Moon’s SUPER SECRET #37: Aim Your Baby Kraken at a Ship it Can Take Down!
Copyright 2019 by Wulf Moon
So you’ve released all your baby krakens from their chained-up crates, and they’re in your hair! You’ve got to get some of these cephalopods out from underfoot so you can have a little peace! But you’re a good papa, you want your little monsters to become infamous, so you study your charts and and flip through your copy of Nautical Vessels for Dummies. Lo and behold, you find the biggest ship of the line. Here’s a good un’! One-hundred-twenty-eight cannons on three decks with 1,280 sailors to chop your wee kraken’s arms off. It’s a million-to-one shot, but won’t the other kraken parents be green with envy if your boy can take such a mighty ship down!
So you place your baby kraken into the water, point to the tallest ship on the horizon, and shout, “Attack!” He wrings his little white sailor cap in his tentacles, scrunches down, points to a smaller passing cutter with hope and looks again at you with pleading eyes. You give it a cursory glance. What? Six cannons, maybe twelve at best? What kraken parent will care if that’s your baby kraken’s legacy? No, no, no, your firstborn is destined for GREAT THINGS! You stomp your foot, point again to the tallest ship on the horizon and shout, “Get crackin’, you coward!” He winces, nods, dons his snappy little cap, gives one last wistful glance to the cutter he could have had a chance at, and heads out for the behemoth ship. A ship it will take a miracle to break—he’s just a baby kraken and, quite frankly, he’s not even tall enough to flip a tentacle over the bow. But that’s okay, you’ve got more! When he fails, you send another, and another, because other kraken parents had kids that took ships that size, and by Poseidon, your kid will too! Meanwhile, cutter after cutter slips by, loaded with precious goods that could have been yours, but those ships have sailed away...
The tale is the same for many a new writer. Pros with shelves full of trophies from stories in prestigious magazines and anthologies will look out over a group of new writers at a convention and solemnly declare, “You must send out your story to the top SFWA approved market that pays the most, and work your way down their list.” Some might add a caveat, “Until that market would not reflect well on you as a writer,” but I’ve heard many a pro say, “Don’t sell below SFWA approved markets, they are not professional sales, your writing won’t get noticed there.” On the surface, this sounds like wisdom. Who does not want their work noticed? Who does not want to be paid the most they can get for their work? Who wouldn’t like a chance at being nominated for a prestigious award?
But consider the source. These are professional writers talking. They’ve been at this a long time—their krakens aren’t babies, they are powerful mature monsters, lethal, some as big as the ships they are sent out to. Of course they should send those stories to the top magazines and publishers in the field—their stories have a real fighting chance! For the most famous of these authors, just a whisper of their name can take down one of these vessels, they are that powerful. But the baby krakens sent out by new writers? Is it really fair to tell novices they should always start at the hardest magazines to get into? Just because everyone says it, does that make it right?
I’ll be hanged by my toes for this, but I’m going to tell you a secret, and yes, it’s a Super Secret, and one of my most powerful. I believe it’s a disservice to tell new writers their stories can take down the biggest fighting vessels publishers own. A new writer can send stories again and again to these top of the line markets, but it’s highly improbable they will sell.
Woah, I just heard a collective GASP! “How dare you!” someone cries, and that someone is likely a pro that has parroted this so-called wisdom for years. “If you don’t start at the top, you will sell your next Hugo winner to Baby Kraken Quarterly when it could have sold to Illustrious Beasties and you’d now be famous!” Yes, I’ve actually had an editor lecture me with the equivalent of this. In fact, I’ve gotten this lecture for a very long time, from many well-meaning pros. And it is probably the most singular bit of bad writing advice I have ever gotten.
Let me explain. Go ahead, take out paper and pen. Got it? Okay, draw a long line across the page. On the left side (if you’re in Western culture) write ZERO WORDS. On the right side, write ONE MILLION WORDS. Now, make a line at the halfway point. Put 500,000 there. See where I’m going with this? Good. You know the saying, although who first said it is still debated. “Your first million words are practice.” (I've always heard "crap" but let's play nice, it really is practice, and not all of it is bad writing.) But I like Jerry Pournelle’s comments in the recent video Joni Labaqui sent us, and I’ll paraphrase: ‘It’s around 500,000 to a million words. Depends on the skill of the writer.’ Okay, so it’s possible we could write something that a professional magazine or anthology would buy at around 500,000 words. This is not a rule, but there is practical logic to it (ask our Rebeccah how many words she was at when she just made her first pro sale). In order to create something professionals will pay money for, you’ve got to become a professional. That means lots and lots of practice. Hundreds of thousands of words of practice.
