Reader Request Week 2017 #8: The Path to Publication

Teresa asks:

From the moment that you wrote the first draft, how long it did it take you to see your first work of fiction published?

Heh. Well, it depends on what one means by my first work of fiction.

If, for example, my first work of fiction is thought to be the very first complete story I ever wrote, which is a story called “Best Friends: Or, another reason not to get sick,” then the answer is thirty-three years and counting, since I wrote it in 1984 for Mr. Heyes’ freshman English composition class, and aside from a few copies I ran off for friends (mostly the ones on whom the story was based), no one’s ever seen it, or is likely to. It was written by 14-year me and while it was good enough for the class — I was the only person in three sections of the class to get an “A” — I suspect it is of very limited interest to anyone else.

(With that said, I think the story’s opening graph makes it clear that my general advice of “have good opening lines” is something I knew early on. “Well, if this has taught me anything, it’s not to get sick. I get sick for three days, and the world changed” is pretty solid, even if it has a problem with tenses.)

(And yes, I do still have the complete story, along with just about every other story I wrote as a teen. No, I won’t show them to you. I’m doing you a favor.)

If one discounts juvenilia, then my next actual complete work of fiction might be considered to be a poem I wrote, “Penelope,” which I wrote in 1991. It’s written from the point of view of the wife of Odysseus, waiting for her husband to return and delaying having to pick a suitor by weaving and then unraveling a burial shroud. I don’t usually consider it to be fiction — my brain generally sections out poetry and prose fiction — but inasmuch as it does have a point of view character, and that point of view character is not meant to be me (spoiler: but it kind of was, inasmuch as I was writing it for a girl I pined for and wanted close to me and hey, look, allegory and metaphor), it could be called fiction. As it happens, “Penelope” was published in Miniatures, my book of very short stories, which was published last year (literally on the last day of the year). So that would be 25 years. I’d note I didn’t try to publish it prior to Miniatures; it was written for a specific person in mind.

If we toss out that poem and stick to prose, the next piece of completed fiction I wrote was Agent to the Stars, which I wrote in the summer of 1997 as my “practice novel,” i.e., the novel I wrote to see if I could write a novel (turns out I could). Inasmuch as it was my practice novel, I didn’t write it with the intent to sell it, but when I created my web site at, I decided to put it up here and let people download it if they liked, and if they wanted, to send me money for it. So it was self-published, and that was in 1999. If you want to count self-publishing on one’s Web site as actual publication (back in 1999, I would note, it would generally not have been considered so), then it took two years. If you don’t count that as publishing, then you’d have to wait until 2005, when the hardcover version was published by Subterranean Press. In which case: eight years.

But it’s important to note that Agent got published (by someone else) because that publisher asked to publish it; I didn’t shop it. If you’re curious about what piece of fiction of mine was the first that I wrote with the intent to try to have it published, and which was then in fact actually published by someone else, then that would be “Alien Animal Encounters.” I wrote it in 2001 and immediately submitted it to Strange Horizons magazine, on the basis that I liked the magazine, and also because it would accept electronic submissions, and I didn’t own a printer. For the life of me I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but I did submit it almost immediately after I wrote it, and it was published pretty quickly after that. That was October 2001, so I suspect I wrote it a couple months before that. Let’s say three months to be safe. So: Three months, from writing it to it being published.

(Also, all of these were first drafts, in the sense that I edit as I write, so when I type “The End” I just do a quick copyedit run through. I don’t edit less than people who write drafts, I just do it as I go along. Works for me; your mileage my vary.)

So: Depending on how one chooses to define what was my first work of fiction, and what constitutes publishing, the answer to the gap between first draft and the pub date is three months, or two years, or eight years, or 25 years, or 33 years and counting.

And you know what? I think that’s about average, as far as writers are concerned. There are lots of places one could count as the starting point for one’s career, and lots of different opinions as to what constitutes being published.

The important thing here is: I did start writing. And I did start getting published.

Everything progressed from there. And here we are.

F&SF’s Writing Workshop

I’ve been asked what my opinion is about the fact that Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine will soon be offering an online workshop. It’s an workshop which offers an interesting twist: for a currently unspecified amount of cash, aspiring writers can workshop with noted SF editor Gardner Dozois — who, if he takes a shine to a story from the workshop, can slide it into the magazine. Dozois can do this up to three times a year, apparently.

