Wednesday, March 14, 2007


No money – as in giving your work away for free.

Now, I know there are pretty strong opinions on this subject, and I don't really want to tangle with anyone over the concept. But here's why I have done it.

First of all, let me say right up front that I am a short story writer (of average height, it's the stories that are short) not a novelist, so my perspective is that of someone who writes lots of fiction that can be placed in a variety of venues.

Back when I first started to write I didn't know the difference between a tightly-plotted epic and a rambling mess, so I wrote a few of the latter thinking they were novels. They weren't, but they were great practice for using words and developing characters and plots and scenes. They went mercifully nowhere and reside in yellowing glory on the bottom shelf in the closet. Like I said, they were great practice, and I went on to learn how to write short and tight and I learned to love a few of my first characters enough to bring them back in different stories through the years.

But the first short stories I wrote needed good critiques. Real bad.

Back in those days, the idea of the Internet was just getting off the ground. A few hardy souls experimented with online magazines (the term "ezine" came later) and as I was experimenting in several genres, I was attracted to the science fiction online 'zines. They didn't pay anything at first – and I threw my few stories around the net to see if anyone was interested. I had a couple posted and got the crits I needed to improve my writing.

I didn't know any other writers. I was not in school nor did I know about writing groups.

I even found an online mystery magazine, the remarkable DAVID FIRKS' BLUE MURDER. And it was a paying venue of very high quality, so I worked on that first submission until I was exhausted. "Just Like in the Movies" was accepted, my first paid acceptance and my first mystery. I can't describe the joy of receiving a contract and a check, but suffice it to say I startled the neighbors with my squeals and chicken dance.

So why did I continue to submit stories to non-paying venues?

Well, two big reasons – okay, maybe more. I still needed to improve my writing to get my fiction skills up to par. I submitted to all the usual suspects: Omni, Fantasy & Science Fiction, you name it and got lots of nice rejections. But the big print mags don't critique your work, so I turned back to the online venues.

BLUE MURDER was an anomaly. High quality, a superb editor and a paying mystery venue, it was unique. And for the duration of its online life, I placed a story there about every quarter. Then Mr. Firks suffered a terrible medical event and publication ceased.

A couple of other paying venues sprang up at this time: Handheld Crime & Plots With Guns, a quasi-joint venture which also eventually took its place in the history of spectacular ezines, as well as a nice handful of others. But venues for mystery shorts have always been scarce and now they are even scarcer. (They still exist – WOMENS WORLD paid me $500 for a short story and GREAT MYSTERY & SUSPENSE sent $$ too.)

So I continued to submit to online sci fi venues and managed to get stories published in quite a few. Now some of these, like Rigel Chiokis' SPACEWAYS WEEKLY and Jack Egan's THE SPIRAL SEA paid well during their publication runs. But they are gone now too. Others didn't pay, but gave excellent critiques or had wide circulation or were run by people I knew & liked. That last played a big part in why I published so much with APHELION, a non-paying zine.

I still give some of my work away. I am not a professional in the sense that I do not expect to make a living writing short stories. I am not a novelist, looking for that big advance or mass market exposure. And I like to experiment with edgy stuff sometimes.
So I search out venues that offer me exposure and fun. That means a few of the places where I showcase my fiction don't pay me anything.

But not paying doesn't mean I get nothing. I get nominated for awards. I get pieces grabbed for anthologies. I get foreign publishers who contact me for reprints. I get production companies who want to make short films of my stories.

If I can sell a story to a paying publication, I will. But if Jim Stitzel or Dan Hollifield emails me asking pretty-please for a short, I will do something for them – because I know them. (Same thing for BJ Bourg who pays a small stipend to writers for their work.) And writing for blogs like EVIL EDITOR is just plain fun – and also led to anthology work.

So for me it is a matter of personal choice and a history with some editors.

I have heard criticism – some of it vehement – from writers who think giving away work cheapens it and makes it more difficult for them to find paying venues. The idea here is that with people giving away work, why should anyone pay for it? But it doesn't really work that way. The venues for short stories have been drying up since the 1950's, but there are still big-paying venues out there if you are good enough and if you actually submit to them.

The Internet is the new coffee table full of ever-changing magazines. Some pay, some don't. By all means submit exclusively to paying venues if you want to. But be aware that to some of us, the non-paying venues also have value.


Philip Johnson's GLASS HOUSE in New Canaan, Connecticut. I hope to see it on my vacation later this year.

The doggies at the fence when I get home from work. They just love you no matter what.

California red finches at the bird feeder. So tiny, so energetic, so pretty!


Sonnjea B said...

I tried to leave a comment earlier, and then my internet connection died for 7 hours. Arghh!! Basically, I said I don't think it cheapens the work to give it away -- good writing is good writing, whether the author was paid in currency or not. You wrote it, and you get to decide if you want payment in USD or feedback or experience or exposure... or if you just like to tell a story and put it out there for people to enjoy just for the heck of it.

Bernita said...

An excellent post.
Thank you.

Kate Thornton said...

Sonnjea b - thanks - I try to say this on fora sometimes and get blasted by "pros" who think I somehow cheapen their work. PS I love reading your blog. I have been too busy to rant on m8ine for a while - thanks for checking in.

Bernita, thank you. I love reading your blog as well! And the pictures - even if I am unable to leabve a comment, I always enjoy the read & pics.