Let’s talk about Writer’s Guidelines.
Just like publishers have guidelines regarding what they will and will not accept for submissions, authors should have guidelines regarding which projects they will submit stories to.
First off, what do you write? That’s a very hard question to answer, I know. Some authors are comfortable defining themselves with a particular genre: “I write MilSF” or “I write Paranormal Romance”, but for most of us–particularly those who work in short fiction–the answer is a little more complicated.
I characterize my own work as New Wave or Weird Fiction. My stories tend to be small in scope, frequently focusing on a single individual, character driven, psychological, poetic in style, and generally dark in tone. Whether it’s listed as SF or Fantasy or Horror, the typical “Misha Burnett story” involves something weird and bad happening to some random guy for no explained reason, and how the protagonist reacts to it.
Does this mean I won’t ever submit to a project looking for Heroic Fantasy? Not at all, I was recently published in Millhaven’s Fierce Tales: Savage Lands , a collection of Heroic Fantasy. However, the tone of my story is fairly dark (literally, in this case, since my characters travel to the sunless realms of Svartalfheim) and focused primarily on the psychology of Captain Marius, the leader of a team of Roman soldiers exploring the British Isles.
It is Heroic Fantasy, but it’s also very much flavored by my own style. As it happens, Millhaven’s editor, Jeffrey Blehar, likes dark and creepy flavored fantasy. Another publisher might not have.
Other authors will define their style in other ways. I know some who write Action Stories–the trappings may be SF or Fantasy or Horror, but the focus of the story is action, combat and daring deeds and hairsbreadth escapes. Others who focus on interpersonal relationships, whether or not the story fits into the Romance category.
It takes time to discover your own voice, and I encourage any author to try out different genres and different styles. Along the way, though, you should get a feel for what it is that you write, what is unique about your vision. That, in turn, will help you decide what markets are a good fit for you.
Next, how much do you write? How many words it takes to tell a story is, of course, dependant on the story, but it’s also in large part a function of who is telling it. What word range are you comfortable with? Again, the best way to find this is by trial and error. Write a lot, without trying to fit a story into a particular frame, and see where this leads you. I see a lot of writers who feel compelled to stretch stories into novels, or to cram novellas into short stories because they think that have to.
Personally, I tend to do my best work at 7500 to 15000 words, which is either a long story or a short novella depending on who you ask. I can write shorter stories, but more and more I find myself passing on calls for submissions with a limit of 5000 words (which seems to be fairly common, darn it.)
Have those two things–what you write and how much of it–clear in your own mind can help you focus on those markets that are a good fit for you. I have seen some very talented short fiction writers pile up rejection after rejection not because their work isn’t good–it is–but because they are submitting to the wrong editors. It takes time and effort to find your market and it’s better to pass on calls for submission that don’t fit your guidelines and instead keep looking for someone who wants what you have to sell.