Graduate Essay: J.W. Alden–Submitting Short Fiction to Professional Markets

J.W.Alden_8x10_300dpi_3J.W. Alden is fascinated with the fantastic. He lives near West Palm Beach, Florida with his wife Allison, who doesn’t mind the odd assortment of musical instruments and medieval weaponry that decorate his office (as long as he brandishes the former more often than the latter).

Alden is a 1st Place Writers of the Future winner, an active member of SFWA, and a graduate of the 2013 class of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Daily Science Fiction, the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology series, and various other publications.

Read more from him at

When you’re just starting, the prospect of selling fiction can be an exciting goal. There’s nothing more validating than an editor paying you actual money for your work. But there’s a question every new author faces when they start submitting stories for publication: to pro or not to pro? The road to publication is paved with rejections, and the bigger the market, the thicker the competition. But that doesn’t mean you should sell yourself short! If you’ve written a story you feel is ready for publication, that means your amateur days are behind you. It’s time to turn pro.

Don’t Self-Reject–Start at the Top

You’ll never make a sale if you don’t submit. Selling to the pros (or anywhere else) starts first and foremost with having the guts to send your story out into the wild. And that’s easier said than done! It’s no small feat to take something you’ve labored over, a piece of yourself, and send it off to be judged by strangers. If you think about that too hard, you might find yourself coming up with excuses to keep it tucked away, out of the light. The more prestigious the market, the greater that temptation can become.

Sometimes I read the stories my dream markets publish and think, “Why bother? I’ll never write something this great.” When I was still new to the submission process, thoughts like this kept me from submitting to the pros. I’d convinced myself I hadn’t reached that “level” yet, that I had to work my way up. So I stuck to the semi-pros. But here’s the thing: we are usually the worst judges of our own work. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged.” I think this lies at the heart of our tendency to focus on flaws when examining our work. Try to recognize that feeling for what it is. Learn to mistrust self-doubt when it comes time to submit. Don’t let it muzzle your ambitions.

Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction, was one of the guest lecturers my year at Odyssey. I’ll never forget her take on this. She said, “Don’t reject yourself. Let me do it.” Heed Sheila’s advice: when you’ve got a new story that you feel is ready for publication, start submitting to the top markets right out of the gate. Work your way down the list, not up.

Decide What You’re Chasing

But what makes a top market? Normally when you hear the term “pro market,” you probably think of one thing: the pay. SFWA defines current professional rates as six cents per word. Anything above qualifies as a pro sale. But when you’re submitting to the pros, the number of pennies tossed your way might not be the only thing to consider. For some, it will be, and that’s fine. That makes it easy–start with the markets that pay the most and work your way down from there. For others, there may be varied markers of desirability that differ from writer to writer.

When I was a kid, my local library carried copies of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Because I grew up reading it, the idea of selling a story to F&SF gives me all kinds of tingly feelings that eclipse any considerations of potential pay. I haven’t made that sale yet, but the vast majority of my submissions still go there first. You might have a different publication that carries its own “squee potential.” Or perhaps you place value in a market’s response time (something The Submission Grinder can help you find), so you can keep those submissions flying out. Maybe joining SFWA is a professional goal of yours, in which case you can hone in on their list of qualifying markets. Or you might just want to go with the places that have the largest readership first, so as many eyeballs as possible find your story.

Whatever it is, decide what you’re chasing, then use that to organize your top-down list.

Read the Markets

I’ve always been a big believer in market research. I even wrote some of my pro-selling stories with a specific market in mind. If you do enough reading, you can sometimes get a feel for what certain markets publish. You might even notice specific patterns. For instance, one market may prefer first-person narrative, while another sticks to third. A market may tend toward certain subgenres, while leaving others in the slush pile. Or you might find more subtle patterns, like a certain tonal consistency. This can be especially helpful if you write in genres or styles that can be subjective and divisive among readers (and therefore among editors)–like humor, for example. And bonus: reading a lot makes you a better writer!

That’s not to say this is a surefire way of making a sale. Selling short fiction is hard. A lot of stars need to align for your story to break through the slush. It has to be the right story for the right editor at the right market at the right time. Market research can give you some insight, but you have to jump through the rest of those hoops on your own. And let’s face it: there are a lot of short fiction publications out there. You’ll never have time to read them all. So read as much as you can, but don’t be discouraged from submitting to a market just because you haven’t read much.

Remember not to fall prey to self-rejection. When in doubt . . . submit!


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