Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Professional Creative Writing: The Surface Scatched

When I first sat down to write this post, I thought that it would be best to address it directly to my fellow Creative Writing majors.  Then I thought that might be insulting.  For all I know, they know more about the industry than I do.  My fellow classmates would be a better audience, I decided.  But then I thought about it and chose to just write the post openly.  Some people who have visited this blog before or will in the future know this information; my guess is that many know only some of it.

My focus is in short speculative fiction.  For the most part, this is fantasy, sci-fi, and horror from flash fiction up to some novellas.  At novella-length it gets a little blurry because some, from a contractual standpoint, look like short fiction and others look like novels.

Best-selling SFF writer Brandon Sanderson urges those pursuing publication of their creative works professionally to view themselves as small businessmen and women.  This sort of creative writing is self-aware.  It is entertainment rather than simply art.  It is as professional as any other form of writing and often garners similar amounts of pay.  A writer has a brand, a reputation built upon his or her work.  (S)he produces a commodity that may or may not have a value, depending upon how it measures up to that of others.  Payment is expected for the use of these products, though it is assumed that the vast majority of potential buyers will not put them in their cart to begin with.

As of July 2014, the professional rate for short speculative fiction is six cents per word.  The rate immediately prior to that month was five cents per word.  It had stood at a nickel a word since 2004, when the pro rate increased from three cents per word.  (These rates are taken from SFWA, the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.)  The semi-pro rate is one cent per word, according to Duotrope, a database for publications.  Any payment below the semi-pro rate but above zero is considered a token payment.

To put this in perspective, consider a 3,000-word story.  At the minimum pro rate, this story would garner $180.  Semi-pro markets would pay at least $30.  The pro rate may seem pretty good, and it is, considering the market.  The nature of the industry does not allow for much income, however.  Writing short fiction is not something you should attempt to make an occupation.

My personal writing rate varies, but I've gotten it up to about 600 words per hour for drafting.  For a 3,000-word story I would need some time in brainstorming, as well as an additional few hours for editing.  That gives me five hours for drafting, another hour or so for brainstorming, and about four hours for revisions, all guesstimated.  These figures are optimistic.  Considering the payment for such a story, the hourly pay for my writing would be $18 per hour for pro rate and $3 per hour for semi-pro.  Unfortunately, this math neglects the time required to research markets and submit to them.  It also fails to incorporate time to send emails to critique partners and time to read their replies.  The amount of thought put into the stories and the energy expended by that thought is intangible.  All things considered, even earning a professional rate does not guarantee hourly pay better than that earned by the average worker at Walmart.

This blog post is getting pretty long, so I will end it here.  It will likely continue with a deeper explanation of why you should never attempt to survive solely off of short spec fic story writing.  I might even write something up about the economics behind novels.  Contracts are another subject of note.  This vast pool of information is related to the topic of professional writing, but is not what I will be focusing on in future posts for my Intro to Professional Writing class.  This post serves both as a tipping point for future posts and as a testament to the professional nature that creative writing often takes on.


  1. And I suppose that's why most people go for the almighty novel with its potential power-payout. (Even though that kind of payout is rare.)

    1. Yep. Even though novellas might be a better strategy for "scrape by" living, at least until you're good enough at novels to sell a good third of them.