Fiction Market Ratings

If you’ve just finished writing a short story and would like to get it published, the array of available markets can be confusing. I’ve blogged before about some websites with valuable information about markets and also about how you can prioritize a list of markets for your story. Today, I thought I’d delve into how the markets are divided up according to rates of pay.

The short story market is chaotic. Although there are several long-lived publication markets, there are many that are born each year, and many others (particularly during downturns in readership) that die off.

At any given time, though, there is a spectrum of markets running from those who charge readers a great deal, pay authors well, and publish high quality fiction; all the way to those who charge readers nothing, pay writers nothing, and publish fiction of variable quality. It’s that spectrum that the rating system is trying to map.

Just to make things confusing, there are various rating systems. Most have Pro (or Professional) at the top, followed by Semi-Pro, then Token, then Non-Paying (or For-the-Love).

Fiction Market RatesAs you can see from my chart, FictionFactor sets their Pro category at 3 cents per word and their Semi-Pro starting at 1 cent per word. However, their term for markets paying between 0 and 1 cent per word is Low. They use the term Token for markets paying a flat rate between $5 and $15 per story.

Both The Grinder and Duotrope set their Pro category starting at 5¢/word.

Ralan uses 6¢/word as the lower bound of Pro markets. Ralan also includes a Pay category between Semi-Pro and Token.

Confused? I don’t blame you. You might be asking why such ratings matter, either to a writer or to any of the markets. One reason is that some professional societies, like Science Fiction Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association use market ratings to determine some membership categories. That is, you need to have published some number of stories in Pro markets to qualify for certain membership types.

Romance Writers of America categorizes some of their membership groupings by the amount of advances or royalties from a single work, not by the market rating.

A more important reason why you might care about these market rating systems is that they serve as a gauge for you to rate your own development and advancement as a writer.

Think of Non-Paying, Token, and Semi-Pro as being analogous to the minor league in baseball. Many players in that league would like to get to the majors, though some might be content where they are. The fans don’t see quite the same level of play as they would in a major league stadium, but they don’t pay as much either. Also, the fans get a chance to see players at an early stage who may very well make it to the major leagues.

Unlike the baseball analogy, though, I advocate first aiming for the top with every story. Keep sending to Pro markets until you get sick of the rejections. Only then aim at the Semi-Pros, and on down the list. Whether you get to Token or Non-Paying markets depends on how badly you want that particular story to be published. You might decide to shelve it rather than accept a lower payment.

There are some who contend that any markets not paying Pro rates (especially Non-Paying markets) are “ripping off” writers. I disagree. It’s good to have a spectrum of markets available, especially for beginning writers who want to get in print and are satisfied with a lower rate of payment while they hone their craft.

Once again, there’s another aspect of the world’s confusion and chaos cleared up for you by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 28, 2014Permalink

The Publishing Times, They Are A’Changin’

To distort a line from a Bob Dylan song, times are indeed a’changin’ in the publishing industry.  In the long march from storytellers to clay tablets to papyrus scrolls to bound books to electronic books, each technology has brought a revolution and we’re now in the middle of one.


After Gutenberg’s printing press and right up until the Internet, the book publishing industry had optimized into a fairly lean and stable operation, full of specialized tasks.  Each task was fairly well understood.

The writer wrote, and sought an agent.  The agent sought a publishing house and handled all the contractual details for the writer.  At the publishing house, of which there were only a few big ones, the editor polished the prose.  Upon agreement about the text, the publisher took care of cover design, printing, distribution, and marketing to booksellers.  The bookseller catered to the reading public, offering books for sale from their stores.

Despite all the middlemen, that process had been pretty well honed such that readers could still obtain books inexpensively.

With the advent of the Internet, much has changed, and it’s got all of the middlemen wondering what their future role will be, if any.

For the writer, there are software word processors and Internet research options, but not much else has changed.  A writer still must create the prose.

At the other end, the reader has more options, including e-readers and audiobooks, but for the most part reading is unchanged.

