A Kerfuffle Aspiring Writers Might Want to Pay Attention To

Not for the first time the inimitable John Scalzi kicked off a bit of an internet fuss recently. The particular feline lobbed unceremoniously into the pigeon house on this occasion was this post laying into a new short story publisher for offering dismally tiny payments to writers. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth in various bits of the internet (both for and against his views), a nice sample of which can be found in this post, and particularly the lengthy comments thread attached thereunto.

Perhaps the most fruitful outcome of the whole kerfuffle – that I’ve seen, anyway – is a couple of livejournal posts by Anne Leckie that are, I think, well worth the attention of any aspiring writers out there. Especially writers of short fiction, but wannabe novelists as well. The first explains why getting your short stories published in certain types of venues will not help your nascent writing career, is such a thing is your goal; the second delves into the much more nebulous question of what makes for good fiction. Both are worth a read: there is a good deal of stuff in there that I think aspiring authors (and published ones like yours truly, too) could profitably ponder, whether they agree with it or not.

Much of what’s discussed in the links above made me think about where my head was at when I was actively writing and submitting short stories to magazines (note that what follows is decidedly not advice; my route through the thicket of obstacles facing the aspiring writer was my own, and does not remotely constitute a generally applicable map).

Back then, I was just starting to take the idea of one day being a professional writer seriously – i.e. thinking about what was involved in getting there, rather than just daydreaming about it. The crux of it, to my simple and innocent brain, seemed straightforward: if I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to be able to write to a professional standard.

So I worked on some stories – most of which were never submitted anywhere because I was never quite satisfied with them – and sent a few out to magazines. I only sent them to what I thought of as professional-standard magazines, i.e. those paying towards the upper end of the general scale for stories, or those that were clearly high profile and respectable and publishing stories of a certain quality.

I didn’t try to place stories with non-paying markets, or obscure magazines making token payments; not because I’ve got anything in particular against such publications, but because I had a project, and it wasn’t a ‘get a story published anywhere‘ project. It was a ‘learn how to write to a professional standard‘ project. So I was only interested in the judgement of those – the editors and publishers – who set that standard by their acquisition decisions. To paraphrase Anne Leckie: I was interested in being a pro, so I aimed for the pros. Aiming lower, I reasoned, would only teach me how to miss my chosen target, not how to hit it.

Now things worked out OK for me, because I did sell a couple of stories in the 90s (which sounds hopeless, but actually wasn’t a bad hit rate, because I only ever sent out a handful). But just to prove that mine is not necessarily the example to follow, having tasted that tiny little bit of success, I stopped trying to write and sell the things entirely. Why? Because I’m nuts? Not entirely, though it’s arguable. (As it happens, I do often wish I’d held onto the short story habit a bit more firmly. It’s got a lot to recommend it.).

No, I stopped for my own, possibly rather eccentric, reasons. The second story I sold (to what was then called The Third Alternative and is now Black Static), was one that, before I sent it out, I was pretty sure was good enough to be publishable in the kind of markets I was interested in. For the first time, I felt I could instinctively identify a piece of my own writing as meeting a basic professional standard. Turned out, I was right.

More importantly, if I’m remembering things rightly, I submitted one further story after that sale. And it was rejected. At which point I basically stopped writing and submitting short stories. Not because I was discouraged, but because I had known, in my heart of hearts, before I sent it out, that that last story was not quite up to the necessary standard. It was OK, with some nice ideas and passages, but it didn’t have that feel. Turned out, once again, that I was right.

That was good enough for me. I’d more or less learned what I wanted to. I could, at least on occasion, write to a professionally publishable standard; and I could identify the necessary quality – and its absence – in my stories before the editors passed their own judgement. (Yes, two is a ridiculously small sample size to base such sweeping conclusions on, and I was building on some very dodgy foundations there, but I did say mine wasn’t an example to follow). What does that quality consist of? Ah, well … that’s a whole other, decidedly complicated story, and one I’d need a whole other post to even start picking away at. But I do think Anne Leckie’s second post offers much food for thought on the subject.

And I will say this – and I guess this, despite what I said earlier about not giving advice, is advice of a sort: irrespective of what mysterious bricks that ‘quality’ is built from, one of the most important skills anyone who wants to turn their writing into a career can acquire is that of recognising its presence, or absence, in their own work. And the only way you do that is by writing for, submitting to, and probably being rejected by, the markets which define the level of quality you aspire to.

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