Submitting Your Fiction the Hard Way

(about 1500 words)

Tobias Buckell has a good post about manuscript rejection by the numbers, which got me thinking. I try to follow the rule of keeping everything I deem saleable in the mail until sold, or until I decide it no longer represents the best work I can do. Seems simple, but I know too many writers who haven’t developed a system, or at least one that they then stay inclined to follow. My pretty basic method tries to automate a lot of the decision making. But before I get into that, here is an example of submitting short fiction the hard way:

  • Write a story.
  • One Sunday, when you have the extra time to devote to submitting it somewhere, print the story out.
  • Now go out and buy a new printer cartridge after the one in your printer has gone dry printing the fifth of your twelve pages – and you have found that you have no back-up cartridge on hand.
  • Pay a premium price for the cartridge at the local drug store. If you had more time you could have ordered online, but you really want to get this story out!
  • Come home, finishing printing story.
  • Look for a manila envelope. Finding that you have exactly one left, you probably should have bought more while out getting your printer cartridge. If only you’d thought of it! No matter, one is all you need for right now.
  • Think about what the best market for this story will be. Say it is science fiction story. Maybe Asimov’s or F&SF? They both pay the same right? At least they did the last time you checked, two years ago. You decide on Asimov’s because it doesn’t have the word "Fantasy" in the title, so you figure your odds are better.
  • Okay, Asimov’s it is. Now you go back to your keyboard to write a cover letter. Let’s see, you’ve heard that Sheila Williams has taken over — you think. Better just say "Dear Editor" to be safe. Wouldn’t want to start off on the wrong foot, eh?
  • Realize before you can say "Dear Anybody" that you don’t know the editorial address to head the letter.
  • Go to and get the Asimov address. You see that F&SF actually pays a penny more a word now than Asimov’s. Huh. You browse the listings a little longer. You had no idea there were so many market changes recently.
  • Sticking with Asimov’s, you finish your cover letter and seal it up with the manuscript. You realize you’ve forgotten your SASE but you quickly pull open the envelope while the glue is still wet. It won’t re-stick now, so you will have to tape it.
  • Postage. You always meant to buy a big roll of stamps but you never seem to have a spare $40 around. And then you will need another stamp for each ounce over the first, and who can be expected to know how much those cost?
  • No problem, you’ll just go to the post office, buy a stamp for the SASE, apply it at the window, borrow tape from the postal clerk to seal the envelope and then the clerk will tell you how much the full package costs to mail.

But it is Sunday.

  • Again, no problem, you put the manuscript in your bag to take with you to work on Monday and mail during your lunch hour.
  • Monday, you have to take a 15 minute shorter lunch to keep a meeting with your boss. Still it only takes you ten minutes to eat, so you will have plenty of time to run by the post office. You get  downtown  by 12:15 and, lo and behold, it’s packed! You never knew so many people used that branch!
  • You wait a few minutes for the line to move, which it doesn’t, and then you absolutely have to get back.
  • At your desk you put the envelope in a drawer, figuring you will try the post office again tomorrow. Or Wednesday for sure …
  • 2 weeks later you remember the story and actually do get that manuscript off to Sheila Williams. Congratulations! You’re done!

Not Quite.

  • About six weeks later your SASE comes back with a surprisingly friendly note from Ms. Williams. She said the she found your story intruiguing, but did not feel it was quite what she is looking for at this time. She declines to say what she is looking for, however.  You read the sentence fifty times, three of those times backwards while holding the letter up to a mirror — yet incredibly, even this yields no additional information. She closes by saying that she would like to see more of your work when you have it. As it happens you do have a story you think she might like, and all you have to do is pass it through one more rewrite to make it perfect.
  • You put the rejection letter in a shoebox with the twelve other rejection letters you have collected in five years of writing. Twelve! you think. Wow, they are starting to add up. Of those twelve, five are personal and seven are forms. You’re doing great! Much better than your friends, some of whom have never gotten a personal note in scores of rejections.
  • Now, pumped by this encouragement, you ready yourself to dive into that final edit on the new story for Sheila. Without question, she will love it.

But what about the story she rejected?

