Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 2)

Why Are You Writing?: Deciding on the writing career that you want

Welcome back. This is the second in my weekly series of posts on how to market and sell short fiction. In my initial post, I explained who I’m aiming this series at, why I think I can help you sell your short fiction, and what I’ll cover in the series (and what I won’t cover).

This week, before I jump into giving you advice, I want you to think about why you want to be a writer and what kind of writer you want to be. What will constitute success for you? What are your goals? In short, what is your writing dream?

Since I’m aiming this at the beginner, a lot of you might immediately respond that you just want to sell your first story. I get that. When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to imagine just how far you might be able to go, and just getting that first sale feels like scaling Everest.

But for now, I want you to put aside any fears or doubts on whether you can reach your dream. Right now, I want you to think of what you’ll do after that first sale (after taking time to bask in the warm glow).

Is that it? Will that be enough for you? Or will you want to sell another story? And another? Do you plan to move on to novels eventually? Are you already writing novels? Do you dream of a career as a full-time fiction writer?

Most importantly ( because it’s easy to simply say that you want to be the next J. K. Rowling or Steven King or Neil Gaiman), I want you to also ask yourself whether you’re willing to pay the price for your dream.

That price is hard work. Work devoted to learning your craft. Work devoted to writing new words, then revising those words, and then writing still more new words. In short, work devoted to learning how to be a writer. And that means a lot of time and effort, which means time not doing other things in your life.

Before you decide, let me talk about the two most common types of beginning writers that I encounter.

The Arrogant Beginner

The first type doesn’t accept that they’re a beginner. They’ve written a few stories or their first novel, and they can’t understand why their work keeps getting rejected. Now, it might be that it just hasn’t found the right market yet, but for this type of beginner, most likely it’s because their story sucks. Sucks big time.

And that’s okay. After all, they’re a beginner, and beginners are always going to suck compared to pros who’ve been doing that craft for years. But these new writers don’t understand or want accept that they need to learn their craft, so they never do the work to develop their writing. Confidence is a good thing. Arrogance combined with ignorance is not.

Since I’m Canadian, let me indulge in a hockey metaphor. Expecting to be able to write at the professional level with your first few attempts is the same as expecting you’ll be able to play like Wayne Gretzky or Sydney Crosby the first time you strap on skates. Guess what? You won’t. You’ll fall flat on your face.

And that’s okay, too, as long as you get up each time and keep trying. And “keep trying” does not mean sending out the same crappy story over and over again (later in this series, I will tell you to keep sending your stories out, but my assumption then is that you’ve done the work to learn your craft). “Keep trying” means being willing to do what Gretzky, Crosby, and every other human who dominated their chosen profession did: put in the long hours of practice, practice, and more practice to continually learn their craft and hone their skills. So if you’re not willing to accept that you’re a beginner, that you have a lot to learn, and that you will need to devote time and effort to learn and practise your craft as a writer, just stop right now. Or at least quit whining about rejections (and get used to them).

The Fearful Beginner

The second kind of beginner is almost a mirror image of the first. They don’t think anything they write is ever good enough. They are constantly rewriting the same story or finishing stories but never sending them out, or not sending them to the top markets when they do. Ironically, these are often the writers who are putting in the time and effort to learn their craft, and their early stories are generally better than those of the lazy beginners mentioned above. The problem with this type of beginner isn’t arrogance or laziness–it’s fear.

If you’re reading this series, you have some sort of writing dream. So here’s the thing about a dream–as long as you never chase it, you can never fail. That dream will always be there in your head, perfect, immaculate, and wonderful, with the eternal possibility that it will come true. Of course, if you never chase that dream, there it will always remain: in your head, unrealized, unfulfilled, a possible wonderful life for you that will never come true.

Fear enters into this because if you do chase a dream, you introduce the possibility of failure. You fear that you’ll discover you can’t reach your dream. And then, the beginner thinks, their dream will die. And that is scary. It’s the main reason, I believe, that most people never achieve their dreams. They’re afraid to even try.

