mix of work, but it is important to note that it is all subjective. I’ve published sci-fi, horror and humour and I do notice trends with submissions. I sometimes get a batch of work that hasn’t made the longlist/shortlist of a competition, because they are all on the same theme. I’ve also noticed that I can receive a large amount of work based on death, relationship breakdown, dementia etc. I have written pieces on these subjects myself, and although, individually they are brilliantly written, when I receive a lot of them, they can lose their impact. I’d suggest that anyone who approaches these subjects to think a little differently. This will help set the work apart from others.

Can you tell us a little about the expansion into areas such as the Novella-in-Flash, collections, and zines celebrating LGBTQ writers?

Much like everything with Ellipsis, the expansion into publishing Novella-in-Flash and collections stemmed from wanting to try something new. Stephanie Hutton’s novella was a huge success, selling much more than any of the other zines and so it was natural to try and replicate that success. Talking with Stephanie about an open call, she put forward the idea of publishing an author who wasn’t as established – hence, the call for a debut flash collection from an unpublished author. This desire to give underrepresented voices a platform, naturally, influenced the decision to publish a zine that celebrated LGBTQ writers and their work.

What are your plans for Ellipsis for the coming year?

We have an extremely busy year ahead. There are a few flash events, which I will be attending in the Summer: National Flash Fiction Day, June 15th, has just been confirmed, and a publication launch. Our Love | Pride zine, celebrating LGBTQ writers and their work, is released at the end of February, along with a flash fiction collection in April/May. The Summer zine publication will be collection by a single author. Later in the year we’ll have a call for submissions for another zine and a micro-fiction competition. There are ongoing website submissions and, at some point, I may need to have a lie down.

You have recently had some of your own work published. Can you tell us about your own writing?

I’m still finding my feet with my own writing, but running Ellipsis has been extremely helpful. I have read some amazing work and this has enabled me to see what does/doesn’t work with a piece of flash. I began to write my own novella-in-flash, which was sidelined to write a novel, which was then sidelined to write another novel. At some point in the next few years I’m sure one of these projects may be finished.

What are your top five literary journals or magazines?

I love the work in Flashback Fiction. There is the added bonus of hearing the pieces being read by the authors. Popshot Magazine is also a favourite. I’m a sucker for a printed publication, and this is beautifully put together. I also regularly read MoonPark Review, TSS Publishing and Reflex Fiction, but this list is not exhaustive because there are so many great publications out there. I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite publications on the Ellipsis website here: ellipsiszine.com/literary-magazines/

Follow EllipsisZine on twitter: twitter.com/EllipsisZine or on facebook: facebook.com/EllipsisZine.LitMag

Ellipsis is managed by Steve Campbell and has the support of an editorial board of international flash fiction writers and published authors. View their biographies here: Editorial Board.

Steve Campbell has work published in places such as Spelk, Fictive Dream, MoonPark Review, Molotov Cocktail and Flashback Fiction. He is Managing Editor of Ellipsis Zine and trying to write a novel. You can follow him via twitter @standondog and his website, standondog.com.

Interview with Author and 1000words Editor, Natalie Bowers

100words

I met Natalie when my short fiction piece, North Norfolk Coast, was published online in 1000words at the beginning of July. 1000words publishes flash-fiction of up to 1000 words in length, written in response to an image. I have been impressed with the site and the quality of the work for a while. Natalie’s response to my submission was really professional and friendly, and I have enjoyed reading some of her own fiction (more on her work at the end of the post). I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview, so thank you for joining us, Natalie, and for answering some questions that I think authors often ask, or want to ask.

When and how did 1000words begin, and what inspired you to start gathering flash fiction?

1000words began in 2012 as part of the first National Flash-Fiction Day. I’d just finished an online flash-fiction course with Calum Kerr, the brains behind NFFD, who’d said he was looking for people to organise events, online and off. I’ve always had a secret desire to run my own fiction magazine, so this seemed the perfect opportunity to start one. I also love photography, so what better way was there to blend my two main interests and fulfill an ambition than by starting 1000words?

 What is flash fiction, for those who are new to the form, and how is it unique?

There are as many definitions of flash-fiction as there are people writing it, but for me, flash-fiction is simply a very short story. Although at 1000words we accept stories of up to 1000 words in length, I actually prefer reading and writing stories no longer than 500 words. When it comes to flash-fiction I like to be punched in the gut. I like flash-fiction to be short, sharp and to take my breath away.

 The idea of using an image prompt from the Pinterest page is very creative. How do you decide which images to use?

