Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Recently, a writing friend of mine just had her first professional sale -- a major milestone in any writer's career. She also ran across a ten-year-old essay by Mike Resnick that basically says anyone who sells to a non-pro magazine (defined as anything under 5 cents a word) is, essentially, a fool (in fairness, he didn't actually use that word, but there is an obvious disdain evidenced in the essay). Now, I don't know if Resnick still feels that way, but I think he's got it fundamentally wrong. I wrote as much in a reply to my friend's frustration, but I think it's worth repeating here.

I wrote a little essay about Heinlein's rules for writers in my blog a while back if you want to see that discussion. The key is his last rule:

"You must keep it on the market until it is sold."

If all the prozines have rejected the story, then you try other markets -- you keep on trying until it is sold. So take heart, you're not just a professional writer, you're a successful professional writer, by definition.

Resnick does have point that I think is worth considering, though. It's something I've been putting a lot of thought into. I don't believe that it is true any longer that short stories are the way to break into speculative fiction. In my opinion (and it's only my opinion, but it's a consdered one), the only way to have a career as a writer is to write novels. Think about it: Even if you had a short story published in every issue of Analog every month (a blatent impossibility), you couldn't make enough to live on. And there are lots of SF authors who didn't get started in short stories at all (Holly Lisle and David Weber come to mind -- Weber wrote a few, but that wasn't where he made his break). Now consider the fact that Analog has something like a 98% rejection rate, and you can start to see why living off of short story income is something of a dead end strategy -- even for the acknowledged pros.

I think there is a purpose to writing short stories, however. Resnick points out -- and again, I agree with his assessment -- that writing a novel that is good enough to be sold is much harder than writing a short story that is publishable. In my mind, if you are learning to write, you will learn much faster writing short stories simply because you can go through the entire writing process many more times in the same period as you would spend writing a single novel. In short, you have more chances to make mistakes -- and learn from those mistakes -- writing short stories than you do writing novels.

So, in my mind, writing short stories is equivalent to an apprenticeship. You're not writing them sell, you're writing them to learn. If someone -- anyone -- pays you money for the product of your learning effort, great! It's all free money, since the purpose of the story wasn't to make money anyway. Seen from that standpoint, Heinlein's rules are spot-on: There's no reason at all not to sell to the minors if the prozines have rejected your story. As a professional writer, you keep it on the market until it sells. As an apprentice writer, you also keep it on the market because learning how to write cover letters and sell pieces is -also- part of what you're supposed to learn.

On the other hand, the implicit assumption in all this is that you are learning the craft in order to write novels -- good novels that sell through well and secure your career in writing SF. Not everyone likes writing novels, though. Unfortunately, for all the reasons stated above, I don't see any other way to make your living in the current world of fiction publishing.

But, as Heinlein pointed out, just because you don't make your living from writing doesn't mean you aren't a professional. Resnick's opinion to the contrary is the fundamental flaw in his essay.