Getting Your Start in Short Spec Fic

(This was originally posted on Curious Fictions on May 11, 2020 -- I am rescuing posts before the website disappears!)


INTRO

As part of my Capital City Press Featured Writer duties, I did a class on February 6, 2020, that I called 'Getting Your Start in Short Spec Fic'!


What I really meant to say was 'Here are some of the things I wish had been centralized in one location for me to learn before I started writing and submitting short stories to SFFH venues, rather than learning piecemeal, forgetting, re-learning, hearing rumours of, and finding in my spam folder over the last four years.'


"Oh, but there's no substitute for experience!" people will say.


Yeah? Well, there's also no reason for every single short story writer to find out every single thing by trial and error, and somewhere, a magazine editor just screamed "I KNOW!" as loudly as possible, so there.


IN-SCOPE AND OUT-OF-SCOPE

The class did not cover how to write a short story, because there's a lot better information already available on the actual writing or craft part of it, and what works for me is not going to work for anybody else (as they say, if you look at a thousand writers, you find a thousand processes).


What I wanted to discuss was some of the less common, or less public, information about the short speculative fiction marketplace that would be helpful for people who might just be getting started in it.


My intent was to cover:

- What's a short story

- Where you can sell them

- Some common differences between spec fic and litfic venues

- What to expect when you do (including some tools and websites)

- Patterns and tips I've noticed in my time as a slusher/associate editor at Escape Pod

- What helps a story stand out for audio venues


SOME DEFINITIONS AND CAVEATS

- I don't have any formal writing education in either novels or short stories. In medicine, we would be called quacks; in writing, my people are referred to as hacks.

- I am primarily a novelist, and got into short stories very recently, so take all commentary with an ocean's worth of salt.

- A "slush pile" consists of the general submissions that are sent to a venue, as opposed to solicited content.

- A "slusher" is therefore a person who is the first reader of this pile. We help curate the general submissions to a smaller number of stories that are sent to the actual decisionmakers. Sometimes a slusher is called, euphemistically, an 'Associate Editor,' which may help distinguish us from Commissioning or Acquiring or Senior Editors, etc. And sometimes we're not, because titles in publishing are weird.


SOME COMMENTS ON SHORT STORIES AND NOVELS

I invited the class to think of authors that are either famous primarily for writing short stories, or who write both short stories and novels. I began by suggesting Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Flannery O'Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Munro, Shirley Jackson, Jack London, Neil Gaiman, etc.


For people who do both, it can be enlightening to read and compare their short stories and novels in terms of language, structure, scope, plot, and so on.

Short stories are not training wheels for a novelist; they require an overlapping, but different, set of skills to write well. Editors are also looking for much different craft aspects in a short story than a novel. There is absolutely no requirement to 'start' with short stories and 'work your way up' to novels after you 'get good' at the shorter form. They are really apples and oranges, and this is more prominent the shorter the story is.


Historically, many authors wrote mostly short stories because you used to be able to make a living off them (this is more difficult now: to be discussed in a later slide).


ABOUT LENGTHS

These vary depending on who you talk to but general guidelines are:

- Flash: <1000 words (sometimes up to 1500)

- Short story: 1000 (or 1500) words up to about 7500

- Novelette: 7500-17,500

- Novella: 17,500-40,000


Personally, I find flash so hard to write that I barely bother, so I am never going to be on a beer can. In terms of 'common' lengths, there's a bit of a bell curve. A lot of stories sold are around the 3000-4000 word length even when venues accept both longer and shorter (which need to be pretty remarkable to stand out from a story of a 'standard' length). Usually due to budget restrictions, fewer places buy novelettes and novellas; some venues opt to serialize them, which is fun to read.


As you get towards the longer end of the novella, markets are definitely starting to open up and there are quite a few places producing them as real little books in print! Tor is a big name in novellas, and there's also Interstellar Press, Tachyon, Erewhon Books, Luna Press, and several others. I just sold one to ECW Press (which was around 38K words).


THE SHORT STORY ECOSYSTEM

There are lots of places to publish a short story! Some I mentioned in the class included:

- Short story advent calendars (Edmonton!)

- Print and online magazines that specialize in short fiction (e.g. Clarkesworld, Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, etc)

- As part of publications that don't (e.g. "I read Playboy for the stories," The New Yorker, etc)

- Short fiction podcasts (e.g. the Escape Artists family)

- Anthologies (themed, awards, best-of-year, etc)

- Beer cans

- Interactive Fiction (e.g. Sub-Q)

- Vending machines in airports

- Patreons, Curious Fictions, blogs, etc (e.g. Kameron Hurley, a novelist and short story writer who offers a short story every month on her Patreon).