This sounds like a good deal for newbie writers hopeful for mentorship and publication, but those of us who are firm believers in Yog’s Law (“Money should flow toward the author”) could quite reasonably note there is a problem here, i.e., it sure looks like writers paying money for access to publication, instead of getting paid for their labor. Compounding this problem is the current lack of real information on the workshop, including apparently any explicit notation that the workshop participants whose work is selected for publication will get compensated for their scribbling efforts.

Fortunately, there’s a simple and easy way for F&SF to avoid the appearance of being skeezy folks looking to screw newbie writers, which is, obviously, for F&SF to pay the writer of any workshop story that Dozois elevates to publication the same rate the magazine pays any of its other writers. This compensates the writer, and resolves any major ethical concern that this workshop is a process for gulling the unschooled.

In fact, I’m sure F&SF was always planning to do this; it’s  just that in all the excitement and hullabaloo, editor Gordon Van Gelder somehow managed to neglect mentioning the whole “oh, yes, and by the way, we’ll pay for those workshop stories we print” business. This was rather silly of him and I’m sure he’ll take steps to correct this oversight as soon as humanly possible, because no one likes looking vaguely unethical any longer than they absolutely have to, especially in a genre where the standard rate for short fiction is as low as it already is.

Other than this unfortunate oversight in explanatory verbiage, I have no opinion about the workshop one way or another, except to note that as far as I know, it’s the only possible way currently to submit an electronic manuscript to any of the “big three” science fiction magazines. This is of mild interest to me because as many of you know one of the major reasons that I’ve never submitted a story to any of the “big three” magazines is that they don’t accept electronic submissions, and I don’t own a printer. However, if I’m not going to bother to buy a printer to submit work to these magazines, I’m even less likely to pay for a workshop simply to get around an arbitrary and increasingly antiquated submission barrier. So, no stories from me in “the big three.” Still.

Update, 10:30 7/3: Gordon Van Gelder notes the magazine will pay “beginner’s rates” from stories plucked out of the workshop.

Science Fiction and Electronic Submissions

I’m occasionally asked why I’ve never had a short story in Analog, Asimov’s or Fantasy & Science Fiction. I’ve discussed the reason for this before, but it’s been a while and enough has changed that I’ll go ahead and address it again.

The reason I’ve never been in Analog, Asimov’s or Fantasy & Science Fiction is:

I don’t own a printer.

Which I would need in order to submit to any of those magazines, because none of them accept (unsolicited) electronic submissions. So in order to submit work to any of them, I would have to go out and purchase a printer, as well as ink cartridges, paper, stamps and envelopes. Then I’d have to get my act together enough to actually format, print and mail the story (and cover letter) off to the magazines. It could happen, but speaking from previous experience, i.e., during the years where I did own a printer and occasionally thought about querying magazines, it doesn’t seem likely. Pretty much the only way I’m going to send anything to any of these magazines is if they start accepting (unsolicited) electronic submissions. I don’t expect that to happen soon; they have their reasons for having their submission standards be what they are, and I certainly don’t expect them to bend their rules for me. So: No Analog, Asimov’s or Fantasy & Science Fiction for me.

Yes, I’m aware how deeply idiotic this sounds. I know it because I’m not a fool, and I don’t confuse my own slothful nature with a right state of affairs for everyone else. I also know it because at the last Worldcon, the editor of one of the previously-mentioned magazines said that he’d like to see some work from me, and I said “Yeah, but then I’d need to buy a printer, and stamps and envelopes, and I kinda don’t wanna,” and then he looked at me like I was bleeding ebola virus right from the head. Which, you know. Fair enough.

The thing is, the reason I don’t own a printer is that I don’t need one. I’ve done fine building a career in fiction, non-fiction and in business working with clients and markets that do work electronically. One of the reasons I didn’t buy a new printer when my last one died in 2004 was that I used it so infrequently that I couldn’t justify the cost; I mostly used it for printing up pictures of my kid and my cat. When that printer died I decided to wait and see if I had any real reason to get a new one. I’m still waiting.

