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Breaking In (Part 1): Periodicals & Short Stories

February 27, 2010

I call my blog “The Undiscovered Author” because I haven’t been published, so take these thoughts for what they’re worth.  It’s been a lifelong goal to get published, and though I’m usually told that my writing is good (how good depends on who’s talking, and there’s a lot of latitude there) I’ve yet to break in.  Part of that has to do with how infrequently I’ve actually made specific efforts to get published.  As my dad likes to say: you can’t win if you don’t play (but then, my dad is talking about the Lottery and, statistically speaking, you can’t win that even if you do play).  That said, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on what it takes to get published.  This is basically where I stand now, and what I perceive to be my challenges.  It is the first in a miniseries about how to “Break In” to publishing.

First, let’s be straight about what I mean by “getting published”.  There are basically two parts to the publishing world: periodicals and books.  Periodicals include everything from newspapers to magazines.  For someone like me, who writes speculative fiction (sci fi and fantasy, especially fantasy in my case) “periodicals” means short story mags.  These magazines, likewise, fall into two categories: print mags like Asimov’s , The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Analog and online zines such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld or Jim Baen’s.  There are challenges inherent in both of these formats.  The online magazines have much faster response times (measured in weeks) and are rumored to be much more receptive to new authors (a rumor I can neither confirm nor deny, at this point).  But they mostly have very tight length restrictions (SH has an outside limit of 9,000 words with a preference for stories under 5,000 while Clarkesworld has a hard limit of 8,000 words), and their pay tends to be slightly less than that of the print magazines.  The print magazines, meanwhile, have response times measured in months which can tie up a story that is ultimately likely to be rejected for a long time before it can be shopped at another venue (if you obey the rule prohibiting simultaneous submissions, as I intend to).

The challenge for me, personally, is that my short stories tend to hit a length of between 6,000 words and 12,000 words.  I’ve written some longer and few shorter.  At that rate, only the shortest of my stories are viable for publication at the online zines.  My current story runs up to just under 10,000 words, which puts the story in the range the SFWA defines as a Novelette.  Basically, that puts this particular work just outside the range of most online zines (though potentially not Baen’s).  However, there are some pending edits that I will need to make to this story.  I’ve got a few thoughts on what I need to do to to improve it, but I’m not quite ready to start that work.  I’m not sure how that will affect the length.

I don’t intend to disclose, at this point, who I will decide to submit to first (I’ll report when I’ve been rejected by a venue, but not which venue did the rejecting).  If this particularly story does get accepted somewhere, however, I’ll announce that here as well as the magazine that will be publishing my work and any other details I can provide.  That’s if and when, mind you.

I’ll be honest in saying I don’t have much of a plan, at this point, for getting this story published beyond (a) polishing the story as bright as I can make it before sending it off and (b) submitting it, waiting for acceptance or rejection and then submitting at another market if rejected.  Though, I am approaching this a little more seriously than that.  I’m trying to make sure I’m well-read in the venues in which I intend to submit, to make sure that I feel my story actually fits within the corpus of their publication.  And I’ll be thoroughly familiarizing myself with the individual submission guidelines of each market before I submit anything there.  These are common suggestions from the professional markets.  As a new writer, however, there are few other options I am aware of on what to do, either before or after submitting, to increase my chances of publication.

Ultimately, writing a really good story is all I really can do to improve my chances of getting my story accepted.  But even so, those chances are still slim.  The submission guidelines of one market I was looking at pointed out that they receive 400 – 500 submissions per month and yet only purchase 4 or 5.  In other words, you have about a 1 in 100 chance of being on the lucky side of that coin-toss.  You’ve got to have more than just a good story if you want to beat those odds.  As a new writer, the deck is already stacked against you.  To shuffle it in your favor… you’ll have to write a great story.  I mean, transcendent; a story so good its existence brings the very angels out of the heavens to sing its praises.  Since that’s not going to happen, you can try to play the odds, but if you write science fiction and fantasy, like me, there aren’t a hundred different markets to send to.  Instead, you send the story off, one-by-one, to those you can then start over by writing another really good story and sending it off, too.  Write enough of these and send them off and eventually the odds may fall in your favor.  When they do, you’ll have a new tool in your arsenal: you’ll have published author cred.  Once you have that cred, as I understand it, the odds shift in your favor just the tiniest bit.  Hey, it may not be much of an advantage, but it’s still an advantage.

All that aside, my real goal, it must be said, is not to break into writing short fiction for periodicals, but to write novels.  On Monday, I’ll start sharing some of my thoughts on what I’ve learned about what it takes to break into the novel-writing world, from the point-of-view of someone who has yet even to complete writing his first novel.

Happy writing.

Continue to Part 2: Writing Novels

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