Writing Excuses 12.35: Short Fiction Markets, with Spencer Ellsworth and guest host Beth Meacham
Key Points: The short fiction market has grown enormously. Where should you submit? Consider size of the audience, how much you get paid, and how shiny it is to you (attractiveness!). What’s most important to you? Express yourself first, don’t try to impress the editor or write like someone else. Short fiction teaches you to get the important stuff on the page, and shave off the unimportant stuff. Plus, it’s fun! You need to read short fiction to know what’s already been done, and then tell a new story. Finally, slap your muse. (aka don’t write the easy story, look for a unique new story!)
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 35.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Short Fiction Markets, with Spencer Ellsworth.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Beth] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Beth] I’m Beth.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] We have a guest host, Beth Meakam… Beth Meacham… Thank you. And a special guest, Spencer…
[Beth] That’s okay. Everybody gets it wrong.
[Howard] I’m trying to overcome the micro-aggression of mispronouncing things. Beth, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Beth] I am a book editor. I’m an executive editor at Tor Books where I have worked for the last 33 years.
[Howard] Outstanding. And we have special guest, Spencer Ellsworth. Spencer?
[Spencer] Hi. I’m Spencer. I have published about 20 short stories in various markets, and my first book comes out August 22 with Tor, amply midwifed by Beth, my editor.
[Mary] And just for our listeners, Spencer and I met each other at Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp in 2005, and Jean Ellsworth, in Shades of Milk and Honey is named after him.
[Spencer] That’s right. Mary said she needed a name that sounded really British.
[Spencer] I said you can’t say my name, Spencer Ellsworth, without a monocle and a cup of tea.
[Spencer] It’s just not right.
[Mary] It’s true. We all have monocles and cups of tea right now.
[Spencer] Yes. Right, guys?
[Howard] Okay. Our listeners ask a lot about markets, and the short fiction market, in particular, is… To my understanding, has changed in recent years and continues to shift. What about it is fascinating right now? What would you highlight right now?
[Spencer] There are so many more short fiction paying pretty decent markets than any writer realizes. There’s… Especially with the Internet, especially with the crowdfunding cycles. We used to talk about, in the 80s and 90s, there were the big three science fiction markets, Asimov’s, Analog, and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. There were really more like big four, big five, because Omni was around for a while. There were several other print markets. But in this day and age, there’s really about a big 10… And maybe a profitable and reliable 20. It’s a great time to be a science fiction writer. Hey, guys, I sold like five or six just reprints last year of science fiction that had already been out while I was working on my book. I don’t think I could’ve done that, I don’t think I could’ve hustled that much before the Internet.
[Howard] When I asked for the most interesting part, he led with the money.
[Beth] He’s a writer.
[Spencer] Well, Howard, I am a writer.
[Mary] But, I mean, that’s true. Like, when we talk about what markets to submit to, I say that there’s basically… It’s a stool with three legs. That you’re making your decision, and you always want to start at the top. You’re making your decision based on the size of the audience, the amount of money you’re getting paid, and how shiny it is. The shiny factor is how much you personally want to be in that market. Like, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction does not have as large a readership these days as Tor.com, but I grew up reading it, so I want to be… It’s very shiny to me. Depending on where I am in my career, one of those three stools… One of those three legs is going to be more important to me. When I was supporting myself in New York on my writing and theater income…
[Mary] Which was great.
[Beth] Note, the panel groaned.
[Howard] For those not benefiting from the video feed, that was a grimace.
[Mary] Yes. But at that point, the amount of money I was being paid was most important to me. Now where I am, the size of the audience is more important to me because I’m predominantly a novelist, and the short fiction helps promote my brand. So it varies a lot, depending on where you are in your career and what’s important to you.
[Howard] Tell me about shiny? Are we allowed to talk about what we think are our shiniest markets? Where do you want to be, where do you want your short stories to go? Or, Beth, what you find shiny?
[Beth] Well, obviously, I find Tor.com very shiny, because I buy for it.
[Beth] It’s a very, very shiny magazine. We also pay really well. So it’s exciting to me from the editorial side to see the breadth and the depth of what we can publish. One of the things that excites me about the enormous explosion of online magazines is that there are so many points of view being expressed. The editors of these magazines each have their own interests and their own viewpoint and their own personality, which they express through the fiction they buy and publish. So the entire world of short fiction has expanded exponentially, I think, in the last 10 years. It’s very exciting to see, because it lets you see so many new stories and hear so many new voices. Back when there were only four magazine, you were really very limited in what you could experience and what stories you could hear.
