An Open Letter to Any Prospective Writers

A reader just wrote and asked me some advice about breaking into the field. He seemed despondent over comments I had made recently about the state of the Nebula Awards and such. As a public service to any other readers with questions like his but too shy to write me, allow me to share my thoughts on this matter:

Dear Hopeful Writer-to-be,

Don’t be deceived. What I wrote was a complaint about SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America, a professional organization that has been taken over by the gray goo of Political Correctness, which I quit in disgust. This is because I do not need this organization. In the 1950s, they served a purpose to protect writers from unscrupulous magazine and book publishers. Now, they serve no purpose.

Don’t let anything I wrote dampen your spirits or your hope. My complaint was very narrow. I said nothing against the industry as a whole.

We live in the Golden Age of Science Fiction. There are more readers, more books, more comics, more movies, more computer games in the science fiction genre than ever before. You have more markets and more opportunity than ever before in history. There are fewer barriers and boundaries to overcome than ever before.

That, precisely that, was why I could leave SFWA without a blink of regret, and also (come to think of it) why they could afford to abandon their mission and become an ersatz political organization.

The publishing business right now is poised between two models, the classical model of mainstream New York publishers distributing books as physical objects to bookstores, and the new model of selling electronic files directly to customers through Amazon or some other Internet distribution. The impact is as great as the invention of the Printing Press.

I have a foot in both camps.

My big old-fashioned dinosaur New York publisher is Tor, and, despite my disgust with the leftwing nutbags running and ruining SFWA, I have had no real discontent with Tor books. I do not know their politics and they have never attempted to meddle with mine. They have made only good and useful and wise editorial suggestions for my books, in each case, eagerly adopted. Tor books distributed my books with lovely covers (their art department is first rate. I believe Irma Gallo is still in charge there) and placed those books to bookstores nationwide, and brought in modest profits.

My small and sleek warmblooded electronic publisher is Castalia House, who is a small operation out of the Finland, which sells far fewer books but I get a much larger cut of the profits, fifty percent rather than five, so sales can be an order of magnitude less, and yet my take home pay is the same. Castalia, being a small house, can give me much more useful feedback, and, once again, the editorial advice has been good and useful and wise, and eagerly accepted.

However, I am old enough that I broke into the field the old fashioned way, by selling short stories to magazines until I came to the attention of an editor at Tor, at which time I had two novel length manuscripts to sell. I simply do not know, in this modern electronic environment, if it is wise to sell short stories first and try to get a name that way.

So my advice is to get to the library, or see if you can find online, a reference book called WRITERS MARKET for 2014 which lists publishers seeking stories, their rates of pay and other guidelines. Follow the guidelines. Do not waste your time nor the editor’s by sending them material they do not want or need in a format other than they specify.

Your cover letter should be simple, reciting your name and address and any previous publications, and one line saying, “The enclosed story may be of interest to your publication” or something of the like.

If you want the manuscript back, enclosed a self addressed stamped envelope with the postage attached. The editor will not lick stamps for you. For electronic submissions (which most editors accept these days) make sure the file is in the format he can read.

In my youth, a writer could expect on hundred rejection slips before making his first sale. That is an average: which means if Lester Del Rays makes his first sale on his first submission, Ray Bradbury will not make a sale until his two hundredth. I frankly do not know what the rate is these days.

If you want to get published, and you have the persistence, you will. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. Even if your writing stinks now, you will put in the time and effort to make it good enough to sell. Even if you get countless rejections that batter your courage and sap your spirits, if you have persistence, you will prevail. How badly do you want it?

Some men have innate or inborn talent. Most writers don’t. Most writers don’t need it. Talent is worthless, without persistence. Only persistence counts.

Set yourself either a time quota, an agreement with yourself to write a certain set number of hours a day, or a page quota, and agreement to write a given number of words a week. Write a short story a week, and in the end of a year you will have fifty-two short stories to tell. I did that, and I have sold nearly every single one, including the ones that were really not that good.

You could write the next WOOL or the next TWILIGHT or the next WHEEL OF TIME. All of these are Science Fiction/Fantasy written by authors previously unknown, which rose to stratospheric heights, success beyond all expectation and imagination. On the other hand, George RR Martin has been writing since I was in school in the 1980s, and he paid his dues, and wrote and wrote, and was an obscure midlist writer, but then he wrote GAME OF THRONES, and set the readership on fire, and got a TV deal, and achieved immortal fame.

Good luck,

John C. Wright

 

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