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Don't write just one story

By Jed Hartman

If you've written a story and submitted it for publication, that's great; go, you! But there are a lot of reasons that you shouldn't stop with just one.

For example, sometimes authors run into conflicts with editors that could be easily resolved by the author writing more stories.

The most common such situation is simultaneous submissions. Authors (understandably) hate to wait for responses to stories, so sometimes they submit simultaneously to multiple venues, even if those venues have a policy against considering simsubs (as most professional speculative fiction venues do). Here's the best way around that problem for the author: write several stories, and submit each of them to a different venue.

Another such situation is reprints. There are perfectly good reasons to try to get a story reprinted; it's great to make more money for little or no additional work. I applaud authors reprinting stories! But not all venues are interested in reprints. If a given venue doesn't consider reprints, then instead of trying to convince them to take your story, why not send them a new story? (This paragraph inspired by an editorial at Abyss & Apex a few months back.)

I think part of what happens is that a lot of writers have the idea that the goal of being a writer is to sell one story. You write the perfect story, you sell it, the world loves it, you go on Oprah, the story magically turns into a Hollywood blockbuster movie, you make a kajillion bazillion dollars, and you retire, rich and famous.

But a writing career doesn't work like that. To have a writing career, you'll need to get more than one story published. Maybe even as many as three or four! After your first story is published, you need to go on to getting your next story published. You may even want to get a novel published—or, ideally, more than one.

People don't seem to have this misperception in most other careers. Imagine that you show up for work on your first day at your first office job, you do a fine job, and then the next day you stay home. Your boss calls you and says, "Um, what's up? Where are you?" And you say, "Oh, I already put in my day of work. Now I'm waiting for untold wealth and fame to arrive on my doorstep." That's not likely to result in a career.

Or say you compete in your high school track meet, and you win! Good for you. But you're probably not going to get any track-shoe endorsement deals if you decide to rest on your laurels at that point.

I'm sure there are people in other artistic fields who do expect this kind of thing. "If only enough people knew about my amazing song, I'd sell a million copies!" But I suspect that if they thought it through, most aspiring musicians wouldn't want to be known to future generations as one-hit wonders.

So don't let that be you. If you've written a story and sent it out for publication, again, that's great; that's already more than a lot of people do. But don't stop there. Go write another story, and send that one out too. And keep doing that.

It may sound like a lot of work, and it is. Building a career in any field is a lot of work; writing and selling fiction is a lot of work; if you want to be an Author, you'll have to put in a fair tad bit of work.

But I don't mean that to be discouraging; I mean it to be encouraging. Because writing more stories will almost certainly have the additional salutary effect of making you a better writer. People tend to get better at things with practice, and writing is no exception. As you write more (and think about your writing, and get feedback on it, and examine other people's writing), you'll probably start to write better stories.

So go forth and write!

Comments

Posted by Martin L. Shoemaker at September 23, 2010 12:41 AM:

This is good advice; but it's also complex advice to follow. I'm not complaining, just responding.

What I find makes it complex is that each publisher, for their own reasons, has their own unique response times. Further, some have additional rules such as a minimum wait between submissions, or such as your submission windows. Different publishers also have different preferred lengths, different genre and subgenre preferences, and so on.

So "keep writing" is only part of the job. To that, I would add: get organized, know the rules, know the publishers, and keep track of your submissions.

And I hope I'm following my own advice here! I currently have four stories that I'm circulating to different publishers (including Strange Horizons, now that your submission window has reopened). If I had two or three more, I could probably have a story in the queue for every major publisher I've discovered. If I had ideas in other subgenres, I could target even more publishers. If I could actually finish the things, I think I could have as many as ten stories in circulation at a time.

Ten stories is a lot to keep track of. I'm finding four is enough to occupy at least an hour of my time every week. I've put together a spreadsheet to track my submissions. It needs refinement, but it's working for now. An author should have a spreadsheet, or a bulletin board, or maybe a big desk calendar. Without some sort of tracking system, you'll lose track of the stories you're circulating. You'll make simsubs (there's a new bit of jargon I learned today!), or you'll send an editor a story he already rejected.

