For glass ceilings you could read significant milestones or steps along the way to becoming a published science fiction author. But at the end of the day, each of them feels like a significant barrier and to cross it the writing has to take a major change in quality or direction. So what are these glass ceilings?
In publishing terms we could break it down to publishing:
1) for a small circle of family and friends who are more interested in what you are doing rather than the quality of the writing
2) in small circulation magazine as a new writer, which gives you your first unknown audience
3) in a small circulation science fiction magazine, which still gives you a small unknown audience, but this time it’s in-genre
4) in a medium circulation science fiction magazine, which actually gives you a reasonable (rather than token) fee for the story
5) in a high circulation science fiction magazine, which gives you a professional fee (as per SFWA criteria for joining them say)
6) a novel by a minor publishing house
7) a novel by a big publisher
In theory you can skip some of these steps, but these days, unless you are very lucky or very talented, it is unlikely. The reason? You are learning to improve what and how you write at each step.
So what does it take to jump between the steps?
Everyone who is competent at writing can do step 1. But what makes a story good enough to reach step 2?
First off, you have sufficient skill to write to requirements like theme and word-count. Also there is a story that has no internal contradictions, and has a beginning, middle and end. And you have the ability to spot the opportunity to send your stories out. But you’ve got to remember you’re given some leeway in skills because from the publication’s view you are new, and therefore maybe of interest to readers.
So how do you go from step 2 to the step 3 of being published in a minor in-genre magazine? Well if you have completed step 1, you’ve lost the opportunity of newness. This step means you are sufficiently skilled in the genre to bring an interesting style of writing or innovative minor issue or new story to it. It’s not a rehash of old themes, but usually a twist or new take on a genre theme, something that readers appreciate as being a story that in some way adds to the genre.
Going from step 3 minor publication to step 4 medium circulation genre magazines is doing step 3, but noticeably better in ALL skill areas. Here the writing is smooth and clear, flows easily. What you are writing about, unless it is very good pastiche, has somewhere in it, a basic new idea. In science fiction, it is usually on what the story is based, but it can also be the style of writing [warning here - most styles of writing have been tried in our genres or literally, so it would be difficult to come up with something new, but as I have discovered, it is possible].
Step 4 to step 5 from medium level circulation to bog circulation magazines is more about acceptance and reputation. You are entering the commercial world big time here. You need to do all you are doing at step 4, but better. But you also need to have a following of some sort. It can either be by popular demand of the readers or, more likely, support from people within the publishing industry.
Step 5 to step 6, going from shorter pieces of writing to getting a novel published, means you have to put together a long piece of writing that is self-consistent and will hold the attention of the reader. This takes skill, juggling all the different threads of the characters and plot lines to keep them together and compatible [not necessarily consistent depending on the viewpoints you are writing from]. And it has to sellable. Which means you have to pick a subject that the readers want to know more about. Because of the long haul time-wise between starting a novel and getting it to market, you have to be able to anticipate what you think will sell. Not easy I know. Usually, people opt for variations on current popular themes for their first novel, which usually doesn’t make it. So the only advice I can give here, is get a reliable crystal ball.
Step 6 to step 7, going from minor novel through medium list to big name author – well I don’t have any experience of that at all, so can only comment on what I observe. A lot of people say it’s luck. I don’t. It’s skills, not only in the writing, but also in the imagination and in the marketing. It’s a massive juggling act that a lot of people learn through having made mistakes and reacting to them. Here’s the but – the public only has so much money to spend. So there can only be a limited number of big list authors. It’s a case of the best athlete wins here. you’ve got to somewhere in your writing have a competitive edge.
As I wrote earlier, writers go through these steps as part of the learning to write science fiction curve. All too often writers try, reach a peak of skills, hit the frustration barrier, give up and settle to bumbling along at the level they have achieved. What they probably don’t realise is that with practice, their writing is improving, only they don’t know it. They should keep on trying to reach the next level. With time, people can get to step 6. Getting to step 7 depends on how well your interests align with readers.