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.

News 08/19/2018

I’ve written six longer stories and six drabbles over the past 3 weeks — not too bad for the time span. Writing will slow down as work gets crazy again, but overall I feel happy with what I’ve produced and pleasantly tired.


A tiny piece “Pizza Night” came out in 50-Word Stories. People seem to like it  and it was even chosen as story of the week, which is pretty cool. I feel it packs quite a punch for such a short piece.


A 1,500-word story (horror/humor)”Family Business” was accepted by Coffin Bell and I am excited see it appear in their January issue.

Two sci-fi drabbles accepted for the Drabbledark II anthology (Shacklebound Books).


Two new long sci-fi flashes: Fingers crossed!

A new 500-word fairy tale: This is a new genre for me, so we’ll see. I think the story is pretty cool.

A drabble for the Biffy Microfiction Comp (theme “weather”) that a Twitter friend is judging and she tagged me and a few other folks to enter. Not holding my breath for this one, I seriously doubt it’s winning material, but it’s a solid drabble and, in the likely event that it goes nowhere in this comp, it could find a home someplace nice and quiet.

Still waiting:

A sci-fi micro entered in the 53-word story competition (July theme: UFOs) in a fun three-way submission pact with two Twitter buddies. We should’ve heard the results by now, but what can you do.

A fantasy drabble to 101 Fiction (September theme: werewolves and other werethings). I like this one a lot. I hope it makes the cut.

A new dark-fiction/magical realism story to The Molotov Cocktail “Flash Beast” contest. It’s a strong piece, one of the best if not the best I’ve ever written, but the competition is really stiff. I will be disappointed if the story doesn’t crack top 10, but, on the upside, it’s a piece I know will appear somewhere awesome.

Three funny reprint entries in To Hull and Back humorous short story competition. Shortlist will be out in September.


To send something to Ellipsis Zine 4 (dark theme, deadline 9/6) and to Ginger Collect (deadline 9/8) in a buddy-system pact with a Twitter friend.

I seem to do a lot of stuff because of Twitter friends. Hmmm. Then again, as far as peer influence goes, writing short fiction doesn’t sounds too bad.

News 08/03/2018

It’s been a busy week. Owing to a shocking confluence of free time and abundant energy, I’ve been writing much more than usual. I’ve even entered some contests, which I don’t often do because I never seem to win anything, but right now I’m feeling optimistic and the creative juices are flowing, so what the hell.

Here’s the week’s tally.


None! Well, I didn’t get a grant at work, but in terms of creative writing, no rejections.


No stories, but my first ever visual submission “Marriage” came out in Riggwelter Issue 12. Check it out!


My dark sci-fi drabble “Propolis” was accepted by Trembling with Fear.

A quirky story “The Girl in Jake’s Red Hoodie” was accepted for publication in Ghost Parachute. This is one of those rare, magical stories that seem to come out almost perfect in the first draft, title and all. It was accepted swiftly by the first market I’d sent it to.  (Another one of this enchanted ilk is “Her Hips Do Lie”,  which appeared in Jellyfish Review in March and is one of my favorites.)


Wrote a new micro and entered the 53-word story competition (July theme: UFOs) in a fun three-way submission pact with two Twitter buddies.

Wrote and submitted a new drabble to 101 Fiction (September theme: werewolves and other werethings).

Wrote and submitted a new story to The Molotov CocktailFlash Beast” contest. It’s a strong piece; I’m quite proud of it and even if it doesn’t place in the comp, I’m pretty sure I will be able to publish it someplace great. I don’t know if other people who write speculative fiction have the same experience, but I feel that the veneer of implausibility characteristic of the genre acts as a protective buffer: it removes me from the raw and the deep and the uncomfortable just enough that I am able to tap into these feelings. I cannot do the same in the context of creative nonfiction or even realistic literary fiction, because I feel far too exposed and the defensive mechanisms kick in.

I submitted a gory  1,500-word horror/humor story. The combination of length (too long for flash; too short for many short-story zines) and genre (horror plus humor) made it it challenging to contemplate a possible home for this piece. I submitted it to a dream market of mine that likes quirky. (Must. Not. Jinx it.)

Entered To Hull and Back humorous short story competition. Aside from hosting the comp, Chris Fielden’s website is a goldmine of short-story resources.


I have my eye on Drabbledark II (Aug 6-8), A Punk Rock Future (deadline Aug 15) , Robot Dinosaur (Aug 1-15), and Apparition Lit flash (Aug 1-15, theme: parasite). I know it’s unrealistic that I will enter them all because  I need to create new material for each, but I am pretty sure about Drabbledark II and one of the other three.


My first ever author interview! It’s by Exoplanet Magazine, following the publication of “Cryobliss“.

News 07/25/2018

My micro “Looney” came out in 50-Word Stories. It’s guaranteed to brighten your day.

Two of my drabbles, “Ferryman” and “Diastanaut”, have been accepted for publication in the Chronos anthology by Shacklebound Books (editor Eric Fomley). I’m looking forward to its publication—it will feature some gorgeous cover art and the work of several fellow writers who are also Twitter friends!

I finished a gruesome yet funny short story that I’m quite proud of, and it’s been unleashed upon some unsuspecting slush readers. Mwahaha! Whenever I submit a newly minted piece, I marvel at how much better it is than anything I could have produced even just a few months ago.

New Sci-Fi Story: Cryobliss

Exoplanet is a new science-fiction magazine and I’m proud to be one of the authors in its first issue, which dropped today (June 21).

Without further ado, here’s my story:

Cryobliss by Maura Yzmore in Exoplanet Magazine

The whole issue is great, and I highly recommend checking it out. You can download the pdf of Issue 1 here or read specific stories on the Issue 1 website. Some of my favorites are Swap.Me, Malfunction, Departure, and Sunrise on Menelaus, but honestly, read the whole thing. It features a variety of topics and styles.