On September 12, 2013, I declared in front of God and Facebook that by that time next year, I was going to be a published author. Ten months later, I made my first short story sale (at pro rates), and since then I’ve made eight more, all but one to pro markets. There are a number of factors to which I could attribute my rapid success—one being that I have been writing for decades, I simply had not been submitting to SFF markets, so my craft was fairly well honed by that point—but the most important, in my opinion, was that I received advice from more seasoned writers on how and where to submit. In fact, one reason I even decided to try my hand at becoming published was because the SFF community is so supportive of new authors, and I knew I had a network of people to show me the ropes. And show me they did.
Now, I am hardly seasoned (I just got here! is my constant refrain), but I want to be a knowledge conduit. In this post I will examine each one of my sales and provide statistics and numbers, dissecting the process to extract vital information that you can use in your own career. But more than that, I hope that my experience can be both inspiring and comforting: a bibliography does not tell you how many times a story was rejected, how long a story took to sell from its inception (either idea or first draft), how many submissions the writer made. If you are a new writer, if you are about to begin submitting to magazines, you should be aware of these things. I made my first submission in December 2013, but I did not begin submitting in earnest until March since, well, I didn’t have more things to submit! Since then, however, I’ve been submitting constantly. Come with me as I break down the mystery.
Sale #1 – “The Gramadevi’s Lament”
My first sale came about because I happened to be on Twitter at just the right time. On March 26, 2014, editor Jaym Gates Tweeted about a hypothetical anthology.
Thanks to @BBolander, we’re tossing around an anthology based on creepy forests and forgotten towns. Who’d be interested?
— Jaym Gates (@jaymgates) March 26, 2014
Who’d be interested? I’d be interested! In fact, I had recently been itching to write a horror story, so this opportunity was quite opportune. Jaym e-mailed people who were interested with basic guidelines and told us to feel free to pass on the information, though there would be no public announcement yet.
I began brainstorming, using the Internet and my grandmother as research for a story about a gramadevi, the village spirit in India. Whatever everyone else was writing about, I figured they wouldn’t be writing about that. I had a first draft done on April 10.
By the time submission guidelines were publicly posted on May 9, I was already working on Draft 4. I’d gotten a monthlong headstart.
I completed the final draft (Draft 5) on May 21 and submitted it the next day.
(A quick aside on my writing process. Typically, my final draft and my first draft are not drastically different. I write a first draft, and then I polish it into a second draft that more closely resembles what the story is supposed to be and begin sending to beta readers. Usually after three or four rounds of revising in response to comments, I feel that I have gotten the story as good as I can possibly get it, and that is when it goes into submission. Every writer has a different process, though, so do what works for you!)
My cover letter was sparse:
I have attached my submission for Genius Loci, “The Gramadevi’s Lament,” approximately 2800 words. Thank you for your consideration.
I did not call any attention to the fact that I had no publication credits. I did not list the stories I had published in my high school literary magazine. Here is my story, thank you. For more guidance on cover letters, see Christie Yant and Rose Lemberg.
I kept up with Jaym and other writers who had submitted to the anthology, so I was aware that, bafflingly, I survived the first round of rejections, and then the second round of rejections. On July 21, 61 days after submitting, I received my very first short story acceptance.
“The Gramadevi’s Lament,” a story I wrote specifically for this anthology, was only my 9th submission, and although it was never rejected, by the time it sold, I had gotten 18 rejections for other stories.
I do not recommend that your first sale is a story that sells to its first market because then you think that is the only way you can sell a story, that a story must sell immediately or it will never sell. As the rest of this post will attest to, that is far from true.
Lessons Learned: “Be on Twitter 24/7” is not the most helpful piece of advice, but I can’t overstate how important Twitter has been to my career. Editors are on Twitter, and they connect with writers, and you can find out about many submission opportunities. Anthologies in particular are great because they provide story seeds and inspiration, though the downside to writing a story for an anthology is that if it’s particularly niche, it can be hard to sell to other markets afterward as fellow rejectees flood submissions with stories about cyborg vampires.
Sale #2 – “Sally the Psychic Alligator”
In February 2014 I decided to try writing a flash piece every day. As I said, I had very little to submit! While I didn’t reach that goal at all (I wrote…5), it was a worthy project, as I got two sales out of it. On February 4, I asked Twitter for a prompt. A friend replied with this image.