But agents, editors, cover designers, marketers, distributors, and booksellers are all left wondering what’s going to happen to them.  These days, writers can connect directly with readers, bypassing all the former steps.  An author can work with a single website such as Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, and others, to get e-books directly to the reading public.

These websites offer many services, but the writer must do most of the tasks formerly accomplished by middlemen.  This includes reviewing the contract, editing, cover design, and marketing.

So where is all this going?  At what sort of equilibrium state will all this turmoil settle out?

It may be too early to tell, but I think there will be places for all the publishing middlemen in the future, assuming they adapt to an Internet-based world.  Some writers still need agents, editors, cover designers, and distributors.  Some readers still want bound books.  Much like the continued (but low) demand for horseshoes and oil lamps, there will be niche markets for all these functions.

As for me, I have yet to take the full plunge into self-publishing.  So far, with my short stories, I’ve been dealing with an independent ebook publisher, and with publishers of anthologies.

If Bob Dylan’s right, and the times they are a’changin’, where do you think the book publishing industry is headed?  What change would you like to see?  Leave me a comment and perhaps we can change things together, just you and—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 29, 2013Permalink

The Life Story of a Short Story

AlexandersOdyssey9Hello.  I’m a short story.  Since Poseidon’s Scribe never got around to blogging about the whole short story process, he invited me to guest blog today.  My title is “Alexander’s Odyssey,” and I was written by Steven R. Southard.  My life story is typical of other tales, and might be obvious to many of you, but the steps weren’t clear to Steve when he started.

Idea1.  Idea.  I started as an idea.  You did too, I suppose, but with stories you only need one human with an idea, if you know what I mean.  Getting a story idea isn’t as difficult as most believe.  Ideas are all around you.

Outline2.  Outline.  This can take many forms, not just the standard I-A-1-a-(1) type.  It can be a mind-map, for example.  An outline can keep you focused as you write, but don’t be afraid to deviate from it if the story takes off in a different direction.  Steve used an outline for me, but if you don’t want to, just skip this step.

Research3.  Research.  You might have to conduct research for your story like Steve did for me.  Use the most authoritative sources you can.  Steve didn’t include all the researched data when writing me, just a tiny fraction.  You might enjoy research, but don’t get stuck at this stage.  At some point, enough is enough.

First draft4.  First Draft.  Steve wrote my first draft fast, without caring about quality.  He didn’t even stop to correct typos.  He got it all down, the emotions, the drama, and the character interactions.

Edits5.  Edit.  Steve did several drafts of me where he corrected typos; deleted extraneous stuff; added in foreshadowing, metaphors, similes, and symbolism, etc.  Don’t get stuck at this stage either; some stories never even get submitted.

Submit6.  Submit.  Steve located a suitable market, and had to modify me a bit to conform to the submission guidelines.  After much hesitation, he submitted me.   These days, you writers have the option of self-publishing us stories, so you could skip this step.

Reject7.  Rejection.  Actually, I didn’t get rejected the first time, but I know the feeling.  I don’t understand why writers take rejection so personally; the editor is rejecting me, not you.  Just shake it off and submit your story to some other market.  Keep us moving!

Accept8.  Accept.  I was pretty happy when an anthology editor accepted me, but Steve was positively giddy.  I’d never seen him so thrilled and, frankly, the details are embarrassing, so I’ll just move on.

Rewrite9.  Rewrite.  The editor suggested Steve change me a bit.  He agreed the changes would do me good, and made them.  I’ve seen Steve agonize over suggested changes to other stories, though.  I’ve even seen him push back against the editor.  In the end, they always reach agreement and Steve signs the contracts.  I guess he could always refuse and walk away if he wanted.

Launch10.  Launch.  These days, publishers don’t just publish us, they launch us.  It does make me feel like a rocket going off, sort of.  Again, Steve seems really happy when a story launches, and again it’s awkward to watch.

Market11.  Market.  If I’d been picked up by one of the top publishing houses, they’d spread the word about me.  Steve didn’t send me there, so he had to do it.  Boy, does he hate that part, though I’ve heard some authors like marketing.  Use social media, newsletters, writing conferences—anything to advertise.