Okay, back to our line chart. Divide that line with equal marks and number those spaces one through ten. One represents your first 100,000 words, five represents your half million mark, and ten is the big million. Now, Pournelle was a very smart man, and he was recalling things Heinlein taught him—also a very smart man and an incredible writer. So let’s take their word and say around 500,000 words, you can probably write a story that would sell to a professional publisher. Put a star above that number. Now, go count up word counts on every story and trunked novel you have written. You can average, you don’t have to be exact. Mark where you are at on that line. Are you close to the zero mark? That’s okay, Pournelle and Heinlein were there at one point in their careers too. Are you at the two mark? Two hundred thousand words is a lot of writing. You’re getting warmer. But, according to Pournelle, you still have more than halfway to go before you’re writing in the ballpark of that first pro sale zone. For new writers, that three hundred thousand words you have yet to go? That’s going to take you some years yet to get close to striking range. Don’t get me wrong. You’re a writer. You’re probably a good writer. But this graph demonstrates you most likely still haven’t gotten enough practice in to viably compete against other pro writers. And if you don’t think that’s what you’re doing when you send stories in to pro magazines, then you shouldn’t be in this business. Do yourself a favor. Write for the love of creating with words and don’t put yourself through this process.
Oh. You’re still here. Well good, I knew you took this challenge for a reason. So where did you come out? How far away is 500,000 words from where you are at now? If you’re a new writer, an aspiring writer, chances are you still have some distance to travel. THERE IS NO SHAME IN THAT. Hey, every pro writer you have on your bookshelf had to travel to that distance and beyond. Ray Bradbury and Stephen King and Frank Herbert and Brandon Sanderson were once exactly at the point you are at now. Didn’t stop them. Shouldn’t stop you.
Now to make my point. What are the odds the story a new writer creates at a low point on that scale is going to sell that story to one of the most prestigious publishers in our industry? Wouldn’t it make sense that the closer we are to the 500,000 or even the one million mark, the better the odds? The further away, the worse the odds? And yet, virtually every pro will tell new writers, “Start at the top SFWA market!” It’s like sending out immature baby krakens to take down battleships. They just aren’t strong enough to do it yet.
Meanwhile, if you are low on that scale, you could have used that same time to send your stories out to markets that aren’t quite as prestigious, but are fairly clear of those trophy focused pros that are only sending their stories to SFWA approved markets! Doesn’t it make sense that your story would have a better chance at a market just shy of SFWA approved, since the competition isn’t quite so fierce? Whereas, sending it to the best SFWA market is almost a guaranteed rejection? Am I talking rocket science here? I don’t think so. I’m talking about giving your newish writer stories a fighting chance!
Does this mean new writers should never send their stories to the big name ‘zines? No way! You have to keep testing where you are at in your writing. But if that’s the only place you’re willing to send your stories, chances are, it’s going to be many, many years before you will ever see your first professional sale. And because new writers can be so focused on getting into these markets, they can miss the markets they could have easily sold to right in front of their noses. Like our illustration of that smaller clipper ship papa let pass by because he was blinded by the glory of his baby kraken taking down a ship-of-the-line.
“Well, wait just a minute!” you say. “Even at the Writers of the Future workshop, the instructors say you should send to the top markets and work your way down.” True. I won’t deny that. I was there. That is what they say. But who are they talking to? You got it, writers that have put in their time and won the contest because they did their 500,000 words on up. Flip through the bios in the latest book. John Haas, my roommate at WotF? He had fifteen published stories and two novels written by the time he won (small press, so he still qualified). Andrew Dykstal, the Golden Pen winner? He said he had written countless stories, novels, and poems, and had two pro sales under his belt when he won. And you know where I was at--I had easily put in my million words before I won. So, at the workshop, who are the instructors talking to? That’s right, a group of writers that have proven they can write pro stories, they won the contest! Of course you would tell such writers to start at the top with every story they write. They are about to become professional writers, or, like Andrew, like myself, became pro writers with that sale to WotF. They have a real chance now at getting into those pro venues--especially with the added credit of winning a major international contest.
