Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 6)

But How Do I Know It’s Ready?: Dealing with submission fear and arrogance

Welcome back. This is the sixth in my weekly series of posts on how to market and sell short fiction. You can check out my earlier posts here.

This week, within the broader overall series, I start a mini-series on the actual marketing of short fiction. This mini-series will run for the next ten weeks and will take you from knowing when you’re ready to send a story out to the point where you actually sell that story. Then I’ll start another mini-series on what happens after you sell a story.

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

But first, I’d be remiss in writing these posts if I didn’t mention Robert A. Heinlein’s famous (and in one respect, infamous) “Five Rules of Writing,” which first appeared in Heinlein’s1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction”:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Although Heinlein wrote those rules over six decades ago, they are still quoted today, simply because they remain as true now as they were when Heinlein coined them in the golden age of science fiction magazine pulps. And they remain true for all writers, whatever their genre and whether they are wannabe’s, newbies, or established pros. (By the way, if you have to ask who Robert A. Heinlein was, you are so definitely in the wrong place.)

I could explain each of these rules, but instead, I am going to point you to this excellent discussion by multi-award winning SF author and fellow Canadian, Robert J. Sawyer. You can find explanations of Heinlein’s Rules in ever so many sites on the web, but in my opinion, Rob’s is one of the best. Take the time to read it, and then come back here.

Ready? Okay. The first two of Heinlein’s Rules deal with the creative side of writing–the side of being a writer that produces your stories. The last three rules deal with the business side of being a writer, marketing your fiction with a goal of selling it–or in other words, what this blog series is about. So I’ll be focusing on Rules 3-5, especially in the next ten posts.

The Infamous Rule #3

I mentioned that Heinlein’s Rules are also somewhat infamous. Specifically, and as Rob Sawyer pointed out in his discussion, the controversy surrounds Rule 3, which, if taken literally, seems to imply that you should bang out a draft and not spend any time with revisions or editing. I go along with Rob’s interpretation: that Heinlein was aiming Rule 3 at the newbie writer who never finishes a story because they are always revising and tweaking it with a goal of making it “perfect.”

News flash for newbies: your story will never be perfect. Period. End of discussion. The story that you end up putting on paper (okay, on the screen) will never measure up to the vision of that same story that sits in your head, all perfect and pristine.

But, you say, don’t you want your story to be as good as it can be? As close to perfect as possible? Yep, sure you do. And therein lies the big problem for beginners, and quite frankly, the main challenge in being a professional writer–knowing when your story is “good enough, “knowing when it’s ready for the market.

A work of art, it is said, is never finished–it is merely abandoned at an interesting point. A pro knows when they’ve reached that point. A beginner will invariably struggle to learn when to stop editing, and will fall on one side or the other of the sweet spot: not enough revision or too much.

At this point, I’ll refer you back to my second post in this series where I talked about the two types of beginners that I generally encounter: the arrogant (or lazy) newbie, and the fearful newbie.

The arrogant newbie will bang out a draft and send it out, maybe after (at most) giving it a quick reread and doing a spell check. They are the writers who don’t think that they need to learn their craft, or to paraphrase Dean Wesley Smith, the writers who believe “their poop don’t smell.” I have no patience for these writers. And none of us need to worry about them–they’ll never sell because their stories will never become good enough to sell.

The fearful newbie, on the other hand, is the writer that Heinlein’s Rule #3 is aimed at–the one that revises and revises and revises, effectively never finishing a story (so, actually, never completing even Rule #2).

So how, as a beginning writer, can you find the right balance? How do you know when your story is ready to be “abandoned at an interesting point?” How do you know when it’s good enough to send out into the world in search of a good home?

I wish that I had an easy answer. There isn’t one. You can look for symptoms in yourself of being the fearful writer. Are your edits making your story closer to the vision in your head? Are they making the story stronger? Then make those changes. But if you’re making edits that simply make your story different, or if you’re not sure if a story is stronger after an edit, then you’re probably simply suffering from fear. At that point, you’re not improving your story. More likely, you’re hurting it, trying to “polish” it (I truly hate that term) to perfection, but instead stripping the originality of your voice from the prose and likely removing the edge from your writing and the story.

A Suggested Approach

Still not helping? Okay, try the following approach. I’ll call it “Three Strikes and Out” (as in out to market):

  • Strike One: Write your draft. And write it in whatever way you like. Some writers swear by banging out that first draft and never doing any editing until it’s done. Others will write a bit, tweak and edit that a bit, write the next part, tweak and edit that (that’s me, by the way). There is no single “right” way to write. Just do the draft the way you like to write, until you hit the end.
  • Set it aside for a week. No exceptions. No cheating. Your brain needs this time to distance itself from its memory of the story and the prose, so that the next time you read the story, you can do so objectively and come to it fresh as a new reader.
  • Strike Two: Sit down and reread your story, but as a reader not an editor. That is, read for enjoyment. But as you read, make notes of things that jar or make you cringe or aren’t clear or just don’t feel right–things that don’t jive with the vision of the story in your head. And, of course, you can note down typos, rough spots of prose, etc. as well.
  • Make those changes to the manuscript. If the story needs a lot of work, you might need to redraft instead of revising–that is, starting again with a blank screen, instead of trying to tweak a manuscript that simply isn’t working.
  • Set the revised (or new) manuscript aside for a week again.
  • Strike Three: Reread it again, this time as an editor, critically. Make note of any final changes you want to make. Make those changes, along with a spelling and an intelligent grammar check (“intelligent” means that you decide, not the word processing program, about what grammar changes are needed. I ignore probably 95% of anything the grammar checker flags).
  • And out: You’re done. It’s ready to send out, whether you believe that or not.

The above approach is intended for the fearful beginner who keeps breaking Heinlein’s third rule, but it will also help the lazy beginner who doesn’t spend enough time editing their draft. And in case it’s not obvious, during those days where you’re setting this story aside, you should be writing or editing other stories. As you’ll learn, this is a numbers game, a game that the writer with the most stories written and circulating at the correct markets will win.

Next Week

So we’ve finally reached a point where you have a story ready to go out to a market! Next week, we’ll start to talk about how to send your story out into the world (and how not to).

Next week: Where to First?: How to choose short fiction markets

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.



I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:

Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.

He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.

We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.

As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure.


  1. I read from the start to here. I stopped. I went back to one. I grabbed my pen and paper. I took notes. I’m back to here again. This is primo man.

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