Originally Published December 2010 e|Fiction Magazine http://www.efictionmag.com
Dennie and I were never the closest of cousins. He was a year older than I was—he was fifteen. That single-year difference meant that we were paired together to hang out for the summer; my other cousins were considerable younger. Dennie was not only older, but bigger. He was born a big kid; chunky in his youth but a well-built athlete in his adolescence.
Dennie’s size was suiting for his reputation—that of a bully. If Dennie saw a mud-puddle, he’d push you into it… If Dennie saw the opportunity to beat you up and embarrass you, he would take that opportunity and exploit every one of your insecurities.
I—being his cousin—was spared the physical brutality that Dennie could bring. Instead, he tormented me in ‘softer ways.’ He always had some scary story he was trying out on me… something to test my bravery. If I failed, I would be ridiculed. Succeeding only bought an hour, or so, worth of Dennie’s respect… So I wasn’t surprised when He told me we were going on an adventure that night…
“This is our opportunity to see a real live ghost,” Dennie said as we drove up 13th Street toward my grandmother’s house.
Summers were always spent with my grandparents in Sidney, Nebraska: a small town by my standards—I lived in from Phoenix, Arizona—but a larger stop on the highways wrapping across the Nebraska Panhandle.
This summer, upon my arrival, Dennie was eager to take me out on the town in his new pickup. He had gotten his farm-permit; meaning, he could drive a car all throughout the county during daytime hours at the age of fifteen. In rural Nebraska, kids as young as thirteen years old were allowed to gain driving permits—in case they needed to run agricultural errands.
We spun the truck quickly onto Main Street; Dennie slowed down to point out a grey-gravel parking lot. “That’s what we call ‘The Square,’” Dennie explained.
It was a simple lot, wedged between a three story hotel and the hardware store… But to Dennie, it was the center of the universe. “I hooked up with these two girls there, last summer…” Dennie recalled. “…Everyone usually gets-together in The Square, and then we find a place to go party. Usually, we go out to the supply barns, but sometimes we party closer to the city.” Dennie had clued me in to what the ‘Supply Barn’s’ were…
…The kids Dennie hung out with were popular… and rich! Their parent’s owned so much land throughout Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and as far as Canada; that these kids had access to hundreds of silos, barns, and private-land. With a playground stretching across the American Plains and into Canada; the teens growing up in the Nebraskan Panhandle had the world around them—literally!
Dennie assured me that a ‘barn-burner’ wouldn’t be happening tonight… He had other plans… “Think about it!” Dennie said. “The past 2 summers we have been searching grandma’s house for a ghost, and we haven’t seen anything. Tonight, we’ll finally get to see a ghost.”
Ghost-hunting in my grandmother’s house was a favorite pastime for all us kids. My grandmother’s house was nearly a hundred years old, but looked even older. We were all convinced that it housed a vengeful spirit that was angered by our presence.
Needless to say, we never saw a single thing, nor heard a single unexplained noise. As far as I know, there’s no such thing as ghosts. But there’s something much more frightening that we should have been afraid of… Something much darker…
Staying with my grandparents meant was like taking the batteries out of my watch. They kept to a regular schedule that seemed to be an hour and a half earlier than everyone elses. “At 9:00pm-sharp, they take out their hearing-aids and go to bed,” Dennie had said. “After that, they don’t hear a thing until 5:00am, when they wake up. That’s when we’ll sneak out…”
“Wait! Sneak out?” I asked, a resurgence of nerves tearing at my gut.
“Yeah… You wanna see a ghost, right?” Dennie sneered.
Afraid that showing my apprehension toward sneaking out would ruin my credibility with him, after he invited me to hang out with him for the day; I nodded, “Of course! But is it a real ghost or another one of your bullshit-stories?”
For a moment, Dennie tensed up, a jerk-reaction that screamed he wanted to hit me for the insult.”
I recoiled, “I mean… is it real or are you just trying to scare me?”
“Oh,” he seemed calmed by my quick reprisal. “Well I guess you’ll never know for sure unless you come with me, right?”
I’d backed myself into the corner and he presented me with my only way out—I’d have to go with him to see his ghost; or wimp-out…
…I should-have wimped-out.
It was 9:45pm when we decided to sneak out. Plenty of time to allow our now-deaf grandparents time to fall asleep, and extra time for my dad to fall asleep as-well—he was in his prime and would surely hear us if we weren’t perfectly-quiet.