[Spencer] One of the shiniest markets for me, which is not a lot… I don’t know if you guys all listen to it, is the Escape Artists Podcasts. Which for years, I would listen to podcasts on Escape Pod, which are the science fiction and fantasy ones, and for years, they were just reprints. They would buy reprints at a flat rate. It’s a great place to sell a reprint and hear it podcast. I sent them lots of reprints, and they all got rejected. Just recently, they started buying originals, and they bought one of my reprints. That, to me, was almost as good as Tor.com. It was really shiny, because podcasts… I really like what podcastle does. So, like Mary said, yeah, there’s a shiny factor.
[Mary] So, magazines that I find appealing personally like when I’m… My current list when I’m thinking about where am I going to send this? Well, actually, my current list depends on what the story is. But the ones that I look at and go, “Oooo!” When a friend sells there, I’m a tiny bit jealous. Tor.com, Uncanny Magazine, which I think is doing phenomenal work…
[Beth] They’re really good.
[Mary] They’re really good. Lightspeed, I think is doing great work. Clarke’s World. The Escape Pod. Then, a small press one which is very dear to me is Shimmer zine, which does really nice work, but very… But it’s very… It’s a boutique press, I think, more than a small press. They take a lot of care with their art direction. So those are the ones that I get personally excited about.
[Dan] One of the shiny markets for me is game fiction. That’s one that has to be shiny for me because I lose money every time I write for it.
[Dan] I could have made more money spending that same amount of time and energy writing something for an IP that I own. Basically. But I love games. When I had a chance to write for Privateer Press, I jumped on it because I love their game.
[Howard] Yeah, that was me.
[Dan] It’s just exciting to me.
[Howard] That was me, too.
[Howard] Let’s pause for a book of the week.
[Mary] Our book of the week is A Red Peace by, shockingly, Spencer Ellsworth, edited by, shockingly, Beth Meacham.
[Mary] Spencer, tell us about your book.
[Spencer] My book is the first one in a trilogy of short novels from Tor.com called the Star Fire Trilogy. The first one is called A Red Peace, as in peace in the Middle East, not piece of cake. It’s a space opera, set about 10,000 years from now. Lots of empires have risen and fallen. Galactic empires. So it’s a bit… It’s a bit like a very mean version of Star Wars. If Star Wars were more like the Russian Revolution. The rebellion overthrows the Empire, the rebellion is worse. Our hero is a smuggler who goes looking for a fresh tomato, hard to find those in the space ways. She stumbles on the Romanov children of the Russian Revolution analogue. It’s not…
[Mary] Literally the Romanov.
[Spencer] Not literally. If you’re a real history nut, it’s just based on that. But… It will be out August 22, and if you love a good space opera, if you love some space battles, and you like it to be… Just bite a little harder than the Star Wars Star Trek stuff…
[Beth] It’s a lot chewier. It’s a lot chewier than Star Wars.
[Dan] Well, this is what I want, actually. I’m very excited to have Beth here to… What was it that excited you about his book, and made you say, “Yes. This is what I want to work on now?”
[Beth] Well, I first read part of this book at a writers workshop, where I was running a workshop group that Spencer was in. He had been showing off, answering writing prompts with quick facile pieces of fiction, the way he always does. He handed me…
[Mary] He’s grimacing now.
[Beth] You do that, Spencer. Spencer is a very skilled and very flashy writer. But not as disciplined perhaps, as he needs to be, and is becoming.
[Howard] Oh, man. This is juicy. Keep going.
[Beth] I’m being vicious…
[Spencer] Beth, I finished my draft today, two weeks early.
[Beth] Yes, you did, and you are a very good boy, and I will give you candy.
[Spencer] I just wanted to say that.
[Mary] So it is a red piece of cake!