Read12.  Read.  My favorite step.  When a reader buys me and reads me cover to cover, that’s what I live for.

Reprint13.  Reprint.  When the rights to me reverted back to Steve, he submitted me for publication as a reprint.  After three rejects, another market accepted me, but asked for significant changes.  My reprint version states where and when I was published the first time.

Spin-off14.  Spin-off.  Oh, I hope, I hope I can get spun-off into a novel, a play, or even a movie.  Hey, a story can dream, can’t it?

That’s my story.  Forget about Steve, or Poseidon’s Scribe.  Address your comments to—

                                            Alexander’s Odyssey

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December 8, 2013Permalink

Prioritizing the Markets

What’s that?  You say you’ve finished writing a story but you’re not sure which market to send it to first?  It can be confusing, selecting among all the markets listed on Duotrope and Ralan and other similar sites.

Every writer makes these choices differently, so I’ll just share my method and the reasons for it.  As always, you’re free to do as you wish.

First, prepare yourself mentally for the probability—the near certainty—of rejection.  I’ve already discussed how to deal with rejection.  My purpose now is to get you to make a prioritized list of markets you intend to send the story to, with the understanding that, most likely, the story won’t be snapped up by the first one.

Market Priority ListHow do you make this prioritized list?  If you wrote the story in response to an announced anthology, then the anthology would top your list.  After that, I recommend going in order of highest-paying market to lowest based on searches of sites like Duotrope or Ralan.  Each market on the list should be appropriate, in the sense that they’re asking for stories of the type that yours is.  Don’t waste your time or some editor’s by sending to a market for which your story isn’t suited.

Why am I suggesting the order be based on payment?  I suspect some of you are objecting that, as a beginning writer, your story couldn’t possibly be good enough for the highest-paying markets, so why start with them?

My response is—have some faith in your story.  I’ve said before that editor’s reasons for rejecting your stories have everything to do with how the story clicks with them, how it matches what they’re looking for, and the quality of the writing.  Their reasons have nothing to do with you personally.

The flip side of that should be obvious.  An editor’s reasons for accepting a story have to do with the same criteria, and the writing quality is the only one of those criteria within your control.  They don’t necessarily know you’re a raw beginner.  It’s every editor’s dream to latch onto a beginning writer who shows considerable talent; they all want to be in at the start of a best-selling author’s career.  All famous authors started out as beginners, tentatively sending out their work and wondering if it was good enough.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if you sent your story to a semi-pro, or token market, not knowing that a pro market would have accepted it?  That’s why I say to aim high, then with each rejection, work your way down.

Later, as you gain experience and have some publication credits, you may establish relationships with one or more markets.  At that point, those publishers may well move to the top of your market listings.  Considerations other than payment alone may drive your priorities.

I welcome your comments about the advice I’ve offered.  If you follow it and get your first story approved at a pro market, one person you should be sure to thank is—

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

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What the Web Wrought on Writing

We still live near the dawn of the Internet Age, of course, so it’s perhaps a bit early to assess the web’s impact on writing.  But here goes, anyway…

First, it’s instructive to recall the past technological developments that aided fiction writers, or allowed them to better connect with paying readers.  Here’s a partial list:  libraries, bookbinding, printing presses, mass production of paper, mail delivery, bookstores, dictionaries, typewriters, computer word processors, and eBooks.  Each of these innovations aided storytellers in significant ways.

(By the way, I’m aware of the difference between the ‘Internet’ and the ‘World Wide Web.’  Even so, they’re intertwined enough that I’ll use the terms interchangeably.)

I would argue the Internet’s impact on writing is (and will be) as great as any of those previous technologies.  It’s true, those who created the Internet did not have authors specifically in mind.  But some of the Internet’s attributes have eased the processes involved in the writing business:

  • Span.  The Internet covers the world; and to a greater extent every day, it is spanning all of human history; and encompassing a larger fraction of all human knowledge.
  • Search and Retrieval.  Internet search engines provide a way to sift through the vastness and find desired, specific information, no matter how obscure.
  • Permanence.  To some extent, the Internet represents a permanent record.  I believe the way data is stored and backed up renders far less likely a tragedy such as the destruction of the ancient Alexandrian Library.
  • Speed.  Everything you can do on the Internet, you can do fast, much faster than using the mail, or hunting through a library.
  • Availability.  The Internet is within reach of nearly everyone, and at very low cost.