But we were perfectly-quiet, and were out in the yard without a stir from inside the house. We hopped over the six-foot wall surrounding the house and were onto Cedar Street. Cedar was a better way to go—more foliage to cover us on our way downhill. The town had a 10 o’ clock curfew for anyone under the age of 15—meaning I was out past curfew.
“Where are we going?” I asked as we snuck from tree-to-tree along the road.
“Downhill,” said Dennie. “We go to the train tracks and follow them down the line maybe a mile or so. That’s where the house is…”
“What house?” I asked, unsure if I really wanted to hear more.
“The McInley House,” Dennie said his own interest peaked by mine. “McInley was a drunk whose wife had left him and moved east to Hastings with some guy from around town. McInley lost it. He was seen around town for a few weeks—he had moved on from booze to drugs… Then no one saw him for a while. The sheriff went to his house, but saw no reason to enter… They figured he might have moved out of town with all the gossip going around about his wife leaving him. It was two weeks before the sheriff returned and found him in his wife’s robe… naked… a shotgun next to what was left of his head.”
I was amazed by his story, yet skeptical-still.
“They cleaned up the crime scene and the bank tried to sell the house, but it’s old. Not to mention, everyone around here knew the story and wouldn’t dare make an offer on the house. So it was abandoned. They stripped out everything in the house and boarded-up the windows and doors… And we are going in there—try and see old half-headed McInley himself.” Dennie gave me an evil smile and narrowing of his eyebrows. He knew he was scaring me.
Dennie paused as we came up to Magnolia Street. The rails were on the other side of the street, a 10-foot chain link fence separating the houses from the train yard. “We gotta get over that fence and onto the yard,” he said. “Once we’re on the rail, our chance of seeing a cop is zero.”
I nodded, and Dennie gave a whispered 1-2-3-count before we bolted for the fence. The street was deserted and dark, with a single streetlamp lighting the farthest corner of the fence. We scaled the fence quickly and hid in the shadows of the parked railway cars that proudly displayed Union Pacific Railway adjacent to a colorful layer of graffiti. With our backs against the rusted metal shells on wheels, we sided our way onto the rail.
“A mile?” I asked.
“About a mile… maybe a little more, said Dennie, swinging his head left to right, watching out for any adults, or worse: cops.
The abandoned Cabela’s Building faded in the distance behind us, and the outer neighborhoods sprung up ahead—the curve of the rail leading us onward.
“Here, take a swig,” said Dennie, producing flask of bourbon from the pocket of his jacket.
I didn’t want a swig of anything, but Dennie wasn’t asking. “Take it,” he demanded. I took the bottle and pressed it to my lips, tipping the flask back all the way but only letting the tiniest sip into my mouth and down my throat. “A swig, not a sip!”
Caught, I made my second attempt to appease Dennie, taking a full mouthful of the bitter liquor. Immediately after swallowing, the burning taste spread across my chest and I wanted to gag—but put on my best pokerface and handed the flask back to my cousin with a nod.
A ribbon of light snapped across the black sky, lighting the clouds that were hidden to us.
“There’s not supposed to be rain tonight,” Dennie said. And I believed him. Growing up on a farm, and—because of his premature size—Dennie was put to chores at an early age. Learning when to get the equipment in the barn before the rains came in to rust everything uncovered, was a skill he had learned early. How this storm had snuck up on him, I do not know. “There’s a yard ahead… If we run, we can make it.”
We broke into a simultaneous sprint as another flash lit the coming storm in the west.
Nebraska’s late-summer storms were vicious and electrical; the dry air coupled with resonate static in the ready-dry wheat fields coupled together to make fierce lightning. Tornados were the big-scare though. In a storm that sneaks up like this one had, the possibilities of freak tornados was ensured. That’s what why we ran.
The train yard came into view. There were three box cars strung-together laying just off the main railway. They were cattle cars—metal boxes with wooden floors so that cattle wouldn’t be harmed in case of a lightning storm just like this one. We ran to the opened door of the second middle car and heaved ourselves up. The car hadn’t been cleaned since it was parked and I ended up face-down in a butte of manure.
Dennie helped me to my feet as I spit-out grassy clumps of hay that had seen the inner workings of an Angus. For a moment I though the liquor, forced down my throat, was also going to make an appearance, but my stomach and attention were hastened by the man’s voice.
