Selling Fiction is Not For Wimps

Jay Lake here, happily guest-blogging for Shimmer on the subject of selling fiction for new writers. This post recaps a number things I’ve said before along the way, with a focus on the basics of aspiration and breaking in. I hope it proves helpful to you.

The Internet is rife with advice to aspiring authors on submitting, markets, manuscript formats, handling rejection, editor-friendly blogging: everything in the world to tell you what to do, how to do it. All kinds of strong opinions and good thoughts both.

(Which, I might add, was certainly not so widely available back in the many years when I was struggling to break in. You kids today, you don’t know how good you have it. And, hey, you! Get off my lawn!)

But really, it all boils down to one simple recipe. Write, revise, submit.

This isn’t exactly new information, to say the least. Charles Dickens probably hung out in London coffee houses telling those punk kid pre-Raphaelites the same thing. To focus on our field of speculative fiction, however, here’s what Robert A. Heinlein said in 1947:

Stack the pages to the sky!

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

I don’t agree with his number three, for a variety of reasons, but the rest of this advice is as solid today as it was over sixty years ago.

My version is, “Write more, finish what you start, send it out.” Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary.

But the key to all of this isn’t simply doing these things for the sake of having done them. It’s doing these things in a consistent, repeatable manner over a long baseline of time and effort. Simply put, if you write one story a year and send it to one market a year, you’re not likely to see a lot of career impact. A couple of famous exceptions spring readily to mind, so if it works for you as well, go for it, but that’s a low-return strategy for almost all the rest of us writers out there in the world.

For that consistent, repeatable manner to succeed, it requires frequency as well. What I’ve often referred to as ‘psychotic persistence.’ As Rita Mae Brown famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” That’s also the definition of writing success. (Not to mention parenting success as well, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Much like learning a foreign language, or taking up a martial art or a musical instrument, writing and selling fiction requires practice. No one is born a literary genius, any more than they are born a black belt or a first chair violinist. That same psychotic persistence that has you writing and sending out will also give you the room to stretch your skills and improve your output.

In my own case, I spent the decade from 1990 to 2000 workshopping semimonthly. I brought a new story almost every time, 20-24 stories a year for those ten years, except for the period of time when my daughter arrived in my life. I sent my carefully crafted fiction out diligently, managing to collect an entire trunk full of rejections in the process. (Which I still have in the garage, for posterity’s sake.)  In 2000, I moved from Texas to Oregon and found a new home at a weekly workshop. That fall I began a new rubric of writing a story every week. I kept that practice going for almost five years, until I became consumed in the process of writing novels, at which point I essentially substituted production goals for finished manuscripts as my metric for self-evaluation.

All in all, between 2000 and 2005, I wrote close to 300 short stories.

That is psychotic persistence.

But it’s also smart, guided persistence: Listening to critique feedback from my workshop and first readers. Paying attention to editorial feedback from markets. Reading my first glimmerings of critical response from observers in the field.

Most of all, though, it was me writing in a consistent, repeatable manner.

My point again being, this process is not for wimps. It requires intense focus and dedication far beyond any rational measure of the available external validation or overt rewards.

This practice of constantly writing and sending has a happy side effect of inuring oneself to the impact of rejection. The more rejections you receive, the less each individual one can sting. Our one-story-a-year writer will invest an enormous amount of time and effort in each send out, and feel the impact of the response acutely. Our fifty-story-a-year writer collects rejection after rejection, reducing the sting and increasing the opportunity for those rejections to transition into acceptances.

As for Heinlein’s third rule, “3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”, I do disagree with that. There is a difference between rewriting/revising and polishing. It’s a very rare first draft indeed that doesn’t require at a minimum some basic line editing and revision. It’s an unusual first draft that can’t benefit from some quiet time in a drawer, followed by a thoughtful revisiting after sufficient time has elapsed for the immediacy of the story has vanished from the writer’s mind. But not rewriting at all? Maybe it worked for RAH, but I don’t recommend that as a practice, either. And believe me, it took me years to think my way around that corner.

Note that I’m not actually advocating that everyone reading this immediately start writing a story a week. That’s what worked for me. It might work for you, it might not work for you.

Make your own words.

What I am advocating, specifically, is that you write more. That you cultivate persistence. That you recognize the fact that without consistent practice and production, breaking in to the field as a professional writer is simply a lot less likely to happen. Make your own luck by making your own words.

Write more.

12 thoughts on “Selling Fiction is Not For Wimps”

  1. How many of the (psychotically impressive total) 300 stories did you submit to markets and how many did you sell?

    I can see Heinlein’s point on number 3. Everything can always be re-edited but re-writing beyond editing for better structure and errors should be done while you are writing the first draft. There’s no point in going back and re-writing chunks of your novel – if it wasn’t any good in the developmental stage of writing it out – then maybe it’s time to write a new story.

    You only need to edit to the point where the story sells. Stephanie Meyer is a great indicator of how with the right niche and timing you can sell a first draft with no apparent editing what-so-ever.

  2. Totally diggin’ this, Jay. Also, Paul: you’re right about that-thurr editing standard. I’ve sold five stories and only one has received more than a “week-later-quick-edit,” as I call them. Some of the stories from earlier in my career, which I obsessively polished, yet languish in mein drawer.

  3. This is very apt, timely advice… I am endeavouring to follow it – not so much with my short fiction, but certainly with my novels.

    I’m with you regarding Heinlein’s views regarding editing. With all the competition out there and the advances in word processing, I suspect that editors back then were a lot more laid back about the odd anomaly and typo – whereas these days, they are just looking for reasons to get those slush mountains down to managable levels…

  4. Paul makes a good point in that editing isn’t necessarily required for a story to succeed. I wouldn’t classify line editing as revising since that’s as simple and mechanical a process as spell-checking. A writer may very well get it right the first time and have a manuscript ready for submission, even without a cooling off period. I’ve sold stories to Strange Horizons and Asimov’s (and Shimmer, for that matter) which, aside from tweaks suggested by the editors, were very near to their original incarnations. Neither are workshops or first readers a prerequisite. HOWEVER — any process that produces a saleable story is a good one. A writer need only find what works best for her or him.

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