Previously on “Anatomy of a Sale,” I made my first short story sale and then had no luck for almost five months. But then I made sale after sale after sale, I got an anthology invite, and I was asked to be Assistant Editor of a magazine. Things were happening!
And then nothing happened for a couple months.
Sale #5 – “Marcie’s Waffles Are the Best in Town”
Last June several of us Bay Area writers formed a small community on Twitter, dubbed #baywriters by Christie Yant (who is not in the Bay Area but is generally a positive influence on writers). We organized writing sprints, and one night when we were getting ready to write 1000 words in half an hour, I asked for a prompt. I got this.
Sometimes a bizarre Twitter prompt turns into a silly story about a psychic alligator, and sometimes it turns into an emotionally devastating story about a woman in a post-apocalyptic diner. I cranked out a first draft (826 words) that night.
And then I didn’t touch it for six months. I worked on other projects, but in the back of my head, I knew that I had a viable, compelling piece there that I wanted to revise one day. Normally I don’t wait so long to revise because it can be hard to recapture the voice and the world, and I may have lost my initial grip on the narrative, but I was very pleased to be able to come back to this piece in January and whip it into shape over the course of a month.
“Marcie’s Waffles Is the Best in Town” is my fastest sale since my first, selling on its third time out, and it illustrates what I was saying above about personal rejections.
The first market rejected the story because they felt that it relied heavily on characterization, but they didn’t connect to the characters as much as they should have, and they wanted it to be longer to have more emotional impact.
The second market specifically said that the characterization was well done, particularly for a story this short. (As a note, this was also my first personal rejection after a string of forms from this market, so I considered it a small victory.)
This is why it’s dangerous to revise in response to personal rejections: each slush reader and editor has different tastes and will react differently. Believe in your story.
By this time, I was at a point where I had multiple stories in submission, and since most markets don’t take multiple submissions, that limited where I could send the story next. I went down my list, and I identified Flash Fiction Online as the next open market and the one I felt was a good fit.
Thirty days later, I received an e-mail that the editor would love to buy it…if I were to make some revisions. My first rewrite request! I asked for the feedback, and the major thing she wanted me to do was better foreshadow an abrupt shift in the main character’s behavior.
So…so you’re saying I need to improve something about the characterization.
I made the requested changes and ran it past a few readers before resubmitting, and it was accepted, less than three months after it went out into the wild.
Lessons Learned: Twitter provides the best writing prompts! Don’t make knee-jerk revisions in response to personal rejections, but do make requested revisions if an editor wants to buy your story! I was able to identify a point in the story that I had thought was foreshadowing and strengthen it. And as your submissions become more robust, be aware that it’s more likely for your markets to be tied up with other stories, but unless you are a prophet with the uncanny ability to know that a market is guaranteed to take your story, just move on to an open market. Any market you send to should be one you would be happy to have take your story.
Sale #6 – “The Robot Who Couldn’t Lie”
Sometimes I ask Twitter for writing prompts, and sometimes I accidentally give myself one. On June 11, 2014, I made a stupid joke.
I decided I needed some change in my life so I swallowed these quarters. — Sunil Patel (@ghostwritingcow) June 11, 2014
It was not a very popular Tweet! But a couple weeks later, for reasons unknown, perhaps because I thought it was better than the Twitterverse, I used it to start writing one night, and suddenly the robot who couldn’t lie came into existence. The idea took over my brain, and I had a first draft by mid-July. This story also sat a fair bit; I didn’t revise it until late August, and the feedback on that second draft caused me so much angst I didn’t come back to it until mid-October. The impetus? The Fireside submission window (the same one I sold “Sally the Psychic Alligator” during) was closing at the end of the month, and I needed something to submit.
Like “Marcie’s Waffles,” “Robot” ended up at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show at the time it did because it was the next story-market combination that was available to me after my fifth rejection. It was my 73rd submission, whereas “Marcie’s Waffles” was my 89th submission, yet the acceptance came one day after it. I queried after 90 days per the submission guidelines, and the editor could have sworn he’d accepted my story long ago!