“Your face down in your future boy,” he said. The man scooted on his ass out of the shadowy back corner of the car. “Take it from me.”
Dennie was still helping me to my feet and I felt him tense at the sight of the man. He was a hobo, a tramp; a homeless wanderer riding the rails and sleeping day-and-night in the same filth I’d just tasted.
“Here, wash your mouth out with this,” said the hobo. He crooked his hand out; a dirty hand sleeved by a heavy down-jacket, clutching a brown-bag wrapped bottle.
Before I could decline, Dennie accepted; saying, “Let me get a blast before he gets shit on the bottle.” He pulled back on the bottle, taking a hearty gulp before passing it on to me, his fallen comrade. I took a mouthful of the whiskey and spit it back into my cupped hands, splashing and wiping away the last of the brown smears across my face.
“So you boys from here in Ogalalla?” the man asked, taking the bottle back against his lips.
“Ogalalla?” Dennie laughed. “If that’s where you think we’re at, then maybe you better just let me take your hooch. Ogalalla is a hundred miles east of here…”
“Really?” he asked with more amazement than worry. “Where the hell are we?”
“Sidney,” I answered.
“I Must’ve slept through Ogalalla then,” the man wheezed.
Dennie nodded. “You’re in the Western Panhandle.”
The man looked a little confused, but took another sip of his bottle to right his thoughts. “Well if you boys fancy to keep-on knowin’ where you are, you’d be smart to leave this sort of drink to people like me!”
The winds howled past the cracked-open cargo door and whistled into the boxcar as the old man settled onto a circle of hay bales he had set up as a sort of bench. In the center of the bales was a pile of half-burned tinder and logs on an old metal sign. The man put a small drop from his liquor bottle onto the kindling and lit the fire. Within seconds the charred twigs erupted into hot glowing coals. Dennie and I took the other two barrels to seat, bringing us face to face with the man.
He was as you would expect a hobo to look: long speckled-grey beard, long speckled-grey hair, oily-black smudges across the ridge of his cheekbones. The clump in his beard, though, was what kept me unsettled. It looked like a wad of white chewing gum had fallen from his mouth and nested in the wiry hairs of his chin, but was never removed—left to morph into the crusted hairball that now graced his face.
“What are you boys doing out here on the rail anyway?” the man asked. “No kind of place for boys your age… You should be with your friends drinking out in Peetz Canyon…
Dennie and I looked at each other immediately. How would he know that the circle of kids we had been with earlier, were going to Peetz? He didn’t know where he was!” Dennie held his hand flat; signaling me to keep it cool.
“That’s where you should be alright…” he drifted off into whispers.
“Um, sir?” I nudged the man as he drifted away. “What were you saying?”
The hobo began a quick snore—he was asleep!
Dennie cocked a smile that lit-up our rusted-out old boxcar the same as the lightning had. “He’s had it man…” said Dennie. “The dude just drank himself to death right in front of us. Whoah! We might see a ghost sooner than we thought.” He was almost jolly as he flirted with the details of his story…
“The tortured soul,
He died tonight,
His flesh gone-cold.
But he will be back,
For your life—it’s told.
Dennie cackled and wriggled his fingers in my face, ending his poem on a high-scare. He poked at my face as I yelled at him to stop… “Stop… Stop… Stop!” I yelled.
“Stop…!” the old man grumbled through the end of his final snore. His head was still dipped between his legs, eyes closed—but he seemed to now be awake.
Dennie’s taunts were detracted from me and he sat back on his bale, eying the old man—his smile, not yet shrunk.
“You boys won’t make it to the house…” the old man groaned.
Dennie’s smile finally dropped as he looked to me. “What did he say?”
I couldn’t answer.
“What did you say?” Dennie lunged at the man shoving-back his shoulder.
The hobo’s back straightened with a crackle of worn-bones and his head lifted slowly—eventually greeting us with wide white eyes. “You wanted to see a ghost tonight right?” his voice sounded calm, normal, and nonchalant; but the horrid, dead look on his face spoke louder.
Neither Dennie, nor I could move a muscle; frozen by his chilly-white eyes. “Ghosts,” said the man, “don’t exist… Stories made-up by people like Dennie that want nothing more than to see you scared. Right Dennie…?
