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Fundamentals of Fiction, Part VII:
Being Realistic

by Marg Gilks

Return to Fiction Tips & Techniques · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

"I am always interested in why young people become writers, and from talking with many I have concluded that most do not want to be writers working eight and ten hours a day and accomplishing little; they want to have been writers, garnering the rewards of having completed a best-seller. They aspire to the rewards of writing but not to the travail." -- James A. Michener

I sent the first story I ever wrote for paid publication to Asimov's Science Fiction. For those outside the speculative fiction genre, Asimov's is one of the Big Four -- the "pro" magazines with the largest readership, the biggest-name authors, the best pay rates. The ones with the glossy color covers you see on all the newsstands.

I had a lot to learn.

My story was rejected, of course. Why? There were several reasons, but the biggest reason was that my writing was not of the same caliber as those big-name authors whose work did appear in the pages of the Big Four. Like many beginning fiction writers, I had no idea how much effort and persistence it took to write well, or what an accomplishment it truly was to actually sell a story.

Be Humble

I know this is a hard concept for a beginning fiction writer to grasp, because I was once a beginning fiction writer, and I thought my stories were just as good as the ones I read in the pro magazines, too. I submitted those beginning stories to all the pro magazines, and I was rejected, again and again and again.

"About three years ago," said author Amy Sterling Casil in 1997, "I went to my first SF convention and was shocked to hear Harry Turtledove say he'd written about a million words before he published his first novel. I guess I was at about 250,000 words at that time . . . and the prospect of what Harry said daunted me. But I suppose I'm at about a million words now and I am a 'neopro,' a beginning pro SF writer. Harry was not at all incorrect: I've heard what he said echoed by many, many others."

You will hear this, or something similar, from many professional writers. Fiction writing is not called a "craft" because it's something anyone can do; even those with talent must learn how to use it to best effect. Don't expect to take the pro markets by storm. Don't expect your first novel to sell. But do always work with those eventual goals in mind.

You'll likely find more receptive markets for your stories if you submit to the smaller markets. They may pay less, but they do pay something--and you'll slowly build a list of publication credits that will, eventually, prove to a professional market that you're in this business for the long haul, that you've got a track record, that they should take the time to read this story you've submitted.

Don't Be in a Hurry

You may be shaking your head over some of the words I used above: slowly, eventually, long haul. Get used to them. Publishing is a slow industry, with schedules that span months, even years; trying to hurry things up will just diminish your chances of success.

As a freelance editor, I've worked with many writers over the years as they created their manuscripts. Over and over again, I've seen the same thing -- they've finally finished their novel manuscript, or (worse!) they're close to finishing their novel. Suddenly they're in a hurry to get it out to agents or publishers. They want to fire off query letters, submission packages -- now.

I guess it's understandable to want to see the fruition of a project you may have worked on for years. Even a short story leaves you flushed with accomplishment when you finish one, and you are naturally eager to share it with others. But let's look at what can happen if you rush the manuscript into submission.

  • You send out queries before you've finished your novel. You receive a favorable response from a publisher. They want to see the entire manuscript. What do you do? Rush to finish, possibly compromising quality? An inferior manuscript will be rejected. Do you contact the publisher and ask for more time? You'll be sending a signal that you can't meet deadlines, that you're unreliable, that you can't deliver -- you get the idea.

  • You send out your novel or short story as soon as it's finished. Very few stories -- if any -- are ready for the eyes of others as they were first written. And you can only submit a manuscript to a publisher once -- if it's rejected, that publisher won't want to see it a second time. Every time you send a manuscript that isn't ready to a publisher, you're eliminating another potential market. You won't be able to send the manuscript to that publisher again . . . when it is ready. Don't waste your only chance. Take the time to polish your manuscript.

  • You send your story to several markets at once, even though some of them stipulate "no simultaneous submissions." And you get two favorable responses. Great, yes? No. You're going to have to tell one of those markets that you're withdrawing your story. That editor, perhaps already having scheduled your story into an upcoming issue, is going to have to find a replacement. He's not going to be pleased. And editors do talk to one another. If an editor considering your story remembers your name unfavorably, he'll be biased against you before he even looks at your story.

Here's what's going to happen when you send out a manuscript: it's going to sit, possibly for months, waiting to be read by someone at the other end. If it's close to what they want, they may hold onto it longer, until they make a definite decision. If you've submitted a story to a magazine, it may be several more months before they publish it, depending on their editorial calendar. If an agent agrees to represent your novel, he or she may then spend months shopping the manuscript around to publishers. If it's accepted by a publisher, it may be months and months before it's printed.

So, why are you in such a hurry right now?

