If you’re starting out and can’t tell your Chekhov from your Gogol, an excellent place to begin is to read a historical and taxonomical evaluation of the modern short story. Luckily for you, it’s dealt with in excellent detail in William Boyd’s article, “A Short History of the Short Story.”
Over the years, the books I’ve found to be helpful for fiction writing include Stephen King’s On Writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, Charles Baxter’s Burning Down The House, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ann Charters’ The Story and its Writer, Alice LaPlante’s Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, and James Wood’s How Fiction Works. But more than reading about craft you must read, read, read: collections of short stories and literary journals. Some of my favorite collections are Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, James Joyce’s Dubliners, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh, Ed Falco’s Burning Man, and Joyce Carol Oates’ High Lonesome. Top literary journals include One Story, Southern Review, The Paris Review, Tin House, and many others. See my articles here: sometime ago I made a list, and also attempted a hip journal list! And a compilation of midwest-focused journals.
Although of limited value, several literary journal rankings exist: Clifford Garstang’s list is based upon journals winning Pushcart Prizes. Bookfox also made a list. HTMLGIANT commenters also came up with a cool rundown. In terms of payment for short stories, see my recent entry “Pay and the Short Story.”
Now, after revising and line-editing your stories several times–whether in workshop, through peer assistance, or with the help of a mentor–don’t be perturbed by the weaknesses of your story or become deluded by its apparent greatness. Writing publishable fiction takes multiple drafts and months of work. A good tip is to put your story in a drawer for a month and then re-visit the piece with fresh eyes. Re-write your story again! When you finally do submit work to journals don’t expect to be published first time out. Rejection is part of the writer’s life. Acceptance rates for most journals are often less than 1%. Eventually when you’re ready to assess the marketplace and your story’s place within it, good starting points are the websites duotrope.com, New Pages, and Review Review.
At a reading last year, Tobias Wolff noted that he had not been the best writer at his school or displayed the most talent. Yet he’s the one who became a writing icon and one of America’s current best short story writers. Perseverance and a dedication to the craft kept him going while his peers migrated to other professions. So keep going, one day you may be that writer.