And still we couldn’t move—couldn’t speak.
“You know, ghosts are the last thing you have to worry about out here on the rail… It’s the witches that can get you.” The man’s voice waivered as he spoke. “The witches…” he mumbled again, his speech trailed off into a high-pitched inhale. “They love the rail…”
The man gurgled and thin strand of blood and spit flew from his mouth and dripped to his clumped beard. He slumped to his side, tipping off of his hay bale. Behind him, though, came a short black figure, her features flickering in the spinning light from the fire. Her eyes were as white as the hobo’s: dead-white. A ratty black blanket, covered in lint, draped over her from her head to her heels.
She smiled at us with a face so wrinkled; it was as if she were melting. “They love the rail,” the witch said in the hobo’s voice, “we love them.” She moved slowly, staring directly at me. I couldn’t move, hypnotized by the gloss of her frozen white eyes.
Dennie noticed her slowly stalking toward me; whatever power she had over us, keeping her prey still, began to weaken on Dennie. He mustered the strength to raise his right arm and dig it into his jacket, retrieving his bottle of whiskey.
The woman was face to face with me, her yellow skin and pale eyes only inches from the tip of my nose. The crackling of the fire dulled to a cottony, mute silence, and I felt my eyelids growing heavy—I was falling asleep, just as the hobo had.
Dennie stood up—the witches control gone from him—and sent the glass bottle crashing over the top of her head. Glass shards scattered and the whiskey dripped down her shoulders and down into the fire, starting a slow ignition that began at her feet at quickly licked upwards, engulfing the blanket that covered her.
She stumbled backwards with a look of shock, horror and—above all—anger. She howled as the flames went from silky blue to bright orange; she tore at the blanket, trying to cast it off of her.
“Let’s go!” Dennie yelled as he tried to pull me to my feet. “We’ve got to get out of here!” I could hear him, but could still barely move. It was as if my entire body had fallen asleep and the blood was slow to pulse through and wake it.
The witch recoiled into the corner of the car, tearing away the last shreds of her smoldering cover. Now she was naked, her frail and emaciated body steaming and bubbling from her collar to her eyes. She screeched like a hawk, turning Dennie’s attention away from me and back to her. Dennie jumped over the fire and knelt beside the hobo’s corpse, trying to pull the booze from his stiffened grip. Freeing the bottle, Dennie gave it a full forced toss, shattering it at her feet. He kicked the metal sign cradleing the fire, sending it across the floor boards and lighting the old woman up again. Now fully-engulfed—and no clothes to cast off—she twisted around, floating off the ground and out through the crack of freight door, disappearing into the night.
“Let’s go… Now!” Dennie yelled pulling me by the arm.
I was having trouble moving, my legs wobbled underneath me, too weak to carry me faster than a dragging walk.
“Where did she go?” Dennie asked as we made our way to the edge of the field bordering the rails. “Is she gone?” He kept looking behind us as we ran full speed toward the fence. I didn’t dare look behind me.
Getting over the fence was more difficult this time; we struggled and slipped as we rushed to get past the barrier. Dennie was off the fence, and I was taking my last descending steps as the sirens came. The whirling whine of the storm sirens jolted me and I fell the last three feet, landing on my backside. “What is that?” I asked.
“It’s a tornado,” he said, “a tornado’s coming!”
I hobbled to my feet and we ran again. The winds were growing fiercer as we drew closer to the house. We came up the lane to 15th street and Dennie stopped running. “You hear that?” he asked.
It was a thick, deadening pulse of booming noise; like a heavy steel stamping machine, each pounding thud rang in our ears. I didn’t know what the sound was, but Dennie did. Dennie knew it was the sound of a tornado, but didn’t tell me. Of course he didn’t have to. A crack of lightning flashed in the distance, backlighting the funnel and casting its monstrous silhouette directly at us.
It was as they say on TV, the tornado… It looked like a swirl of filthy water twisting down a drain; it sounded like a train roaring off its tracks and screaming toward you.
This time Dennie was the one standing still, unwilling to move, his eyes glazed with awe and fear for the funneling maelstrom. he had seen storms before… Apparently never so close.
The spinning winds lashed against the side of the Cabela’s building, tearing at her old wooden roof and collapsing the attached tin shed. It was headed straight for us… past the old building and up 13th street toward my grandparent’s house. Moving slow, but quicker than we could run.