But if we’re not in that range yet on our bar graph, it stands to reason it’s going to be harder for us. And if we’re only sending to SFWA approved markets, it’s a good chance we’re going to stack up hundreds of rejections before we make our first sale. Writing for years and years with nothing to show for it but some nice “try us again” letters can be psychologically damaging. People don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. You find ways to deal with a whole lot of negative energy in order to keep writing. And if you don’t, you quit, or take a break, and come back rusty and have to build your skills up all over again. Writing to be published professionally is a tough row to hoe.
So why not make it easier on yourself? Why not collect up some proof you can sell a story while you’re doing your apprenticeship while trying to reach that half million words or more? What is better? Having nothing to show for your work for years, with the hope of one day seeing yourself on the cover of the Rolling Stone, so to speak, or playing some local gigs where the owner of the establishment pays you real money and the local fans cheer and dance to your songs? Don’t you have local bands you love to listen to? They aren’t signing million-dollar record deals yet, but a lot of them are decent musicians, and they’ve found a way to be paid for doing what they love.
You can, too.
Look at it another way. Suppose someone took acting lessons in high school, and their moms and dads cheered at their school play and told them they’re going to be famous. So they head to New York, convinced they’re going to be stars and off they go to the next Broadway audition. They have no credits. All they can list is their school play, but that doesn’t matter. By Thespis, they’re going to be on that Broadway stage! Surprise, they don’t get the part, but by Thespis!, they’ll be on the stage of the next Broadway production! They don’t take any acting lessons, they don’t work any other productions, because it’s Broadway or bust for them!
Meanwhile, another young actor applies to Juilliard. She finds herself a good coach. She tries out for some Broadway spots, but she’s realistic, she knows she’s new, she’s green, she’s going to have a much better shot at an off-Broadway production just around the corner. In fact, she targets these places, and she lands a small role. She keeps studying. She lands a bigger role! She’s worked herself Uptown, just next to the big theater she’d ultimately like to be a part of. And the next time she auditions for that Broadway production, she’s got a resume’. She’s got references. And she’s gotten good.
She gets the role. Because she got some experience in, and she was willing to work her way up.
News Flash! There are many magazines and anthologies that are like off-Broadway productions, just around the block from Big Name Publisher. Many even pay pro rate, they just don’t have the volume of subscribers to meet the SFWA criteria yet. Or maybe they haven’t been in business the minimum one year yet, but they’ve got everything else going for them. And there are many others that are close, but can’t afford to pay eight cents a word. Should a new writer turn their noses up at them? Are these markets beneath a new writer? Depends on how low you go. But many are right up there, right around the block from that famous Broadway theater. Getting a gig with them and landing your story on their stage not only gives you an ego boost, it gets you a credit on your cover letters, it gets your story an audience, and it makes you money.
These aren’t skid row productions. Your stories aren’t busking on some street corner, begging for handouts. They are established markets. They pay real money. You can actually see your words in print and get paid while you’re apprenticing until you land that big role. You also build up your credentials. Editors see you are selling to their friends. They know these names you list in your cover letters. You get lifted out of the slush--called back, so to speak, for a second audition. This is a good place for a new writer to be.
Don’t get me wrong. You keep trying, you keep auditioning on Broadway. But you do not allow yourself to be so focused on the big stage that you miss all the auditions happening all around you. Many of these respectable anthologies and magazines have narrow submission windows, and if your story is tied up working through the SFWA markets first, top on down like everyone says, there’s no way you’ll get that story free in time to send it to one of these lesser known markets and make the deadline. You’ll miss your chance, like that schooner sailing by while your baby kraken is all tied up trying to take the big one down. And it could have been a very nice prize indeed. You could have been holding a magazine or book with your story in it. You could have shown your friends and family you were right.
By thinking outside of the box, by adjusting your marketing strategy just a little, you could end up holding the proof you were not crazy creating all those baby krakens. You could be proud papa saying, "Looky, looky here, folks! My baby kraken just snagged his first ship!"
(ASSIGNMENT coming from the essay “Never Let Go” in HOW I GOT PUBLISHED AND WHAT I LEARNED ALONG THE WAY.)