A lot has been on my mind today, particularly since I had a fairly illuminating conversation on writing and the publishing industry with a professor of mine, who has published two successful nonfiction books with one of the top publishers in his field.
First of all, check out Lightspeed Magazine associate editor Christie Yant’s blog, Inkhaven, if you haven’t already done so. She’s been writing a series of posts she calls “Lessons from the Slush Pile,” which I’ve added under the Writers’ Resources links section. She offers advice on writing an effective cover letter, as well as a meditation on the differences between Pretty Good, Really Good, and Great stories in the slush pile. Another post documents some pretty staggering statistics about how many stories are submitted to Lightspeed in one month, how many of those are passed on from slush to editor John Joseph Adams, and how many of those stories are finally accepted for publication. The truth is…disheartening. Downright terrifying.
There’s a lot of debate raging in the publishing industry right now, among all involved parties. Writers in particular seem most conflicted about the perks or ills of e-publication. Other writers have insisted that any publication credit below 3 cents/word is not worth mentioning on a cover letter.
During my aforementioned conversation, I was advised by my professor not to settle. Small-press sales are a good thing, of course; some of them are actually pretty high-quality publications. The little guy that pays you a cent per word is still showing an interest in your work, and proving that your stories are a potential commodity — something worth reading.
But if your goal is to achieve publication in a prestigious magazine — my target markets are places like Apex, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed, to name a few — a cover letter with a slew of semi-pro or token-pay “publication credits” can actually create a bias against you. As Ms. Yant advises, less is more with a cover letter. Editors want to love your story, and the cover letter should have nothing but a positive effect. If you are a graduate of Clarion or Odyssey, that’s something to put on a cover letter. If you’ve sold to F&SF or Asimov’s, that’s something to definitely put on a cover letter. College creative writing classes and indie press publications aren’t really credits, as far as the top markets in the business are concerned; they can actually hurt your credibility.
My professor used a good metaphor: If you attend a good graduate school, and then get placed in a really good job right after graduation, you’ll have success with getting other great jobs in the future. If you attend a school with a poor reputation, which then places you in an unfavorable job upon graduation, you’ve already begun at the bottom.
This may be true in the publishing industry, for obvious reasons. If your name is unfamiliar, and suddenly your work appears alongside seasoned pros in a place like Apex or Analog, people are going to take notice. You mean this Joe Blow sold to Lightspeed, and Cat Rambo got rejected? Who does this guy think he is? And then, suddenly you’ve got real credibility. You can be trusted to produce quality work — which you should be doing in the first place.
Myths abound in this business. There are extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Complete amateurs read the advice of someone like Dean Wesley Smith, an established pro, and come out of the gates with their first couple of finished stories thinking that his advice will work for them right away. It works for Dean; why shouldn’t it work for me?
Well, unfortunately, there is such a thing as craft. As practice, which Dean talks about far more than anything else. Because he knows that before you can succeed as a writer, you have to at least be a good writer. Seems obvious, and perhaps it’s an intuitive truth; but a lot of the advice propagating across the Net makes the assumption that everyone seeking advice on craft and the writing business are already competent storytellers. I wish this were true, that everyone in the world who ever wanted to be a writer put in the time, effort, and focus necessary to hone their skills — but I sincerely doubt it.
As Yant also points out in her Lessons from the Slush Pile series, writers are in a big damn hurry to get published. Who isn’t? I was, and am. It’s a natural instinct to rush, and write more, and bombard the industry with your writerly genius. Perhaps there’s an element of truth in the notion — but this all comes after craft, after practice.
The knee-jerk reaction for a lot of new writers, eager for publication but too impatient to wait until he or she has started receiving (consistently, one might argue) personalized rejections from one or more prestigious, professional-level markets, is to start e-publishing every single story they’ve written, and then wait to see if suddenly a career materializes through the miracles of cyberspace. This might even happen…to a rare few. But even then, it’s miraculous, and far less likely than selling to a pro-level, SFWA-qualifying market.
Have I started to sound like a snobbish, elitist asshole yet?
My point isn’t that everyone should extend their arms skyward and try to touch the stars. I’d be willing to bet that your arms wouldn’t quite reach, and even if they did, you’d get a nasty burn.
What I am suggesting is that every writer ought to evaluate one’s own personal set of goals, develop a logical, realistic plan of action that will make those goals relatively achievable, and then work toward that goal with patience, careful attention to the craft of storytelling, and an eagerness to learn all that one can about fiction writing and the publishing business. It’s all changing fast — you’d be a fool to argue otherwise — but there are traditions in the publishing industry for a reason. Professional editors have a very important job, whether it’s polishing a story into a potential gem or wading through the slush pile in search of a great story by an undiscovered new talent. With practice and patience, the talent will come — it’s a matter of little more than time and persistence. But I suspect that those who sell themselves short, who crank out story after story with the sole purpose of making a fast (and likely small) check, are the ones who will either not last, or will not gain a large, faithful readership.
Good stories, unfortunately, don’t just happen. At least not without years of honing one’s craft, reading, and self-examination. So think about where you want to be — not tomorrow, but in five years. And then do what it takes to get there. It’s really that simple.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ungrateful for my three semi-pro, small press sales to the Library of Horror/SF Press. I’m very grateful. They taught me a lot: that my writing is worth something, in terms of both being read and earning me money; and also that selling to the small press is…pretty easy. It took me about a year of writing consistently to sell three stories. But I’m not talking necessarily about speed, but rather about focus, about art. I think of Joe Hill’s Horns, which despite its modest length probably took a long time to plot, develop characters for, write, and then revise.
Taking the time to reflect on the lessons of each work, on what worked and what didn’t work, teaches the writer far more than simply cranking out a new story week after week. If you’re throwing each one of them up on the Kindle store, moreover, you’re not even giving it the chance to impress the editors at the pro markets — and you’re therefore not really taking yourself too seriously as a professional writer who feels her stories are worth being bought and read. That doesn’t mean stories can’t gradually make their way through the reputable markets, and find a home in the small press. Stories are meant to be read.
Don’t become jaded; don’t give up; don’t shortchange your work.