In short, the web eases the way people connect to information and to other people.  The sudden ease of those connections has been a boon to writers.

Here are some ways the web has improved several steps of the writing process:

  • Research.  It is far easier for writers to research specific topics using the Internet.  There are gaps in the web, of course, and problems with accuracy of information, so trips to the library remain necessary on occasion.
  • Co-authorship.  E-mail makes it easier to collaborate with another writer when both are contributing to a book.
  • Critiquing.  It’s no longer necessary to find other writers in your local area to get your manuscripts critiqued.
  • Market searches.  Websites like Duotrope, Ralan, and Doug Smith’s Foreign Market List make it much easier to compile a prioritized list of ideal markets for each of your stories.
  • Submitting.  Most markets take online submissions, either through e-mail or their own online form.  Much faster and less costly than mailing.
  • Publishing.  As with many other businesses, the Internet has allowed people to quickly form small businesses operating out of their homes.  This has resulted in a proliferation of publishers.
  • Advertising.  The advent of websites, blogging, and social networking has opened up new ways for authors to reach readers.
  • Book-shopping.  For readers, the Internet’s search features and various online booksellers have eased the process of browsing for the next book to read, no matter how obscure the reader’s interests.
  • Reviewing.  Online bookselling sites have made it easy for anyone to post a book review.  These reviews help other readers make their purchasing decisions.

The Internet has helped writers in every way except one.  It won’t write your book for you!  And maybe that’s a good thing.  Still writing my own stories, I’m—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe


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September 30, 2012Permalink

Writin’ for Nuttin’

Should you always write to be paid, or should you (at least sometimes) write for free?  Here I’m talking about complete fictional stories, not blog articles or story excerpts.

The answer for you will depend on your situation.  I’ll offer some guidance, some basis on which you can make your decision.

There are those who say you should never write for free, and their reasons are compelling.

  • Writing is effort, and you deserve to get paid for it.  In one sense it does look like writers are producing something from nothing, but the product is something, after all.  Considerable effort went into the product, and work should have its compensations.  Of course, payment is more related to value as perceived by the purchaser than to the effort expended by the author.
  • You have to eat.  How much of your life’s precious time do you really have to expend on doing stuff that has no return?
  • Other authors get paid; why shouldn’t you?  Let’s face it—all else being equal, getting paid for your work beats not getting paid.  Since there are readers willing to pay for well-written stories, why shouldn’t you be one to meet that need, and reap the benefits?
  • Readers perceive free fiction must be inferior.  You get what you pay for, the old saying goes.  If you give away your stuff, they’ll think it can’t be any good.  No matter your personal reasons for writing for free, you can’t directly control this aspect, since it’s a reader perception issue.  Perhaps slowly over time you’ll build an audience as readers realize your stories are high quality despite being free, and tell their friends.

Still, there are valid reasons for giving away your stories, and some of these may apply in your case.

  • Name recognition.  Given that today’s readers rarely choose stories from authors they don’t know, you need to give an incentive for them to know you.  From there you can build an audience willing to pay for your work.
  • Writing as a hobby.  Some folks associate income with work, and work with drudgery.  They associate the word ‘hobby’ with fun, and don’t want to contaminate their fun hobby by turning it into a chore.
  • Less chance of rejection.  I think the so-called “for the love” markets are easier to break into.  However, this reason for giving away fiction is starting to become obsolete in an age when writers can skip the editor/publisher route entirely and publish eBooks directly, and charge for them.
  • Writing as a favor.  Perhaps you’ve become friends with an editor or publisher, and perhaps you owe them a favor for some kindness they’ve shown you.  Nothing wrong with sending them a story for which you ask no payment.
  • For charity.  Here the reader still pays to read your stuff but proceeds go to some deserving assistance organization rather than to you.  Nothing wrong with that.