  • Well it would be one thing, thinks you, if she had given some specific feedback on what she felt wasn’t right about the story. But she didn’t. You think a moment about sending it off to F&SF, but if Sheila didn’t want it, why should you think Gordon will? He pays slightly more than Asimov’s, which means he certainly wouldn’t be interested in a story that wasn’t even good enough for his closest competitor. Everyone remarks on how competitive publishing has become in the last five years.
  • Better rewrite it. But for now you’ve got this new story to finish, so into the drawer goes the story that Asimov’s rejected.
  • The drawer has three other stories in it that you sent out one time each, and mean to rewrite soon as well. You look at the stories and they seem pretty good. They certainly are the best you have done up to this point. If only someone would buy them.
  • Or if only you had an edge. You wish you could meet one of your favorite editors at a con, without everyone else buzzing around her for attention. Or maybe one of your writing-workshop mates will get an editorship, or even start a magazine of his or her own! Then you will really have an "in."
  • One of the stories in your drawer is pretty quirky and weird – the sort of thing you love to read, and have found in Flytrap or Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. But you once sent stories to each of these markets and both met rejection as well! And those ‘zines offer only token payment! What a waste of time that turned out to be!
  • You fantasize about the day when you will be established enough to send this story to Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, or even the New Yorker. You think maybe of trying it now, just once, to see what will happen. Then you cringe. What would your writing friends say if they found out! What hubris you have. Better wait until these magazines come calling, or you get an agent who knows the editors personally.

But there is another problem, a worse one, one you tremble to think about.

  • Your quirky and weird story is one of your favorites. If it were to get rejected by even a small experimental market you must be fundamentally flawed as a writer and (even more likely) as a human being. That makes you more uncomfortable than the Asimov’s rejection. At least with the top markets you know that the competition is stiff. The little markets can’t be getting all that many great stories, can they?  even though, in your opinion, they publish some really good ones. They must publish all the good ones they get. Better leave this quirky, weird one in the drawer until you are very famous. You can then include it in one of your story collections. When you have an audience, they will understand it. Oh hell, you think, but nobody ever said writing would be easy.
  • As for the other stories, the one’s with more potential — in your opinion — to appeal to a wider audience: someday, you think, you will put all your other commitments aside, get every one of  these stories into tip-top shape and then back into the mail. You can even throw a party, invite some of your writing friends over with their manuscripts, and make submitting your stories a special, exciting event.
  • Someday really, really soon.

Later I will post a much simpler set of steps, and reveal my own lifetime ratio of rejection to sale. Tag: ,


5 thoughts on “Submitting Your Fiction the Hard Way

  1. Jay Lake says:

    Michael …

    I’m actually following your comment in Toby’s blog to come over here. The thing about hot-turning stories is great, until you accumulate enough inventory to have stories in “float”, then another algorithm takes over. Which is to say, optimizing stories to market, generally through the “start at the top” method. Which causes stories to get stuck on one’s desk. It’s the next step past hot-turning, and only relevant for prolific writers (or slow sellers who eventually accumulate lots of inventory).


  2. Mike says:

    Yes, good point, Jay. I probably should have mentioned that I was attempting to show how quickly time can be lost by dithering about submissions. I think “hot-turning” makes a great way for someone who’s never sent stuff out consistently to get into Bike mode (as in “it’s just like riding one”) and make submitting as much of a necessary step in writing as (say) spell-checking. Again, I’m suprised how many people I’ve met the past few years who don’t do this. I ought to feel grateful – less competition – but I hate to see writers better than me deprive others of their work. And I hate to see writers who need more development attempt to wait until they acheive perfection to think about marketing. It good to start toughening that skin early, the young writer will need it pretty thick by the time reviewers and/or book editors taken an interest. I committed many crimes against common decency and good sportsmanship in days long gone by submitting a lot of garbage that I would not let my mother read now, let alone a professional editor. I would never tell someone to send out crap, but in my opinion, if the beginning writer sincerely think his or her work is the best she or he can do now, the most useful course involves sending it out. If Algis Budrys had never responded once to me with “Your spelling and attempts at copy editing are more or less bad. Don’t you think you should start doing something about that?” I might stand much further behind now than I do. I qualify myself as a slow seller – most off my 12 sales have come after 10 or more (in some cases, many more) attempts. I frequently have mss. here that are not out for various reasons: waiting for an anthology’s reading period to begin, for example, when I know sending that story to my next choice would most likely cause me to miss the anthology’s window, or because there are simply no markets left for a particular story that I desire to see it in. New markets appear from time to time, and some of these hopeless cases of mine have sold at better rates than I would have gotten if I’d sold them to my original choices. Really, I mean to say: (it has taken me this long to finally express it) don’t leave stuff lying around unsubmitted for no reason other than lack of focus, knowledge or interest in offering it for publication.

  3. Statistics!

    Tobias Buckell has a post about rejection vs. sale statistics, with many of the solid numbers I had only guessed at three years ago. I was a writing statistics stalker when I started out; I wanted to know if what I was doing was screaming into the void…

  4. Statistics!

    Tobias Buckell has a post about rejection vs. sale statistics, with many of the solid numbers I had only guessed at three years ago. I was a writing statistics stalker when I started out; I wanted to know if what I was doing was screaming into the void…

  5. Statistics!

    Tobias Buckell has a post about rejection vs. sale statistics, with many of the solid numbers I had only guessed at three years ago. I was a writing statistics stalker when I started out; I wanted to know if what I was doing was screaming into the void…

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