I'm questioning my strategy. For a while, I've had my eyes on the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future award, what with being a previous losing finalist and having four silver honorables (sic).
To that end, I've been producing some heavyweight pieces, more novellas than short stories per se, informed by the fact that the piece that got me to the final was a shade under 10,000 words. The latest is a 16,700 word story (the competition limit is 17,000) about a videogame for oligarchs and magnates played out by unwilling human avatars. It was intended for the last quarter, but other things got in the way. It's only just ready for this. This follows my metaphysical story about the power of the square root of minus one - a mere 10,000 words - and a 12,000 word tale of religious cults (I know, what was I thinking?).
But is this the way to go?
After all, writing stories that are that lengthy but also as honed as a short story has to be - not shuffling and rambling, like novels can get away with - is a time-sapping exercise. Opportunity costs decree that there are other stories not being written. Does it make any business sense?
Well, with my other hat on, the one that keeps a straight face Zooming CEOs and executive directors, I thought I'd try to come up with a definitive answer to the length of story I should be writing. And the answer doesn't appear to be 16,700 words.
Let me say straight up that I couldn't have done this without the Submission Grinder, as that's where all the raw data comes from. I have no idea what proportion of activity in the market it reflects but, given it shows about 75 acceptances for Daily Science Fiction who publish a piece each weekday, I’d say about a quarter to a third. Which is reasonable.
As a starting point, I wanted to know how many markets there were, by both word count and rate of pay. For markets that publish sci-fi, whether exclusively or not, the answer is this:
That there are far more markets paying a little than a lot, or that more markets are interested in something that can be read in the time it takes to drink a mug of coffee than grow the beans shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who dabbles a toe in this unforgiving world. Perhaps the more interesting point is that there are more 8c per word markets for something 1000 words long than 1c per word takers for something 8000 words in length (which has a lot to do with why nobody’s seen that Writers of the Future finalist, even at a token rate).
The peak number of markets is 72 at 1000 words. It's worth adding that this is the borderline, both high and low, for a lot of publications. Run the analysis at 999 or 1001 words and the market drops by 11 and 15 players, respectively. And how many publications want to see stories at the absolute edge of their envelope? That’s rarely the sweet spot.
But just because there are places to submit to, it doesn't follow that they'll take your crazy cheese dreams double spaced in 12-point Times New Roman. Luckily, the Grinder gives average acceptance rates. So, what I did was try to work out at what payment point the 'average' story should be sold at.
This is the bit which will have actuaries turning in their night-time graves. (You do appreciate actuaries are the living dead, real-life zombies? I suspect even some of them don't realise it). As the 1000 word mark is where there are most markets, I used the data for those 72 markets to calculate an average acceptance rate at any given rate of pay. Given that some markets pay fixed amounts or have bands of payment rather than strict per word rates, and therefore may appear at different pay rates for different word counts, it's all a huge approximation. I also haven't weighted the average, so picky stalwarts like Clarkesworld and F&SF sway the numbers as much as some here-today-gone-tomorrow merchant or an anthology with mayfly-like longevity.
Also, not being a neuro-divergent lesbian from an Indigenous Nation, I've excluded any markets I don't qualify for from the calculation of average acceptance rate (some looked, frankly, high, suggesting a lower quality threshold) but they're still in the total number of markets as, well, I couldn't be bothered to trawl through all thirty-four sets of data to adjust. Yes, it's lazy and inconsistent but, frankly, the football's on and it's just meant to be a bit of fun.
What we end up with is the chart below. What I've done is take the number of markets available, from the numbers above, and the average acceptance rate at each pay point and multiplied the two. If that suggests a better than evens chance, that's the rate the chart says a story should be sold at. If not, go on to the next pay point, using the cumulative total of markets that'll pay that or better, and the acceptance rate for that (and only that) payment rate. Rinse and repeat. Clear? And I've also repeated it restricting it to half the market, not just because of woke restrictions, but because not all markets take all kinds of science fiction and whatever you've written, it won't fit every editorial brief.
What the data are saying is that, if I could submit any story to any market that accepts that word count, then if I keep it below 1500 words, I should pick up eight cents per word (at an average acceptance rate of 4.36%). A more traditional short story length should garner me three cents per word, two when the word count hits five figures. Even the more realistic analysis reckons I should bank on three cents a word for anything up to 5000 words, dropping to a single penny at double that length.
And when you factor in that you can write a greater number of shorter stories - which takes longer?: ten thousand-word tales or one ten-thousand-word monster? that I’m even wondering suggests they’re about equal - the outcome is clear. Writing novellas is the literary equivalent of being a wheeltapper or coal miner: maybe the world needs a few still, but not that many. Note to self: cease and desist.
Can’t remember where, but some submission guidelines recently said something along the lines of ‘professionals rarely write anything less than 6000 words’. Why? Unless you're writing novels, and that WotF candidate has kept me away from my Sisyphean task since March, that's where the greatest chances of success are. The sweet spot is definitely below 5000, perhaps more in the region of 1500.
Forty-two is, however, definitely too short.
2084. The world remains at war.
In the Eurasian desert, twenty-year old Adnan emerges from a coma with memories of a strictly ordered city of steel and glass, and a woman he loved.
The city is the Dome, and the woman... is Adnan's secret to keep.
Adnan learns what the Dome is, and what his role really was within it. He learns why everybody fears the Sickness more than the troopers. And he learns why he is the only one who can stop the war.
Persuaded to re-enter the Dome to implant a virus that will bring the war machine to its knees, the resistance think that Adnan is returning to free the many - but really he wants to free the one.
24 0s & a 2
Twenty-four slipstream stories. Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.