Lessons Learned: Anything you say on Twitter may be turned into a story in a court of law. Markets with limited submission windows are great for artificially imposing deadlines on yourself. Do not be afraid to query after a reasonable amount of time!
Sale # 7 – “The Attic of Memories”
Cat Rambo teaches a number of online writing workshops, and since I was writing a lot of flash fiction, I took her flash fiction workshop, a two-hour course on May 4, 2014. One of the exercises involving mixing and matching clauses to generate prompts, and I ended up with “If you were the only person left on this space station, my attic would be in trouble.”
Causality broke down into a black hole with that sentence, but I had to write something, and the only way to make that sentence make sense was if a dude really needed to collect a memory for his attic. Because of course.
After the workshop, the classmate who had saddled me with that ridiculous prompt issued a mutual challenge for us to write first drafts that afternoon. I sat down and wrote a first draft based on that attic of memories. It was about a completely different character and had a completely different tone, but the idea came out of that exercise (the same exercise, by the way, that produced Nebula winner “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”).
I revised the story in June in order to have something to submit to the Fireside submission window (this is a recurring theme, you might notice). It’s one of my strangest stories (it’s about a sentient attic!), and some people described it as slipstream-y, so I knew it might have a tough time finding a home. It got several nice personals, though, and made it all the way to the editor-in-chief’s desk at one market, but every time it came back, I just sent it right back out. After eight rejections, it was finally accepted by Fantastic Stories of the Imagination on May 19, 2015, over a year since the attic of memories popped into my head.
Lessons Learned: Writing workshops can be very valuable for generating new material and connecting with other writers who will pressure you to write a story that will end up selling. The more challenging a writing prompt is, the harder your brain has to work to come up with a unique solution, and this will likely be more rewarding.
Sale # 8 – “A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time”
One of the best things a new writer can do is join Codex, a community of neo-professional writers who offer advice, support, and encouragement to each other. Membership requirements are more diverse and less exacting than SFWA’s, but in general, you may join after your first pro sale to a qualifying market. While the people themselves are wonderful, a key benefit comes in the form of frequent contests, whose main goal is inspiring you to produce new work.
This year, I participated in the Weekend Warrior contest, which forced me to write a new flash piece (maximum 750 words) every weekend for a month. Vylar Kaftan provided the prompts, which for the last weekend of January included a list of interesting and evocative titles to choose from. “A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time” grabbed me because I had been wanting to write a humorous flash piece and one in an unusual format, and I enjoy list stories, so how could I resist an amusing title that suggested a list story made up of lists. Before I staked my claim on that incredible title, however, I brainstormed to ensure I could do it justice. A mad scientist in conflict with their duplicate from another dimension? Sure, that sounded good. It was a challenge to write, but it was my best received story in the contest—the other good thing about contests is a huge amount of feedback from different perspectives, so it’s like a writing workshop as well. (Several people did not find the story funny. I ignored them because many people did. Humor is subjective, after all.)
I ended Weekend Warrior with four flash drafts, and I prioritized “Partial List” to revise because it appeared to be the strongest one. Using people’s feedback along with the ability to expand to 1000 words, I tweaked the core narrative and made the lists even funnier. It’s a story where the story happens in between the lines, so I struggled to make it comprehensible to beta readers, who all had different interpretations, despite heaping praise upon it (I actually requested a couple beta readers to be mean to the story because I knew there had to be room for improvement). Finally, I gave up and submitted it to what I considered the perfect market for it, based on the sort of stories they published.
Rejected. But it was my first personal rejection from that market! I got a highest-tier rejection from the next market too, another market I expected it to sell to given my knowledge of the editor’s tastes. For the third submission, my options were limited because I had stories out at various markets (hilariously, three of the stories that were out at the time I submitted sold). I settled on Asimov’s because, through Codex, I had learned that Sheila Williams was burning through slush like wildfire: what was usually a 40-day market was suddenly a 4-day market (“The Attic of Memories” had just racked up its own 4-day rejection). Submission Grinder data bore this out, so I figured it would be a quick rejection and I could move on to the next market.
Here are two relevant excerpts from the Asimov’s submission guidelines:
We seldom buy stories shorter than 1,000 words
Serious, thoughtful, yet accessible fiction will constitute the majority of our purchases, but there’s always room for the humorous as well.
