What is a realistic path to becoming a published SF author?
December 26, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

What is a realistic path to becoming a published SF author?

I recently saw someone who was trying to become an comedian/actor and had just started out. Her method of daily motivation was to chart a set of steps that had to be accomplished before she would have a shot at her ultimate goal, acting in a movie. So this chart looked sort of like:
Move to L.A.
Get work as an extra
Get in an improv group at ____ theater (I can't remember the name)
Find a talent agent
Go to auditions
Speaking role in a feature-length film
...but obviously with more detail that I am failing to remember. Each item on this list gets checked off on the way from top to bottom, showing her progress toward her ultimate goal.

Perhaps it seems a bit silly, but I like this a lot, so I started thinking about my own creative goals, and how to apply this model to publishing SF fiction. Here my information gets fuzzy. Although I've often fantasized about having a book published, I am embarrassed to report that I don't quite understand the intermediary steps that must be met before one is likely to be published. I know I'd need a literary agent to submit to publishing houses, but what "scut work" is typical before agents will take an author seriously enough to take them on as a client? Is publishing short fiction in magazines – Asimov's et al – still regarded as an entry point? Is attending Clarion a big stepping stone worth working toward?

I know we have a few resident SF writers on MeFi. Perhaps some of you could help. The more details the better. Thanks in advance.

(Note: Self-publishing, while perfectly fine and wonderful, is not something I am interested in pursuing at this time.)
posted by deathpanels to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Heh, this is something I've been thinking about and researching a lot. I have not actually gotten everything published, and some of the pros will no doubt be along shortly, but here's my thinking:

- Write a publishable book

This is perhaps an obvious step, but I think maybe its placement isn't. There's just not that much you can do until you have a book to sell. My process around this has been 1. Write a book. 2. Groan in disgust; shelve the book. 3. Write another, better book. 3. Wince in dismay; prepare to submit book to a workshop for further revision. 4. Write another, better book. A great, classic piece on what constitutes an unpublishable novel is Slushkiller - do read the thread, it's full of great anecdotes from a chunk of the SF publishing field (mostly Tor.)

- Get an agent

Everything I have read and heard suggests that there's no point not trying to get an agent - you can submit to agents and publishers at the same time, if you want to take a chance on the slushpile although you can't submit to multiple agents or multiple publishers at the same time. Queryshark is a very neat little blog about how to craft a query letter to send to agents.

The question of writing short stories came up several times at various of the "get published" panels I attended at Worldcon last year, and opinions were definitely divided, but if you can write good short fiction and want to, it seems like it's not a bad idea at all. (If you can't, the general sentiment was, then don't bother with it - not everyone can write both novels and short fiction and that's fine.)

I am of the general belief that networking isn't a bad thing, and Worldcon was a bunch of fun last year (it's in San Antonio this year, if you want to consider it.) I met several authors and editors, and did not spill my drink on any of them, so... yay! I'm also, as I alluded to above, applying to Viable Paradise this year, which can't hurt - I am rather short on formal fiction-writing instruction and it's got an excellent reputation.

Basically the distillation of every bit of advice I have ever read is "If your book is great, someone will publish it," so concentrating on the writing side of things seems like the most productive strategy. You don't mention what you've written - or if you've written anything - but definitely start there if you haven't already.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:56 AM on December 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

I'm not sure about all the steps that follow but I DO know the first step is: write. If you don't start there then I'm not sure the other stuff really even matters.
posted by Tevin at 11:03 AM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Self-publishing, while perfectly fine and wonderful, is not something I am interested in pursuing at this time.

This was how I thought until I attended a seminar on how to get published. The main draw I got from that is that publishing houses are failing. The main speaker was Lynn Rosen; she's worked in the publishing industry, as a literary agent, and is a published author.

Anyhow, these are the steps she gave for publishing fiction (taken from my notes):

Steps for the author:
*finish a manuscript
*send query letters to agents
*book proposal to agents should include an overview, table of contents, sample chapter, and about the author
*how to get an agent
--research agents in books/websites, by list of agents in your genre, or look at author you want to write like and find out who their agent is
--write a really great query letter that promotes yourself without being self-aggrandizing, why you chose that agent, brief overview of the book, a bit about you, and let them know if writing to other agents

After this there are steps that the agent takes to getting your book published, and they'll generally help you edit your book to make it more sellable.