Portland seemed like the kind of city that would have a missing alligator. I began writing, and somehow the alligator became psychic, and I finished the piece the next day.
And then I let it sit, because I had just written a story about a psychic alligator, and that was ridiculous, no one was going to buy that. Also my focus that month was generating as many first drafts as possible. A couple months later, however, when I needed a story to workshop for Cat Rambo’s Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction Workshop at the end of April, I pulled it out and gave it a polish. I took workshop comments to heart and had a third draft in early June, and then I let it sit again for reasons I cannot explain. I think I still didn’t believe anyone would buy it; it was humorous science fiction, which is usually a hard sell. A month later, I changed one adverb and decided it was ready to submit, and I sent it out to a reputable pro market.
To my complete surprise, it came back with a personal rejection. It was “cute” but not right for the market, and the editor looked forward to my next submission. That was encouraging!
Why did I submit to a pro market first? How did I choose where to submit to next? An interlude!
Mary Robinette Kowal, who’s won more awards and acclaim for her short fiction than any writer could ever dream of, has a concise and robust way of evaluating markets: pay rate, size of audience, and shininess.
- Markets are categorized by pay rates: pro ($0.06/word or more), semi-pro (a per-word rate less than pro, but at least $0.01/word), token (a non-zero amount of money regardless of length, less than $0.01/word), and free (zero dollars). You may choose to target markets that will pay you more because you like money. This is perfectly reasonable and I encourage it because money buys you ice cream.
- Size of audience relates to eyeballs, and there is often a direct correlation between pay rate and size of audience: long-running pro markets like Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction reach lots of readers, whereas an obscure literary magazine that pays nothing may not be read by more than your friends and family.
- Shininess is a catch-all for any intangible reason you like a market. You like the site design. It’s prestigious and tends to show up on awards ballots. You grew up reading it. As an example, even though Shimmer doesn’t pay pro rates, I submit to them ahead of other pro markets because of shininess: I have enjoyed many stories in the magazine and would love to be published there.
- There are other important factors to consider. What is the market’s response time? I always recommend throwing any new story into the Clarkesworld Reject-O-Matic because they respond so quickly that you lose little time in giving them a shot. Does the market frequently give personal rejections? Shimmer gives very kind personal rejections, which is another reason I enjoy submitting to them.
A word on personal rejections: they are a mixed bag. Some can be encouraging, if they praise the story but indicate that it’s not right for the magazine. Some can be helpful, if they point out flaws in the story you didn’t see. Some can be discouraging, if the criticisms hit harder than expected. Some can be bewildering. But treat any comments in a personal rejection the same way you would treat a comment from a beta reader: if you agree with it and think acting on it would improve the story, go ahead. Otherwise, leave your story alone.
How do you get all this information about markets? By using one of the greatest, most useful, free tools for a writer: Submission Grinder.
Submission Grinder, created and maintained by David Steffen as a free alternative to Duotrope when it went paid, allows you to track your submissions, identify appropriate markets for your stories, and, through user-reported data, learn average response times, acceptance rates, and percentage of personal rejections, among other things. It’s an indispensable resource. The aforementioned Duotrope can provide more in-depth data from a different user pool, but it requires a fee; some writers use both for a more comprehensive picture of markets. Ralan.com also posts information on markets, including helpful tips from users that you won’t find on the submission guidelines.
Using a combination of all of these factors, I make a list of markets I will submit a story to, generally ordered by where I think the story has the best chance of selling. But the list gets tweaked for each story. For instance, I had one story I thought would benefit from having art, so I submitted it to markets that did art first.
Here’s the number one rule of submitting: don’t self-reject. It’s advice Rose Lemberg gave to marginalized writers—who tend to self-reject more than your confidently privileged individual—but it applies to all writers. As long as your story meets the submission guidelines (genre, word count, not specifically excluded [“hard sells” are just that, nothing more]), let the editor decide whether to accept your story. You don’t think you’re “good enough” for pro markets? I certainly didn’t think I was good enough to be in an anthology with authors like Seanan McGuire, Ken Liu, and Cat Rambo, but I submitted anyway.
Submit anyway. Don’t self-reject. Start at the top and work your way down, however you define those directions.