Dennie yelled something close into my ear, but it was lost in the loud static of the wind blowing all around us. He pointed toward the 13th street tunnel, and I understood what he meant. We pulled up our feet and sprinted full force for 13th. I don’t know if my adrenaline had me running faster, or if Dennie held back his speed for me; but we were elbow-to-elbow all the way past the fenced yard, over the concrete shoulder-block and down into the tunnel.
The sound was greater in the tube below the tracks; the whipping winds whistled and pierced our ears. Again, Dennie tapped my shoulder and pointed—a service door. Dennie went to the door while I braced myself on a bundle of copper pipes protruding from the concrete wall. The tornado was nearly at the opening of the tunnel at this point, and I found myself clutching the pipes harder, unable to withstand the sucking vacuum at the tunnels mouth. Dennie pulled at the door, releasing its lock; the door flung open wide and quick, propelled by the winds, hitting Dennie in the center of his forehead and knocking him backwards. He stumbled, stepping backwards toward the tunnel’s mouth, maybe 8 steps before he finally fell flat on his back.
He was flat and motionless; unconscious. I called his name and loosed my anchoring by one hand, only to have the pulling force of the suction stretch at me, pulling me off my feet—beckoning me toward the funnel. I regained my hold on the pipes and weaved my body between them, stitching myself back into a firm hold against the force. The brown outer edge of the cyclone disappeared as it rolled over the lip of the tunnel, and a newer, clearer funnel appeared inside the tunnel, feeding the storm directly above us. I looked at Dennie from the safety of my copper harness, and saw him begin to slide along the wet concrete. Slowly at first, his cotton cloth’s dragging along the pavement; but just as quickly gaining momentum and coasting away toward the tunnel’s opening—dragged away by the unseen force of nature at its worst.
I fought with myself as I was sewn safely in those pipes… I wanted to help him, wanted to be able to hold onto the edge of his boot and keep him from slipping away. But I couldn’t and I didn’t. I stayed where I was and watched him as the suction pooled him in. 20 feet from me… 30 feet from me… until finally the winds turned and slammed him against the rebar at the corner of the tunnel’s mouth, pinning him against the exposed metal spokes.
That’s when I saw he wasn’t the only one at the corner of the tunnel. The image was dulled by the brownish-red haze of swirling dust; but I knew it was her. The witch, her skin still blackened from flame, stretched her arm out from the rail above the tunnel and grabbed Dennie by his collar. She slid him out of the rebar with ease, and seemed to not be affected by the vacuum’s pull. She pulled him under her arm and slipped away back onto the rails.
By: Zachary Ankeny
Dedicated to my father: Stephen Bessire Ankeny
It’s probably happened to every writer… a coincidence that blends fiction with reality. One writes about a storm, perhaps, and the storm is powerful—destroying everything in sight. A short while later, a storm hits… just as the writer has written it. Watching the news, the writer can’t help but consider that he/she made the storm happen—willed it to be. This has happened to me on a few different occasions, but never more coincidentally than the situation that writer/editor/publisher William Thomas Stead encountered.
If the date of his death doesn’t already seem familiar, it will…
His two most memorable fiction stories were: “How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor” (Published in 1886); and “From the Old World to the New” (published in 1892). Both centered on his growing nervousness about the safety of the Royal Mail Ships of Britain.
The first story, “How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor”, tells of two steam ships that collide in the North Atlantic Ocean. Due to a shortage of lifeboats, the disaster ends with a catastrophic loss of life. His second story on the subject, “From the Old World to the New”, was written as fiction, but became all-to-real. A luxury-liner en-route from England to New York strikes an iceberg and begins sinking slowly. Once-again, there are not enough lifeboats to accommodate all the passengers aboard the vessel and it’s a race against time for another vessel to come and save the passengers.
On his two short stories, Stead commented, “This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats.” Two decades passed and his stories fell on deaf ears.
In 1912, President William Howard Taft invited Stead to speak at a peace congress at Carnegie Hall in New York. Stead agreed and boarded the next ship to the United States. The ship: was the “Unsinkable” Titanic, leaving England on her maiden voyage.
4 days into the voyage, the ship struck an iceberg and sank. His fiction story came alive as the 2,208 passengers of the “Greatest Ship Ever-Built” fought to fit into the insufficient number of lifeboats (20).