WHAT FOLLOWS IS NOT WRITING ADVICE

As mentioned, I don't have much to share about craft, per se, but as a slusher, there are things that we frequently see that work well, and others that don't. The mechanical assembly of good components can still end up with a story that doesn't work, and conversely, not using any of these can still end up with a great and marketable story. As always, it's the combination of the story, the editor, and the venue's needs.


What makes a solid candidate to be bumped up to the next level of slush?

- A super strong first line or paragraph. What does 'strong' mean? This looks different in literary vs. genre short stories, due to genre conventions that editors are still interested in seeing. Ideally, it's interesting, it piques the reader's curiosity so we want to read more, and it either states or indicates which genre it is (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc). Because of time limitations it's common to stop slushing after a page or two, so the opening has to grab attention, prove there's a real story/narrative, and that the quality of the writing is high.


- A memorable title. Not a rule, but we see it all the time that the more interesting the story title, the more likely it is to be bought, and even win awards. (People would, in general, not believe how many stories I've slushed with the exact same titles, such as 'Dust' or 'Her Story' or 'Andromeda' or 'At the End of the World.') I popped into the Locus 2019 Recommended List for short stories and found some interesting examples:

“58 Rules to Ensure Your Husband Loves You Forever“

“The Bookstore at the End of America”

“A Bird, a Song, a Revolution“

“The Migration Suite: A Study in C Sharp Minor“

“The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex”

“Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan“

“It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning“

“The Shadow We Cast Through Time”

“Love in the Time of Immuno-Sharing”

("What about stuff like 'The Lottery,' gawd" Okay yes, but only if you are already famous can you call something like that and get away with it, okay? Can we all agree that 'We Have Always Lived In The Castle' is a much stronger title?)


Disclaimer: I am not good at titles. Do not look at my titles for good examples. But generally, people who can write well come up with good titles; it's a useful little indicator, like the check-engine light. Notice how many of these indicate the genre very clearly before the narrative even begins, or pose a question, or suggest an unresolved premise.


- Not too many proper nouns. 99% of the time it's an automatic 'no' if the story introduces six people and ten neologisms. This is very common and is considered something of the mark of an inexperienced writer. Especially in audio, a decent-ish guideline is one to two named characters per thousand words or so. I absolutely promise that you can just say 'the knight' or 'the shuttle pilot' if they don't say anything or appear again.


- Clear stakes. Not a series of 'things that happen' but a series of choices or events that cause the next set of choices or events, and that make logical sense in the premise/setting of the story. The stakes don't have to be high, or world-changing! Whatever they are, the story is more likely to get bumped if they are clear and have consequences that can be understood.


- A narrative structure (Freytag's triangle). If the 'so what' of the story isn't clear, editors often lose interest. The trend used to be less strongly directed towards this, so if you read stuff from the 1940s-1960s, or the 'Golden Age' of sci-fi, you'd see short stories that were entirely a series of anecdotes, or a scientist explaining a piece of technology. Those would likely not sell to modern venues and people roundly mock them on social media when they crop up in special issues.


- Not entirely predictable, or over-clever, ending. In English class I was taught that a short story had to have a 'twist' or 'surprise' ending. From what I've seen in the slush pile that isn't true. It's wonderful when one works, but it has to be set up properly, and make sense in the context of the story. A boring or predictable ending is just as off-putting as a surprise one that's been inserted like the punchline to a joke rather than a real twist.


THE EXTREME BASICS

(Which is to say, things I figured out at once, but which we still see in slush, so not everybody has, which is why they are being mentioned here, because oh God my head.)


- Nearly every venue has different requirements for length limits, formatting (including font, spacing, headers, footers, and page numbers), and whether you can leave identifying information on or not. "Well that's stupid, can't I just write the story and send it out," no, you cannot, you'd think so, but no; for each submission you have to check, again, and reformat, again, and then send out. Nobody's working towards standardization. "Well that sounds like editors have let the power go to their heads and have specific and mildly deranged grudges towards certain fonts," indeed so, but humour them, they might pay you money.


- In some cases, not obeying these requirements to the letter will result in an automatic rejection either by the system or the slushers.


- (I posted some submission guideline examples but CF won't let me embed images in a blog post)


- I strongly recommend using an external tracker on top of, or instead of, a homebrew system, unless you are extremely diligent about tracking things like open periods, calls for submissions, whether places accept simultaneous or multiple submissions, length limitations, query suggestion times, whether you're about to submit the same story to a place twice, solicitations, themes, reprints, etc.


