I have written a considerable amount of short fiction and feel like I'm ready to start submitting it to competitions and journals in the hope of getting published. I've been researching and have been surprised to discover that a lot of the contests and even publications I would like to submit to, charge for it. Is that normal? I always I thought I'd earn money as a writer (eventually), not have to pay for the privilege of submitting.
Can you give me some advice around this?
Unfortunately, this is a reality. Some publications and a large number of contests do charge reading fees or entry fees. For contests that offer a cash prize, these entry fees often go toward making up that prize.
At the end of the day, it is up to you whether you are willing to pay to play. Or if you can afford to do that for very long. Personally, I agree with you and believe I should be paid for my writing rather than paying for the privilege of submitting, so if I get to a point in the submission process where I am asked for payment, I terminate it. I'll only pay to enter something I really, really want to be in.
My suggestion would be that you send your work to places that don't charge a reading fee to begin with. You can spend a lot of money very quickly and a lot of publications only give you a copy of the journal as payment for your work so you don't get a chance to make that money back. Once you have a few publication credits under your belt, you might feel more confident to pay fees for selects contests or publications.
There are plenty of publications and contests that don't ask you to pay to play, and that will pay you if your story/poem is selected. Often not a lot, but when you're starting out, even a token payment can feel great. I still have the first cheque I ever received as payment for a short story - it was in USD and would have cost more than the cheque was for to process at my local bank - and will probably carry it around with me the rest of my life.
Hopefully that helps! If you want to spend some money on your writing career, you might want to subscribe to Duotrope which is a great resource for finding publications to submit your work to. I have to admit I haven't used it since it has been behind a pay wall, but when I was submitting short fiction regularly, I used it all the time to find publications best suited to my stories.
Best of luck with your submitting!