Craft Meets Navel: Writing Short Fiction Like a Pro (Not)

Yesterday I read Douglas Smith’s Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction. This was an engaging read aimed at those who wish to become professional short-form genre writers, which, in the book,  means to make a substantial fraction of their income from short fiction. The book contains a superb exposition on understanding publishing contracts and on licensing first, reprint, foreign-language, and audio rights for a story, all of which is important information for beginning writers and not something I’d seen elsewhere.

Smith argues that the key to becoming a professional writer is obeying Heinlein’s Rules (well explained in Robert J. Sawyer’s post On Writing: Heinlein’s Rules). One of the rules is to never stop sending your story out until it sells. Smith argues that the only markets worth sending and selling work to are professional markets; right now, that means those paying at least $0.06/word.

He also argues that, when submitting to magazines or anthologies, one should keep the cover letters very short and simple (I have encountered similar advice here, written by Alex Shvartsman) and only list recent pro publication credits. Otherwise, not list any, because, in his words, no one cares.

The keep-it-brief advice on cover letters is on point, and I dare say it cuts across genres. As for the rest of the advice, I will say that Smith is a respected professional writer with many credits to his name.

What I am interested in here is something that Smith asks the reader at the outset: What is it that you, the reader, want from your writing? The book is written under the assumption that the reader’s answer is to become a professional short-form genre writer (again, meaning to make substantial income from short fiction).

This got me thinking about what I want from my writing. I am relatively new (have been writing fiction for only a year) and I write both literary and speculative fiction, plus some humor. The rules do differ in different arenas. Smith notes there are two kinds of beginners: Arrogant Beginner (doesn’t work on craft, thinks all he/she produces is gold) and Fearful Beginner (endlessly tinkers with work, doesn’t submit enough or sells his/her work short). I assume most people fall somewhere between these two extremes. I seem to operate as the fearful kind, even though I don’t think I am, but more on that later.

I understand that there’s an accepted hierarchy among speculative markets, based on the pay rate (pro, semipro, token, nonpaying/exposure only; see and how long they’ve been around. (However, even magazines that are not high on the totem pole are selective and put out some great work.) In contrast, at the literary end of the spectrum, most markets don’t pay,  even many of the widely read, prestigious ones.

It’s also interesting to note that many, perhaps most speculative fiction magazines (and definitely a vast majority of pro markets) don’t allow simultaneous submissions. Some respond fast, so the no-simsubs requirement isn’t a big deal, but some really take their time. In contrast, a majority of literary markets allow and even encourage simultaneous submission.

Knowing that I dip my toes in both ponds, what is it that I want and can realistically get from my writing?

I already have a well-paying, secure job. Not just a job, but a career — my job title is the equivalent of Marge and Homer Simpson Professor of Mathilicious Tomfoolery. This job is one where I have to remain intellectually and emotionally engaged in order to continue to prosper, and prosper I must, in no small part because I have a family and I am the primary earner. As much as I like to write, I can only carve out so much time around work and family to do it. Therefore, the time, energy, and, let’s face it, inspiration, are in limited supply. If all this means I am doomed from the start because I am not devoted enough, so be it.

Also, I cannot write a story per week over a long period, even though I might technically have enough hours. I am and have always been a feast-or-famine individual; it’s a personality trait. I have periods of high energy in which I can write 2x, 3x, or 5x more than a story per week, but then I have periods when I feel uninspired and deflated. As a result, sometimes I submit a lot, other times little. One benefit of this modus operandi is that I am not afraid of dry spells, because I consider them natural breaks, recuperation periods that are necessary for continued productivity.

Now, where to submit my work and how to strategize, given that I tend to cut across genres? I read broadly and think I have a reasonably good understanding of  the publishing landscape, who likes/takes what, etc. Every writer wants to place stories in good magazines. With literary magazines allowing simultaneous submissions, it is not hard to strategize, especially when Duotrope and The Grinder provide information on magazines’ recent response times. So, when I send out literary pieces, I simply focus on what a magazine publishes, whether I like it and I feel my work fits. At one time, I submit to several magazines where I’d love to be published approximately equally, so whichever one takes the piece makes me happy. I feel that there is great respect for a large variety of magazines in the literary sphere — the hierarchy is fairly flat, if you will.

It’s harder for me with speculative work. There are typically no simultaneous submissions. The magazine hierarchy is much steeper, with professional markets apparently being viewed by some (many? most?) as the only venues worth publishing in, even though many semipro, token, and even nonpaying markets put out superb prose. (Smith says to never ever sell anyplace that’s not a pro-paying market; I found that really jarring.)

I don’t necessarily crave high payment for my stories, but I want them to get better and better, as good as they can be. I would like to some day become a member of certain professional organizations, which requires a certain number of words published in pro magazines; nothing other than pro counts toward membership. But the thing is, I like a lot of semipro and token and nonpaying markets. I like what they publish and none of them are easy to crack. And it bothers me to realize that some people feel that publishing anywhere other than pro markets is somehow ‘slumming it.’ This bothers me because, while I am not an authority, a) I know a great story when I see one, and b) many hard-working people run semipro, token, and nonpaying magazines. It strikes me as wrong and disrespectful to blanket dismiss their efforts, their passion, and what they do for their genre communities.

Of course I want to get published in prestigious venues. But I also don’t think that every nugget I produce is worth sending to the big leagues. Some are, but not  everything is, at least not with my current level of skill. Smith says that my attitude characterizes a Fearful Beginner: self-rejection. Maybe he’s right, but I can’t help but think there’s such a thing a objective quality, and unless the quality is above a certain threshold, I don’t understand how it’s a good idea to send stuff out for a very long time, hoping it will stick, when it simply isn’t very good. It seems like a waste of everyone’s time. I also don’t see myself waiting for years and years to sell something to a pro market (he mentioned one story took 17 years to place in a pro-paying anthology!). I definitely don’t have the mental stamina for that. I can wait a bit for my best stories, those I really believe in with all my heart, but not every story is like that, and just because something is not the best thing I’ve ever written doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

This is what I want from my writing:

  • To get better. To write better, longer, crazier, more varied stories.
  • For my stories to show up in nice magazines, alongside other pieces I enjoy. Ideally, these will be venues that other people like and respect, too. And no, I am not allergic to money.
  • For my stories to show up after a reasonable time following their completion. I might be wrong about this, but I am really impatient, and I feel life’s too short to keep sending the same piece out forever. There’s a benefit to being done with it and moving on.
  • I also want people to read my pieces. It must be great to have your work show up in a large-circulation subscription-only magazine! But I admit I am also quite fond of the free-to-read online concept, which I understand is usually (but not always) at odds with paying authors.
  • Somewhere down the road, it would be great to achieve membership in professional writers’ associations. But I know that may be years away, and there’s work to do in the meantime.

1 thought on “Craft Meets Navel: Writing Short Fiction Like a Pro (Not)

  1. Submit only to pro-paying mags! Ugh! I would have quit a long time ago, I need to have some return-on-investment (and I don’t necessarily mean $) with what I am writing. As long as I get the rights to the story back (I would never sign my rights away), I can always repackage and self-publish at a later time. Biggest thing for me as a new writer is to get better anyway, I get feedback even from non-paying mags.

    Liked by 1 person

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