Writing Speculative Fiction, by Mary Soon Lee

Hello and welcome. I have been submitting short stories since 1992, and have had two collections published: Winter Shadows & Other Tales and Ebb Tides & Other Tales. My other credits include stories in Amazing Stories, Analog, F&SF, Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, Sword and Sorceress, and the Year's Best Science Fiction #4 and #5 (edited by David Hartwell). This page contains tidbits of information that might be useful to new writers. If you would like to know more about me and my own forays into writing, visit my home page. For the curious, more than twenty of my stories are now available from Fictionwise.

Questions and Answers

How do I find out about SF/F/H markets?

I have a page with links to paying SF/F/H markets. The following publications may help in finding out about a broader range of markets. Don't forget to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope if you send a query.

How do I go about submitting short stories?

Caveat: my experience is limited to marketing science fiction and fantasy short stories.

Should I include a cover letter?

Note: the following only applies to short story submissions. If you have no fiction credits, then I recommend submitting short stories without a cover letter. If you have an irresistible urge to send a cover letter anyhow, keep it short and simple, for instance:
Dear Mr. Dozois,

Enclosed is "Death Aliens From Las Vegas," a 2500 word story;
I am offering first North American serial rights.

Yours sincerely,

Jo Author
If you have sold a story, I do recommend including a cover letter. The main body of the letter would then be something like:
Enclosed is "Death Aliens From Las Vegas," a 2500 word story;
I am offering first North American serial rights.  My story
"Aardvarks for Tea" was published in Tea Time, October 95.
If you have quite a few credits, it's probably best to only mention a few of them. This is the body of an old cover letter of mine:
Enclosed is "Luna Beat," a 4100 word story; I am offering first
North American serial rights.  I am an active member of SFWA.  My
credits include stories published in F&SF, Interzone, and Pirate
Writings.  My story "Ebb Tides" (F&SF, May 95) has qualified for
the preliminary Nebula ballot.
My cover letters vary a little depending on the market to which I'm submitting. For instance, I'm usually chattier with editors who have bought stories of mine in the past. If a magazine's guidelines give any directions about cover letters, then follow those guidelines! Some magazines, especially small ones, will ask you to include a brief bio in your cover letter.

Dead or Alive?

The following is a list of markets whose demise I have noticed since I began submitting stories. I note that on rare occasions a market will return from the grave.

Markets I believe to be dead:

2AM, 3SF, Aberrations, Aboriginal Science Fiction, After Hours, Age of Wonder, Alternate Hilarities, Argonaut SF, The Barrelhouse, Best of the Midwest, Between Dimensions, Black Lily, Black October, Blis Magazine, Blood and Midnight, Catalyst, Crank!, Crossworlds, Dead of Night, Deathrealm, DNA website, Dragamon Publishing ("Tall Tales & Short Stories"), Dragon Magazine, Edge Detector, Electric Wine, Epitaph, Expanse, Figment, The Fractal, Free Worlds, Freezer Burn, Future Orbits, Gateways, Genre Sampler, Glimpses, Goodwitch Stories, Hobson's Choice, Intermix, Indigenous Fiction, J. E. Pournelle and Associates (anthologies), Journeyman, Kaleria, Keen Science Fiction, Kinships, LC-39, The Link (British), Little Green Men, The Leading Edge, Lore (Canadian), Lore (US), Magic Realism, The Magic Within II, Manifest Destiny, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, Midnight Zoo, Mystic Fiction, Mythagoras, New Blood, Noir Stories, Nuclear Fiction, Odyssey, Omni, Phantasm, Plot Magazine, Pulphouse, Puzzle Mystery Magazine, Random Realities, Rant, Rictus, Sci-Fi Channel Magazine, SF Age, Short Fiction By Women, Sirius Visions, Skull, Sozoryoku, Spaceways Weekly, Speculative Fiction & Beyond, StarQuest Magazine, Stories Good `N' Short, Strange Days, Strange Fiction, Strange Plasma, Sword & Sorceress, Tails of Wonder, The Tale Spinner, The Tales' Realm, Thin Ice, Thirteenth Moon, Threshold of Fantasy, Through the Corridor, The Tome, Tomorrow (as a fiction market), Troll Magazine, Verbiage, Vision SF, Wetbones, Zero Gravity Freefall, Zone 9.

My story vanished into a black hole

Some magazines are run with admirable efficiency, returning story submissions with alacrity. Others, alas, are slower. If you want an estimate of typical response times, I highly recommend Submitting to the Black Hole, a response time tracker maintained by Andrew Burt.

