Four Myths About Writing Short Stories for Magazines

Writing stories for magazines is easy – right?

Er – no – we all know that’s a myth. If you’re reading my blog, then chances are, you’ll know it from personal experience.

Once you have sold a few stories to magazines, they just buy everything you send – right?

Er – no – they still only buy the ones they think are perfect for them.

If an editor asks you to rewrite a story, they will then buy the resulting rewrite, won’t they?

Er – no – they wont, not unless it’s perfect for them second time round, or third, or fourth.

Once you break in there’s loads of money in it.

Er – no!

Just to illustrate these four points – and one more very important point I thought I would share with you the journey of a magazine story I wrote. Out of courtesy I’m not going to name the actual magazines mentioned in the following examples. I will give them pseudonyms, so please don’t think there are four new magazine markets out there you haven’t heard of -there aren’t – but the actual facts are true.

On 8 December 2011 I wrote a story (let’s call it A Special Day) and sent it to that ‘well known magazine’ Women Everywhere. On 20 January 2012, their editor sent it back saying they liked the story but not the ending, could I possibly rewrite it and they’d take another look.

“Of course,” I said, and offered them A Special Day mark two on 26 January, 2012. A week later they sent it back saying, sorry, we’re not keen on this ending, please could you try again.

“Of course,” I said, and offered them A Special Day mark three on 17 February 2012. A week later they sent it back saying, sorry, we’re not keen on this ending either. Thanks for trying.

“Thank you for giving me the opportunity,” I said, and (not to be deterred) on 12 March 2012 I sent mark three of my story to another well known magazine called Women Worldwide.  

They ignored it for several months. I didn’t chase it, but on 24 January 2013 I sent a different version (mark two) to Women Worldwide, with a note mentioning they’d had a previous version, but this was new and improved. A month later they sent back the new and improved version with a polite rejection.

Not to be deterred – I’m quite stubborn, me – I looked at all my versions and decided that the mark two version was the best and I sent it to another well known magazine, let’s call them, Universal Woman.  A week or so later they sent it back with the comment, we enjoyed this but it’s not for us.

Again, not to be deterred – did I mention I was stubborn? – I sent the mark two version to yet another magazine called All Women on 5 March, 2013. On 8 May, 2013 they sent it back with the comment, “We quite like this, but could you change the end?”

“Of course,” I said, and rewrote the end for the fourth time (yes there was actually an ending I hadn’t thought of yet) and I resubbed it on the morning of the 15 May, 2013.  On the evening of the 15 May, their editor came back to me and said, “Yes please, we’ll buy that one.”

“Thank you very much,” I said. “That’s excellent news.”

Alleluia might have been a more accurate description of what I was feeling at that moment. That story had started life in December 2011, had been given four rewrites and finally sold in May 2013.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen all that often, thankfully, but it’s not unheard of, and I think illustrates quite well what I mentioned earlier. Writing for magazines is not easy, it doesn’t matter how many they’ve bought from you before it doesn’t mean they will buy your next one, and they won’t necessarily buy your 2nd or 3rd rewrite, even if they ask you to do them. And – no I did not get paid a fortune for the story when I finally sold it. But I did get paid!

I would like to end on a note of hope. If you really do think a story has got what it takes, then don’t give up on it.  There is every chance you will sell it eventually. And it is – I have to say – very, very very satisfying when you do!

If you would like to know more about writing and selling short stories – please do check out my book, The Short Story Writer’s Toolshed here.

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17 Responses to Four Myths About Writing Short Stories for Magazines

  1. kath says:

    Excellent post, and really illustrates the perseverance necessary in this game!

  2. Geraldine Ryan says:

    I echo everything you’ve said, Della. I’ve had quite a few stories go that way myself! Not to mention the serial episodes I’ve sometimes written four times over before I got it right. I think we have to remember that no matter how many sales we’ve made and no matter how long we’ve been writing for the market we can never know as much about what the reader wants as the editors.

  3. Della Galton says:

    Absolutely Geraldine – in a way it’s good to be kept on our toes 😉

  4. Oh, this post brought joy to my heart! I have even dug out old rejected stories, and sent them to the magazine that originally rejected them, and they’ve been accepted. Ditto recycled versions. But what is frustrating (I find) is when a story I think is pretty poor gets accepted, and a much better one (in my opinion – but what’s that worth??) is turned down. And then there was the mag that sent me a picture, and said could I write a story to go with it, and then turned the story down; but another magazine accepted it (but of course, didn’t have the original picture to go with it…). Frustration all the way!