In the two hours it took for the Titanic to sink, Stead knew that a titanic loss of life was about to ensue. It is impossible to know exactly what he was thinking in those two hours before his death, but his two short stories give an insight into what he could have been thinking. It must have seemed like déjà vu to Stead. He had written this incident multiple times and now he was stuck in his story and destined to die.
Accepting his fate, Stead retired to the First-Class Smoking room as thousands clambered around the decks frightened and screaming.
Already in the Smoking-Room, were Thomas Andrews (The ship’s builder), and Benjamin Guggenheim (an American Millionaire). All three were ready to go down with the ship. Guggenheim was last seen wearing his best suit, drinking a brandy; Andrews was entranced, staring at a painting of Plymouth Harbour; Stead, true-to-form, sat gentlemanly in an armchair trying to finish reading a book. “Suicided” was the word the survivors used for these gentlemen’s odd acceptance of fate.
Stead’s 20-years of pleading for sufficient lifeboats on mail-ships finally became a regulation in late 1912, only months after 1500 people (Stead included) lost their lives in the Titanic Disaster.
Is it possible that Stead foresaw his own death? In his writing, Stead’s fear of sinking ships is quite evident. Over and over again, he lived out his characters deaths—the fear, anxiety and amazement. Stead’s prescient writing can easily be written off as a coincidence—an extreme coincidence—but a coincidence nonetheless.
Me? I don’t believe in coincidences, at-least not those as extreme as Stead’s. The Titanic sunk in the same waters as in Stead’s story; the ship was an RMS (Royal Mail Ship), just as-in his story. Incidentally, Stead wrote in “From the Old World to the New” that there were only 20 lifeboats aboard the fictional sinking ship—The Titanic had only 20 lifeboats. In that same story, it was a White Star Line vessel that steamed toward the foundering ship owned by Cunard-Lines. The Titanic was owned by White Star Lines and the Carpathia (owned by Cunard-Lines) was the ship that came to the rescue.
Is it possible that an imaginative person, with a tendency to write what is seen in the mind’s-eye, can be privy to future events?
Writers of all formats and genres, in numerous interviews, have admitted: “I don’t know where my ideas come from.” Author Stephen King actually admitted a sense of nervousness when presenting a new book, saying that he can never truly own the idea of his books, because he doesn’t know exactly where the idea originated.
Coincidence is a strange idea to me. I can’t believe that a random spin-of-the-wheel can bring such a fitting and tragic end to a man like Stead: the man who tried to save the lives of those aboard the Titanic, before the idea of such a ship was even conjured.
It seems that writing can take two separate courses: either the idea affects future events (as is the case with the works of Jules-Verne), or future events inspire the idea.
The classical-teaching of literary writing tells authors to not question where his/her ideas come from, but to let it roam free and take on a life of its own. I can’t help but ask: If you give life to your writing, will it outlive you?
BY: ZACHARY ANKENY
For me, and for many other authors and readers out there, the short story is an art form held in very high regard. A short work of fiction can, (in some cases), cross genres more easily than longer novellas and even novels. Why? Because the story is a quick glimpse, or vignette of the story’s ideas; and the characters’ attributes, struggles and lives. The story is required by its constrained length to give all of the elements of a novel, novella or novelette at a quicker pace than longer works. This often makes writing a clear, concise and complete story more challenging for the author; but, (if written well), gives the reader immediate gratification. In this day in age—when technology makes our lives easier, and gives us the ability to obtain information and entertainment without putting forth much effort—the short story, and publishers actively seeking salable short fiction, seems to once again be a booming market in the literary world.
So you have made the biggest step and written a beautiful and complete work of short prose. You feel the story has both merit and a little something that editors might be looking for. What now? First, I’ll ask you a question: ‘How well do you know the short fiction market?’ Before submitting anything—whether it be a 900 word flash-fiction story or a full length epic novel—you should know as much information as you can gather about the market you are submitting to. Lucky for you, short story publishers make-available a wealth of knowledge on the subject; nearly always posting their guidelines, what types of fiction they are looking for, what to expect once you’ve submitted, and even a pay-scale to let you know the average-payment you can expect to be receiving when and if your story is accepted.