To workshop or not to workshop?

I joined a workshop almost as soon as I started writing short stories, and found it very helpful. But workshops are not for everyone, and nor are all workshops equal. To start with the positive aspects of workshops.... And some of the negative aspects....

Where can I find a workshop?

If you live in Pittsburgh, Diane Turnshek runs a workshop called Write or Die in the Pittsburgh area, and there is also a workshop called the Pittsburgh South Writes.... I also recommend PARSEC, a Pittsburgh science fiction club with monthly meetings.

If you can't find a nearby workshop, you might want to join the SF and Fantasy Workshop (a snail-mail workshop), or Critters (an online workshop), or even to start your own local workshop.

Is it worth trying the small press?

Some authors choose to submit exclusively to markets that SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) regards as professional. To qualify as professional, a market must pay at least three cents per word and must have a circulation of at least two thousand copies. Small press markets, on the other hand, may have circulations in the low hundreds and pay half a cent a word, or a flat ten dollars per story, or give their authors contributors' copies but no actual payment at all.

Apart from financial considerations, there are several reasons to be wary of the small press. The small press world is highly volatile. Often new magazines will fold before putting out their first issue. While professional markets also fold, they are generally more stable than the small press. Moreover, small press magazines may be poorly laid out; payment that was promised may be delayed; you may not receive a contract; and, as mentioned already, the circulations can be very low.

And yet I continue to submit to the small press, and would recommend it to all but well-established authors. Unless you are extremely talented, it is easier to make your first sales to small press magazines. And those credits should help you break into the professional markets. The best of the small press magazines are eminently respectable, and mentioning even the lowliest sale in a cover letter may bump a story out of the slush pile. There are several ways to gauge a magazine's reputation: look for reviews, for instance in Tangent. Check to see whether any stories from that magazine were published or given Honorable Mentions in the various Year's Best volumes. See if you recognize the names of any of the other authors being published in the magazine.

Another argument in favor of the small press is that the editors are more likely to take the time to send feedback.

Researching the markets can reduce the risks a little. If a small press magazine is up to its thirtieth issue, it's less likely to fold than one that has just started. Buying sample issues lets you see which of your stories would fit the magazine, and also whether you would be pleased (or embarrassed!) to appear in it.

I strongly recommend first submitting your work to the better paying markets. But if a story has accumulated a dozen rejections, then it's probably time to try the small press (though if it's your very favorite story in the world, then hold onto it: new professional markets appear every so often). And if you are really keen to make that first sale, then consider trying markets as soon as they are announced. It's riskier, but it seems to be true that new markets are the easiest to break into.

Rights and copyrights

In general it is to your advantage to hold onto as many of the rights to your stories as you can. So ideally when selling a short story to a U.S. magazine, you will only offer first North American serial rights (i.e. the right to publish that story before any other magazine in North America). Similarly you would sell first anthology rights to an anthology. Examine any contract you receive. Often a contract will include extra rights to your work, and sometimes this is perfectly fine (for instance my F&SF contracts included options on first anthology rights, but offered additional payment should those options be used).

Other clauses in contracts are less author-friendly, for instance it is becoming much more common for publishers to request electronic rights without offering additional payment.... Just don't sell the film rights to your stories without thinking carefully about it!

People sometimes worry about whether they need to copyright their work. For short genre fiction, I think this is usually unnecessary. You automatically own the copyright to your story, whether or not you register it. Indeed most science fiction and fantasy editors consider it unprofessional to put a copyright notice on your manuscript.

On the other hand, I advise against posting fiction to a newsgroup or making it available on the WWW. Many editors would be upset to discover that the work had previously been published electronically. If you have done so, mention it in a cover letter.

Once a story has been published, whether electronically or more traditionally, all is not over. You can try to sell second rights to your story, or, if it appeared in a magazine, to sell the anthology rights. If you are trying to sell second rights, always mention that the story was previously published in your cover letter, giving the market and date of first publication. Follow the market newsletters to find out when anthologies open that might be receptive to reprints (some themed anthologies will consider reprints; others only want unpublished work). Unfortunately most magazines will not consider reprints.

Negotiating rights for novels is more complex. If a publisher offers to buy a novel from you, then tell them that your agent will contact them to discuss the contract---and if you don't yet have an agent, start telephoning and get one! (Most agents will be more receptive if they know that you already have an offer from a publisher.)

Other pages you might want to browse

Last updated 6 June 2007 by Mary Soon Lee