On writing and selling science fiction stories

November 8, 2018 ยท 6 minute read

Each year, I try to set a few personal goals that stretch me in some way.

In 2017, for example, I read one hundred books, which turned out to be more a test of endurance than skill.

This year, I decided to see if I could write a fictional short story and get it published somewhere. Though I do a fair amount of technical writing in the course of my work, I’d never seriously attempted to write and sell a short story before, or even taken a creative writing class.

This meant I had no knowledge of the market, no connections, and generally no idea what I was doing.

So, a challenge!

Goals

I decided to focus on the speculative fiction genre, partly because it seemed more accessible and mostly because unlike literary journals, the best speculative fiction magazines still pay their authors.

My goals, in descending order of likelihood, were as follows:

  1. Get something published somewhere, even if unpaid

  2. Get something published and get paid something for it, even a token amount

  3. Get something published at Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) professional rates (currently 6 cents a word)

  4. Get at least 1000 words published at SFWA-qualifying markets (the standard for SFWA associate member status)

  5. Get at least three stories published, totaling more than 10,000 words, at SFWA-qualifying professional markets (SFWA Active Member status, my self-imposed standard for a legit “professional” science fiction writer)

Results (through Nov. 8)

After many form rejections on several terrible stories, I sold my first story on March 23rd, 2018, to Daily Science Fiction (an SWFA pro market). At 1010 words, this sale actually crossed the first four goals off my list at once.

However, I continued to write and improve over the spring and summer of 2018, selling several more stories along the way, eventually totaling more than 16,000 words of fiction. Some publications have long wait times, but by the time “Empathy Bee” is published in March 2019, I should have the wordcount needed for active SFWA membership status, my most insane stretch goal.

By the numbers

  • Stories Written: 22

  • Total Wordcount: ~60,000, the length of a medium-sized novel

  • Total Submissions: 70

  • Stories Sold: 8

  • SFWA-qualifying professional sales: 6

  • Rejections: 50 (15 personal)

  • Withdrawals: 2

  • Still Pending: 10

  • Other Results: Honorable Mention, Writers of the Future

What I Learned

Have no ego

It turns out writing short stories that sell is really, really hard. It’s hard to think of good ideas, it’s hard to write them down in a form that anyone would want to read, and it’s even harder when those readers are magazine editors who get literally hundreds of unsolicited submissions every month. Don’t attempt it if you have an easily bruised sense of self-worth, or you will be depressed a lot.

I’m grateful to have sold some stories this year, but my identity is not tied up in “being a writer”. It can’t be, because I have to…

Embrace failure

I learned to view rejections as a badge of honor, which is a helpful mental trick to keep from going insane after a few dozen forms. As I told Jason Bougger in an author interview over at Theme of Absence, rejections are like the good soreness you feel after working out – it means you’re growing.

Keep your feedback loop short

Early on, when I was getting form rejections from big magazines with no accompanying feedback, I got really frustrated because I knew my work was obviously not up to par – I just didn’t know why. A submission to a smaller publication, Abyss and Apex (who I later ended up selling a different story to!) brought back a personalized rejection with a helpful piece of advice: try signing up for the Online Writing Workshop.

At the time I had never heard of writers’ workshops and didn’t really understand why they would be helpful. But I paid a few dollars and signed up. The other writers there provided generous feedback on how to improve my work, and I learned just as much from critiquing their pieces. The OWW membership more than paid for itself when several readers pointed out an obvious plot hole in my story “Empathy Bee”, which subsequently sold in revised form to Diabolical Plots.

Later, once I had professional credits, I was able to join the wonderful Codex writers’ community, which has hugely expanded my horizons and understanding of the industry. The more I write, the less I trust myself to be a good judge of my work’s quality, and the more I seek out and appreciate feedback from others.

Write smart, not just hard

Some writers recommend keeping insane writing regimens, cranking out thousands of words a day, saying it’s the only way to improve. And I wrote a fair amount this year. But stepping back and getting feedback on my work was just as important.

I had a music teacher who used to ask: “Did you practice ten hours, or just the same hour ten times?” When I took time to evaluate my work and deliberately build on it, I improved faster than just by vomiting words indiscriminately onto the page.

Keep reading good prose

No, I didn’t read a hundred books again this year. But I did try to keep my ear filled with good prose. For example, this summer I got on a southern realist kick: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers. Studying how those writers crafted characters and situations helped me nail down a couple of southern-set stories that ended up selling. My science fiction writing improved more from reading good writers, period, than from reading science fiction.

Just because you wrote something good enough to get published somewhere, that doesn’t mean the next thing you write won’t be terrible

This sounds stupid in hindsight, but for a long time I had it in my head that once I sold a story, I’d have figured out what it took to get published, and I wouldn’t have any trouble after that. Instead, I still get tons of rejections, and often my writing seems just as lifeless and terrible to me as it did before I sold my first story.

The good news is that with practice, the overall trend appears to be upward. At least, when I look back at my work from the beginning of the year, I can’t believe how bad it is. So I must be improving, right?

What’s next?

Like many people who start out in the short fiction game, I would love to publish a novel. So I think that might be a 2019 goal. But I’m sure I’ll continue to write short stories, too. There’s real satisfaction in creating something that you can hold in your head all at once, knowing how it will turn out and why it’s effective.

Some of the stories I sold this year are free to read online. You can check them out in my bibliography

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