A humorous flash piece was the longest of longshots, especially given that the market had under a 1% acceptance rate on Submission Grinder. But the editor who had given me an encouraging personal rejection for “Sally the Psychic Alligator,” a humorous flash piece? Sheila Williams. I had nothing to lose but 4 days. Don’t self-reject.
Imagine my surprise when 55 days later, Sheila responded with a request for me to clarify something about the ending (I confirmed that she was one of the few people who followed the core narrative as I had written it, to make sure I could address her question correctly). As with my previous rewrite request, I quickly made a fix and showed it to beta readers old and new before sending her the revised version. More than a week went by, which worried me because my last rewrite request had been accepted faster. But on June 23, 2015 (the day “The Merger” was released, which made that quite a day), she accepted the story as long as I made one minor change, which I was happy to do because Asimov’s.
I had sold a 985-word kale joke to Asimov’s.
Lessons Learned: Join Codex! Think of Codex as all the data you can get from Submission Grinder but with actual people attached. It’s a useful resource, and contests ensure you’re writing new things to submit. When you challenge yourself, you produce your best work. Get to know editors’ tastes. Make fun of kale?
Sale # 9 – “Girl in Blue Dress (1881)”
Before Loncon last year, I visited Paris for the first time. In the Musée d’Orsay, I saw many generically titled paintings of women and wondered about their subjects. What about a flash piece from the perspective of one of them? I wanted to be an amazing cliché and write a story in Paris, but all I managed to do was sketch out my idea. At least I had been inspired in Paris!
A few days after returning home, I banged out the first draft. I wanted to write the prose equivalent of an Impressionist painting, but, as usual, what hit the page didn’t reach the aspirations of my mind. When I cleaned it up and sent it to my writing group, however, they said it was the best thing they’d read from me, the piece they connected most with emotionally. A couple drafts later, I had something submittable, and it began making the rounds on September 21, 2014.
Because my story was about a painting, I wanted to sell to a market that did art, or at the very least provided an accompanying image. I shuffled around my normal order, even taking a chance on Tor.com (don’t self-reject!). The markets I thought it was most suitable for content-wise didn’t think it did enough with the concept, which was fair, as it was a very short piece, more of an idea than a story. While it was making the rounds, I sold “The Attic of Memories” to Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, which is also more of an idea than a story and has a similar focus on evocative, slightly surreal imagery. “Girl” just might be up Warren Lapine’s alley.
Two months after selling to Warren, I sold to him again on July 29, 2015. This was my first sale to a repeat market, and it was also my best response to an acceptance. Behold:
Sunil, I’ll be honest and tell you that I didn’t think I was going to buy this one at the halfway point, but I kept reading because it was short and I like your work. And then, of course, you nailed the ending. I’d like to use this in an upcoming issue. I’ll have a contract and check out in a few days.
Warren, I’ll be honest and say that I thought this was a rejection but I kept reading because it was short and I like your work, and you nailed the ending.
Very happy to sell to you again! I am fond of this story.
Warren had rejected two stories of mine before accepting “The Attic of Memories,” so whether or not he had read any of my other published work, he was familiar enough with me to trust me to the end. (And I was familiar enough with him to trust he’d take my cheeky response in kind.)
As a bonus, Warren pays fifteen cents a word! Guess that Musée d’Orsay admission paid for itself, and then some.
Lessons Learned: Know your market, know your editor! If an editor has bought from you already, they may look past an opening that doesn’t grab them to get to the ending that seals the deal. If an editor has rejected stories of yours already, they may also do this! Build and nurture relationships with editors. Go to Paris?
Reprint # 1 – “The Merger”
Wait a second, “The Merger”? Didn’t we cover that story already? We did! I sold it to The Book Smugglers, and they paid me a lot of money, and I was very happy. But the beautiful thing about short fiction is that you can sell stories more than once. Or “sell” them.