Posted by Jed at September 23, 2010 7:08 PM:

Martin: Thanks for the comment.

Yep, authors should definitely track their submissions. Some, like you, use spreadsheets (or databases); others just keep a text file for each story, keeping track of when they sent it to each market; others use sites like Duotrope's Digest to keep track of their submissions; others use downloadable software specifically designed for submission tracking (I don't have any recommendations, but there are half a dozen such applications out there).

When you said that it takes an hour a week to track four submissions, did you mean you spend an hour a week updating your spreadsheet, or that you spend an hour a week doing research on new places to send them, or something else? I would expect that over time, as you get familiar with various venues and their guidelines, it will take you less time, but I may be misinterpreting.

I'm not saying you shouldn't use your system; whatever works for you is great. But I suspect it's feasible to keep as many as, say, ten stories or so in circulation at once without needing to spend a lot of time on tracking them. (But I've never personally done it, so I'm talking through my hat.)

I should also note that it's not necessarily necessary to keep multiple stories circulating at once; it's a good idea to do so, but some writers write slowly and infrequently. It's okay to write slowly (though hard to build a writing career that way); in this entry, I was mostly just saying don't stop after writing your first story.

[I posted this comment on 23 September, but the blog system marked it as spam. Heh. Anyway, am now making it public, in early October. Sorry for delay.]

Posted by Joy Hounsell at September 24, 2010 7:25 PM:

The on-line magazines really do differ, so it could be a good idea to write especially for one of them, anaysing the stuff they like. The response times are fairly lengthy, so you might as well have a story in there all the time, cos it's free to submit after all. When (if!) the story gets rejected, then you can send it other places. The advice above is good stuff, but it takes as long to get to know the market as it does to write the stories themselves. I wonder how you know you have had a near miss compared to a quick 'skim and bin'. Are there any clues in the rejection email? Could it be the next story is more likely to be taken up because they remember the one before? (Or less likely!!) Perhaps they only take you seriously when you have submitted quite a few. I wonder if they have lots of fantastic stories they are very sorry to turn down, or if the supply is quite limited(quantity v. quality). It also makes sense to me to keep the stories as short as possible if you have never had one published before. Thus reducing the cost, and making it quicker to read, and at least they might read the whole thing even if they don't like it. My story went down really well in my writing class but it got rejected from here. But it was space opera so I'm trying to find an on-line magazine that prints that. As it was my first one, I'm anticipating a lot of hard work if I want to get anywhere.

Posted by Jed at October 9, 2010 3:52 AM:

Joy: I've finally removed your accidental duplicate comment; sorry not to have done that sooner.

A few assorted thoughts about your comment:

One problem with writing for a specific market is that if that market rejects your story, there may not be much you can do with it. There might be other venues that would be interested, but then again there might not.

And it's hard to have a good enough mental model of what a given editor likes anyway. An author can get some sense of that by reading the publication, but that's an imperfect approach at best.

So I'm inclined to say that for most fiction venues, it's best not to try to write something specifically aimed at them. Though I would make exceptions for themed anthologies and other venues that are tightly focused on one particular kind of thing.

But other people might say otherwise; just my opinion.

Of course, you should submit stuff that matches a venue's guidelines; I'm certainly not saying to ignore guidelines. I'm just saying that it may be more satisfying to write good stories that you want to write, and then find places to send them to, than to try to guess what an editor wants and then try to write that.

Regarding how you know if you've had a near miss: if a rejection letter says something like "We look forward to seeing more of your work," take that seriously--editors generally don't say that unless they mean it. If a rejection letter doesn't say that, it doesn't necessarily mean anything--lots of writers spend a lot of time on rejectomancy, the art of trying to figure out what the editor really meant based on close parsing of what they wrote, but most of the time there just isn't enough information in a rejection letter for close scrutiny to help.