Another route, if you don't have a completed novel, is to write short stories and submit them for publication. There are several sites and competitions specifically for fantasy/sci-fi short stories/novellas:
*Writers of the Future
*Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers Guild (I don't remember the exact requirements, but if you can get some short stories published through specific magazines, you can become a member and get a reputable author as a mentor as well as access to the literary agents who recruit from the membership)
*Sci-Fi magazine that publishes short stories
posted by DoubleLune at 11:13 AM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

book proposal to agents should include an overview, table of contents, sample chapter, and about the author

Oh, this is one thing that has become very clear to me - read the specific submission requirements of the specific agent/publisher every single goddamn time, because they're all slightly different and screwing that up is the fastest possible way to get rejected without a look. (That line jumped out at me because fiction does not often have a table of contents at all and I've never seen it in submission guidelines anywhere. A synopsis or an outline, sure, but not a ToC.)
posted by restless_nomad at 11:19 AM on December 26, 2012

Best answer: restless_nomad has it, pretty much. write a great book. the great one will likely not be your first book finished. ensure the book is great by joining a critique group, either online and off -- they are your most valuable resource. even now (I have 2 non-SF books out with a big 6 publisher) I don't show anything to my agent that hasn't been seen by multiple critique partners.

then you write a query letter, which is a very specifically formatted letter summarizing your book (this letter should also be critiqued by other writers), and send it to legitimate agents who represent SF authors. Agentquery was my favorite resource for researching agents. you might also choose to join Publisher's Markeplace to research who's making genre sales in real time. always review and follow each agent's submission guidelines in detail, they vary.

publication in legit journals like Asimov's definitely helps but isn't necessary if you've written a kick-ass book (and a kick-ass query letter to pique an agent's interest). same with attending events & workshops like Clarion -- they can be fantastic & it's heartening to meet other authors, but they aren't necessary. I'll nudge PhoBWanKenobi, who is an SF author/VP alum & one of my crit partners, she'll have better advice on that angle.

oh also: you can in fact submit to multiple agents at the same time (unless one asks for an exclusive read, but that's super rare and honestly kind of crappy), and should. agents expect it. when I was querying, I chose to submit to about 7 per round. if rejections suggested something similar, I knew I should probably revise again.

upon preview: DoubleLune has good tips but proposals are typically for non-fiction. you never want to include a table of contents or an about the author when seeking an agent for a debut novel, trust me. just the query letter, and occasionally a chapter or a few pages -- if the agent asks for it in her submission guidelines. that's it.
posted by changeling at 11:21 AM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

lastly and most importantly: have patience. every single stage of this journey is excruciatingly slow. except the rejections! sometimes those come FAST.

good luck!
posted by changeling at 11:27 AM on December 26, 2012

Everyone's covered everything I would have said, so let me just recommend two good online hangouts, the forums at AbsoluteWrite.com and the Speakeasy at PW.org. Also, QueryShark.blogspot.com (an agent's critique of query letters) and QueryQuagmire.tumblr.com (an editor's discussion of query letters and other bits of the publishing process) are worth their weight in gold.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:07 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can only tell you what worked for me. First, I read a load of sf, I mean a load of it. I don't read nearly as much sf today -- but there was a time when I literally read a book a day, and most of them were science fiction. My tastes have since gotten broader, because after all you can't read just science fiction.

But even before that,I had been trying to write since I was very young. Like, 8 or 9. I was sending stories out when I was 10. (Circa 1960.) Yes, they were crap -- but I slowly grew to understand what proper manuscript format was, how stories worked, etc etc. I went to sf conventions, got to know prominent fans and pros. I joined SFWA as soon as I could. I think they have an affiliate membership these days, so you needn't be a published author to join. The SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) is that way, too. Consider joining them if you want to write any juvenile or YA sf.

I studied writing in high school and college. I joined workshops. I became friends with some local writers, and grew bold enough to start workshops of my own and invited them to join. Sometimes they did. for a while at least.

Even after I started publishing, I had a life outside of writing. I had other interests and pursued them. I got married and had a family.

These days I publish online a lot, and maintain my other interests. (Drawing, painting, cooking, music.) I'm an aspiring YA author, and have published mainstream fiction as well as comic book continuity and mysteries. I think it's very important to have a varied palette, as they say.

Have I written a great book? Not yet! But I keep on trying. I consider myself a lifelong student of writing. There will never be a point when I think, "Well, okay -- that's it, I've got all the info I need."