[Beth] So he hands me… I don’t even remember what the prompt was for this piece. But he hands me this like five pages worth of Jackie, who’s the main character, wandering in and looking for a tomato, and trying to figure out what’s going on, because she’s been on an alien’s ship for months, and it’s really hard to get human food, because she’s just been eating protein bars for months. She really, really, really wants some fresh food. She wanders into the space station, and it’s weird, everything is weird, she can’t figure out what’s going on, because she can’t read, and all the information is being flashed on screens in text. So she doesn’t know what’s going on. She ends up being shanghaied into a fighting pit for gamblers. I’m reading this. I’m going, “Hello? When did you start channeling Chip Delaney?” Because it really, really read to me like an outtake from Empire Star. Which is something that I absolutely adore. I loved Delaney. I have always loved Delaney. I especially love his early space opera. Here was early Delaney sitting in front of me on a few pieces of paper. That’s when I decided that I was going to make him write it all.
[Howard] One of the… There are two important lessons here. One, be friends and close to editors who are ready to buy things. And two, present things to editors that they didn’t know they wanted until they read it.
[Beth] Totally! Totally.
[Howard] I don’t know how that works, but…
[Beth] I am always looking for the thing… As I said in my speech, I want the thing that hits me like a thunderbolt. That’s what I’m looking for. I can’t tell you what that is.
[Mary] So, one of those things that I’m also going to point out about what happened between them is that Spencer was expressing himself. He wasn’t trying to impress Beth. He was expressing himself. One of those expressions of self was the thing that impressed Beth. No one else… I don’t know. But other people may have been trying to impress her. One of the fastest ways to make your fiction flat is to try to write as if you were someone else. Spencer, I’m sure… Did you sit down and say, “I’m going to try and write a Samuel Delaney piece?”
[Spencer] No, I thought this was way too… Like the Star Wars book I always wanted to read, but Star Wars would never license. I thought nobody would like it. But I was like, “I just want to write a kind of mean, nasty galaxy.”
[Spencer] To bring it back to short fictional little bit… Short fiction really helped as well in kind of… It teaches you a lot about how to get the important stuff on the page, how to shave out the nonimportant stuff. If you’re working in about 4000 words, which is the sweet spot for almost all those Big Ten, reliable 20 that I talked about. If you’re thinking about, when you put your novel, first pages, in front of an editor, some of the best training for that can be in short stories. Also, they’re fun to write and they’re fun to read. I always feel like… Do you feel like when you talk to people about short stories, they act like they’re homework?
[Mary] Yeah, I get a lot of that. And I get a lot of… I see this happen to other writers who are short story writers. It’s like, “Well, when are you going to write a novel?” As if that’s harder. It’s longer. It’s longer, but it certainly not harder.
[Beth] No. It’s much harder to write a good short story, I think.
[Mary] I feel… The point of difficulty hits at different points for both of them. But, as someone who does both, yeah. The other thing that… And this is true for short fiction and novels as well. Spencer wrote something that he wanted to read that didn’t exist. With short fiction, that becomes… One of the reasons we are always saying you need to read short fiction if you want to write short fiction is so that you can read the things that already exist and not just rewrite them again. A lot of times… When I was slush reading for Shimmer magazine, which is part of why it was near and dear to my heart… I was their art director. I’m not, anymore. But I can say they’re… Anyway. Tangent. When I was slushing for them, I slushed briefly for Asimov’s, and what I would see, time and time again, is a story that had already been told. The author wasn’t bringing anything new to it, and it was pretty clear that they didn’t read a lot of short fiction, or they would’ve known that this story had already been told.
[Beth] Or… They read the magazine for a while, and thought, “Oh, this is the kind of story they want to publish. So I’ll write one of those.” Even though it probably wasn’t the thing that was in their heart to write.
[Spencer] Yeah. If you ever find yourself thinking, “This is a lock for Charlie, at Fiction and Science Fiction, this is a lock. This is exactly the kind of story he wants.” You slap your muse. You slap them and you say, “No.” Because that means Charlie is going to reject it.
[Spencer] I might be speaking from experience.
[Howard] That is a fine note for us to be running out of time on. Slap your muse.
[Beth] Slap your muse around. Yeah.
[Howard] Who’s got our writing prompt?
[Beth] Spencer does.
[Spencer] Okay. So. Since I assume a lot of you came here because you’re Brandon Sanderson fans, anyway, and you like long stories, I want you all to think about a long story you really… The type of long story you really enjoy, the type of storytelling you like to see a big book, an epic, an epic of Gilgamesh type thing. Then I want you to sit down and write it in under 4000 words. See if you can communicate the same thing… The kind of thing that you think needs 500 pages, in 4000 words.
[Howard] Outstanding. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write short.