Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Tips From the Editors: Fiction

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You’ve written it, but now it needs a home. How does a submission make the cut? In this series, the editors at Literary Mama offer their thoughts on the process. This month, Fiction editors Lisa Katzenberger and Colleen Kearney Rich share with readers some insight into the pieces they love and the submissions they seek.


The Fiction department publishes short fiction of fewer than 5,000 words that reflect the full motherhood/parenting experience—the hard parts and the joyous. We love stories with strong narrative structure, great voice, intriguing characters and settings, beautiful language, and complicated themes.

We read about 100 stories a year and publish one or two a month. Here are some suggestions to help you get your stories accepted for publication:

Beginnings and endings are important. You need that great opener to set the scene and tone and immediately pull the reader (or editor) in. We see many stories with great openings that draw us in, but a number of pieces seem to unwind before the reader gets to the end. Those last lines are important, and it’s worth experimenting with different endings to see which suits your story. It’s almost like sticking the landing in gymnastics. We also recommend taking a look at some of your favorite short stories to see how the writer brings things to a close. Wendi Kaufman finishes with a powerful last line in "Intimate Landscape." In "The Dream House," Jen Michalski uses the ending to circle back to the piece's title.

Don’t try to do too much. A short story is a small space and ones that stay focused on a single storyline tend to be more successful. Examples of this include Randall Brown’s "Assorted," which is about dropping a child off a camp, and Angela Layne’s "Life, After Death," which focuses on the death of a family member. Too many characters and subplots can be challenging for a reader to follow, especially when reading online. And you don’t want to give them any reason to stop reading. That goes for awkward sentences too. Reading your story aloud can help with that.

Write with purpose, but not with "an agenda." Colleen was once in a writing group in which one of the writers turned in a "fracking" story. The writer said her fiction class thought it was too political. We concur! Save your opinions for that op-ed piece in your local paper. People read fiction because they are looking for a good story. Yes, we might learn something from reading a story written from a different perspective than our own, but narrative needs to come first.

When revising, think "tight and bright." In journalism, they talk about writing short news articles "tight and bright." This also works in fiction. We publish stories 5,000 words and under, but the sweet spot is somewhere less than 2,000 words. What is writing tight? Eliminating extraneous words wherever possible and, to use a cliche, "cutting to the chase." That means deleting adjectives and adverbs (especially clichés), and starting as close to the climax as possible. Writing tight can help the piece move for the reader. The language in Kate Anger’s "Signs Frank Missed" is sparse, and the reader can sense the urgency of the situation in the very first line.

That said, these are just suggestions, not rules. We could fall in love with a 5,000-word story with a Game of Thrones-sized cast tomorrow, and we hope we do.

The Literary Mama Blog Editor searches for mama-centric news you can use — including information about publishing opportunities and literacy efforts; essays and writing prompts that motivate and inspire; and announcements about events, classes, and workshops. The current blog editor is Bridget Lillethorup; read her bio here

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Lisa Katzenberger is a picture book writer and stay-at-home mom of five-year-old twins. Her short stories have appeared in Jenny, PoemMemoirStory, The Genre Wars Anthology, and Foliate Oak. She lives in the Chicago suburbs. Colleen Kearney Rich has been a magazine writer and editor for more than 20 years. A founding editor of the literary magazine So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, her writing has been published in the Washington Post, Phoebe, Virginia Tech magazine, LiveScience, Minerva Rising, Smokelong Quarterly, and the anthology Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women, among others. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two teenagers. Her older son (featured in the Literary Mama essay “Admissions Roulette”) is now married and a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps.

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