Short stories: How much do you make? How do you sell one? How long does it take to write?
An anecdotal account of my experience writing and selling "India World" to Tor.com
Tor.com recently published my short story “India World”, and I went through my notes, to-do lists, revision history, and email to figure out what exactly went into writing and selling that story.
Finding details and real numbers on how this all works is difficult, and I hope this post is helpful to people writing short fiction and interesting to folks who are just curious!
I spent 22 hours, 18 minutes, and 47 seconds writing and editing “India World” across 42 sessions in Google Docs. (Not including hours more spent editing on paper, revising the story at workshops, or reading critiques.)
30+ people provided feedback after reading drafts, some more than once.
10 publications rejected the story before it found a publisher.
It took 908 days from first word to publication, or about 2 1/2 years.
I earned $1422.80 for publication rights in print, digital, and audio.
Read on for all the gory details including actual emails!
Note: This isn’t meant to be an authoritative report on the state of short fiction or publishing. It’s an anecdotal account of what it took to write and publish one short story. My experience is unique for many reasons, including…
I’m early in my career as a writer and still learning the craft. I likely spent longer writing and editing than a more accomplished writer would.
My publisher Tor.com pays triple the rate of most other “pro” speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) publishers. I sold my first short story, “How Did it Feel to be Eaten”, eight months prior for $297, or $0.08/word. That’s a good rate. And that story was half the length and took 34+ hours to write and edit. In other words, this is a labor of love. For each story that sold, I’ve got a drawer-full that didn’t.
With that out of the way, let’s dig in.
How it started
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at this story from start to finish.
In November of 2019, I was brainstorming ideas for a sci-fi story set in a future India. Among other things, I thought about what the future of arranged marriage and the caste system might look like. I also explored a future where whole cultures were wiped out and kept alive within computer simulations or theme parks. This latter idea, plus my life-long love of everything Michael Crichton has ever written, especially Jurassic Park, eventually became India World.
How I wrote it
11/10/2019 - Brainstormed the initial idea.
11/23 - 12/8/2019 - Outlined the story, and wrote a rough first draft.
12/8 - 12/15/2019 - Revised draft, submitted to my critique group for feedback from James, Thea, Sahil, and Dan.
12/15/2019 - 2/2/2020 - Edits.
12/16/2019 - Submitted draft to OnlineWritingWorkshop.com, a peer review site where writers exchange critiques.
1/2/2020 - “India World” was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” on OnlineWritingWorkshop, where an eloquently written editorial review argued that it had problematic themes. For instance, that Rohit's triumphant choice to return home sounded lot like white American "immigrants go home". I proceeded to freaked out and spent the following weeks fixing.
2/2/2020 - Sent a draft to my critique group at the Futurescapes workshop.
2/3/2020 - Sent a draft to Critters, another peer review group for spec fiction. I got helpful feedback from a dozen folks, including detailed notes from Lauren Banka and Dwayne Minton.
2/13/2020 - Got feedback from my friend Nick Baum, who’s helped with nearly all of my stories so far.
2/17/2020 - Got feedback from Kat Howard. In particular, that Rohit’s motives for his actions in the ending weren’t believable.
2/17/2020 - Got feedback from my Futurescapes critique group (Ashlea, Katrina, Olive, Tali, and Tyra). They offered suggestions for tightening the story, improving imagery, and fixing the ending (came too quickly, needed foreshadowing.) At this point I had Rohit returning to the USA to start “America World” in response to his time at India World. This had given some earlier readers Make America Great Again vibes, so I still wasn’t happy with the ending.
2/18/2020 - Got feedback from Mary Robinette Kowal 🤩 (Hugo and Nebula winner, head of the SFWA) at Futurescapes. She suggested several improvements including a new ending that I loved.
2/21/2020 - Rewrote the ending to its current version.
2/24/2020 - Sent “India World” as my writing sample for my applications to Clarion UCSD and Clarion West. (These are competitive six-week workshops for spec fiction writers; their alumni list reads like a Who’s Who of Sci-Fi. This was my second year applying and I didn’t expect to get in.)
2/25/2020 - On a lark, submitted a draft to an open call by Hugh Howey 🤩. (He wrote the best-selling Silo series and is one of the most popular self-published authors ever.) I didn’t expect anything to come of this.
2/26/2020 - One day later, Hugh wrote to say he loved the story and attached a marked-up manuscript with many suggestions I used. He also offered to publish it in a future anthology if I didn’t publish it elsewhere. (!) This made me pretty excited about this story finding a good home.
3/8/2020 - Got feedback from my bud Sameem Siddiqui. (Check out his wonderful South Asian sci-fi.)
3/8/2020 - Got the call: I WAS ACCEPTED TO CLARION WEST! 🎈🎈
How I submitted it for publication
Submitting short fiction is a whole thing. Here’s why:
The number of publications seems to shrinks each year, but the number of submissions has increased.
Acceptance rates at the best pubs are very, very low.
Many publications don’t allow simultaneous submissions. That means if you send a story to magazine A, you can’t submit it elsewhere until you get a rejection from magazine A. That could take days, but more likely weeks or months. Some of the best pubs take the longest.
My strategy is to apply to the long-long-long-shot pubs that accept simultaneous subs first. Then I start submitting to pubs that disallow simultaneous submissions, starting with the most prestigious, fastest-rejecting ones. The faster you’re rejected, the faster you can send it elsewhere.
