Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Many paths to a writing career

"It's hard to get published."

Everybody knows this, even people who never plan to become writers. I knew it when I started writing, when I'd just discovered this storytelling drive I had inside me and had no idea (yet) where it fit into my life. I'd always had an artistic drive, and always had interest in science fiction and fantasy, but had never put them together before. So I wrote first and figured it out later.

When I first got to the point where I wanted to try to get published, I had no idea how to start. This may sound familiar to some. I was living in Japan at the time, and the internet resources for writers hadn't really come into their own yet, so I mail-ordered a couple of books about agents and publishers and how to go about writing query letters and all that lovely stuff. Some of you will recognize at this point that I was writing novels rather than short stories. That was where my experiences with rejection began! On the other hand, I learned early that rejections with comments were pure gold, because they were feedback from someone on the other side of that mysterious wall that lies between the publishing world and the lowly newbie writer.

Now there are lots of internet resources out there for writers: AgentQuery, Preditors and Editors, SFWA's Writer Beware, Duotrope's Digest, etc... But it's still hard to get published, and there's no easy answer just waiting out there for a writer to find. This is because there are many different paths that can lead you to a successful writing career, and if you ask two (or three, or four) writers how they got to where they are, chances are they'll each give you a different answer.

Some start with short stories and others start with novels. I started by writing novels, and then after a time friends said to me, "You should try writing short fiction." I got the impression from some of them that it would be easier to get short fiction published than novels. Since I'd had no success with the novels I'd written so far, I figured, "Why not?" So I started writing short stories, and learning how to do those, because they're very different from novels and require different kinds of skills to get right. I got lots of rejections, from lots of different markets. The fact of the matter is, I'm not sure which one is harder. But you'll never know which one is easier for you if you don't try both. My friend Aliette de Bodard has a novel coming out from Angry Robot, entitled Servant of the Underworld, but by the time she sold it she already had a great career going and lots of fans from her short fiction.

Some people sell their short fiction first to semipro venues, and others to pro. I always figured, start at the top with each story you want to sell, and work your way down as it gets rejected, from pro to semipro, to token venues. But the fact of the matter was, I lost patience with the endless cycle of waiting, and after I ran my work past a few semipro markets, I pretty much left it in the trunk. I have several friends who have sold many pieces to semipro markets before breaking into the pro markets - and at least two who now make regular money from their sales of short fiction, hooray!

Some people pitch a novel to a publisher first, get a deal, and then find an agent. Others go straight to getting an agent through the query approach. My friend Janice Hardy, for example, landed an agent without any previous fiction sales, simply on the strength of her new novel, The Shifter, which she sent queries for and then pitched to the woman who would become her agent at the Surrey International Writers Conference. If you think this is impossible, well, you can feel reassured that it's not. It just may not end up being the path that is successful for you.

Some people go to lots of conventions and network like crazy. Others don't. This is a funny one, because I never figured I'd find this to be my own route. Are you kidding? I started out writing in Japan, and then after I got back to the US I had my kids, and it was all I could do just to get out to a local convention for a few hours during the day. But, interestingly enough, this turned out to be my path - because I kept working on my writing, and because I got to meet a few wonderful people.

In thanks to those people, I'll tell a brief version of the connections here. I first went to BayCon, my local convention, in 2003 when my son was 3 months old. There I went to a session run by Kent Brewster, who recommended that I submit to the BayCon writers' workshop the following year. So I came up with my very first short story and went in 2004. One of the pros on the panel at the writers' workshop was Dario Ciriello, who got word after the workshop was over that I was looking for a face-to-face writers' group, and invited me to his. Dario was also the one who put me in touch with the BayCon programming folk, with the result that I was on a panel about the Seven Wonders of the World in (I think) 2006. On the panel with me was a lovely author with whom I struck up a conversation, Deborah J. Ross. She encouraged me to come to the SiliCon convention a month later, and there introduced me to Sheila Finch, because Sheila and I share an interest in linguistics. Sheila was the one who told me that Dr. Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog magazine, liked stories about linguistics. So I took some time, got my linguistics story together and sent it off, and it sold in December 2007, appearing in Analog in July/August 2008. It was also at SiliCon that I met my friend Lillian Csernica. We hit it off immediately, and she helped me with the interminable revisions of my novel, Through This Gate. At a certain point, she said she'd like to recommend me to her agent. Well, she never did - but only because I ran into her agent at the 2009 Nebula Awards weekend, and remembering what Lillian had said, walked right up to her and said hello. This turned into a pitch, and a full manuscript request, and finally this October, into an agency signing. I could never have signed with the Grayson Agency (blog) on the basis of queries alone, but they happen to be just the right agents for me. Who would have imagined it?

I am immensely grateful to these people who have helped me get to where I am. I have found that the science fiction and fantasy writing community has a great sense of helping in return for being helped, and I am already trying to pass on what I know in this great spirit.

All of this is to say that if you want to have a writing career, you have to keep at it. Be dogged. Meet people, query, submit, and above all, write, write, write. Try to make your writing better at every opportunity, because you never know which path will suddenly open up for you, and when it does, you'll want to be able to give the right person a piece of writing that really knocks their socks off.

I wish you all the best in your own endeavors.


  1. I feel like everyone knows it's hard to get published, but the people who try to, know it's REALLY hard. And the people who don't try, don't truly get/appreciate that. No matter how close they are to a writer.

    Good post, though. Dogged, I am and will be!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kristan. Any experience feels different for observers than for those going through it. Keep working at your writing and one day you can do the happy dance too!

  3. In my vast experience of rejection slips :), I find that semipros are more likely to provide those golden comments that give you some idea of why you went wrong - even if it's only that your story is wrong for this market (e.g. one reject I received for a humourous poem "Dude, this is absolutely hilarious. Unfortunately, it's not something we can use. If you ever recite it on YouTube, you have to send us the link.")

  4. Good to see you here, David! Interesting what you say about semipros - they aren't the only ones giving out helpful feedback, though. I remember getting some very helpful rejections from Strange Horizons, for example.

  5. Great advice, Juliette. The very essence of networking. :-)

    I had an agent years ago, who was just starting out, but then she became terribly ill. :-(

    I do know one NYC agent pretty well, but she never handles SF. Happily, I was able to steer a friend in her direction, concerning a very unusual memoir.

    With a bit of short fiction under my belt, it's time to start beating those literary bushes again. Got to fill a whole lot of query envelopes!

    (Don't know any best selling authors well enough that it'd be appropriate to ask them for a recommendation.)