Which is rather silly, especially in writing. If you’re willing to do the work to learn and practice your craft, you will eventually produce stories of a professional quality. And if you’re stubborn and persistent, develop a thick skin about rejections, and follow the advice that I’ll give in this series, you will sell those stories. Some of you will reach that point sooner than others, but as long as you don’t quit, you will sell.

The Dream and the Price

So right now, humor me. If you see yourself in the arrogant beginner or the fearful beginner, decide how you’ll change. Accept that you’re a beginner and put in the time to learn your craft. Put aside your fears and let yourself dream of the kind of writing career that you really want.

Why do I need you to think about your dream? Think of this as a car dealership that you just walked into, and I’m the salesperson. Before you listen to advice I give you about what kind of car you should buy, you need to know what you’re looking for. A basic get-me-to-the-train-station, no-frills runabout (I just want to sell one story to prove I can do it, and then will probably never write again)? Or the top-of -the-line, all-the-bells-and-whistles, luxury car (full-time professional career)?

You also need to decide how much you’re willing to spend. Are you on a very tight budget (not willing to do much work or spend much time)? Or is money no object (will write and practice regularly until you reach your dream).

Ironically, again, the above two points (what you aiming for and what you’re willing to spend) are typically out of synch in my two types of beginners. The lazy beginner wants to be J. K. Rowling but isn’t willing to do the work. The fearful writer is often already paying the price but is dreaming too small.

What I’m Selling

Now that you’ve given your writing career some thought, I’m going to tell you what sort of dealership you’ve walked into.

Sorry, but I’m only selling the luxury cars here. My advice will be aimed at the beginner who wants to be a professional writer. I’ll advise you on how to make the most from each short story, how to sell those stories to the best market you can find, and how to leverage each story beyond the first sale to make your short fiction work for you for more exposure and revenue sources. In short, how to build a short fiction career as a base for a full-time writing career.

If that isn’t your writing dream, you will still get value from these posts. You just may apply some of my advice differently or decide that some options really aren’t for you. However, if you’ve decided that you don’t want a professional career, I hope that it will be because you don’t want to invest the time and effort, rather than you don’t believe you can do it. Because you can, if you want it enough. Persistence and practice are the keys.

Next Week

Next week: Why Short Fiction?: The benefits of the short game to a writing career

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.

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Doug is an award-winning Canadian writer whose fiction has appeared in twenty-five languages and thirty countries. His works include The Wolf at the End of the WorldChimerascope, and Impossibilia.


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4 Comments

  1. June 1, 2013, 10:01 am   / 

    [...] story can always be improved. If you’re one of the arrogant beginners that I talked about in Part 2 and believe that your prose is so perfect that no one should ever dare to suggest a change, then [...]

  2. Avatar of Neil Jamieson-Williams
    March 21, 2013, 12:19 pm   / 

    I have to confess that I have been a bit of your first type of beginner. And I still don’t accept that I’m a beginner; in writing. Because, I’m not; I wrote a huge amount of radio drama back thirty years ago, have been published in academic journals, and have three textbooks currently in print. However, over the past year I have come to accept that both the craft I developed writing fiction in one medium and the craft that I have in writing non-fiction are not immediately transferable to writing prose fiction. For prose fiction, I am a beginner.

    That is why I have been spending the past couple of months (as well as the next three months) writing short fiction, which I have actually come close to selling (no, not the same story) twice.

    Anyway, enjoying this series.

    • Avatar of Douglas Smith
      July 27, 2013, 3:57 pm   / 

      Neil, thanks for the comment. I somehow missed this when you originally posted, so apologies for the delay in acknowledging. I’ve never written radio drama, but I’ve written novel length fiction and non-fiction, as well as ever so many business articles, and the short story is a completely different animal. And it’s also, imo, the hardest of the art forms, in terms of effort per word required to get it right, when you consider the length of the final product. The trick for a writer is always to hit the sweet spot in the middle of confidence in your work (but not arrogance) and keeping an open mind that your story can be improved (but keeping the revision cycle to a minimum and having the confidence to send it out).

  3. January 28, 2013, 7:59 am   / 

    [...] Douglas Smith shares the secrets of his success in an on-going series about selling your short fiction, here, and here. [...]

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