First thing’s first. Do you know where you would like to send your submission? If you have a favorite magazine that you would like to submit to, check their website. Usually you can find either a section titled Guidelines that will have exactly that: everything you need to know before submitting. If you cannot find a Guidelines section on the website, check under the Contact Us section. I have come across many publishers that prefer to keep different guidelines for different employees and positions. In this case, the website’s contact list will be where you’ll find your guidelines for submission. If you cannot find the guidelines anywhere on the site, chances are they don’t accept unsolicited submissions. If you aren’t quite sure where you want to submit to, here’s a little trick: Go to Google.com; search the following phrase: ‘Short Story Guidelines.’ Note: it is often beneficial to try out variations such as ‘Short Fiction Guidelines’; ‘Short Story Submission’; etc. This simple search will return results for all sites that include guidelines for submission of your shorts.
For the purpose of this article, I will use the guidelines given to me buy Editor Doug Lance of eFiction Magazine; a wonderful monthly publication that strives to assist and educate new and emerging authors with all aspects of short story publishing.
Mr. Lance was eager to give readers some examples and tips for submitting to his publication and to others as well. “I started eFiction to be an inclusive submission process. Most other publications are exclusive. They have their “slush pile” that is skimmed over for good submissions. The large majority of those manuscripts are simply tossed out. eFiction receives really good manuscripts that don’t need any editing. For the manuscripts that I feel aren’t quite ready, I work with the author to improve not only that manuscript, but their entire craft. I teach ‘the man to fish.’”
This is a very good example of how monthly publications of short prose can be beneficial to both experienced and emerging authors. These publishers and editors—more often than not—are excited to work with authors in honing their craft, and give constructive criticism and feedback. If the author takes their feedback, dwells on it, and learns from it: said author will return to the publication with a higher quality of writing, and it is win-win for both parties.
This is just one example from one magazine. eFiction Magazine may not be for every writer, though. My advice is to search out the perfect home for your work.
Now, any publication that accepts submissions is bound to receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of manuscripts. For this reason, some magazines will only actively accept submissions during their pre-set reading periods. If the magazine is swamped or backlogged, they will usually have an open-period, averaging six out of twelve months per year. These open reading periods will be posted on their website—usually on their Guidelines Page—and I cannot stress enough how important it is for writers to adhere to this. If you submit your manuscript during their off-times, you are wasting their time, and probably won’t make any friends in the editing room. Follow the rules set by the magazine’s guidelines (ie. formatting, reading periods, word counts, etc.) and your story is guaranteed to be read and given serious consideration based on its merit.
Among the guidelines a publication may specify, formatting is probably the most important. Every editor has their own idea of how your manuscript should be formatted while he/she reads it. Often, it will be in Standard Manuscript Formatting, but this is not true for all printing houses. Just like a writer likes to format their story in their own way while writing, editors like to see everything they read in their own preferred format. Second: word-counts. This is also very important; guidelines for a publication are usually set-in-stone. If the guidelines tell you that the magazine accepts submissions of 2,500 to 7,500 words, than the ideal manuscript they are looking for, is right around 5,000 words. If your story comes in at 9,000 words, query the editor first, (if they accept queries); and if they would like to make an exception, they will let you know. Otherwise, you might want to look for another magazine, or do some editing to cut-down length. An editor knows exactly how many words his/her issue has room for; and just like playing Tetris, he will try and fit the highest amount of quality work into a single issue. This is one of the main duties of an editor, so take word counts very seriously. As a guide, I have listed word-counts below to give you an idea of what your story may be, based on its word-count:
· MICRO FICTION: 0 – 100 Words
· FLASH FICTION: 100 – 1,000 Words
· SHORT STORY: 1,000 – 7,500 Words
· NOVELLETE: 7,500 – 20,000 Words
· NOVELLA: 20,000 – 50,000 Words
· NOVEL: 50,000 – 110,000 Words
· EPICS and SEQUELS: Over 110,000 Words
Again, this is a beginner’s guide to the wonderful world of short fiction and the submission process. Serious writers of short stories should use this article as a jumping-off point and continue their own research into the guidelines of separate publications. I feel the need to reiterate the fact that the short story market, its submission and editing processes, can be one of the most useful tools a writer can utilize. Follow this guide and delve into as many publishers’ guidelines as can be obtained, read them thoroughly, take them seriously, and your story will see its day as a concise and publishable piece of work.