Operation: Your First Motherfucking Sale

Cash and Bullets

(Why an image of cash and bullets? I dunno. Maybe I like the connotation. Writing is a grimy, dirty career — internally violent, and good mostly only for a pocket of coins. It speaks to me. Shut up.)

So what the hell’s going on here, exactly?

I babble and gibber and preach a lot about writing and writing advice over in this space, and my yammering lurches drunkenly from the necessarily practical to the woefully abstract. All this chatter, geared toward writers of every experience level, is focused on writing as a career choice, as a craft — I have nothing against hobbyists, I have nothing against those who believe writing is held in the delicate and fickle hands of The Muse, I have no axe to grind against those who think that binding money to art is lower than a snake’s dick in a wheel rut.

I mean, sure, I think those latter two attitudes are bullshit, but I think a lot of things are bullshit. Doesn’t make me right. Just makes me cranky.

Me, I don’t think art and commerce need to be separate.

I think you have a way to get paid without sacrificing integrity.

I think we can continue to be ourselves and write what we want and still make a little scratch.

It’s time, writer types, to make a little scratch.

I’m Talking To You, Talented-Yet-Unsold Writer

It’s time to make your first sale.

The first sale cannot be undervalued. I’m moving, and thus packing, and as I’ve noted in other posts I continue to unearth My Writerly Past — and one of the things I happened to unearth was my first short story publication, a story called “Bourbon Street Lullaby” published in Not One Of Us magazine (#18). I got paid… man, I don’t even know how much I got paid for that. Not much. Less than fifteen bucks, I think. (Though the story also earned me a small writing grant from my college to the tune of $50 or so.)  I still have the acceptance letter from editor John Benson, who was kind enough to help me workshop the story a little to get it into a shape befitting publication in his literary horror journal.

Even still, I think back to the thrill of it — someone paid me for this! — and what a revelation it was. A revelation that this thing I’d been thinking of as a potential career was no longer just a closeted dream. No, fifteen bucks is not a lot of scratch, but in college it was enough to go out and buy a not-so-terrible meal. Which further draws the correlation between “I Wrote This” and “It Has Fed Me.” Creates a direct throughline from writing to sustenance, which is a wonderful line to draw.

Now, to be clear, that means “first publication” may not be the same as “first sale.”

I’m not going to rehash old arguments about the value of your work, I’ll only say here that this post is not about that process. Giving your work away for free may help you, and I won’t tell you not to do it if that’s what gives you the giggling shits. But free won’t put food in your mouth, free won’t offer that same boost of nipple-tickling confidence you get from someone writing you a check for your work.

This is about selling something.

Your first sale.

That is the mission, if you choose to accept it.

You Begin By Writing — Maybe

Obviously, the goal of the writer is to write, but the goal of the writer who would very much like to pay her rent thank you please is to write and get paid to do so.

This requires consideration beyond merely putting words to page.

It means finding a target market.

This is not absolutely necessary, but it is perhaps the most practical way to begin: you find a market to which you wish to submit, and then you write for that market. You read the site, the blog, the journal, the zine, the mag, whatever it is, and you tailor a story to go there. Or, you at least say, “Hey, look at all these hard sci-fi markets — I will now write something that will hopefully work for that market and its publications.” In other words, identify the bullseye before you loose the arrow.

Again, it’s not absolutely necessary. Trust me, I’ve written plenty of stories without first considering the market. Though, I’ll also note that most of those stories went unpublished because once I was done, I didn’t really know where they belonged. You do what feels best.

Whither Where Markets Who Now What Face?

It helps if you know where to look for potential writing / literary markets.

Here’s a short list, but not necessarily comprehensive. If you fine feathered tmeeps in the audience have other avenues, please post ‘em in the comments? Thankee, sai.



Gila Queen

Dark Markets

Writers Write

Those are market listings.





You may or may not follow my process when running through markets — I aim high at first, floating the story in all the appropriate top dollar markets. Then when I’ve exhausted those possibilities I go to the next tier, semi-pro. I don’t ever drop to the “for the love” markets if they don’t pay — again, you can if you want, no harm, no foul, but going that way is not what I’m talking about in this “first sale” situation.

Now, Write Something That Does Not Suck

You do, after all, have to write a story.

And yes, this is about writing a short story. A lot of writers make their first sale a novel sale, or a freelance sale, or an article or a porn critique or a poem or whatever. I can’t speak to that, and I’m offering only one path to the gilded glory of “Paycheck From Wordsmithy.” And, no, writing short fiction is not the way toward a steady paycheck, or even a good paycheck. If you earn a respectable five cents a word on a 3,000 word short story, you’re up $150 bucks.