You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons depending on your particular situation.  In my own case, I have written a couple of stories and submitted them to a “for the love” market.  I hope to include them in an anthology that I’ll charge for, so maybe I’ll make some money from them.  I wrote a story intended to go into a different anthology for which proceeds would go to charity.  That anthology fell through, though, so I will attempt to market that one and get paid for it.  Generally, now, I write for money.

Please let me know what you think about writing for free, and what your experiences have been.  Of course, you can always read—for free—the blog entries of—

                                               Poseidon’s Scribe

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September 23, 2012Permalink

A Format for Every Market

You prepared your manuscript with care, followed the market’s submission guidelines, and sent your story along.  Sad to say, it got rejected, but you got over that and decided to send it to the next market on your list.  Now you’ve found the new market requires stories submitted in a different format.  In fact, it appears there are almost as many manuscript formats as there are markets!  What’s the deal?

In truth, there are some standards shared by a few markets.  These include William Shunn’s “Proper Manuscript Format,” Vonda N. McIntyre’s “Manuscript Preparation — Introduction,” and, for ebooks, Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide.  But in general each market has its own quirks and differences.  Some markets (bless ‘em!) don’t really care; they just want to read your story!

In what ways are the formats different?  Some markets like a single space between sentences. Some prefer two.  Some take submissions in MicroSoft Word only, some in Rich Text Format (rtf), and there are still a few taking only mailed submissions (that’s snail-mail, with the stamps and envelopes).  Some want lines double-spaced, others single-spaced.  Then there the various ways to indicate you want a word italicized in the final text; some markets say that underlining indicates italics; some say_underlining before and after_indicates italicizing the words between, and some say italics means italics.

Why so many formats?  Because there are so many editors, each with his or her own pet peeves and preferences.  None of them want to be bothered to reformat most incoming manuscripts to suit their preferences.  Would you?  It’s easier to just mandate that writers do that before submitting.

From a writer’s standpoint, it would be desirable if all markets agreed on one standard format.  What’s keeping that from happening?  After all, we have standards for all kinds of things, from the spacing of railroad tracks to the shape of electrical outlets.  Unlike the cases of train tracks and electric sockets, there’s little incentive for standardizing on a single manuscript format.  In the first place, the only entity in the entire writer-editor-publisher-reader chain who is inconvenienced is the writer.  And writers aren’t the ones paying into the process.  Nor do they tend to complain enough about the problem to band together to take any kind of concerted action.  Moreover, that level of inconvenience to writers has (so far) not exactly resulted in a shortage of submitted manuscripts.

So the problem persists.  What is the solution?  As I see it, there will only be one standard format when the incentives in the system change someday.  A writer shortage would do it, though that seems unlikely.  More probable is the emergence of a dominant standard that gains more and more acceptance until pressure mounts on the few markets that don’t change.  If writers then shunned those non-compliant markets, those markets would have to change to survive.

In the meantime, get used to creating multiple versions of your stories as you send them to various markets.  Sorry, just the way it is.  Remember your Dad telling you life ain’t fair?  He was right.  You can leave a comment and complain about it to me if you want; I’ll sympathize.  In your experience, what’s the market with the strangest format?  Always curious about such things, I’m—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe


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September 16, 2012Permalink

Who Polishes the Diamond?

You see it in the submissions guidelines for almost every market–“Submit your best material,” or words to that effect.  If not stated, it’s implied, since they’ll just reject manuscripts containing too many editorial errors.

I’m speaking here of the traditional method of getting short story fiction published, dealing with editors.  However, the answer is the same even for self-published works.

Some writers chafe at the requirement to submit your best material.  “Why are they called Editors,” these writers ask, “if I’m the one doing the editing?”

Such writers think their job is to cleave the diamond shape out of rough stone, cut each facet almost flat, and then hand the gem over to the Editor who works it against the polishing wheel.  Finally the Publisher displays the brilliant, gleaming diamond in his store.

