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Story Submissions in 2023

(This post was inspired by similar posts over at Aeryn Rudel’s excellent site, Rejectomancy. I recommended his articles about his writing journey—and his cool stories, of course.)

2023 was the first year I put serious effort into submitting short stories to markets for publication. I had sent out the odd sub every other year since 2011/2012ish, but I always gave up after a few tries (oh, sweet summer child, who thought a single rejection meant they’d never be good enough to be published). Short stories aren’t my natural writing form. I find novels much easier, and a lot of my early short stories (and some now, if I’m not paying attention) are essentially compressed novels.

Shaky Start: 2021-2022

In 2021 I wrote two stories after a long break from writing, with no real intention to do anything with them. In 2023, I focused on learning by doing and failing and doing again. They both sold in the end (one in 2022, one in 2023), but I was submitting in a very slapdash and ad-hoc way.

2022 was a bad year in my personal life, so any steam from 2021 fell flat. I wrote three short stories. (I might do a separate post on this, because I almost just gave up altogether.) In short: I put out 24 submissions and got 23 rejections (20 form, 3 personal). One of them ended up winning 2nd-place in the Writers of the Future contest, which was so surprising that I thought I was being cold-called by the competition runner and almost put the phone down on her.

Only in 2023 did I get my head on straight and start writing again in earnest. So, let’s look into how it went.

Shout-out to Angela Liu: I was hesitant to put something like this together, at least partly because I didn’t know if I’d like the stats if I computed them. One thing that finally got me motivated was Angela Liu’s retrospective on her first year of submissions. Angela came screaming out of the gate in 2023, getting 12 stories published, more than half in very prestigious places. If you don’t read on from here, at least follow that link. While you’re at it, do yourself another favour: read her work. It’s really, really good.

Stories Written

This year, I wrote 14 complete stories and an additional 3 partials. 2 of those stories sold, 9 are still out on active submission, I retired 1 (it was just so, so bad), and parked 2 for further work later. The average story length was ~5,000 words with a standard deviation of ~2,000 words (meaning 2/3 of my stories fell in the range 3,000-7,000 words). In total, it mounted up to 66,350 words of finished drafts (x2-4 for redrafting, in some cases almost total rewrites).

I also completed an ~88,000 word sci-fi novel, which is now on submission.

All told, that adds up to ~154,000 words of polished prose. Not bad, probably around average for me, but certainly an enormous swing towards short fiction when compared to previous years .

Submission Stats

The statistics look like this:

  • Submissions: 68
  • Ongoing (at the time of writing, 26th Jan 2024): 11
  • Withdrawn: 2
  • Rejections (form): 41
  • Rejections (personal): 8
  • Never responded: 3
  • Acceptances: 3

Discounting the ongoing subs, that’s a 5.2% acceptance rate, or 1 out of every 19 submissions. I’m happy with that, given my “top-down” approach (i.e., starting with top-rate places like Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, etc. and working down to lower-paying / less prestigious markets). My sales were to pro and semi-pro markets, in the pay range $0.06-0.08 p/w, at or just below the current SFWA-recommended professional rates.

Further encouraging is an 14% chance of getting a personal rejection, a hat-tip from the editor that means “close but not quite” or “not this time, but send me something else”. If we’re counting that as a kind of win, we’re talking a 19.2% rate of success this year.

If we’re being cheeky and discounting the withdrawals (hastily done after I realised some double submission mistakes after switching from Duotrope to Submission Grinder) and those who never responded, the rate tick up a little more to 5.8% and 15.3%, respectively.

Lessons Learned

One lesson I did learn this year was to stay away from writing specifically for anthology calls. With a mind to get as many stories in the air as possible—a sort of hit-the-ground-running mentality—I wrote 6 stories for themed contests/anthologies, almost half my output.

I hoped the prompts would boost my productivity. And they did, but at a cost. While one of those stories sold to a great market and I’m very proud of it, the others ranged from “needs a LOT of work” to “this might be the worst pile of crap I’ve ever written”.

The novel I also wrote for a competition, which ate up my whole summer. Unfortunately it didn’t make the shortlist, and time constraints meant I made changes to my original vision for the story.

Why did these projects come out so badly? I think a combination of two factors:

  1. Hofstadter’s Law: “A project always takes longer than you expect, even if you account for Hofstadter’s Law”. I’ve discovered that, despite being known in my family for my time management skills, I’m rubbish at gauging how long a story will take to finish. I mean, off by a factor of 2-3. Inexperience? Optimism? Both, probably. Anyway, I squeezed my stories into anthology/contest deadlines by minutes on several occasions, and to be honest the stories were just not polished enough to be competitive.
  2. I don’t really enjoy being prompted. By nature, I’m the “silent contrarian” type, that irritating kind of bastard that hates being told what to do, but also doesn’t like conflict—so they disobey in such a way that nobody notices until it’s too late. I’ve completed enough “creative prompt” classes/exercises/textbooks to know that, while they’re essential for honing your craft and learning the ropes, for me they rarely kickstart any ideas with legs.

Regardless, going forward, I plan to stay away from themed anthologies, unless I happen to already have either a good idea or a finished story lying around that fits.

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