Last night while dozing off, I was thinking about the stories I’ve sold this year and the momentum that I’ve built up, and worrying a little that I’d be able to maintain that momentum next year. Another great science fiction writer, Brad Torgersen, has pointed out that you can’t really set a goal to sell x number of stories because you only have control over part of the process. I can write a story, and I can submit a story. But it is still up to an editor to buy a story and publish a story. In addition to these two things being out of your control, there is also luck involved. I may write a good story, and submit the story to a magazine, both of which are under my control. But the editor may have recently published a similar story or received one with a similar theme where the other writer did it better.
So I started thinking about those parts a writer can control and since I am a visual thinking, I started to sketch out of Venn diagram. When I completed the sketch, I looked at it and I suddenly realized several things about writing and selling stories that I never really noticed before. Here is the diagram I drew:
1. Stories I submit
The yellow circle labeled “submitted” are represent the set of stories that I write and submit. I shaded this yellow to represent the fact that of all of the circles on the diagram, this is the only one entirely under my control. I have to write a story. I have to try to make that story as good as I possibly can. I have to submit the story. This is where all of the hard work goes, the blood, sweat and tears of the struggling writer. It is also the part where I have all of the fun: making up stories that I like and that I hope and editor likes, and ultimately, that readers will like.
2. Stories editors buy
The circle just to the right, labeled, “Bought” represent the set of stories that editors buy. Once I became a good enough writer (or luck was on my side) some of the stories that I submitted were bought by editors. Many, many more were rejected. I have almost no control over this process. All I can do is try to write a good story, submit the story, and hope an editor buys it. However, while I don’t have control over this, there are forces at work. After selling a few stories, I am no longer an unknown quantity. I have written stories good enough for some editor to buy. Maybe not the one currently reading my manuscript, but I’ve proven that I can do it. Finally, I may have already sold a story to that editor and therefore know they’ve liked my stuff before. None of these things exercise any real control, but they linger in the background.
3. Stories readers liked
The lower circle represents those stories that the readers seemed to like. Again, not much control over this area. If I wrote a story that resonated with readers I could try to write a similar one. Perhaps this is why we see so many sequels. But there will always be readers whose tastes are different from my own. All I can really do is remember what kind of stories I like to read and try to write those kind of stories. I can’t control what other readers like, but I can control what I like.
The intersection of the various circles represent some kind of emotional reaction on my part. I think many writers probably feel these emotions, but perhaps they don’t understand why. I didn’t really understand why until I started sketching things out. Here are those emotional intersections:
One of the most exciting things for me when I was a brand new writer was making that first story sale. They are still exciting, but that first one is always something special. You work hard on a story, an editor likes the story and buys it. At least one of those hurdles that is out of your hands has been crossed. I am generally not disappointed when I get a rejection these days. I understand that there are a variety of possible reasons, some of which are completely out of my control. Where I do get a little disappointed is when I write a story I like and an editor buys the story, and the story gets published–but the readers don’t really like it. This is the area shaded green at the intersection of submitted and bought.
Not much you can do about that when it happens, except try to learn from the experience.
5. Lost opportunities
The area shaded purple, where bought stories and liked stories intersect I labeled “potential” on the diagram, but in thinking about it more, these are better characterized as lost opportunities. These are stories which I’ve written but never submitted. They are stories that an editor probably would have bought, and that readers may very well have liked. Neither of these are certain, but over time, with enough reading, writing, submitting and selling, I’ve gotten a sense of what might work. I don’t too many of these stories because eventually submit all of the stories I write. But I suspect that there are writers out there who don’t submit stories and I think this illustrates the lost opportunity by not submitting a story. And editor can’t buy a story if you don’t submit. And readers (beyond my small circle of beta readers) can’t read and appreciate the story if it doesn’t appear1.
Frustration, for me, comes at the intersections of stories that I submit that editors don’t buy, but that my beta-readers, at least, really liked. In other words: rejections that my beta readers liked. This is frustrating for me simply because more than likely, the story was not rejected for its lack of merit but for some other reason. Years ago, I had a story rejected from Asimov’s because Allen Steele had done a similar story and done it better than me–something I remind him about each time I see him. I had a story rejected from InterGalactic Medicine Show because they had just published a story with a similar theme. If but for the conditions mentioned, these stories might have been bought. That kind of thing is just a frustrating intersection of circumstance that I think every writer eventually faces. Nothing to do for it but send the story off to the next market.
What I aim for when I write a new story is the intersection of all three circles. That is my bulls-eye. I want to write a story that I’m proud to submit, that an editor will buy, and that readers will like. That third item is tough because not every reader likes every story, but I think as a writer, I’ve gotten a feel for when readers, generally speaking, like a story I’ve published.
Ideally, you could work to somehow increase the overlap of all three of these circles. I think it is possible to do this. The more you sell stories that readers like, the easier it becomes to sell even more stories. Look at Robert Reed, Jay Lake, Ted Chiang, Ken Liu, Connie Willis, Jack McDevitt, Nancy Kress and Kristine Kathryn Rusch as just a few examples of this type of success. These are writers who, in my opinion, hit that bulls-eye more often than not.
It starts, of course, with writing, which brings me back to the beginning, where I talked about maintained the momentum I’ve gained this year. I have a lineup of stories I want to write next year. Once their written, I’ll submit them and then it’s pretty much out of my hands. And yet, I feel like the circles are inching their way closer together. We’ll see…
- I realize that this may not apply to self-published stories, but I’m talking about traditionally published stories because that’s how I sell my stories. ↩