Although I let “Sally the Psychic Alligator” sit for months between drafts, once I began submitting it, I never let it sit between submissions. Every time a rejection came in, I sent it out to the next market that was open. Once I did skip the line to try a semi-pro market that I thought would be a good fit (I still didn’t really believe it would sell to a pro market) but they didn’t bite. My writing group has a game where you get a point for each submission and a point for each rejection, but an acceptance sends you all the way back to zero. This encourages you to keep submitting and racking up rejections and points, because the higher your score, the more you’re in the game. (I was almost mad to get an acceptance because I was gunning for a triple-digit score.) You can play your own game on Sink or Submit!
Fireside opened up for submissions in October, and I strategically chose two markets with quick response times to rack up a couple more rejections before the submission window closed at the end of the month. By that time, the story had been rejected 7 times. Amusingly enough, one of those last two rejections was the only personal that gave specific criticism beyond “not right for us,” but I shrugged it off and didn’t change a thing.
On December 2, I received an acceptance. When the rest of the stories bought during that submission period were revealed, it became clear that of course “Sally the Psychic Alligator” had found the perfect home alongside stories like “Fluffy Harbinger of Death” and “Betty and the Squelchy Saurus.” When I read more of the flash fiction in the magazine, I saw that I was wrong in my assumption that no pro market would buy a story about a psychic alligator: this was totally that market, and I just had to wait until it was open.
Lessons Learned: Don’t self-reject! It is not up to you to decide whether someone will buy your story; that’s the editor’s job. Also keep an eye out for magazines that have limited submission windows. I had already had one flash piece rejected by Fireside, and this second time, I selected one that had more of a plot to it, per their guidelines. Know your market.
Sale #3 – “Stranger”
During Flash Fiction February, I knocked out a piece of microfiction about a girl who finds a strange creature in her bedroom at night. It was very short, with a nice punch at the end, but I didn’t think much of it.
When I got a reading slot at FOGcon in March, I chose to read several flash pieces, including the aforementioned “Sally the Psychic Alligator” and this one. After the reading, Cliff Winnig came up to me and told me to submit it, as is. At the time, I had only made one submission, so I was baffled and scared. I asked my friend Seanan McGuire’s advice, and she told me to cut one word. I argued and she insisted. I listened. (I think it could have stayed, but at least this way it looks like I did some revision.)
“Stranger” presented a unique challenge because it was 329 words, which narrowed the market considerably. I looked for magazines that specifically published microfiction, bouncing between pro markets, semi-pro markets, and token markets depending on who was available to submit to. I received nothing but form rejections until I finally got a very detailed personal rejection with comments that, while insightful, would have changed the shape of the story. I was confident that someone would want it just as it was.
While I use Submission Grinder to track my submissions, I also use it to discover new markets. The home page has the most recent rejections and acceptances, and one day I clicked on a market with a catchy name, Saturday Night Reader. I really liked the website design (shiny!) and put it on my list as an option. On a whim, after eight rejections, I sent “Stranger” to SNR and received an acceptance in 12 days. Although they only paid $5, for a story that short, it worked out to semi-pro rates!
Despite being my third sale, it became my first publication, going up in March, and it was also my first print publication, featured in the Summer issue of the magazine. My name was on the cover!
Lessons Learned: Sometimes self-reject? I didn’t have high hopes that this story would sell to a pro market because it was so short and not creatively daring enough to make a splash. Instead I was looking for markets that took stories that did what mine did, and I was less concerned with payment as I was with fit. But the real lesson here is to listen to the advice of more experienced writers: I don’t think I ever would have submitted this story if Cliff Winnig hadn’t told me to. He saw in it what I didn’t, just like the editor who finally bought it.
Sale #4 – “The Merger”
In the fall of 2013, I began writing a funny story to deal with the stress of going through a corporate merger. It was called, astoundingly, “The Merger.” The premise was simple: alien possession as corporate merger. I wrote it over the course of several months, even taking time during Christmas vacation to bang out a few words each day. Even while on a cruise. I wanted to submit it to the FOGcon writing workshop, and the deadline was January 31, 2014.
The draft I submitted to the workshop was about 7500 words, and it was essentially my first draft with a bit of a spit-shine. It was well received. Ellen Klages, professional writer and leader of our workshop, thought it was close to salable already, but it was too long for a humorous piece. She thought I should cut it down to 4K or 5K, which I didn’t think I could do. Right after the workshop, however, I went to dinner and a friend told me about Unidentified Funny Objects, an anthology of humorous science fiction and fantasy stories. The perfect market, and the submission window was open till the end of the month! Their limit was 6K, so now I had a real incentive to cut my story down. I lopped off 2K and added 100 words to have a leaner, 5.6K version to revise. The final version ended up 5.9K, and I happily submitted it to the anthology only to get a form rejection within 3 days.