Sure, if that short story took you three hours, it’s not a bad hourly rate (yeah, I calculate approximate hourly value of my writing, if that makes me a whore, so be it) — but, if that story took you eight hours, or 12 hours, then ehhhh. The return isn’t as impressive, no. But that’s okay. We’re not talking career-changers. We’re not talking “I can quit the day job!” money.

We’re talking ego boost. Confidence-builder. A little scratch in the ol’ pockety-pocket.

What I’m Bringing To The Table

First, let this post, and terribleminds in general, be a place to talk about the process — the rejections, the waiting, the triumphs, the whisky, the self-doubt, the ecstasy, the pornography.

Second, while I’m loathe to create anything as official as a “writer’s group,” I am happy that a lot of writer-types hang around these dank halls and moldy pass-throughs. That means that herein lies a potential community waiting to be exploited embraced. So, anybody who formally commits to this process here, hey, maybe you’ll find someone willing to read your story and offer some criticism. Further, maybe you’ll be interested in doing the same for someone else.

A quick caveat: do not go posting this story of yours online anywhere. That can count against you — a lot of publications want first rights, and you go popping the story up on a blog and that means they could theoretically pooh-pooh the publication of said story. No need to poison your chances.

Third, I’ll offer up my eyeballs for a few stories. I’m busy with writing work and packing/moving right now, so I promise nothing in terms of timeliness or thorough critiques — but, I can read a handful of 3k-word short stories and offer a couple-few comments. Don’t rely on me, and certainly don’t think I’m a reliable authority on much. But I’ll help where I can.

What You Bring To The Table

You bring a commitment to, if someone reads your work, you’ll read theirs.

You bring a commitment to honesty. You read somebody’s work, they may think they want a yes man, but that doesn’t help anybody. Fair, honest, constructive critiques. Not harsh, but forthright.

You bring the words.

You bring the work.

You bring a commitment to rock this shit.

You In, Penmonkeys?

I don’t blame you if you’re not up for it — getting a short story published is a pain in the nuts. Aggravating, at points. But, if the end result is the ability to say, “Hey, look — some money in my hand and the cherry busted on my publication list,” then that’s a winner-winner-chicken-dinner, you ask me.

Plus, it justifies what you do.

Writers know that you have to do a lot of convincing of the people in your life — “Hey, this writer thing is good stuff. It’s worth me asking you to take the kids for an hour, it’s worth me not meeting you for lunch because I have to work, it’s worth me shelling out a little green to go to this writer’s conference.” You actually manifest a paycheck, however small, then it shuts up the naysayers.

And for you, it opens a door.

Inside and out.

So. Who’s up for their first sale? Gotta start somewhere, right?

(And anybody who’s already sold writing shouldn’t feel like they can’t hop in this process, too, playing Operating: My Fifth Goddamn Sale or whatever.)


  • I’m pondering. This is interesting and I may be in. I have a new story that I’d like to write. Horror, which is usually not my bullet. It might fit the idea here, though.

    I’ma think about it, but I’m intrigued, and this is right where I’m at creatively, so that’s a tip over the fence already.

    Plus, though I make some scratch, and have made in the past. I’m still trying for the first short story scratch.


  • Funny, last night I was looking around this place trying to find something, anything you had written about making your first sale. This morning, you deliver. I’m in. I need this.

  • As I am currently trying to shop a short story around, does that count or do I need to write a new one? I am giving it one more coat of spit today before submissioningnessacicity begins.

    • @Rick —

      Nope, it counts. No hard and fast rules, here. If you want to borrow people’s eyes to read the story before you send it off, feel free to ask — otherwise, just report back and let us know how the process goes for you!

      — c.

    • @Josh —

      No real rules, so do what you like.

      My trouble with serials for early authors is that they represent an excellent opportunity to fail on purpose but still look like you’re trying — “Oh, I’m writing,” but you’re never really finishing. Plus, a serial requires you have the whole thing finished before you publish it.

      To me, a short story — 3k, 5k, whatever — is a great opportunity to move into the marketplace with a single-serving piece of quality fiction.


      — c.

  • Cool! I have a few people who are going to read it over, and I was going to ask you, but I felt bad about it. You’re busy with the move, your burgeoning beard-obsessed fan base to placate, and I’ve been really shitty about reading something that I really want to but just haven’t found the time lately. I’ve got one more coat of spit I’m shlapping on it this morning before sending it to a few people for their opinion.

    • @Rick —

      No, you can send it over to me when you’re ready provided it’s not some super-long short story.

      I can’t offer you a huge banquet of notes or anything, but I can toss you a couple.

      — c.

  • I’m so in. Once more you’ve provided a good, swift kick right when and where I’ve needed it. Plus it’ll keep me from editing that novel just a few weeks longer.

