Ignore Career Advice From Established Writers

We don’t know anything about breaking into today’s market

Screengrab of Judith Merril introducing Doctor Who on TVOntario, in the 1970s.

“Breaking In,” is my latest column for Locus Magazine; it’s both the story of how I broke into science fiction, and an explanation of why there’s so little to learn from that story.

When I was trying to sell my first stories, I obsessively sought career advice and memoirs from established writers. I sat in on countless science fiction convention panels in which bestselling writers explained how they’d butter up long-dead editors to sell to long-defunct publications.

None of them ever mentioned that as interesting as this stuff might be as an historical artifact, it had zero applicability to the market I was trying to break into.

Not only did these writers enter a fundamentally different — and long-extinct publishing world than the current one, but their relationship to the current market was fundamentally different from my own.

Editors solicited work from them, not the other way around. When they wrote something on spec, they could directly contact editors with whom they’d had long and fruitful professional associations — bypassing the who “slush reader” apparatus.

I don’t know if these established writers failed to mention that none of this applied to the would-be writers in the audience because they thought it was obvious or because it never occurred to them, but either way, it didn’t do me a lick of good.

What worked for me? Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? What worked for me won’t work for you. Not only was my path into the field pretty idiosyncratic — any generally applicable principle to be derived from it has been obsolete for decades.

But some things don’t change. I benefited immensely from the kindness — sometimes protracted, sometimes momentary — of writers who spoke to youth groups, served as writers-in-residence, guest-lectured to my summer D&D camp.

Above all, I benefited from Judith Merril, a towering writer, critic and editor who went into voluntary exile in Toronto after the Chicago police riots of 1968, and opened the Spaced Out Library, now the Merril Collection, the largest public science fiction reference library in the world.

Judy didn’t just serve as writer-in-residence, reading my manuscripts when I took the subway downtown to give them to her. She also did writer-in-the-schools programs, founding serious writers’ workshops that endured for decades.

My high-school workshop was one such; I kept attending it for years after I graduated (I wasn’t alone). Judy also steered the writers she critiqued into peer groups, like the still-thriving Cecil Street Irregulars, which I joined in the early 1990s.

Other writers were likewise kind and generous with their time. Tanya Huff worked behind the counter at Bakka bookstore; she sold me the first science fiction novel I ever bought with my own money (H Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy).

Tanya was immensely patient with me, and even read manuscripts I shyly brought down to the store, giving me encouraging — but unflinching — feedback. When Tayna quit to write full time, I got her job in the store.

Ed Llewellyn and Ed Greenwood were guest speakers at the D&D summer camp I attended. Both were incredibly encouraging when I approached them after their talks to tell them I wanted to write.

Parke Godwin was guest of honor at the first con I ever volunteered at; when I brought him his coffee, he patiently listened to me as I told him I wanted to write and took me seriously, telling me about the importance of good habits.

These writers didn’t have any career advice for me per se, but I wouldn’t have had a career without them — without them taking me seriously, even at a very young age. I try to pay them forward, by encouraging the young writers in my own path:

<a href=https://pluralistic.net/2021/09/05/why-bother/">https://pluralistic.net/2021/09/05/why-bother/

As to commercial advice, there’s very little I can offer, I’m afraid. I like Heinlein’s advice (“1. Write. 2. Finish. 3. Submit. 4. Revise to editorial spec.”).

I have a general method (“Find publications that feature work like yours, research their submission process, send your story to the highest-paying ones first”).

As for specific market advice, that’s something that you should get from peers, not the people who came before you. When I was starting out, other would-be writers and I obsessively shared notes on new markets, editorial tastes, and other nuts-and-bolts.

Writers who are at the same place in their development as you have advice that is far more likely to be applicable to your situation. What’s more, they’re also the kinds of writers you should be seeking out to join in a critiquing group — your peers.

The reality is that “breaking in” is a grind. It took me a decade from my first submission to my first professional publication; 19 years before my first novel hit the shelves.

Perseverance is the greatest predictor of success here, and support from your peers is the best source of strength and resiliency over that long road.