Submitting is a numbers game. In 2020, I set a goal of getting 100 rejections.
3/10/2020 - Submitted story to The Sun ( ❌ rejected 28 days later), The Missouri Review ( ❌ rejected with personal note in 38 days), New England Review ( ❌ rejected, 50 days), AGNI ( ❌ rejected, 73 days), The New Yorker (haha yeah right, ❌ rejected, 79 days).
3/16/2020 - Got a rejection email from Clarion UCSD. BUT… Cory Doctorow 🤩 (amazing sci-fi author and activist) was on the admissions board and emailed to say he really enjoyed “India World”, my submission story. AND that he’d told Devi Pillai (Tor’s Co-Publisher and VP) about it and she wanted to read it!
3/17/2020 - I emailed Devi the story, who cautioned she was interested to read the story only for personal enjoyment. Tor wasn’t on my radar for publishing this story — they don’t have open submissions, and my understanding was that you basically had to be asked to publish there and they only asked hotshots. I am not a hotshot. Still, I decided to ask if it could be considered for publication by Tor.com. (Couldn’t hurt!) She CCed in editor Ruoxi Chen!
4/8/2020 - I emailed Ruoxi to see if she’d had a chance to read the story. At this point, the pandemic was raging and everything was in chaos. After a month of not hearing anything back, I figured she didn’t like it and moved on.
4/21/2020 - Submitted to Asimov’s Science Fiction ( ❌ rejected same day! yay)
4/22/2020 - Submitted to Clarkesworld Magazine ( ❌ rejected, 10 days)
5/4/2020 - Submitted to Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ( ❌ rejected, 12 days)
6/1/2020 - Submitted to Strange Horizons ( ❌ rejected, 43 days)
6/7/2020 - Ruoxi from Tor.com emailed! She apologized for the delay and said she’d try to have an answer for me in a week!
6/18/2020 - Followed up with Tor. Didn’t hear back. At this point everyone either had Covid or knew someone with Covid. After six more weeks passed with no word, I assumed Tor was a dead end and decided to continue submitting elsewhere.
7/22/2020 - Submitted to Apex Magazine ( ❌ rejected, 12 days)
8/14/2020 - I started to worry that my opening was too slow and sent the story to my bud Josh Riedel. He generously returned feedback just a few days later.
8/15/2020 - Submitted to Uncanny Magazine
I sold the story!
8/27/2020 - RUOXI FROM TOR.COM EMAILED TO BUY THE STORY! 🏆 They offered $1422.80 for exclusive digital, audio, and ebook rights for one year, non-exclusive afterward. Likely publication: early 2021. I said yes!
Withdrew story from Uncanny Magazine with apologies. (This is a no-no because Uncanny does not allow simultaneous submissions! When I submitted, I didn’t think I was submitting simultaneously because I was under the impression I was out of the running at Tor. I apologized and hope I’m not blacklisted.)
The next year and a half…
9/4/2020 - Contract signed!
Six months pass…
3/31/2021 - I emailed Tor asking about the publication date and heard back that it was now slated for 6/2/2021
5/5/2021 - Tor sent cover art by Jasjyot Singh Hans.
5/6/2021 - Heard from Tor that the legal department might have issues with the title. (At the time, it was “India World®”. We’d eventually have to drop the ®.)
June 2021 - Jan 2022 - For eight months, I emailed Tor every couple months. I worried I was being a nag, but writers I talked to encouraged me to keep checking in every month. No word back during this period. I’m guessing they didn’t know where it was going to slot in yet and were swamped.
1 year, 5 months since contract signing…
2/7/2022 - Emailed Tor asking for an update on publication date. The original contract allowed me to take rights back if it wasn’t published within 12 months of the contract signing, Almost a year and a half in, with no word for nine months, I was starting to think it wouldn’t be published by Tor after all and wanted to make alternate plans. (No hard feelings, plans and priorities change. But I still wanted to get the story out there!)
3/10/2022 - I screwed up the courage to email Devi (VP at Tor) to see if she knew the pub date. Devi replied quickly and told me “India World” was slated for publication on June 1st!
4/11/2022 - Got a marked up copy with edits and suggestions from Ruoxi! I had a month to turn this around and did a final polish, mostly accepting all the edits and making the suggested changes.
6/1/2022 - 2.5 years after I began writing, 🎉 “India World” was published!
What’d I learn looking back through all this?
Writing takes forever, even if it’s a just a few thousand words. Way longer than I thought.
Submitting takes even longer. This tracks with other areas of my life. Selling is always less fun for me than making things.
SO MANY people helped! I’m blown away by how many people took time to read drafts and offer their feedback.
When I started writing optimistic sci-fi, I didn’t just need to learn how to write for the genre and format. I needed to learn how to format my manuscript, how to find quality critiques, how to submit to publishers, how to network with other writers, and all the rest. Countless other writers took the time to answer my emails and take meetings and read crappy drafts and tell me what was wrong with them.
I’m so grateful for all the ways the writing community has helped me, and I’m hopeful this post proves helpful to others getting started.
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Thanks Vanessa Armstrong, Nancy Hua, Scott Hurff, and James Yu for feedback on this post.
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You are an inspiration whose footsteps, I would love to follow some day.
Can't wait to read the story.
Wish you an amazing and fulfilling journey ahead.
Thank you for sharing this journey! It is equal parts foreboding and inspiring!
Writing (and getting published) is a torturous endeavour but wins like yours make us all hope!