- The Submissions Grinder is free and what I use, but I've also heard good things about Duotrope and Literarium, and if you Google around a bit you can also find templates that other authors have generously developed and made public in things like MS Excel. The Grinder also has (more images here but I can't upload them to CF) award nominations for individual venues, what they accept in terms of genre and length, how much they pay, and most interestingly, a crowdsourced roundup of things like response times and acceptance rates. Lots of people use the Grinder so for popular venues these can be quite accurate.


- We jokingly call this Submissions Tetris because what you need is the right shaped story to fall at the right time for the open slot.


- We also jokingly call this 'Why Writers Drink.'


PAY, AND/OR NOT-PAY

- The SFWA, which is sort of the 'gold standard' for short story information (like categorization for awards and suchlike) has 'pro' and 'non-pro' payment rates. Till late 2018, pro rate used to be 6 cents per word, now it's 8c/word. Even adjusted for inflation etc, you used to get paid a lot a lot a lot more for short stories. That was how some authors made a living, just selling short stories to pulp mags, etc.


- "Oh, well I'll just write longer stories," okay well as discussed, long stories are slightly less likely to sell because they cost the venue more money and space that could be used for multiple shorter stories.


- In some cases you are competing with a field of other submitters that results in acceptance rates well below one percent.


- And, most places do not pay pro rates. (Another handy thing about the Submissions Grinder is that you can filter by pay.) In some cases there's no compensation at all, and in some cases it's a token (like $5 or $10 plus a copy of the finished product, sometimes in .pdf, or a free subscription to the venue, etc).


- I really feel like more new short story writers need to know about that last bullet point.


- One quick difference to mention between so-called 'litfic' and speculative fiction: literary-type venues quite often (like, well over 50% of the time) charges you a small fee simply to submit. They also have various things like giving you the option to pay more for an 'expedited' read on your story, or for editor feedback. The vast majority of spec fic venues do not have submission fees.


- Two really quick things to mention as well that I had no idea about when I started submitting:

- Solicitations: So great. I've only very recently started getting these. An editor will contact you (by the way: make sure it's easy to contact you in some way, either on social media or your website) and be like 'Yo I'm putting together an anthology with X theme, can you send us something to look at' or 'I liked Story X, can I have it as a reprint?' etc. Obviously they can still say no if they like, but in general if they've taken the trouble to get you to write something new, your chances are better, and you're competing with fewer people because you're not in the general slush pile.

- Reprints: Did I know about reprints? I did not. After you sell a story, when the exclusivity rights in the contract are up (quite often six months to a year, sometimes up to two, if it's longer than two, run away), you can just sell it again! A lot of places accept reprints (for less money, say 2c/word instead of 8, or a flat fee of $100 like Escape Pod), but you're making more money on the same story, and a few times I've sold the reprint for more than the original venue paid me. The Grinder lets you filter for places that do buy reprints, as not everywhere does.


FINAL THOUGHTS: AUDIO FICTION

(I spent most of the class referencing the Escape Artists podcast family about 400 times, so I thought I'd throw in a plug to submit to audio fiction podcasts.)


I love these because I have a mild audio processing disorder due to either my autism or ADHD (or both! who knows how brains work!), and I have a harder time with longer audio. Short stories are a perfect length to stay focused and enjoy. Also, many audio places print the text as well so you can read along!


Some things that work quite well for audio:

- Good dialogue that sounds natural and is not full of stereotypes (dialect is OK when used well, but making fun of accents or speech differences is not)

- Simple, really strongly visual descriptions (shorter is better for audio; more leeway in text)

- Sci-fi is especially known for infodumps but if it's longer than a couple of sentences, it works less well in audio

- Not too many named character or neologisms—I already mentioned this as a general suggestion, but it's even more important in audio for the audience to be able to keep track of knowns and unknowns, because a lot of people do just listen to the audio and don't look at the text, and they can't go back easily and just re-read bits for context.

- And a linear plot: there are some fantastic short stories with things like time loops, epistolary setups, switching between historical periods (or far future, etc), unusual time systems, or many points of view. These can be hard sells for audio unless there's a decent amount of guidance and landmarking in the story (my example: 'More Tomorrow,' epistolary but sequential, one flashback).


MAIN TAKEAWAYS

  1. Short stories are fun and can be a good place to show off innovation and experimentation!

  2. They pay and there are hundreds of markets!

  3. The more short fiction you read, the better yours will get!


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