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
Questions and Answers
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.
monthly news publication.
- Ralan's Webstravaganza,
website with abundant market information.
- SF and
Fantasy Workshop, monthly publication with articles on writing and
some market news. For an additional $5 you can join the workshop, and
exchange manuscripts with other writers for critiquing via
- SFWA Bulletin, a quarterly publication of SFWA, the Science Fiction and
Fantasy Writers of America, containing a regular market report and
other articles of interest to writers. You do not have to be a SFWA
member to subscribe.
highly recommended publication with up-to-date market information and
other articles of interest to speculative fiction writers.
- Tangent Online, an
excellent online publication reviewing short fiction in the SF/F/H
Caveat: my experience is limited to marketing science fiction and
fantasy short stories.
- First write a short story!
- Then research the markets. See above for some advice on finding
out about speculative fiction markets. Read sample
copies of magazines.
- Print a copy of your story in the standard
- Once you have a completed story, properly formatted, then you
are almost done. Select a market to which to submit your story, then:
- Prepare a large, self-addressed envelope with sufficient
postage for the magazine to return your story to you.
- Paperclip your return envelope to the story. No staples!
- If there's a good reason to do so -- such as that you have some
fiction credits you can list, or the magazine you are submitting to
requests cover letters -- then add a short cover letter. Otherwise
I advise sending the manuscript without a cover letter.
- Enclose the manuscript and your return envelope in another
large envelope (9 x 12 inch -- large enough that you don't
have to fold the pages in two).
- Post the story to the magazine (double-checking that you have the
correct editorial address; this is often different from the
publisher's address). But DON'T send your only copy
of a story. Always keep a backup copy at home.
- To repeat that last point: Never send your only copy of a story.
Accidents happen with the post. Editors occasionally spill coffee on
manuscripts. If you're properly paranoid (as I am) you will have
backup copies of your story on disk, on paper, in a second building in
case your home burns down, in a safe deposit box at the bank, in a
space capsule in a high altitude orbit. (Okay, maybe you can skip one
or two of these if you like to live dangerously.)
- Start writing your next story.
- Whenever a story is rejected, send it out again to another market.
Don't let the rejection stop you from working on your next story.
- Be persistent. I have heard of people who sold their first
submission, but for most new writers rejections far outnumber
acceptances. In 1992-1993, I had 127 story responses: 121 rejections
and six acceptances. It does get easier as your credits build up, but
the first few sales can be very elusive. Keep writing and submitting!
- Don't argue with the editor! If an editor takes the time to send
specific comments on your story, then learn what you can from the
comments, but don't write back to disagree or to defend your story.
Editors are very busy people, but not too busy to remember which
authors are hard to work with.
- In a related vein, don't send the editor a revised version of your
story unless the editor has asked to see a rewrite. (If they
do so they will be very explicit, saying something such as "I would
like to see a revised version of this story.")
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.
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.
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:
Aboriginal Science Fiction,
Age of Wonder,
Best of the Midwest,
Blood and Midnight,
Dead of Night,
Dragamon Publishing ("Tall Tales & Short Stories"),
J. E. Pournelle and Associates (anthologies),
Keen Science Fiction,
The Link (British),
Little Green Men,
The Leading Edge,
The Magic Within II,
Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine,
Puzzle Mystery Magazine,
Sci-Fi Channel Magazine,
Short Fiction By Women,
Speculative Fiction & Beyond,
Stories Good `N' Short,
Sword & Sorceress,
Tails of Wonder,
The Tale Spinner,
The Tales' Realm,
Threshold of Fantasy,
Through the Corridor,
Tomorrow (as a fiction market),
Zero Gravity Freefall,
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
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....
- Workshops provide much-needed feedback on your stories. Not
every comment will be helpful to you, but the critiquing should allow
you to see your prose more objectively. You can also learn a great
deal from critiquing other people's stories.
- Writing is a lonely pursuit; workshops provide contact with other
people (often very friendly people!) who are struggling with the same
- You can exchange market news, magazine response times, discuss
the pros and cons of cover letters...
- Workshops encourage productivity. At least, this is true for me.
When I would otherwise be tempted to take a day off, I often write a
story to meet the next workshop deadline.
- "The other writers will steal my ideas." If this worries you,
then you definitely shouldn't be in a workshop. If you get a dozen
writers to write a story based on the same idea, you will typically
get a dozen very, very different stories. Some ideas *are* better
than others, but almost all of them have been used before anyway. The
trick is to learn how to take a good idea and turn it into a good
story--learn how to craft your prose, how to create three-dimensional
characters, how to evoke a scene in a couple of phrases. A workshop
should be a stimulating environment where ideas meet and mutate in a
thousand interesting ways.
- Negative critiques hurt. There is a difference between
constructive criticism and viciousness, and the latter is
inappropriate. But even constructive criticism can hurt, especially
if in some dark corner of your mind you know that the critiquer is
correct. Remember that rejections hurt too! If you can learn to grin
and bear it while your work is critiqued, then you will be able to
improve your stories before they reach an editor's desk. If you find
it tough to receive critiques then I recommend only taking in
completed stories. I have seen several people abandon novels part-way
through because of negative feedback. It is much easier to revise a
completed manuscript than it is to continue one once you are
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.
Some authors choose to submit exclusively to markets that
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
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
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.
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
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.)
Last updated 6 June 2007 by Mary Soon Lee