As I was recently emailed a request for advice about the short story submission process and how to decide which path to take to publication, I thought it would be great to hear from some of the most talented short story writers I know. The multiple prize-winning writer Amanda Huggins was kind enough to take part in this Q&A and I am very grateful to her for sharing her knowledge. (You can read her powerful story ‘Red’ – which was a runner-up in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award here.)
1. What kind of short stories do you write and how long have you been writing in that genre and form?
I started writing short stories around 2011, mainly contemporary literary fiction, dealing with relationships and the human condition. Each story is as long as it needs to be, which means that most end up being between 1500-2500 words. However, I also write a lot of flash fiction under 500 words.
2. What’s your writing process (from idea to polished and ready-to-submit piece)? How long does this take on average?
Some stories tumble out of my head fully-formed, and some have to be dragged out! I’m not much of a planner, so as soon as an idea appears then I tend to throw it straight down. Having said that, I am a very slow writer. I’m never happy with what I’ve written, even after it’s been published, and despite editing as I go, I still revise and revise and revise. I can tweak for England, and I work on most of my longer stories for weeks. My collection, Separated From the Sea, was really the result of five years’ work. In my defence, I did have a lot of family commitments in that period, and I do have a full-time day job in engineering!
3. How do you go about finding the right publishing home for a story?
I’m glad you posed the question that way round, and didn’t ask how I go about writing a story to suit a publisher/competition. Because the truth is, I never do. I always write what I want to write and then look for the right competition or publication for the story. I’ve been entering competitions since I started writing, and I always read previous winning stories and check out the judges. However, as we all know, it’s a very subjective thing, and sometimes you just have to wing it. With literary journals you should always read a copy first to see if your work would be a good fit. Publishers advise this all the time, yet writers still don’t realise how important it is.
4. If a story gets rejected many times what do you do?
I am very persistent, and I hardly ever give up on a story. Every time a piece gets rejected I hone it, change it, polish it, then send it out again. After half a dozen rejections I tend to leave it alone for a while, maybe coming back to it a couple of months later. If there are any major flaws, that’s when I usually see them. I do have a handful of stories I’ve almost given up on, but I still open the files every now and again in case I have a eureka moment.
5. How do you decide whether to send a short story to a magazine or a competition?
I do write some flash pieces with the sole intention of submitting them to particular zines – there’s a wealth of literary journals springing up at the moment, both print and e-zines, and lots of opportunities to get your work out there. Often these smaller journals have a quick turn round, so you’re not waiting agonising weeks or months for a rejection. However, these are not paying markets, and sadly, despite a recent encouraging rise in sales of short story collections, it’s still difficult to get short stories published anywhere for hard cash. This is why prizes and awards are so important to emerging short story writers, and why I still send most of my longer pieces to competitions first.
6. For any of your stories placed in renowned magazines or in well-known competitions did you somehow sense they’d be successful?
No! Generally speaking, the stories I think are my best are the ones that get nowhere, and the ones I think mediocre are the stories that win prizes. There are exceptions of course, and I did think that ‘Red’ – the story which was a runner-up in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award – was one of my better pieces. However, it had already been rejected by a couple of magazines and failed to even reach the longlist of three smaller competitions!
7. Any tips for writers just starting to write short stories?
The most important thing is to read short stories. Lots of them. Sounds obvious doesn’t it – who in their right minds would write a novel if they’d never read a novel? Yet when I ask writers who are new to short fiction who their favourite short story writers are, they often look at me blankly. Short stories are not novels-in-miniature, any more than novels are extended short stories. They are two different skill sets, and the best way to get started is to read the masters.
My second tip is to send your work out, and keep sending it out. If you submit just one story and then sit waiting for it to be rejected/accepted, when that rejection comes it will hit you hard. If you have ten or twenty pieces out at any one time, then the rejections won’t feel as bad.
And if people offer you feedback, then really take note of it. It’s all too easy to reject criticism, yet in my experience the advice of a good editor or judge is nearly always sound.
8. Can you recommend a short story that you read recently and love?
I’ve just read Helen Dunmore’s posthumous collection, Girl Balancing, and particularly loved the first section of the book, ‘The Nina Stories’. These stories are almost notes for a novel-in-waiting; a sequence of vignettes centred around a girl called Nina, set in the 60s/70s. They are painstakingly intense; attention is paid to Nina’s every moment and action, and there are some lovely period details that evoke a strong sense of place. The writing turns the mundane into something beautiful, and the final story soars. Seventeen-year-old Nina is left alone on Christmas Day in a house at the seaside. She goes roller skating along the seafront with her friend, Mal, and when the mood turns, she must outwit him. I’ll leave you to find out for yourself if she succeeds.
Huge thanks to Amanda for taking the time to answer my questions.
Amanda Huggins is the author of the short story collection, Separated From the Sea (Retreat West Books), and the flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapeltown Books). A selection of her stories also appear in the Ink Tears showcase anthology Death of a Superhero. Her fiction, poetry, and travel writing have been published in numerous anthologies, and her work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian, Telegraph, Wanderlust, Reader’s Digest, Writers’ Forum, Mslexia, Ellipsis and Jellyfish Review.
Her travel writing has won several prizes, notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014. Her short stories and poetry have been placed and listed in numerous competitions, including English Pen, Words With Jam, Retreat West, Ink Tears, Cinnamon Press, Ilkley Literary Festival, Henley Literature Festival, and the Bath and Fish short story prizes.
In 2018 she was a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award, and was also commended in both the Bath and InkTears flash awards, shortlisted for the Walter Swan Poetry Prize, the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award, and the Fish and Bridport flash prizes. She was also a finalist in this year’s Bradt Guides New Travel Writer of the Year Award.
Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s and now lives in West Yorkshire. She works full-time in engineering and is writing her debut novella.
Very interesting advice. I think when you’re starting out it’s hard to submit anything as you’re still unsure of your talent or the market. If I take anything from this insightful interview it’s to keep submitting and you will have a greater chance at success.
Glad it was of use, Jo. Definitely keep on submitting – and while the submissions are out keep writing!