Out of all my sales, “The Merger” is the only story I let sit more than a couple days between submissions. It did collect rejections for months, but at one point I held it for a month because C.C. Finlay was doing a guest issue for Fantasy and Science Fiction, and his submission window was only two weeks. I didn’t have any pro markets I could count on to reject me in time, so I waited. I held it again after receiving one of Finlay’s legendary personal rejections, mulling over whether to act on any of his comments. I had met an editor at Worldcon who said I could submit the story directly to her, so I wanted to make sure it was in tip-top shape. In the end, I made some minor changes, but I believed in my story as it was, on a macro level.
In the fall of 2014, The Book Smugglers were accepting submissions for their First Contact season until the end of the year. Up until May 2014, I only knew The Book Smugglers as a book review blog, but I followed them on Twitter, so I became aware of their foray into publishing. Based on their selections for the Subversive Fairy Tales season, I knew they were publishing interesting, challenging stories. The guidelines for First Contact said they would consider traditional alien stories, but they were also looking for more creative takes on the idea of First Contact. “The Merger” was nominally about First Contact: man meets alien. It didn’t explore the idea of First Contact in any meaningful way, though. Still, it fit the guidelines! Technically.
I almost didn’t submit to The Book Smugglers because my story was still with the aforementioned editor. I had never received a confirmation e-mail, so after a few months, I began to worry that she hadn’t received it, so I sent a cautious query in December. She had received it but hadn’t taken a look at it. A week later, though, she sent me a kind rejection. Did my query shake that rejection loose? If I hadn’t said anything, would it have come too late for me to submit it to The Book Smugglers? These are the questions that keep a writer up at night.
Because I immediately submitted this octorejected story to The Book Smugglers, and 43 days later, over a year since I finished the first draft, they accepted it. Not only that, but their acceptance specifically mentioned what they loved about the story, and they were what I loved about the story.
The Book Smugglers, as a market for short stories, did not exist when I started writing this story. They did not exist when I finished the first draft. They did not exist when I finished the final draft. They came into being while I was submitting, and they were the perfect home this story was waiting for all along.
Lessons Learned: DON’T SELF-REJECT. I fully expected a rejection because I did not think this story was what they were looking for. Well, what do I know, I’m not them. Listen to experienced writers; even though The Book Smugglers would have looked at a 7.5K version of the story, the shorter version was a stronger story (especially since I took further suggestions from Ellen Klages). An editor won’t yell at you if you query after a reasonable amount of time. Don’t give up on a story if you can’t find the right market because the right market may not exist yet.
Solicitation – Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling
A mere four days after making my fourth sale, I received a startling e-mail from Monica Valentinelli. She was co-editing an anthology with Jaym Gates, and they…wanted me to contribute to it.
Not coincidentally, this invitation came after Jaym and I had completed edits for “The Gramadevi’s Lament.” I had proven myself to be easy to work with, which doesn’t mean complacent: I pushed back on several suggestions and only made changes I felt would actually improve the story. I had also asked for several changes to the contract before signing. And for the low, low price of not being a dick, I became part of a list of authors in an anthology announcement.
The editors have already approved my first draft as both “not sucking” and “sufficiently fitting the theme of the anthology,” so assuming my final draft meets with their approval, I will have another sale.
Lessons Learned: Don’t be a dick. You’ve likely noticed that anthologies by the same editor frequently have some of the same authors, and this is because they have built a good relationship with that editor. They have proven they are reliable and easy to work with. Don’t be a pushover, but act with professionalism, and you never know what opportunities will just pop into your inbox.
And speaking of professionalism, it was that quality Mur Lafferty noted in me when—a mere twelve days after my first solicitation—she asked me to be Assistant Editor of Mothership Zeta, a new SFF ezine.
Within two weeks, I sold my favorite story, received an invitation to be in an anthology, and became the kind of person who is asked to be Assistant Editor of a magazine. The tides were turning. Everything was coming up Sunil.
Or was it???
(It was. I thought it would be more exciting if I pretended I crashed and burned after this, but I already said I made nine sales, so you know there are five more to go. Foreshadowing. See? I’m a writer!)
But as any writer knows, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey. Continue the journey with me tomorrow!