Here’s the deal: when I got my Book Smugglers contract for “The Merger,” they asked for exclusive audio rights in addition to print and electronic rights. They had not done podcasts for the last season’s stories, and they had no definite plans to podcast this season’s stories, but they wanted to in the future. One thing I had learned about contracts was not to give up rights that wouldn’t be exercised, so I asked to retain audio rights, with the caveat that if they did make concrete plans to podcast, of course we could revisit those rights then because I, too, wanted this story to be produced in audio. It wasn’t as if I intended to submit the story to podcasts before I could sell it as a regular reprint anyway, but I wanted to keep my options open. What if an exciting opportunity came along?
Then in June I learned via Codex that Hugo-winning podcast StarShipSofa was accepting submissions for the first time ever. Normally they solicit reprints, so this was a big deal! Although they don’t pay, they’re one of the rare cases where “for exposure” is worth it, thanks to their reputation and legions of listeners (over ten thousand downloads a week!). Unlike most podcasts, however, they had one restriction: the story could not have appeared in audio previously. The submission window was a mere two weeks.
What if an exciting opportunity came along?
This was exactly the situation that warranted keeping audio rights: StarShipSofa was only asking for audio rights—the text would not be printed online—and so the fact that “The Merger” was still under print and electronic exclusivity didn’t matter. Even though I was confident I had interpreted the terms of the contract correctly, I e-mailed the Book Smugglers to make sure they were okay with it, and they gave me their blessing to submit away.
On June 22, 2015, the day before “The Merger” was officially published—though it had been available as an ebook for a week—I submitted it as a reprint. The Grinder was reporting some very fast acceptances, so I was secretly hoping to sell the reprint before the story went live because that would have been hilarious. Alas, no. But just before midnight on August 5, 2015, I received an acceptance for my first audio reprint! Technically not a sale, since I got no money; technically not a reprint, since there would be no printing; definitely audio, since it’s a podcast.
This is the brave new world of publishing.
Lessons Learned: Read your contracts carefully and negotiate wisely. Keep rights that won’t be exercised. The reprint market can be hugely beneficial and sometimes even profitable (people have sold reprints for more than they received for the original sale), so make sure the exclusivity and rights granted work in your favor. And while it is not necessary, it’s a courtesy to confer with editors before submitting a reprint if exclusivity has not ended. Keep your ears open for exciting opportunities!
When it comes to statistics, there seems to be little pattern, if any, which goes to show how erratic and unpredictable the submission game can be: pairing the right story with the right editor at the right time is mostly providence shining upon your submission strategy. A story can take months to sell or a year to sell. Though I, personally, have a weird sweet spot around 8 rejections such that now I eye any story with 8 or more rejections and wonder what’s going wrong, sometimes it can take dozens of rejections before a story sells.
Some trends do emerge, however. Twitter has been invaluable in my writing career, both in keeping me apprised of submission opportunities and inspiring my work. For some people, it can even directly lead to a sale. Writing workshops of various kinds (and conventions) have also proven useful, both in improving my work and getting submission advice from colleagues. Using limited submission windows as deadlines to finish revising stories, despite never having worked for those particular submission windows, results in a finished story, and that’s more important.
And, most importantly, those two magical words, the simple piece of advice every writer should carry with them: don’t self-reject.
As Assistant Editor of Mothership Zeta, I’ve gotten to see the other side, and honestly I have no idea how I made any sales at all. It’s a miracle that any story stands out among hundreds of submissions. I’ve sent more rejections in the last month than I’ve received in all my time submitting stories. I’ve rejected beautifully written stories that weren’t right for us. I’ve rejected perfectly good stories that I’m sure will find homes elsewhere. But one of my favorite things is when an author receives a rejection and then submits a new story. Each story is another chance to make that story-slusher-editor-market magic happen. I’ve fallen in love with several stories, and I am always chasing that feeling. And I can’t get it if authors don’t send in their stories, if they don’t keep trying with everything they’ve got.
I’m Sunil Patel, and these are my first nine sales (and one reprint). If you’re just starting out, may my experience make yours even smoother and more fruitful. If you’ve been in the game a while, I hope you’ve learned something. Truly, there is no Big Secret to selling short stories; there are only two things you need to do, and the more you do them, the more you increase your chance of selling.
Write short stories.
Submit short stories.