As a kid, I loved writing short stories. Of course, I also loved sharing them with anyone who’d read them, and basking in their praise. That dual thrill never went away, but as an adult, they started to conflate. Yes, I still loved writing stories, and wished I could do it all the time. But I started to crave real validation. Publication. Praise is cheap; if someone were willing to pay me money for my stories, that would be a level up from family and friends. I got serious. I read books and blogs about craft. I listened to podcasts. I completed two 2-year certificate programs in creative writing at local universities’ night school. I wrote and revised and workshopped. I worked like I had something to prove.
I submitted my first story for publication in 2012. It was rejected. I didn’t try again until 2016 (at the age of 45), with a story I wrote specifically for a themed call. I still remember getting the email that Unlikely Story had accepted my story “Old Customs” at a pro payment rate. Such a rush. I was giddy. I was a paid, published writer. Other publications followed. I learned about The Submission Grinder and started tracking my submissions, searching for new publications, and generally feeling like a “real, working writer.”
I was also refreshing the Submission Grinder page constantly, obsessively watching the response progress of all my submissions, and speculatively searching for the next publication where my stories could fit. I spent a lot of mental energy on that. Eventually, more energy than I spent writing. It got emotional, and not in a good way.
The stories themselves? My friends and family read them. Sometimes. I’d get a few likes on Twitter from my writer mutuals. Occasionally something in the online chatter would be relevant to something I’d written, and I’d get to post a link. I’d co-opt their attention share. Small, online publications of short stories are read mainly by the writers that contribute (or want to contribute) to them. There’s a beautiful culture of mutual support and boosting among speculative short fiction writers, but the audience at this level is niche. They’re all trying to write and sell their own stories too. And the payment? 1-10 cents per word, for stories of 1,000-7,000 words. The external rewards of writing short stories are not proportional to the work you put in.
When the pandemic hit, there were more stories competing for publication. In 2020, I managed 4 sales out of 33 submissions, but in 2021, I’d made 59 submissions by the end of October (far more than any previous year), and the only sale was to a publication that wouldn’t be announced until 2022. I’d also written some of my best stories (in my estimation), but the satisfaction was quashed by the fact that nobody wanted to buy them. The entire competitive field got better, and stories were harder to sell. I couldn’t write new stories; I was too busy trying to tweak my existing ones off of meager editorial feedback, trying to figure out the submissions schedules of various publications, and trying to fit them into a coherent sequence.
The external validation had superseded the autotelic joy. That’s a problem. Especially when the income from writing and the potential for a career doesn’t support my family. An article in Aeon Psyche discusses how we’ve stopped allowing ourselves the joy of doing something as an amateur, for the pleasure of doing it. I’m 50 now, and I accept that I’m not going to replace the income from being a director of software engineering with a breakout epic fantasy series. (At least not before I retire.) But maybe I can enjoy the hobby of writing fiction more if I remove the commercial ambition.
So I’ve created a space on my blog, Unsold Tales, for stories that didn’t sell, or didn’t sell to places where they can be read online for free. I’ll be publishing fiction mainly there, going forward. I’m hoping it will help me focus more on the enjoyment of creating, by eliminating the need for selling. I’m hoping that I’ll write more, instead of searching for places to publish. I’m hoping telling stories will become fun again.
EDIT: Hi submissions editors who (according to my analytics) invariably read this post before sending me a rejection! I’m not really done selling stories. I’m just trying to manage my priorities around writing and making sure I measure what matters. Rest assured I’ll be thrilled if you think my story will please your audience, and I’ll do all I can to get the word out.