Now, I exist in this sort of blessed state for two reasons. The first is that when people solicit work from me, I let them know that electronically is how I work. This generally doesn’t present a problem; rare is the individual these days who can’t accept an electronic document and work with it on their end, if they choose to. The second is that when I go looking for clients/markets or whatever, I look for the ones that will take work the way I work. There are a sufficient number of these that I don’t typically have a problem finding opportunities. I don’t do this just with writing markets; one of the reasons why Ethan Ellenberg is my fiction agent is that when I was looking for an agent, I went looking for one who would accept a query via e-mail. He would. Not the only reason I went with him, to be sure. But it actually was a requirement.

Likewise, with science fiction short stories, there are markets who work the way I work. Strange Horizons published my first short story and I’ve been a big fan ever since. These days most of my short fiction gets funneled through Subterranean Press, either on its online magazine or through chapbooks or limited editions. Indeed, daresay Subterranean Press is probably the place that best gets the power of working electronically. To explain why, let me recount the experience of selling this particular work: I wrote it and e-mailed it to Bill Schafer at Subterranean; he read at it, approved it and paid me for it through PayPal. Elapsed time from submission to payment: about fifteen minutes. All handled electronically. Welcome to the 21st century; we have many wonders here.

(But, you say, Subterranean Online doesn’t have the same number of readers as any of the Big Three SF/F magazines. This is true enough; it’s new and building an audience. However, I have the same number of readers; I averaged 26,000 visitors a day during the work week last week, which is pretty much on par with the monthly circulation of any of the Big Three. Not every one of them is going to click through to a story of mine when I link to it, but enough will that I can say not unreasonably that when one of my short stories gets posted, it won’t lack for readers. What the Big Three still have that online and other SF/F markets don’t is a majority of Hugo nominators among their readers; getting published in the Big Three is still the best way to get your work considered for that particular award. I don’t know that that will always be the case, however.)

Would I like to be published in Analog, Asimov’s or Fantasy & Science Fiction? Sure; I like to read all of them and I like the idea of being part of a publishing continuity that includes so many of the authors I admire (this is assuming, mind you, that something I’d submit to them would be accepted for publication in the first place). But I’m not going to buy a printer just to send work to them. I’m not suggesting these magazines need to change their submission requirements, since nearly all other writers at the moment are not as profoundly electronically oriented as I am, or if they are, are not as gripped with ennui as I am when confronted with the need to print and mail something. I mean, I don’t know why I manage to get away with this sort of crap; I don’t suggest others do what I do.

That said, the native writing medium of nearly every writer my age or younger is electronic; I suspect at some point there’ll be a bend in the curve where most writers will prefer to do their submissions electronically. Which is to say I strongly suspect most writers would prefer to do it that way now, and as time goes on more writers — and the best writers — will choose to hit first the markets that they see working the way they do. That day won’t be a very good day for the markets that aren’t working that way.

Reader Request Week 2006 #3: Writers and Technology

Zhwj asks about where writers and technology intersect:

Where do you think writers should be, technology-wise? With your presence on this blog, and your forays into online distribution and publishing, you probably are in the upper .n% of technologically-capable writers. And we don’t tend to hear too much these days from writers who insist on pecking things out on an Underwood. What’s the minimum technical competence at present? e-mail? online research? regexp formulation? How much does technology help (or hinder) writing? Obviously this will depend subject matter and such, but is it still possible to buy envelopes and stamps and have that be your connection to the publishing world?

Well, strictly speaking, as the vast majority of magazines and book publishers out there in the world demand query/submissions to be mailed in with an SASE, and all but the most bleeding-edge technophile publishers at the very least still accept such queries/submissions, you can indeed still get along with envelopes, stamps and paper. And I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.

Indeed, to some extent, rabidly technophile writers are at a disadvantage to more traditional writers. To use myself as an example, it’s been so long since I’ve conducted business using paper that I don’t even own a printer anymore, and haven’t for about two years now. When documents come that need to be printed out, I forward them to Krissy, who prints them out at work (I understand she pays her work for the cost of the printing) and brings them home. But what this means is that I don’t in fact query or send submissions to magazines/publishers who require paper submissions; in effect, I am cutting myself off from that 80% or so of publishing opportunities. Now, personally speaking this is not too much of a problem because at this point in my career work tends to come looking for me rather than the other way around, and people with whom I work are willing to tolerate my “paper is what happens to other people” ways. But a writer who was just starting out or who did not have a professional network akin to my current set of connections would be dumb to do what I do.