    If anyone wants an extra pair of eyes just let me know. I’m not much for line edits on other people’s stuff so I can’t be your grammar drill sergeant. But I can and will point out everything else.

    Now off to search the markets.

  • I’m in for this! I have a mess of a start to a horror story I started back in March and never finished. This may be the impetus I need to get that sucker finished and then polished up.

  • Would you believe none of my writing counts as having been published in this *particular* sense? I suppose I should get around to fixing that. Every scrap of legitimacy helps.

    I actually have a short that I sent off to WotF and got an Honorable Mention a couple of years back. Good concept and structure, just needs a little more juice and detail in it. I think I’ll do that this week and finally send it off to Strange Horizons, like I’ve been meaning to.

    Thank you, sir. ^_^

    • Always happy to nudge!

      This is exciting. I’m glad people are digging this idea. I gotta be honest, I figured people would give me a shitty look and a noisy thumbs-down.

      Or, I’d hear only crickets and tumbleweeds.

      — c.

  • But I am the scared Mr. Wendig!

    Seriously though, I’m in. Worst that happens is I’ve written 3000 more words and still haven’t sold anything right? Time to take a look for what I want to try and get into….

  • Sure, I’m in. I’ve got a couple short stories that are sitting and festering: I shopped them around a bit, but the best I got was a personalized rejection. I’ve been working on a shiny new novel, but that’s no excuse not to get those out the door.

  • I’m in. I am currently shopping stories around trying to get my first paid sale. I have three out to markets, finishing up revisions on 5 more, while working on one last novel-tie-in before the fall semester starts and I have to return to work.

    I would really be interested in having a set of eyes (that don’t belong to my wife) look at one of my stories and get critiqued.

    • Diggit — feel free to pop your email addresses in the comments here so people can send short stories if you’re accepting ‘em for peer review. Though, of course, don’t actually spell out the whole email, as Evil Spambots will sniff ‘em out. Y’know, go with emailaddress [at] bumdiggity [dot] com. Or some such.

      — c.

  • I feel kind of awkward being the lone dissenter so far, but I don’t think I’m up for this, yet. I’m not great at writing short (which probably means I should practice…), and once the last week of August hits me with school, there’s no way I’d keep up the fight. I’m pretty sure going from nothing to sale in three weeks is not how it usually happens (though man could I use that pocket change).

    On that note, if you’re going to set this challenge out and gear it specifically toward shorts, I’m going to call you out and request tips (or links to tips) on writing short. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has problems with it.

  • I decided that if I’m gonna do it for this commitment, then I’m going to do it by this commitment’s outline, and start fresh, not use the current rewrite of the old monkey tale.

    So, Horror it will be. I will shoot for 3-4K because I’m trying to pare down the above piece to 5K, but still add in the crucial rewritten details, and I’d like to avoid that dance.

    Tomorrow I shall (re)search markets, story and do some thought-sketching.

    Has anyone had any thoughts about share-draft deadlines? I’d like to trade with somebody who is also working on something new so that I don’t drag on them like an unfinished anchor.

    @Josh: I originally envisioned the 4 year old story above as the first in a series. I recently had to kick that to the curb since, after 4 years, I hadn’t had success with the first, potentially because I had left details and questions unanswered to address in the later series. To me a short should be like Hold’Em. If I’m gonna play the cards, then I’m going all in.


  • Weird that this would come up today. This is the current writing goal that I’m working on since starting up this writing thing again a couple months back. One story done and churning out rejections and a couple more in the works. While I love my wife’s edits having someone else take a gander sounds like a good idea. I’m happy to read and share with anyone.

    Wil (dot) Amory (at) gmail (dot) com

  • So, I had a submissions question I figured I’d ask here. A lot of these places seem to want ‘first rights’ which I assume means they want to be the first ones to ever publish it (but you can publish it again later if they give you back the other rights). So I was wondering as to what was the etiquette with submitting a story. Like, can I submit the same story to multiple places, and if one picks it up I send a note to the others saying “sorry, but X place has picked this up so I can no longer offer first rights on it/it is no longer eligible as a submission” or should I be sending separate stories to each of these places?

    • @Anthony:

      Kate’s got it. I’ve heard some advice that says, “Hey, hell with it, submit to multiple, don’t tell ‘em, and if someone accepts it, just let the others know.”

      I’ll note that I think it’s unfair that small dollar journals make this stipulation. This is, after all, a marketplace, and if their turnaround time is 3+ months, it seems especially unreasonable to lock up your story like that. (And some won’t even reply back with a rejection. So, you’re kind of left in limbo.)

      Do what you gotta, but know that you could in theory run in to trouble sending it to multiple places.

      — c.