You mileage may vary, obviously. Good luck!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:55 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback, everyone. It seems like responses are falling into one of two categories, broadly summarized: 1) how to acquire the skills necessary to write fiction, and 2) how to navigate the world of publishing. I am looking more for the latter. The more specific the better.
posted by deathpanels at 1:25 PM on December 26, 2012

A couple more links:

Buried in the Slushkiller link I posted above, Teresa's thoughts about agents. Generally what I've seen, other than the specific Queryshark query-writing help, is "find successful authors whose work is similar to yours, find out who represents them, and start there." You also might want to look around for pitch sessions or conventions where you can meet agents face-to-face and get that little extra bit of recognition.

Scalzi's financial advice for writers. Generally sensible and useful stuff. Related, this blue post about the revenue from a bestseller.

I kind of love the life-of-an-editor snapshots of Life In Publishing, and I also particularly enjoy reading authors' personal blogs, especially when they cross over from aspiring to successful. Scalzi's is one example (and Whatever is generally hilarious,) Elizabeth Bear's blog is extensive and really detailed, although you'll have to do some sifting to find just the life-as-an-author stuff, and Cherie Priest's livejournal - in the very early years particularly - talks in some detail about her early encounter with a shady small press and subsequent move to Tor. I find that sort of thing really useful for extrapolating what writing as a career is actually like - ymmv.

Also seconding Absolute Write as a great forum for this sort of stuff - I don't spend much time there, but I have a published-author friend who definitely based her career launch on the advice she found there.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:42 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

worry about how to navigate the world of publishing before you acquire the skills to be a published author is kind of like a 12 year old worrying about whether he wants a 9 or 10 year contract with the New England Patriots.

Really, steps 1-99 are basically "write! Most of what you're writing will be crap, but write it anyway until some of what you're writing is no longer crap."
posted by Justinian at 2:48 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: WRITE
1. Start writing a short SF story (3,000-7,000 words).

2. Subscribe to Asimov's, Analog and/or Locus magazines, and read one or two stories from every issue. Bonus points the more you read.
3. Buy some short SF anthologies--get a "best of the best" type anthology, e.g. a selection of Locus, Hugo or Nebula winners (don't get a best of this year compilation though). Start reading through and make note of what makes those stories good.

4. Join Critters and add your story into the queue.
5. Start reading other SF stories from Critters and crit them every week.
6. Eventually your story will be up to be critt'd and you'll get tons of feedback. Edit, revise, rewrite, or start over. Repeat until you feel that you've got something decent.

5. Since you've been reading the mags, you'll have a good feel for what type of stories each tends to publish: submit your story to the best fit. Wait a few months. If you get a rejection, submit to a different one.

6. If you don't get published at this point, you're ready to write another story. If you followed all the steps to here, you're guaranteed to write a better story the next time around. Plus, you've got a completed story under your belt, you're a veteran. If you DID get it published, congrats. Repeat anyway: you want to be able to crank stories out. Most of the award winning sci fi writers published in one of these mags first, as you'll have realized by now if you are reading the anthologies.
7. After you've got a few stories published, you are in the running for opportunities to present themselves to you. You might win an award. You might get published in an anthology. You might get noticed by somebody wanting you to do something. Who knows!

8. Hopefully if your stories are well received, you've got a reputation, some experience, some discipline, and some know-how. If you write a book now, you'll have a better shot at getting it published, as you're not an unknown anymore, and the work you produce will invariably be better.

Don't skimp on the reading. Yes, it will make you a better writer, but that isn't all. A lot of it is improving your marketability. The magazines are where everything starts in the SF world, and the more familiar you are with them the better. It's like learning the lingo of any field: if you talk to someone who has the connections to make your career take of, but you don't know the lingo, you're going to miss an opportunity. If you aren't reading Asimov's, you're inevitably going to say something that sounds dumb to someone who is. You're going to talk about some brilliant new idea you have had that is tirelessly repeated in the mag, or something... you don't know what it will be. But it also helps with marketability. You'll know what is selling, and as a writer, you need to craft a product that sells. You don't have to sell out though... just sell. Which means you at least need to know the difference between a hard sell and an easy sell.
posted by brenton at 4:54 PM on December 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: BOOKS
8. Hopefully if your stories are well received, you've got a reputation, some experience, some discipline, and some know-how. If you write a book now, you'll have a better shot at getting it published, as you're not an unknown anymore, and the work you produce will invariably be better.

