How I became a professional science fiction writer

Just about any writer who has made a sale or two will tell you there is no magic formula to making that first sale.  Certain things will help to improve your chances (e.g. having some ability to write, reading a lot within your genre, writing stories, following the rules of submission).  Certain things will prevent you from ever selling a story (e.g. never finishing a story, never submitting a story).  But on the whole, there’s no magic.  I am not going to even attempt a step-by-step instruction manual.  Instead, what follows is a list of what I did and how it worked out for me.

January 1993 (21 years old)

  • Decided that I wanted to be a professional science fiction writer–that is, write stories that would appear in professional markets like my heroes (Isaac Asimov, Barry Malzberg, Alfred Bester, C. M. Kornbluth, Joe Haldeman, etc.)
  • Sent away for fiction guidelines (snail mail–these were the days before the Internet took off).
  • Began writing some stories–absolutely terrible, cliche, horrid stories which pain me to this day.  We’re talking pun-filled stories.  Stories with no characterization.  Stories that are overly sappy, melodramatic, awful, awful, awful.  But these stories had to be written if I was to learn anything at all about writing.
  • Began submitting these stories, often time to small press markets that didn’t exist by the time the manuscripts got there.  Occasionally to the Big Three.  Sometimes (oh the agony) to places like The New Yorker or Playboy.  But at least I was sending them out.
  • Began receiving rejection slips.  Lots of them.
  • Began reading short fiction in a semi-regular way, with special attention to the stories in Science Fiction Age, which was a relatively new magazine at the time.
  • Took 4 or 5 fiction classes as part of my minor in my junior/senior years of college

September 1994 (22 years old)

  • Wrote a story which finally elicited some positive editorial feedback (e.g. something other than a form letter) from people like Kristine Kathryn Rusch (then at F&SF) and Algis Budrys (then at Tomorrow).  It took me 19 submissions to get to this point.
  • Continued writing and submitting, but now submitted mostly to professional markets (Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Science Fiction Age, Omni, etc.)
  • Noted a subtle change in my stories.  They were less cliche, plots were somewhat tighter.  Real characters began to appear.
  • Write about 20 stories over the next 6 years, and added another 40 or so submissions and rejections.
  • Began to read back through the classics of science fiction that I’d missed, guided in large part by books like David G. Hartwell’s Ages of Wonder.

August 2002 (30 years old)

  • Moved to the east coast.  Lull in writing for a while.  But the desire remained and I started writing again.
  • Still a slow producer, one or two new stories a year.  But these stories started to read like the stories I was reading in the magazines.  They no longer had an “amateur” feel to them.
  • Continued to submit and beginning around 2004, I started receiving more rejection slips with editorial comments than form letters.  I tried to heed the advice in the comments, particularly if they said, “Please sent us another story.”

January 2006 (33 years old)

  • Began regular blogging online.
  • Submitted a story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” to InterGalactic Medicine Show (IGMS).
  • Continued submitting stories and receiving rejection slips.
  • Began to establish contacts (mostly through my blog) with other writers, already established in SF.

December 2006 (34 years old)

  • Received word from IGMS that they wanted to print my story, and worked through the process of making some changes at the request of the editor.

January 2007 (34 years old)

  • “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” was officially accepted.
  • Soon after received my first contract and payment.

April 2007 (35 years old)

  • Attended my first ever science fiction convention.  Met Edmund Schubert, editor of IGMS in person.  Met Robert J. Sawyer in person and was treated like a “real” writer by all of them.  Ended up being invited to dinner with Rob Sawyer and other writers, including Edmund and David B. Coe.  It was the highlight of my writing career thus far.  Making contact with other writers proved key as it was yet another writer, Michael A. Burstein, who first put me in touch with Rob Sawyer.

July 2007 (35 years old)

  • “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” appeared in issue #5 of InterGalactic Medicine Show
  • Joined Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (associate member with 1 pro credit)
  • As a prior contributor to IGMS, I could send stories directly to the editor and avoid the slush pile.  Another bonus of making that first sale.
  • Continued to write, continued to submit, and continued to get rejections, including from IGMS.  Persistence is key.
  • Began attending more science fiction conventions to reinforce my contacts and establish new ones.

August 2008 (36 years old)

  • Attended an 8-week  online writer workshop hosted by James Gunn.
  • Made more contacts with writers who were at the beginnings of their careers, many of whom had more story sales than I did
  • Learned a lot about the craft of writing and critiquing

March 2009 (37 years old)

  • Sold “Hindsight, in Neon” to Apex Magazine (my second professional story sale)
  • Began doing volunteer work for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; made more contacts.