  • @ Anthony

    Most ‘zines and publication will list in their guidelines whether or not they accept simultaneous submissions. A lot don’t, and really frown on writers going around that guideline.

    For those that do it’s polite to note in your cover letter (if you have one) that you’re submitting the stories to other publications and, yes, absolutely inform them (if they haven’t yet sent a decision) if and when your story is picked up.

  • Sounds like it is best to err on the side of caution then, and just be careful with where I send the ‘favorites’ (though I’m sure they’ll all be favorites if I’m sending them out for this).

    Oh, meant to mention. I’d also be willing to give a look-over if anyone wants another set of eyes. I’m not the best at grammar, but will do my best to catch errors and give other critique/advice. You can reach me at delirium [dot] end [at] realityrefracted [dot] com.

  • I’m in. I have one piece of fiction that I’m working on that I’d love to have someone else read. Bad timing though, Mr. Wendig, GenCon looms.

    I’m also up for peer reviewing: tyyrslady (at) hotmail (dot) com

  • Right! I’ve just finished revising my piece, thanks to some canceled and delayed concalls. Not sure if it’s quite there yet or not. If anybody would particularly like to give me a read, do let me know; it’s just above 2700 words.

    I’m also happy to give crit. I’m andrhia and I am at Gmail. You’re a smart bunch, you can work it out from there.

  • Duotrope is the shiz.

    I have a flash story I’m currently submitting. I’ve had three rejections so far, but it’s all good. I too start at the very top so that just means I mark off three publications I was doubtful would bite anyways. Not that I don’t believe in my story, but really – those pubs get a lot of submissions.

  • So I’ve been noodling this challenge at work all day. And I had a little conversation with myself. It went like this:

    “Well, there’s really no way I can do it.”
    “But you want to do it?”
    “Oh hell yes. Sir Chuck has challenged me to rise to something I desperately want.”
    “Well why not grab life by the balls?”
    “Time! School starts up in a month, I’m moving in two weeks, there’s the game to plan, work to do, I just don’t have time!”
    “Well, what are you doing right now?”
    “Talking to myself like a crazy person.”
    “You aren’t working?”
    “No. My next class doesn’t come in for like fifteen minutes.”
    “How many classes a day?”
    “Times fifteen?”

    So after speaking with myself?

    I’m in. I’m in like Flynn. Chuck, I accept your challenge. I’ve got my first rejection notice pinned to my board, let’s add the first acceptance notice right below it.

    If you want to send stories my way, my e-mail is patrick.regan@gmail.com

    I can’t promise fast turnaround, especially as the move gets closer, but I can promise turnaround. Come, let us bum rush this goal with our collective insanity. They can’t keep us all out.

  • I’ve gotten several useful critiques on stories I’ve posted to an online writing workshop for SF/fantasy/horror (http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com) I’ve also gotten a lot of mileage out of reading the critiques other people have gotten. First month is free, and you can post one piece right away. (if you post there and you’re not getting any bites, email me at dolohov at that Gmail thingie and I’ll be on it)

  • Oh, and my email is chris at evil-spy dot net, though I may not get back immediately until after gencon. No, I’m not going, but coworkers are, and guess who gets left covering for them? ;P

  • This is just a thank you to those that have taken a look at my story so far. I’ve enjoyed reading the ones that have been sent to me. :)

    Chuck, you really started something here.

  • I’ve been seriously thinking about writing some horror fiction of late (if I can escape the RPG mentality). Hell, last night at 4am this morning after feeding the baby, I wrote half a page in longhand about emotion in horror stories.

    So, I’m in. I need to write more anyway, and stop procrastinating about it.

  • Very well, M’sieur Wendig! I accept your challenge! Now, as the challenged party, I assume the choice of weapons is mine?

    Then let it be handgrenades at dawn, …IN AN ELEVATOR! Muahahahahaha!

    From hell’s heart, I stab at thee, etc., etc., you know the drill.

    In other news, yeah, sure, I’m in. I may be tagged at joecrow9 [at] gmail [dot] com with fictive emittances for critique. I’ve been way too fucking slack about my wordmonkeying, so this’ll get me going again. Thanks for the gear-wise ass-kickery.

  • We are indeed tossing stories around. Woke up today to two stories sitting in the inbox asking for critique, was kind of a cool feeling. Need to get mine written and take advantage of the promised favor returning now!

  • Love your blog and LOVE this idea!
    September was the BEST month ever for me. After writing forever, over a year ago I finally decided to try to get something published. I have an amazing collection of rejections… until this past month… I received contracts for two short stories AND my book. Yes, I’m still bouncing and will occasionally let out a “squee!” out of the blue.
    So keep trying everyone, and keep writing. You just need that one person to read and love what you wrote!

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