I had something in mind to write about tonight but, well, this and that happened and drove the topic out of my mind. So here’s a Blast from the Past:
On to my first sales. In 1990 I moved to being a “full time writer” which, frankly, was another way of saying that I was unemployed. (Various reasons for that, none of them particularly germane to this blog.) At that point I started writing a lot. Most of my stories were still fairly derivative but one was something a bit different, a near-future piece written in an epistolary format (that is, in the form of various letters back and forth). It was this story, titled “The Future is Now” that garnered my first personal response from an editor: Stanley Schmidt of Analog:
“This story has good microwriting, that is writing at the sentence and paragraph level but the essence of story is conflict.” And my story didn’t really have that. So I went back, added a rival corporation and some challenges along the way. That came back with the criticism that the conflict all happened “off stage” (letters about conflicts that were resolved). Stan suggested breaking out of the epistolary formatting and going to straight third person narrative for the key scenes. I didn’t like that thinking it would jar with the rest of the story being written as it is. So I came up with a compromise. I wrote one of the key scenes as “minutes” of a board meeting and the other as transcript of a launch and rescue operation. This gave the in-story immediacy that it needed and the next round Stan bought.
Shortly after that I got a contract back from a story I had submitted to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. The story was a very short humorous (at least so intended) piece “Jilka and the Evil Wizard.” Although this story was sold after The Future is Now it was actually published first. (More on that in a bit.)
Finally, while this was going on I was sending out queries for non-fiction articles. I got a response from one from a magazine “High Technology Careers” asking that I write a 1500-1800 word article on the topic of The Economics of Lunar Mining at 17.5 cents a word. This article was accepted as written and appeared about the same time as the other two stories.
Back to Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. The turnaround between Ms. Bradley accepting the story and it appearing in the magazine was awfully short. In that issue, Ms. Bradley’s editorial expressed some ire at people who simultaneously submit and then withdraw accepted stories leaving the editor to scramble to fill a hole. I’ve always assumed, given those two facts, that she bought my story because it was a “not impossible” of the right size to fill a hole she was scrambling to fill. That may not actually be the case but I’ve always thought it likely.
A kind of sad point of looking back at these first sales is that two of the three magazines are no longer in business. When Ms. Bradley passed away, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine went with her. And High Technology Careers ceased publication some years after my article’s publication.
There were several lessons I learned through all this:
1) “The essence of story is conflict.” That really comes down to the heart of things. You cannot be nice to your characters. If there’s no conflict you may have a narrative but you do not have a story.
2) The reader/editor is never wrong about their experience of the story but they may be wrong about how to fix problems they see.
3) Luck matters. Sometimes the timing of when a story arrives can make the difference between selling to that market or not.
4) Persistence pays. I sent out a lot of queries before I got the assignment to write the article.