“This was the beginning of the fairy tale, he thought…”

Assassination Scene, Jason Atkinson

Houses Borders Ghosts
Houses Borders Ghosts

The first and most important thing to do if you’re planning to submit short stories to a magazine or series publisher is read them first. Pick up a couple of issues, or anthologies, or whatever it is they publish, and read them closely. Work out what they’re trying to do as publishers, and whether what you write is a good match. If so, think about which of your unpublished stories would fit best.

Not only does this save you a lot of time and disappointment (and if you don’t like a publisher’s output, your own work is probably not going to be a good match for them), but it is also a great way to keep inspired and engaged with what’s happening in today’s short fiction world.

To supplement this process, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the short stories that we’ve published recently here at The Fiction Desk, and think about why we chose them, and what they say about us and the kind of stories we publish.

All of the following stories appear in our last-but-one anthology, Houses Borders Ghosts, which contains a mixture of general and genre fiction.

I should make it clear that this list is not a ‘best of’: as publishers, we naturally love all of our (adopted) children equally. Instead, I’ve tried to highlight stories that might best shed a light on our editorial approach.

‘Name’ by Andrew Cochrane

Although many of the stories we publish have a fairly classic plot-driven structure, we do regularly feature pieces that try to do something different: what matters is that they are successful on their own terms, and that they engage the reader.

Andrew Cochrane’s story ‘Name’ is a good example of this: it takes place in a council office, where two new parents are trying to register their baby’s name. The clerk is trying to explain why the (unspecified) name they have chosen is not appropriate. They don’t accept his reasoning. The conversation pushes back and forth, but they are essentially deadlocked for the entire story; when it ends, no progress has been made on either side.

Some readers were thrown by this.

We even had people get in touch to request replacement copies, assuming that a printing error had cut off the conclusion. But the stasis of the story does a wonderful job of capturing the stasis of the psychological moment. It’s like a painting (take a look at And When Did You Last See Your Father? by William Frederick Yeames). We don’t need any more than what Andrew gives us: the past, the present, and the possible futures are all contained here in this image.

If a picture paints a thousand words, ‘Name’ paints a solid picture in a touch under 1400 words. Although we no longer publish flash fiction per se, we do have a pretty short minimum word count and this kind of story is a great use of that.

‘The Ice Palace’ by Alastair Chisholm

Alastair Chisholm

‘The Ice Palace’ takes us to an Edinburgh nightclub, managed by two brothers who take cruel advantage of the girls who come through their doors hoping for a start in the music business. This behaviour leads to chilling supernatural consequences. Alastair‘s story combines a strong sense of place, a compelling story and voice, and vivid characters into a whole that stays with you. The setting is powerful too: I find that the story occupies the memory almost in the form of a short film or play.

The social commentary is also worth mentioning: it’s very hard to write stories about issues like this without producing something that reads like a thick slice of commentary toast spread with a thin layer of fiction butter, but Alastair pulls it off perfectly and presents these contemporary themes in a way that feels timeless.

‘The Short Way Home’ by Bill Davidson

The other supernatural tale in this anthology is a great example of a simple, focussed concept neatly executed. An aging man with mobility issues is taking a challenging walk in a park, when he stumbles upon a shoe much like the one he wore as a child. A little further on, he finds another. As he makes his way around the park, Bill Davidson presents us with a summary of the man’s life through these mysterious shoes. A neat concept, nicely executed, like an episode of a Twilight Zone radio drama.

‘Home, Time’ by Kate van der Borgh

Kate van der Borgh

We receive a lot of submissions of stories about dementia. This isn’t surprising: it’s a powerful, emotive issue that many of us have experience of in our lives or others’ lives, or have concerns about when thinking of the future. But it’s a hard subject to write about well. As with other powerful subjects, it’s too easy to let the theme do the heavy lifting and leave the story weak.

‘Home, Time’ by Kate van der Borgh stood out because the focus was on the convincing psychology of the protagonist – a son visiting his mother – and on the relationship between their shared experiences and the changing concept of home. When writing about a powerful theme like this it’s always worth stopping to ask yourself whether you’re bringing something new and unique and true to the table, as Kate does here.

Another story in the volume that explores the decline of old age, this time from the point of view of the aging parent, and with a very different take, is Clarissa Dennison’s excellent ‘Pots’.

‘Desynchronisation at Seven Sisters’ by Zeph Auerbach

Zeph Auerbach

I tend to get a little impatient talking (or thinking) about divisions of genre in fiction. Attempting to categorise stories might make them easier to sell, but it can be reductive, and in an editorial context can even be damaging to the text itself. (This is why our dedicated supernatural volumes are stubbornly called ‘New Ghost Stories’ when many of the tales – while all supernatural – aren’t strictly speaking ghost stories. We start off vague and slightly wrong, which is exactly where supernatural fiction should start.)

As well as supernatural fiction, we regularly publish works with elements of science fiction, and ‘Desynchronisation at Seven Sisters’ by Zeph Auerbach is a great example of the kind of sci fi that finds its home with us.

The story kicks in when our narrator tries to meet up with a friend at London’s Seven Sisters tube station, only to find that the two of them have somehow slipped into separate dimensions, and are no longer present in each other’s realities – they remain connected only by the mobile phones they had been using to coordinate their failed meeting. So we have the intrigue of what exactly is going on, and the pleasure of hearing about the situation through the limits of this narrator’s capacity to understand, let alone explain it. The situation might be exotic, but the presentation is entirely identifiable.

So Zeph neatly puts a crack in reality and shows us the result through a recognisable, identifiable narrator, and he does it well enough that this story won the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for the volume.

Another story in this volume that uses a wonderfully recognisable, unassuming narrative voice is ‘The Heart of Everything Young’ by Toby Wallis. In some ways I think of these two stories as a pair, but this time there is no science fiction, and the value comes from the way the story contrasts personal and social malaise.

Where the Breadcrumbs Go by Jacki Donnellan

Like aging, grief is another of those universal themes that pops up again and again in story submissions, and is hard to pull off in a new and engaging way. In ‘Where the Breadcrumbs Go’, Jacki shows us a family in the process of emptying the house of their departed relative. The subsequent mysteries and conflicts are presented through the eyes of a child who isn’t quite capable of putting all of the pieces together – but then again, who can?

The aftermath of loss is also explored in Gareth Durasow‘s elegant story ‘The Night Heron’, in which a father and son go night fishing following the death of the mother.

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Hopefully the above gives you some insight into our editorial process, and why we choose the stories we do. If you’ve not yet read Houses Borders Ghosts, you can get your copy here.