Advocates of this view say they can’t really be expected to get every little detail right.  It’s hard enough to be a writer without being an Editor too.  How is a writer supposed to be prolific and also submit perfect manuscripts?  If the writer is spending all that time with editing third, fourth, fifth drafts, she’s getting less real writing done, isn’t she?

Let’s look at the matter from the editor’s point of view.  I’ve never worked as an editor, so I’m guessing here, but all the editors reading my blog will tell me if I’m wrong.

There is some process involved in the decision to accept or reject an incoming manuscript.  I suspect editors judge stories against the following criteria at least:

1. How well does the story fit with the publisher’s needs?  Is it compatible with the magazine or anthology?

2. How original is the story idea?

3. Can this story sell in today’s market?  Is it in line with, or just ahead of, an emerging trend?

4. What is the quality of writing?  I don’t mean the minor editing issues, but instead an assessment of the writer’s talent in storytelling, choosing words well, creating compelling characters, setting a scene, advancing a plot, use of tension and suspense, etc.

5. How much editing will be required to bring this story up to the quality level needed for publication?

Only one of these criteria deals with the amount of editing to be done.  But your story could clear just over the threshold of acceptance in four categories and still be rejected.  I hear your objection already.  Yes, it’s possible your story could exceed the threshold in the first four categories by far so the editor decides to accept it even though the diamond needs considerable polishing.  Do you want to count on that for every story?  Every market?

I’m sure Editors would rather do the sort of editing that improves the manuscript’s quality, mentioned in item 4 in the list above.  Suppose, instead, she is dealing with matters of basic English–leaving out punctuation, wrong word choices such as farther/further or continuous/continual, wrong verb tense, subject-verb disagreement, overuse of the author’s ‘pet words,’ sudden point of view shifts, weak verbs, etc.  She must conclude the writer is not serious about his craft.  The decision to reject is much easier in such cases.

I’m not saying I’m perfect in this regard, but my message is:  don’t make it easy for the editor to reject your stories.  As a writer, you are both the diamond cutter and the diamond polisher.  Those of you who self-publish have both roles by definition, so you must polish well.  So get polishing, writers.  Your prospective readers want to see your diamonds sparkle!  So does–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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We’d Like to Offer You a Contract…

You’ve sent your short story around to different markets, gotten rejections, but finally one publisher accepts your story.  Hooray!  Then an e-mail arrives with a long, legal document for you to sign.  It’s your first writing contract.  It looks so complicated, and all you want to do is see your story published, so you think about signing that contract without really reading it.

Don’t do that.

At its most basic level, a contract is a written agreement between two willing parties.  Each has something to offer, something the other party wants, so the contract should be for mutual benefit.  The writer has his story and wants both money and a published story.  The publisher is able to ensure books get printed and offered to the public and is willing to pay writers for good stories.  Pretty simple, right?  What could go wrong?

Writing contracts (for short stories, with which I have experience), have a fairly standard structure.  Here are the basic parts, though contracts vary by publisher:

  • Definitions of Author, Publisher, and Work
  • Permissions Author grants the Publisher
  • Rights being purchased by Publisher and the time period (term) of the rights (when they revert back to the Author, both in case the book isn’t published and if it is)
  • Payments and Royalties paid by Publisher to Author, including Author copies of published book.  In the case of royalties, some contracts also state how the Publisher will provide periodic royalty statements.
  • Termination of Agreement – some contracts stipulate how the agreement will be or could be terminated
  • Author Warranties (author owns Work, no other conflicting contracts, Work is original, Work doesn’t defame others, etc.)
  • Author Indemnities – (Author holds Publisher blameless in lawsuits if Author has misrepresented anything in contract)
  • No competing publication (Author agrees not to publish Work elsewhere first)
  • Changes in Text or Title – Publisher agrees not change the work without Author permission (approval of galleys), but usually minor copy-editing changes are allowed.
  • Venue – links the contract to the laws of a specific country or state
  • Signatures

