Six years later, everything is better

I’ve been doing this writing and submitting thing for kind of a long time. Off and on, anyway – much more “off” than “on”, if I’m honest. But still, I did it enough to get published five times between 1999 and 2005, both in print and online.

But then I took a long break during which I barely submitted anything. I kept writing, sure, but until August of 2011, I wasn’t really trying to get published anymore. That six year vacation didn’t do much for my writing career, but returning to active duty has been in some ways like stepping out of a cryogenic canister after six years of deep freeze.

Everything is different now – at least for a beginner. (Which is still what I am, even after all these years.) And everything is better. In fact, if things hadn’t changed in the past decade, I probably would have given up again already. As it is, I’ve submitted more in the past six month than I ever have before. Here’s why.

You can submit everything online now
Okay, not everything. But almost everything. I’ve made almost 90 submissions in the past six months and not one of them has involved a manila envelope. My postage scale from the old days does nothing now except gather dust.

I know that printing out a story and stuffing it in an envelope doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for me it was a total drag. I hated it, especially since even minor edits to a story meant printing out a whole new copy. And that darn ink cartridge was never, ever full.

Obviously there are lots of writers who are much better at these postal submissions than I am, just like there are writers who did just fine in the days of typewriters. I recognize that my inability to organize postal submissions was a personal failure, not a systematic one. But I’m sure glad the system changed to something easier.

Twitter lets you eavesdrop on hundreds of other writers
Even back in 1997, when I first started submitting stories, there were online meeting places for writers. Newsgroups, mailing lists, and later forums and message boards. There were also plenty of science-fiction conventions where writers could interact with each other.

I, however, never took advantage of any of this stuff. Partly it was because I didn’t know the full extent of what existed, but partly also because it was intimidating. When I sold a story to Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2005, editor Sheila Williams wrote to tell me that fellow Clevelander (and amazing, successful writer) Geoffrey Landis would be happy to have me join his writing group. I never followed up about that and nothing came of it. I felt too much like an imposter to show up at a writing group that somebody like Landis belonged to.

But today we have Twitter. Through Twitter, I can follow hundreds of writers, editors, agents, publishers, whoever. And since Twitter actually encourages folks to tweet about relatively inconsequential things – their momentary frustrations, their tiny joys, their random musings – it turns all these people into bona fide human beings. Most writers feel like imposters at some point, and Twitter is great antidote to that. We don’t all have to act or look or feel like geniuses all the time.

You can read everything online now
In the old days, I used to find new markets partly by paging through Writer’s Market and reading the entries. This was okay, but it was a little like trying to find your soulmate in the newspaper personal ads. He or she might very well be among the listings, but the listings themselves don’t really have enough information to help you sort out the best prospects.

As to getting sample issues to review – you had to send away real money and wait for a real magazine to come back in the mail. I never had the patience to do that or the audacity to send a manuscript blind. So I submitted to the online markets and the few print magazines I knew well enough to know I was at least in the right ballpark.

These days, the lists of magazines are all online – but, more importantly, so are the magazines themselves. You can get a sample issue of just about anything online in one format or another – even if it’s just a PDF – and usually for no more than a few bucks. I can now instantly research dozens of markets to find out which ones particular stories might be a good fit for.

The Internet is just that much bigger
When I started submitting in 1997, there was no such thing as Wikipedia. The limits of home research were whatever was in the encyclopedia. Admittedly, I spent much of the next four years in college, so I wasn’t necessarily deprived of convenient access to huge research facilities. But it’s incredible to me how the Internet now makes a lot of research (especially the early stages) so much easier.

By 2005, Wikipedia had 750,000 articles. Today, there are over 20 million. And the rest of the Internet has grown in similar ways. There are new resources, new publications, and new archives going up online every day – not to mention even richer information sources like videos, photographs, scanned documents, audio files, and searchable databases. There is still plenty of stuff that’s not available, but it’s getting harder and harder to find a topic where Internet research doesn’t yield at least a few pages of information. For a short story writer like me, often that’s all I need. And when I do need more, the Internet helps me rule out potential dead ends quickly.

There are dangers to this, particularly if mistaken information on an obscure topic gets repeated across the web. (This is why I still consult actual books on some topics – though books are by no means authoritative either.) But it wasn’t so long ago when Internet research used to lead quickly to dead ends. Now I’m finding that information online is both much broader and deeper, that it’s more authoritatively sourced and better footnoted, and that it takes into account more points of view than it did six years ago.

Also, I guess I’m six years older now
I don’t think I was really ready to be a published writer in 2005. I was twenty-five years old, I didn’t know any other writers, I wasn’t part of science-fiction fandom, and I barely even knew what I wanted to write about. (I spent a lot of those missing six years figuring that last one out.)

Being published didn’t help me feel any more connected or better guided either. That wouldn’t necessarily have been the case if I’d taken some steps to engage with others in the field. But I was shy, I wasn’t sure of myself, and I didn’t know what I wanted out of writing. One of the shocks of being published in Asimov’s and Strange Horizons was the realization that short story sales were never likely to contribute meaningfully to my income.

I don’t really regret spending six years away from submitting. I read a lot of books and started to get a solid idea of what I loved most. I tried out some critique partners and writing groups. I took a stab at a few novels, I edited an anthology with two friends, I joined SFWA, and I applied for an MFA creative writing program. (Regarding that last one, I eventually decided not to go.) And, in August 2011, I went to Reno to the World Science Fiction Convention.

When I came home from Reno, I immediately submitted the first stories I’d sent out in years. But cause and effect is rarely as simple as that. I suspect that all the things I’d done over the previous six years (and before that, too) were building to a point where I could finally handle being a published writer without repeatedly losing confidence in myself. All the changes in technology helped too by making it easier to fit researching, writing, submitting, reading, and networking into my life.

It no longer takes a sledgehammer to squeeze the submissions process into my life. I’m really glad about that, and in the last six months I’ve made seven new sales – more than I’d managed in the first fourteen years of my writing career. I’m having fun these days, and I honestly can’t think of a single thing that was better for a beginner in this field six years ago that it is today.


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