Don't Quit Your Day Job

"When I stepped from hard manual work to writing, I just stepped from one kind of hard work to another," said author Sean O'Casey. Writing is itself hard work, but making your living from writing means not just selling what you've written, but hustling up markets to sell your writing to, or pitching idea after idea with nary a nibble from publishers. You can spend just as much time marketing your work as you do in writing it--if not more. Suddenly it's not just fun anymore, it's business. It's a job.

It's even harder to make a living by writing fiction. Even many established novelists still hold down other jobs. And the words we read for pleasure seem to hold less monetary value than those we read for information. The pay rates for fiction are at the bottom of the scale--while 3 cents or more per word constitutes a professional fiction rate, most nonfiction writers would consider mere pennies a word laughable. And no wonder, when a 2,000 word article might net them $2,000 or more -- and the fiction story of similar length would pay the writer about $60.

What about novels? When a publisher pays an author an advance, they are giving the author a portion of her share in projected sales of her book. Most publishers consider new authors risky, and so they'll be conservative in their sales estimates. You might get an advance of only a few thousand dollars for something you worked on for years. And with many experts advising authors to spend their advance money to promote their book, what does that leave you to live on?

Dealing with Rejection and Isolation

Writing is a solitary pastime. You might discover that friends and family show little interest in what you do, and they probably can't understand why you persist when you're collecting rejection after rejection for your efforts. No one understands what you're doing, you're receiving little or no encouragement, and the more you persist, the more negative feedback -- in the form of rejections -- you seem to get. It's not surprising that many writers experience moments of depression.

So how can you combat the isolation and negative feedback that can erode your self-esteem?

First, realize that rejections are an inevitable part of fiction writing--even famous authors have their work rejected: "I admit that I am rarely rejected, but between 'rarely' and 'never' is a vast gulf," wrote Isaac Asimov in 1981. "Even though I no longer work on spec and write only when a particular item is requested, I still run the risk. The year doesn't pass without at least one failure. It was only a couple of months ago that Esquire ordered a specific article from me. I duly delivered it; and they, just as duly, handed it back."

More importantly, realize that a publisher is not rejecting you, personally. They are not even saying that your story is no good. They are saying that it doesn't fit the tone of their magazine, or that they don't understand it, or that they're really overstocked, and they can't even consider any more stories -- not just yours. A rejection is one person's opinion, and there are many different opinions in the world. If one publisher doesn't want it, send it to another.

"This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package," wrote Barbara Kingsolver. "Don't consider it rejected. Consider that you've addressed it 'to the editor who can appreciate my work' and it has simply come back stamped 'Not at this address.' Just keep looking for the right address."

If an agent sends a rejection, consider it an admission that they don't know enough about the subject or genre of a manuscript to market it effectively. Again, it's strictly business, not a reflection on you or your writing. They're saying they can't do it, for whatever reason.

Feeling isolated? No one understands what a writer goes through like another writer. The Internet has shrunk the world, and writers, more than any other group, seem to have embraced it. Join a writers' group or participate in online writers' forums -- seek out other writers to talk to, and you'll suddenly find your circumstances aren't so unique after all.

In light of all this, should you continue to write fiction? Or are you wasting your time?

Perhaps to find your answer, you should examine the reason why you write fiction. If you're hoping for fame or fortune, then by all means, find a more lucrative pursuit. But if you write fiction because it brings you joy, because "Writing is not a profession, occupation or job; it is not a way of life: it is a comprehensive response to life," as it is with author Gregory McDonald, then you're writing for all the right reasons. Don't stop.

Read the Entire "Fundamentals of Fiction" Series!

Part I: "I've Got an Idea!"
You've got an idea -- but how do you turn it into a story?

Part II: Read, Read, Read!
If you want to write, you need to read -- and read, and read, and read! Here's why...

Part III: Critique Groups and Writers' Groups
How do you know if you're "good enough"? Feedback from a critique group can help!

Part IV: Writers Write!
Facing that blank screen can be intimidating. Here's how to get past the fear.

Part V: Learning How: Courses, Workshops and Tutors
For in-depth learning and feedback, nothing beats a good writing course.

Part VI: Learning the Lingo
Deciphering writers' guidelines -- and all the other terms associated with writing and selling fiction.

Part VII: Being Realistic
Before you mail out that story you just finished, be sure you know how the market works -- and whether you're ready for it!

Part VIII: Finding Markets for Your Fiction
It's not just about sending out your best writing; it's also about finding the best market.

Part IX: Writing Etiquette
Understanding some basic courtesies will smooth your writing path!

Part X: Avoid Those Beginners' Blunders
Cliches, lazy language, adverbitis, and characters who check themselves out in a mirror are just a few amateur errors that will send your story to the reject pile.

Copyright © 2003 Marg Gilks
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.


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