For several reasons, you might be tempted to sign your first writing contract without reading it:

1.  All those unfamiliar legal words are intimidating.

2.  I’m anxious to get published.

3.  It’s probably one of their standard contracts, anyway.  A lot of writers must have signed a contract just like this.

4.  Most publishers are above-board and honest, aren’t they?

If if all are those are true, read the contract anyway.  But suppose you do read it and there are parts you don’t understand.  Communicate with the publisher and ask him or her what those clauses mean.  If you’re still confused, you can hire an intellectual property lawyer, but that shouldn’t be necessary for most short story contracts.  Don’t sign the contract until you understand the terms and agree to them.

It’s a truism that contracts favor the party that writes them.  You can attest to that, I’m sure, from other types of contracts you’ve seen which always spell out in detail what you’re supposed to do and what bad things will happen if you don’t, but gloss over the expectations and penalties for the other party.

Remember–a contract is an agreement between two willing parties who each give something and get something.  So you can negotiate terms.  If there’s something you don’t like in the contract or something missing, negotiate to make it right.  Walking away from a bad deal is always an option–right up until you sign it.

Feel free to let me know what your experience with short story contracts has been.  But hereinafter in consideration of the mutual covenants herein contained, the party of the first part shall be referred to as–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

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Heinlein’s Rules

In his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein stated five rules for writing fiction.  Here they are:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

He went on to say that he didn’t much fear the new competition he’d face from putting these rules out in the open, since he figured half of those who claim they want to write won’t complete step 1, and half of the remainder wouldn’t finish step 2, and so on.  Those of you working out the math should forget it–all those halves are just approximate.

Heinlein’s rules are repeated all over the web and there has been much criticism of them.  Some have said they sound too harsh, like Drill Sergeant Heinlein is shouting all those “MUSTs.”  To those folks I’d ask–If your aim is to get your work published, which of those steps do you think you could skip, or kinda half-do?  Really.  Look back over them and tell me which rule could be softened in its wording.

The main criticisms target rule 3, “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”  Some assume Heinlein is telling writers to send their first draft out on the market.  I doubt Mr. Heinlein meant that.  I think rewriting the first draft until it’s acceptable is implicit in rule 2: “You must finish what you write.”  It’s not likely to be really finished after a very rough, rapidly-scribbled first draft, even though you’ve reached “The End.”  Heinlein means that you must declare the work finished and then refrain from the temptation to waste time endlessly trying to perfect the work, unless an editor has asked for revisions and you agree to them.  As Heinlein also said elsewhere, “They didn’t want it good, they wanted it Wednesday.”

My own quibble with the rules concerns their order.  As written, they are single steps to be executed in sequential order.  The only loop in the process is within the final two steps, which basically say to send the manuscript out, and when you get a rejection, send the work–unchanged–to another market that same day.  So if all the other steps are in sequential order, Rule 3 makes no sense as written. You haven’t sent the work out yet, so how could you have received a request from an editor for a rewrite?  I say Rules 3 and 4 should be swapped.

The great writer Robert J. Sawyer has suggested adding a 6th rule, “Start Working on Something Else.”  This is likely aimed at those who think their first story will make them famous and so wait breathlessly for word from the editor about acceptance or rejection.  If you’re truly a writer, you can hardly wait to tackle the next project, so that’s when you start it.  Unfortunately, Rule 6 would then be the only one focused on some other, next work while the rest of the rules concern a single story.  Still, I concur with the intent, though I might have phrased it as, “Think of another story to write and go to step 1.”

I like Heinlein’s Rules.  I think their commanding tone is a stentorian call summoning you to action and perhaps to greatness.  Don’t think of them as overly harsh commandments that doom you to misery for the slightest deviation.  They’re an invitation; get out there; don’t talk about it–do it!  And they’re also a promise; follow these rules and you will get published.  It’s hard to think of more inspiring words for a beginning writer.

Please let me know what you think.  Also, remember that Heinlein wrote his rules about 65 years ago.  Perhaps 65 years from now people will still be debating words written by–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe


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January 29, 2012Permalink