    But we press on…

  5. Della Galton says:

    Oh, yes I know that one about the “inferior quality” story getting accepted when our “masterpieces” get turned down. And the picture thing – well, yes too. In fact I see it as a personal challenge now to see how many different stories I can write for the same picture 🙂

  6. jane sanderson says:

    How I enjoyed reading this! It gives me heart. After Years of trying to get my short stories into print-I finally had one accepted for Fiction Feast three weeks ago. After the initial euphoria and the belief that I had finally had hit the big time-I`ve had 3 rejections since! So, onward and upwards-I will rewrite and persevere. 🙂

  7. Della Galton says:

    Never give up, Jane, if you can sell one story you can sell a hundred, that’s my philosophy anyway. thank you for commenting.

  8. Glynis Scrivens says:

    A familiar scenario, Della. Have just been rewriting the ending of a story myself this morning. What interests me is that you give yourself a week for rewriting and resubbing – I’ve never been sure how long is acceptable. Some rewrites are easy and can be done in a day, but others need a whole rethink and take me ages. I always find it extra satisfying to sell the original version of a story when a different magazine has asked me to rewrite several times before then rejecting.

    • Della Galton says:

      Glynis, what I tend to do is rewrite straight away – and sometimes I am happy with the result (I have been known to send it off the same day and it’s been accepted) but I try to curb myself. I am massively impatient and I know that errors will be glaringly obvious if I wait a few days – while I might not spot them before. Yes I agree with you about original versions, tee hee!

  9. Anon says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I can’t tell you how much better it makes me feel as I have genuinely looked at the magazines and thought, ‘It must be lovely to be Della Galton – bet all her work gets accepted!’
    And the rewrites! It’s much better than a rejection but by the time it gets to the third rewrite, I do begin to wonder if I can ever bring together what the fiction ed wants with what I can produce, within the word count. I do enjoy solving that puzzle but I have a rewrite to look at today – I know what is needed but the solution is eluding me.
    I also love your persistence. I wrote a story, very dear to me as it’s based on personal experience. I know it’s good, and even the magazine I subbed to said it was good, but they rejected it as being too similar to another they had recently accepted. After this post, I shall bide my time and hang onto it (or look for ‘All Women’ magazine which is clearly a promising market!!).

    • Della Galton says:

      Actually, Anon, that is exactly why I wrote this post. I wish all my work got accepted. I would have to work much less if it did. My record for rejections is 15 in one day. I cried and cried, I don’t mind telling you. Don’t give up on something you feel is good. (I don’t).
      And maybe we should start a magazine called All Women. Thanks for posting.

  10. Geraldine Ryan says:

    Fifteen! Della, you must have the hide of a rhino – (metaphorically speaking, of course!) Of course, to get so many rejections must mean you are writing squillions of stories.

    Anon, have you tried your story that was too similar to another, elsewhere?

    I’ve also had the experience – a couple of times – of selling a story to the same magazine that have previously rejected it. I wonder if the boundaries about what is acceptable get pushed out as time goes by.

    • Della Galton says:

      Hi Geraldine,
      Do rhinos cry then? But yes, I guess you learn to toughen up. You have to, don’t you, or you would just crumble. Writing for a living is a very tough game. Someone warned me when I started out 25 years ago and I was all starry eyed and naive. And they were right. But I wouldn’t swap it for the world. I love it too much 🙂

  11. jane sanderson says:

    I was amazed that you had 15 rejections in one day! how much stuff do you write! Do you have a daily word target, or a target for how many short stories you submit per day or week? I work full time, but TRY to submit one short story a week-though often it runs at 2/3 per month. Also, do you also write fillers to top up your writing targets?-thanks

    • Della Galton says:

      In those days Jane, I was sending out 30- 40 pieces a month – not all new, I hasten to add. But I am full time. I don’t send out nearly as much these days. There aren’t the markets for one thing and I teach now and write longer fiction and do various other writing related bits and pieces. I don’t write fillers, but I do write non fiction, I always have done that too, though not many people realise that 🙂

  12. Tracy says:

    Such a good post. I’ve just sold a story that I first sent out in 2006! It’s always worth trying again.

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