(And to be clear, just because this is how my career works today doesn’t mean that’s how it’ll work a year, five years or ten years from now; if it ever comes to a point where I have to get a printer or risk not being able to work as a writer — duh, I’m buying a printer. I like being on the tech edge of things, but I’m also not stupid about it.)

However, this is only talking about the submissions process. Can writers survive without recent technology in other ways — such as research, connecting with sources, working with editors and so on? Again the answer is yes… if you live in New York, London, Los Angeles or other places where the cultural infrastructure allows a writer real-world access to these things. If you wish to live somewhere $2000 a month gets you more than a one-bedroom third-floor walk-up, however, you really do need to be connected. To use myself again, I live in a small, rural community with one very small library, hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from the editors with whom I work on a regular basis, and an equal distance from most of the people whom I deal with for interviews, materials and so on. I could not do the non-fiction aspect of my writing career with any sort of facility, living where I do, without today’s technology. I could do the fiction aspect of it reasonably well, but even that would be more difficult. This is in fact technology’s gift to writers: Now we can live anywhere we wish and still have access to the tools and people that (and who) allow us to be able to do our jobs. Thank you, technology!

Technology does have its drawbacks as well, of course. As I noted at a panel at Boskone, thanks to the advent of the Internet, this is the first era in which a writer’s primary tool of output — the computer — is now also his primary tool of input. Which is to say the same machine you write your stories on is also the machine from which you get your news, correspondence and entertainment and also (for a growing number of far-flung writers) community. And it’s easy to switch between input and output modes — so easy it becomes a real problem. At one point writing The Ghost Brigades I had to switch off my broadband connection because I was checking e-mail every sixty seconds rather than thinking about what I was writing. Equally, I now make it a point to get up from my computer when I’m plotting story because if I stay in front of the computer, I’ll just ego-surf or read other people’s blogs. Which doesn’t actually help me tell my story. Now, writers have never had a problem procrastinating, ever, so one can’t blame technology for this. But one can recognize that technology makes it easier.

One also should recognize that technology shapes writing and writers; the tools one uses matter in one’s final product. I have no doubt that my writing is directly informed by the technology I use to write it. I can’t imagine trying to write a novel on a typewriter, for example; I realize other people did it — for a century! — but then people lived without antibiotics, too, and I don’t want that either.

Here’s an interesting fact: All my novels to date are first drafts that weren’t outlined in advance. Why? Because the computer makes that possible. I can edit on the fly as I write so many of the major tasks of additional drafts of a book (polishing of the text, sanding down plot lines, etc) occur as I go along. The rewriting I’ve been required to do for my novels (so far, at least) has been minimal because by the time I write “The End,” most re-writing has been done as I went along. I suspect it’s not accurate to call the draft I send to my editors a “first draft”; it’s more of a “fractal draft,” in that it incorporates several waves of on-the-fly editing, emanating backward from various points in the text, terminating at the point of completion.

Doing this sort of “fractal draft” would not be impossible on a typewriter (or on a pad of paper), but it would be difficult to the point of distraction, which is why writers did have second, third and subsequent drafts of their work. Drafts are an artifact of the technology. Now, I’m aware that many writers still make two or more drafts even though they use computers, and I won’t gainsay them for doing so — the writing process that works for you is the writing process you should use. But I’m glad I don’t have to do that, and I’m glad I work on technology that allows me to write in a manner that is both comfortable and natural to me.

Back to the question of where writers should be with technology: I think if you have a recent computer and a decent Internet connection with e-mail, you’re fine — you’ve got output and input covered. Most everything else is ancilliary — possibly useful, possibly distracting, but in either case not absolutely necessary. For example, take blogging: I certainly find it useful, and in general I think it’s a great way for writers to stay connected to readers and to fellow writers. But is blogging necessary? No. You can still get along nicely without it, and ultimately, most writers today still do. Or cell phones: Handy little things, to be sure, but I went until a month ago without one and I never had any problems maintaining a writing career, and now that I have a cell phone I don’t find it doing much for me as a writer.

Despite all the neat new toys and gadgets, the last critical technology for a writer was the Internet; there may be a new killer app for writers on the horizon, but I’m blind to what it is if it’s there. For now, a computer and Internet connection with e-mail are mandatory for writers, technology-wise, and all else is elaboration.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here)