Wednesday, November 6, 2013


My computer files are littered with partially completed pieces of writing, various outlines, and miscellaneous notes with ideas for some future writing project.  There are, admittedly, very few completed pieces.  Occasionally I've wondered why that is so, and other than some "fear of success" meme, the best I can come up with is that historically the "cost/benefit ratio" for completing a writing project has not favored the effort.

Let's say I came up with a great idea for a short story.  I could sit down and grind it out, all the way to completion, but then what.  The way things have always worked up to this time is that once I have a completed piece, then the real work begins.  Figuring out the potential market for the story.  Submitting it to the editor, after determining if multiple submissions are acceptable or do I have to try one possibility at a time.  Send it off and wait.  When it comes back with a  rejection note, move on to the next likely market.  Repeat ad infinitum until someone accepts it or I've run out of places to send it.  Robert Heinlein, my favorite author ever, once wrote that completed manuscripts were to be kept constantly in submission until a buyer was found.  Like most of his rules for success in writing, I'm sure that was good advice at the time he gave it.  Over time, though, the world changed.  Slowly it seemed the magazines that used to buy and publish short fiction were going away.  Niche stuff, like science fiction, had an ever more limited market, even as ever more writers tried to get into the field.  I think at one time there were a half a dozen or so science fiction and fantasy magazines in circulation.  If each one published monthly with an average of 10 short stories, novellas, or serialized novels, you're talking a monthly market of about 60 pieces.  Add in the other general market magazines which might occasionally publish something in the SF realm and you might be up to 75 or 80 possible monthly sales.  Over the course of a year, then, there might be in the neighborhood of a thousand stories purchased and published, especially if you add in the occasional edited anthology of short stories published by the book houses.  With hundreds of would-be authors chasing those limited sales opportunities, the odds quickly stack against you.  That's not the end of it, of course.  At a nickle a word, a 5K word short story generates $250.00.  To make a living at that rate, you've got to be selling (not just writing to completion) a couple of  pieces a week.  I know all about filling the sales pipeline, and that goes back to Heinlein's advice to keep completed work in circulation until it finally sells, but still you've got to be very motivated to sit at the typewriter, notepad, or even computer, and hammer away on a piece when the odds look so badly stacked against you.

How does that explain all the uncompleted pieces in my files?  I realized eventually that once I got far enough into the writing process that I more or less knew in my own head where the story was going and how it would play out, I had just about received all the positive benefit I was going to get, unless I had planned on editing and publishing a collection of rejection notices.  Since I quickly grasped that there are only so many ways to say, "Sorry, you're work does not meet our editorial needs at this time," I instinctively knew that I probably couldn't even sell a collection of turn-downs.  I did have a rejection note from Playboy magazine at one time that I thought would make cool cover art for my hypothesized book of rejects, but as important as the cover art is to potential sales the lack of subject matter presented a serious deficiency in the whole concept.  So, once I had enough of a story written to satisfy my own interest in how it played out, my interest in finishing sort of fizzled away when I looked at the odds against me.

And that's just short stories.  Don't get me started on how the book publishing world is stacked against new authors.  Agents, publishers, long time frames, marketing plans requiring 500 page works as parts of 5 volume series before a publisher will even talk with you?  Come on.  I may have some masochistic tendencies, but to beat myself down writing novels no one will ever see is just not on my agenda.

I'm seeing a change in the world, though.  What's called ePublishing, or self-publishing (and not the vanity press self-publishing of the past) seems to be opening the way to a viable future for writers, and my dream is perking back up.  Maybe I can make the transition one of these days.  I'd certainly like that.

Toward that end, I pulled out of the files a partially written short story and finished it off earlier today.  I've sent it off to a couple of friends to look over for some feedback before I decide what to do with it now that it's done.  But  for the first time in a long time I can look at one of my writing projects, fold my arms and lean back with a self-satisfied, "DONE!"

It feels good.  I hope to feel that again real soon.

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