Eeeeehhh . . .

I'm at a crossroads of the YA and the SF worlds--professionally, I sit in the former more than the latter, though I was a student of Viable Paradise (and so people like Uncle Jim and Steve Gould) and have socialized a bit with SF people. I'm a member of the SFWA and all of that jazz. From what I can tell, there's no necessary correlation between short sales and longform fiction sales. Short sales can qualify you for the SFWA, but I honestly found it easier--and more productive--to focus on novels. That's not to dissuade OP from working on short fiction if that's what he or she wants to do. Hell, I love writing a good short. But if what you want to do is really write and publish books, then you should focus on writing and publishing books. They're different skills and frankly, the money is better in long-form fiction. You can get an agent without any short fiction credits.

I'm also not a huge fan of the TNH advice on agents linked upthread. That's not to say that there aren't scammy agents, but there are several reasons why you might want an agent before you submit to publishers. An increased scope of submission opportunities is one; when I went on submission with my agent as a debut author, it was to twelve different editors, all of whom would have been inaccessible to me as an unagented author. This increases your financial possibilities--your agent will be angling for, say, an auction, rather than a single offer from one editor. It positions you better and gives you more choice. I've seen unagented friends submit books unagented and honestly, I don't envy their positions. An agent will help you value your writing correctly and navigate interactions with publishers better than you ever could alone.

So here's the process, if you ask me:


This is a zeroth step. Do it constantly, before writing, as you write, after writing. Read current works, too, from various publishers. Small press and big five. Stuff published in the last year.


From start to finish. It should be at least 80k. When you're done, decide if you feel your energy would be better spent writing another book or editing this one. I knew my first two books weren't worth editing--I was just getting the kinks out of my process. But you need to finish it, okay? Finish it.


When you have a draft that feels substantial and as though it has potential, seek beta readers from some place like Absolute Write. This is when you might look into workshops like Viable Paradise or Taos Toolbox, too. What you need is to find readers who will pull apart the structure of your book and help you put it back together so that it has integrity. Treasure the people you meet at this stage (but follow your instincts if you meet someone crazy; there are a lot of crazy writers). They'll be your writing friends for life, or at least a long while. They'll keep your spouse from wanting to kill you because you won't shut up with your publishing gossip. Seriously.


This is around the time that you need to figure out that your books are not a vehicle for your career. Rather, your writing skills are a vehicle for telling good stories. When someone gives you criticism, resist the urge to defend your book. Figure out how to make your book defend itself. This is really, really important for professionalization; the feedback you get from agents and editors is going to be way more incisive and gutting than anything you'll get from some schmo on the internet, promise. Learn to roll with the punches. Remember that if you can't grab them with this book, you can always make more words.


No one's mentioned querytracker? querytracker is the duotrope of agents. Using querytracker and your friend Mr. Google, put together a list of around 30 agents. This is the time to put any networking you've done (either online or in person) to good use. ASK PEOPLE ABOUT THE AGENTS YOU ARE QUERYING. Have they heard anything, good or bad, about the people on your list? Writers love trading this information (and gossip). Listen to their stories and take them into serious consideration. Listen to your gut, too. If you only have one agent offer, but the person gives you a stomachache, maybe don't sign with them? You want to cultivate a long term professional and creative relationship with this person. Chemistry counts for quite a bit. So send out those queries, in batches of 5-10, until you exhaust your list, or until you get an offer.


Seriously, never, ever put all your eggs in one basket. Start something new as soon as possible. With every subsequent book, you'll improve, and if you get an agent, you'll have something to offer as a next project. Most authors these days write a book a year. Best to get into that habit now.


Many writers view this as the slim, implausible end of their journey. It's not--it's really just the beginning. But most writers will take themselves out of the race before they ever get there. Keep writing books and querying. It doesn't happen right away for everyone. It took New York Times bestselling author Beth Revis 10 books before she got an agent. It took me five. You will be miserable and want to give up. Don't. Seriously. You can do this.


At this point of your journey, you'll have a smarter person than metafilter to guide you. You'll go on submission with your agent and you'll have thought that querying was miserable, but find new depths of misery--and new joys. Write another book when you're on sub, too. Try not to drink too much.

That's good advice generally. Try not to drink too much.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:55 PM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

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