You may recall that I recently thought that I’d received some fan mail, declarations of love even, only to discover that the floozy was spreading her messages far and wide, all whilst offering to make me wildly rich, but only if I could provide some upfront readies to oil the wheels of probate. The brazen non-existent hussy.
Well, I now seem to have received some real fan mail. He (I think it’s a he) didn’t declare his love or offer me a route to $9.5m for a modest downpayment, so I’m working on the basis that it’s genuine. Instead, Lawson Castaldo (can I use that name? it’s very sci-fi) asked for advice on how to improve his writing. And I thought I’d share my thoughts with you all.
Well, with a hit-rate of less than 1%, I’m not sure how valid any of my advice would be - a far better starting point would be the three articles linked here - but I’ll throw in a few thoughts of my own. And, at the risk of being accused of mission-creep, I’ve majored on how to get sci-fi short stories published, and in so doing improve your writing.
‘Don’t get it right, get it written’
An old writerly cliché, only half-correct in that getting it right really helps, but the point is that writing is like using a muscle, the more you use it the better you get. Just write stories. Read them back to yourself. Get them fit for purpose and get them out there. Listen to any feedback your lucky enough to receive.
A lot of people get family and friends to read them, take them to writers’ groups. Way too many cooks in my view. If what you write reads well to you then get your babies to fly the nest and work on the next yarn. Don’t be like the character in Camus’ The Plague who edited his life’s work down to one sentence (was it even one word in the end?). Be productive.
For one thing, magazines and publishers may well sit on a story for six months, longer if it makes it further from slush pile to editor’s desk(top) - you need to have a dozen or so out there knocking on doors for you. I’ve just done a quick count and I think I have about 21 stories currently in slush piles.
Know your market
The internet is brilliant. If you don’t already know ralan.com, submissions grinder, Duotrope, check them out. SFWA produce a list of qualifying markets.
Get to know the submissions pages of the publications you’re pitching to. Follow the instructions - story length, format, what to include in the cover letter, what to put in the subject line of the email - to the letter. Don’t give them a reason for an instant rejection.
…but don’t know your market too well
By which I mean - and I’ll risk the ire of editors here - don’t feel it necessary to read the magazines you send stories to - other than to support their very worthy enterprises. The reason being that editors want some out-of-the-ordinary, extraordinary. Feel tempted to replicate or imitate what’s gone before and your guaranteed not to be fresh or different. I don’t want to reference myself against other stories. If I’m in the dark as regards what’s out there then I’ll never be tempted to steer a story away or towards another’s tale. Plus, remember, editors are maybe a year ahead in terms of what they’re reading versus what their readership is seeing.
As long as I’m not sending sci-fi to a fantasy market (You know how I tell? The artwork. If a website is all dragons and dwarf-tossing then it won’t get my William Gibson-esque near-future dystopia) then I’m happy not to be too well-versed in its recent output.
I recently heard Richard Hawley interviewed who said he wouldn’t listen to music when writing music as he ends up pastiching what he hears - I’m the same about writing. In fact, I don’t think any sci-fi has ever informed my sci-fi, other than in a very peripheral, ‘mood-music’ kind of way. I’m much more likely to take a story in a newspaper and play ‘what-if’ games with it.
For example, I was reading about automotive technology that can tell when a driver is having a heart attack, stop the car, and call the emergency services. My mind drifted to what if the driver was an android - the car wouldn’t function at all - but didn’t know it. Would he achieve self-knowledge through trips to the garage? So I wrote that.
I find checking the anthology listings on submissions grinder particularly useful. Some are vague as anything, but others can be bizarrely precise. With luck I either have a story that fits or - and this is where it can really hit the sweet spot - a story can be twisted to fit in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. That story about the intelligent car and unaware robot? When I saw Kazka’s requirements for their Bronies anthology the car became a pony and another sale was made. I would never have written that story straight off.
Sounds odd, but stories cover sights and sounds but rarely smells. Add a line or two about the scents, aromas and whiffs. It’s to writing what Worcestershire sauce is to cooking.
Lastly, forget the money
In terms of return on investment you’d be better off walking the pavements looking for dropped change. I don’t say this to put you off, but to free you from the pressure of either trying to write to a ‘formula’ that isn’t you or judging your writing fiscally. I think I suffer from stories that are hard to pigeonhole, but I can’t bring myself to write overblown ‘Captain Zumera pushed his hovercar over the ridge and into the canyon, fingering the trigger of his blaster, looking for shellback ya-yas’-type spaceopera. (Actually that didn’t sound too bad, even if I don’t understand half of what I typed).
Plus, when you do get paid it’s all the sweeter.