April 2009 (37 years old)

  • “Hindsight, In Neon” appeared in the April 2009 issue of Apex Magazine
  • Got great (lengthy) editorial feedback from Stanley Schmidt at ANALOG (but haven’t sold to him yet)
  • Continued writing as much as I could until June.

June 2009 (37 years old)

  • Our first child is born.  Writing goes by the wayside for several months.   I continue to submit stories, however.

November 2009 (37 years old)

  • Successfully completed NaNoWriMo, writing more than 60,000 words of a novel in 30 days.
  • Taught me that I can write 2,000 words every day if I put my mind to it.

December 2009 (37 years old)

  • “Hindsight, in Neon” appears in the anthology Descended from Darkness.
  • First time a story of mine has been reprinted.

January 2010 (37 years old)

  • Set out a “business plan” to write 20 stories and make 100 submissions in 2010.
  • Plan included completing my novel and attempting to find an agent by year’s end
  • Completed 2 new stories so far, and started 2 more.
  • 6 submissions through early March.
  • I keep plugging away

September 2010 (38 years old)

October 2010 (38 years old)

  • Became a full active member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

November 2010 (38 years old)

December 2010 (38 years old)

May 2012 (40 years old)
  • Presented Nebula Award for Best Novelette to Geoff Ryman at the Nebula Award Banquet
  • Accepted a Nebula Award for Best Short Story for Ken Liu at the Nebula Award Banquet

August 2012 (40 years old)

  • Attended my first World Science Fiction convention (in Chicago)
  • Sold my first piece of nonfiction to Analog (it eventually appeared in the June 2013 issue.)

September 2012 (40 years old)

  • Began writing a regular science fiction book review column for InterGalactic Medicine Show

August/September 2013 (41 years old)

  • Became the Nebula Award Commissioner for the 2013 Nebula Award season.
  • Completed the first draft of my first novel.

November 2013 (41 years old)

  • Sold a story 4 hours after submitting it, thereby making the fastest sale I will probably ever make in my life.

December 2013 (41 years old)

  • Made Tangent Online’s recommended reading list for 2013 with my Analog story, “The Negative Impact of Climate Change on the Unusual Beasts of the World” (July/August 2013)

It took about 14 years, 30 stories and nearly 100 rejections before I made my first story sale.  Some people with far more talent than I possess do it much more quickly.  I describe my method as “brute force”.  But I always try to have stories out, and this year, I am really trying to crank things up in terms of both the quality and quantity of my writing.  Stay tuned to see how things go.

In the meantime, that is how I became a professional science fiction writer. And let me assure you that it is still a work in progress.

14 thoughts on “How I became a professional science fiction writer

  1. Truly inspiring. Thanks for the post! I’ve written a 100,000 pager already, but it was total nonsense. Definitely learning firsthand that you have to write a million words of garbage before you can produce anything decent.

  2. Do you ever regret that it took the industry *nine years* to give you some positive feedback for your work? Nine years that could have shortened the process towards the ultimate outcome and maybe cut a few years out of that timeline?

    Do you ever think about that?

    1. Jim, looking back I think I needed those 9 years to practice. Everyone starts out with a certain ability, and the two most important for being a writer of popular fiction are (a) writing, and (b) telling a story. I needed a lot of practice with both, but more the latter than the former. Other people have certainly progressed faster than I did and received feedback sooner, but for me it seems just right.

  3. Amazing. Bravo. I am sending this to everyone I know who keeps talking about skipping “the gatekeepers.” Tragically, I see SO many new writers these days whose trajectory is more like this:

    1) Begin writing some stories–absolutely terrible, cliche, horrid stories [...]. We’re talking pun-filled stories. Stories with no characterization. Stories that are overly sappy, melodramatic, awful, awful, awful.

    2) Submit to a couple of places and get rejected. Fume about “the gatekeepers.” [Or, submit nowhere at all, after hearing others fume about "the gatekeepers."]

    3) Self publish those terrible, cliche, horrid stories, believing they are golden.

    4) Never get any better. Complain about being overlooked for major awards due to “an unfair stigma” re: self-publishing, etc, etc.

    My career trajectory has been rather similar to yours, and I’m only slightly younger than you…and I can’t tell you how happy I am that when I was starting out, this long hard road of rejection and vetting was the only way to go. I have no doubt it made me the writer I am today.

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