I think most professional sf magazines get way more good material than they can publish. We're getting about 450 submissions a month, and we publish about 4 stories a month.

Shorter stories may or may not give you an advantage. What you said about them is true, but it's also true that it can be harder to have an emotional impact or to tell much of a story in a very short space; a lot of very short stories feel gimmicky or insubstantial or don't feel like there's enough going on in them.

Posted by Martin L. Shoemaker at October 13, 2010 1:27 AM:

Jed,

When you said that it takes an hour a week to track four submissions, did you mean you spend an hour a week updating your spreadsheet, or that you spend an hour a week doing research on new places to send them, or something else?

It's an hour maintaining the spreadsheet. And that's an average, probably on the high end. I only have the four stories so far (waiting for some of my half-baked ideas to gel a bit before I can write more). Some weeks, all four are in slush piles, and there's nothing to do. Then there was the week I got four rejections in five days! That one took a little longer, and was right around the time I posted that comment. So that probably affected my estimate.

I'm not saying you shouldn't use your system; whatever works for you is great. But I suspect it's feasible to keep as many as, say, ten stories or so in circulation at once without needing to spend a lot of time on tracking them. (But I've never personally done it, so I'm talking through my hat.)

When I reach ten stories worth circulating, I'll let you know!

I should also note that it's not necessarily necessary to keep multiple stories circulating at once; it's a good idea to do so, but some writers write slowly and infrequently. It's okay to write slowly (though hard to build a writing career that way); in this entry, I was mostly just saying don't stop after writing your first story.

For me, I think that multiple circulating stories is important for my morale and ambition. With some of these outlets taking months to decide (up to 6 months at Tor.com!), I would give up with just a single story. I know I would, because I have in the past. I used to send out a story, wait for weeks and months, and then get despondent with the final rejection. Now, the rejections just don't matter as much, because I know that there's another story out there that could turn out better. It may not work that way for everyone, but it works for me.

[I posted this comment on 23 September, but the blog system marked it as spam. Heh. Anyway, am now making it public, in early October. Sorry for delay.]

Heheheh. Blocked by your own spam filter! I love the irony.

Posted by Joy Hounsell at May 15, 2011 2:53 PM:

I tend to send one story off at a time, mainly to SH, tried a few other places that didn't work, and now found one called Lightspeed, the story came back after a day with a comment saying try other places which I was very pleased with. I use the waiting time to write the next story, and when it comes back rejected I tend to leave it there, but I have now sent the Lightspeed one to SH so that is progress for me. After I write a story I read it to my writer's group and then I feel it deserves a little outing incase it could be published.I was very impressed you had so many places to send your stories to but maybe you are missing out on the learning curve, mine was going from a kind of rehash story of Star Wars/Farscape/1950s sf (still my favourite one!) to thinking about stuff like the ideas behind a story, how to come up with an original one, how to make it clear, sentence structure (is it fun or just irritating?) I don't mind the long wait for SH as I find rejections easier if I'm working on something else, also I can understand that so many stories is a lot of work. SH is easy to submit to, and has the stories we see too often so it's popular with me, I still don't know the difference between a curly bracket and a straight one. The thing that worries me is I much prefer reading popular science to sf and love a few of the SH stories, but some of them, well, they don't appeal, same if I look at the sf/fantasy chart and end up buying Phillip K. Dick. I grew up on John Wyndeham and Douglas Adams and I'm not sure I've read widely enough, I tend to read for comfort and escape and identification rather than action and plots and I have to check if anything too bad happens to a character I have got to like, if so I don't read on, (apart from the story of Neiros and the aunty in the trees, loved that one.)
Sorry to go on for so long, I would love to hear about the stories you have in circulation and which sf mags you prefer for reading and writing, thank you very much Jed for your comments, a real insight, hopefully all those writers who only submit one story will reduce the competition!

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