It would seem that I have reached the stage in my writing career1 where I am receiving more and more questions about becoming a writer, selling stories, getting agents, and all of the other stuff that I imagine many of my more senior2 writer friends have had to deal with for some time now. Generally, I empathize with the people asking the questions, although I am suspicious of a certain breed that seems to believe there is some sort of short cut or magic formula to getting published.
For the record, once, very early in my writing career, when I was a junior in college back in 1993, I sent a story I wrote, unsolicited, to an author I admired at the time. That author was Piers Anthony. I had no idea that this was Not Something You Did. But Mr. Anthony was gracious and understanding and wrote me back with a fairly detailed critique of what I’d sent him, telling me that while the story was not publishable, my writing was promising and I’d likely be published some day. Looking back on that event, nearly 20 years ago, I am horrified that I committed such an obvious sin, and utterly astounded at Piers Anthony’s even-tempered and helpful response. But you can bet I never made that mistake again.
I preface with this story so that folks reading this who have committed a similar sin, unknowingly, won’t feel completely foolish. I’ve done it, too. That said, I learned quickly the rules of the road and for the next 14 years, I worked hard3 to become a professional science fiction writer. Now, it seems, I am getting similar requests to what Piers Anthony and many of my other writer-friends must be inundated with pretty regularly. And so this post in an attempt to answer the most frequent questions that I get, so that I may direct all future inquiries to a consistent set of responses.
1. Will you critique my story?
Sorry, but no. There are two reasons for this:
- I write part-time. This time is limited by two main factors: (a) a full-time job that keeps me busy; (b) a family that also keeps me busy. In addition to my fiction writing, I also write some nonfiction, like my book reviews for InterGalactic Medicine Show. I have to spend time reading books for those columns. And then, of course, there is time to do my own reading. Whatever is left–and there is often little time–is for my own writing. There just isn’t time for me to read and critique other people’s stories.
- I believe that writing and critiquing are two entirely different skill sets. Being good at one does not necessarily mean being good at the other. I think I have gotten handle on writing short fiction, for the most part, but I still think I have a long way to go when it comes to critiquing other people’s stories.
There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. They almost exclusively include a small group of other professional writers whose opinions I trust and who seem to find my critiques of their own work helpful. Even in these cases, the number of critiques are few and far between.
2. Will you tell me how to get an agent? Can you recommend yours?
I can’t tell you how to get an agent. The reason is that I have no idea. I can’t recommend mine because I don’t have one. I am a short fiction writer and in the world of science fiction, an agent is not required for short fiction sales. From what I understand from friends who have agents, there are generally two ways of getting them: (1) Research and find one that represents the kind of fiction you write; (2) write short fiction, sell some stories, win some awards, and wait for an agent to contact you.
3. Will you tell me how to write a query letter for a novel that I have written?
Once again, I’m afraid the answer is can’t. I don’t write novels. Query letters are generally not required for short fiction. Therefore, I have never had to write a query letter. There are plenty of resources out there that discuss this process. Writer’s Digest is one such resource.
4. I think my stories would make good movies. Can you point me to someone in the business who will read my stories?
Nope, I can’t. I don’t know anyone in the movie business and none of my stories have every produced any interest in that direction. I will say that one good sign of whether or not your stories would make good movies is to sell them, see them published, and wait for a Hollywood agent to contact you. If such a contact is made, chances are you are right. But don’t be surprised if you wait a very, very long time.
5. Should I self-publish my stories? I think I can make a lot more money that way.
By all means, self-publish! I prefer to go the traditional route with my own stories. I have complicated reasons for this, but the gist of them have to do with doing it the same way my heroes did it. Working hard, submitting, collecting rejections, learning and improving my craft until I start selling stories. Of course, I don’t do it for the money so maybe I can afford to go the traditional route. That said, I will give you an example from my personal experience. I once sold a story to a professional science fiction magazine. I was paid $500 for the story. Years later, the right reverted to me. I decided to put the story on Amazon as a “self-published” piece of short fiction. I made the story available for $0.99. It has been on Amazon for a couple of years now and has yet to earn me five dollars–less than one percent of what I was paid through a traditional publisher. Of course, your mileage may vary.
6. You have a great website. Can you help me with my platform as a writer?
Thanks, but I no longer know what “platform” means. I’ve become suspicious of the term. Writers have to be self-promoting, but what I’ve found is that if you write well and people like your stories, that is often almost all of the self-promotion you need. Don’t believe me? Robert Reed is a prolific and excellent science fiction writer with very little of what we’d think of as “platform” and he seems to have no problem selling stories. Write good stories and you don’t have to worry about platform.
If you are looking for advice on a web presence geared toward writers, I wrote this post a few years back and some of it still contains what I consider useful information.
7. What is the secret to publishing?
In my opinion, the secret is hard work. I suspect most people don’t want to hear that. They are looking for a shortcut (and self-publishing offers itself up as one possible shortcut, I suppose). But in my experience, there are three elements that make up my “secret” to publishing them, and since I am about to delineate them here, they really aren’t secret after all:
- Hard work. For all appearances, writing, for me, is very hard work. You have to be willing to put in the time and effort.
- Persistence. Expect to build quite a collection of rejections. I learned early on that these were not personal. If I thought the story was good, I just sent it off again. Persistence was key in my case: it took 14 years of hard work for me to make my first story sale.
- A willingness to learn. I know quite a few writers who think what they put down on the page is unalterable, and that’s fine. But for me, if an editor, friend or colleague pointed out what they considered to be flaws, I always tried to consider them carefully. Sometimes, I would leave them alone, and other times, I’d make changes. I tried never to complain about the content of critiques or criticism.
I believe that the combination of those three thing, more than anything else, allowed me to become a science fiction writer.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely. If you have an obvious native talent, you may sell the first thing you write and everything thereafter. There is no accounting for genius. But I am not a genius when it comes to writing. I’m a brute force writer. I learn by making a lot of mistakes, identifying them, and trying not to make them again.