I go with my instincts. If I see an image and find myself immediately making up a story, I pin the image. I’ve pinned quite a few of my own photos on our Pinterest boards too, as I always have a camera on me and am constantly on the lookout for story ideas.

pinterest 1000

There is a wonderful range of stories on the site. How do you chose what will be published, and what are you looking for in a piece of fiction?

Again, I go with my instincts. If the opening few lines grab me, I know I’m likely to enjoy the whole piece and will most likely publish it. What I’m really looking for is a consistent narrative voice. It doesn’t have to be a confident voice, but I need to feel as if the narrator is a real person and believes in the story they’re telling. I’m also looking for something special: a surprising simile, a poignant observation, a subverted cliché, an old story told in a new way, or a new story told in an old way. It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.

Is there anything that will automatically send work to the rejection pile, and are there any submission tips you can share? 

There’s nothing that will automatically send work to the rejection pile. If I decline to publish a story, it’s usually due to a combination of factors such as an inconsistent narrative voice, unnatural sounding dialogue, cliché imagery or plot or over-explaining (not leaving enough to the reader’s imagination). If a story has a lot of grammatical mistakes and doesn’t look as if it’s been proofread properly then I’ll probably turn it down, as it’ll be too much work to prepare it for publication. One of the biggest turn-offs for me, though, are stories with a twist ending where the twist hasn’t been sufficiently foreshadowed or where it’s been so obviously sign-posted that I’ve guessed it before the end. It’s a difficult balancing act, and one I struggle with myself.

Tell us a little about yourself and your own writing?

I’ve always written stories in my head, if not on paper. I remember writing and illustrating a book for my little brother when I was about ten. It was a complete rip-off of the children’s TV series Jamie and His Magic Torch, but I put my heart and soul into it! In my early teens, I graduated to Star Wars fanfiction, but I didn’t write much at all in my late teens and twenties, I was too busy with school, university, work and then babies – I did science A-levels, a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, taught for a few years and then gave it all up to raise two lovely children. I’d had depression and anxiety after the birth of my daughter in 2005, and the doctor advised me to find something with which to occupy my brain. Writing seemed like a good idea, so in 2007, after a bit of dabbling, I took The Open University’s Start Writing Fiction Course, and I haven’t really looked back since. I’ve written quite a few short stories, but flash-fiction is where I feel most at home and I’m pleased to say that I’ve had a fair few pieces published here and there. Right now, I’m working on a collection of summer-themed flash-fictions and in September (if I get enough punters) I’ll be teaching my first ever writing course in the adult education department of my local secondary school. Bit scary!

Are there any short fiction authors who are a particular inspiration? 

Loads! I have a ‘Recommended Reading’ page on my website where I list lots of my favourite authors and stories, but if I had to name just a few, they’d be: Calum Kerr, Nik Perring, Kevlin Henney, Shirley Golden, Cathy Lennon, Lorrie Heartshorn, Angela Readman, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Elmore Leonard, Annie Proulx and Kate Atkinson. These are the people whose work I rush to read. (That was more than just a few, wasn’t it?!)

Friends of 1000words are flashandzoom, Paragraph Planet and Stories with Pictures. Can you tell us a bit about each of them?

flashandzoom is a photography and poetry project run photographer Jaime Hill and a writing pal of mine, Zoe Mitchell. The aim of the project is to provide a fresh perspective to photography and poetry, and to create art that reaches people on a number of levels. It’s been a bit quiet of late, but what they’ve produced in the past has been beautiful.

Paragraph Planet publishes a 75-word paragraph (fiction and non-fiction) EVERY SINGLE DAY of the year, which is an amazing feat. You can also read author interviews and there’s a sister site called ‘Writing Workout’ where writers can do all sorts of writing exercises. I’ve had a couple of pieces published on Paragraph Planet and intend to send more soon.

Stories and Pictures is a site that brings writers and artists together in collaboration. It’s chock-full of beautiful stories accompanied by beautiful pictures. Some of the stories have been inspired by pictures, and some of the pictures have been inspired by stories. I’ve had a story and a photo published there too.

  natalie 2 Natalie Bowers, along with Heather Stanley, is the editor and publisher of 1000words online flash fiction magazine. She lives in Hampshire with her husband, two children and a growing collection of ukuleles. Natalie has a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, and has taught Science and A-Level Biology. Her short stories have appeared in print and her flash-fiction has been published in various online journals. You can find a list of her publications on her blog, and she is a fellow Ether Books author. You can follow 1000words on Facebook and Twitter.