Back between 2002-2004 (or thereabouts) I was actively writing and submitting short fiction for the professional market. It was all being rejected. I just figured my stories weren’t good enough. One of the particular magazines I was sending my work to was Realms of Fantasy. I had been laboring over my stories, putting them through rigorous critique and editing, and making them as perfect as I could. And yet I was still getting the stock form rejection letters.
When the fourth one finally came back I called my sister, ranting, “This is ridiculous. I really don’t understand what these magazines want! What am I doing wrong? My critique group thought it was great!”
To which my sister replied something like, “Maybe you should write what you think they would like instead of what you like.”
“Like what,” I said in a snotty tone. “Fuckin’ stories about unicorns? Maybe some fluffy bunnies?”
My sister laughed.
But that did it for me. I was dead set and determined to make a point. That night I sat down and penned a short story about unicorns. Yes, you heard me. Unicorns.
I wrote it in a few hours. Let my sister read it the next day. I edited it a little. Then I sent it out to Realms of Fantasy. Months went by. Finally, it got to a point where I’d been waiting a long time and many of my writer friends who’d also submitted stories to Realms had already gotten rejections back. I queried the assistant editor who confirmed that Faith In Unicorns had indeed been pulled out of the slush pile and sent on to the editor, Shawna McCarthy. After a few more months I received a polite note from Shawna herself telling me she loved the story, but unfortunately she’d already bought more pieces than she could use for the year so she was passing on “Faith in Unicorns“.
This point bears repeating: The sarcastic joke story that I didn’t send through critique, or labor over for more than four hours is the one that made it out of the slush pile and almost into the pages of one of the biggest pro short story magazines in the genre.
I remember thinking, well I’ll be damned, they really did want unicorns.
The point being that to be a successful writer goes beyond being able to write well. It goes beyond being able to tell a good story. Instead — it’s really about giving the people purchasing the stories what they want. I know a lot of writers don’t want to hear this, but it’s true. If your inclination is to write about wizards who ride war horses and all your stories keep getting rejected, perhaps you need to write about warriors riding magical unicorns (metaphorically speaking of course).
This point was driven home for me again this month. I’ve been dabbling in some alternative genres lately under a pseudonym. I’ve had one novella published in this particular genre (another one will be published later this month). In 7 days it’s sold 40 copies and I’ve made $80 and the month has barely started. I think it’s going to be interesting how much the book makes in one month’s time. I look at the books I’ve literally spent months writing. Books that do not sell this well (not in small press anyway) and I am shell-shocked. It only reminds me that if you want to make a living as a writer you do have to give the buyers what they want no matter how ridiculous it may seem.
Talented writers are a dime a dozen. Talented writers who are persistent become published. Talented writers who are published and give the buyer the product(s) (s)he wants have careers. The hard part seems to be figuring out what it is buyers want. But once you hit it, you’ll know because your sales numbers will hit the roof compared to the rest of what you have out there.