Several years ago, I was getting burned out in my high-stress newspaper job, and I came across a fancy hardcover book listing science fiction publishers, agents and editors. I paged through it on my lunchbreak, until I found a part of the introduction which proclaimed: “Many writers now make a decent living just from writing science fiction short stories.”
That was enough for me. I bought the guidebook then and there, and set about quitting my day job once and for all. I was going to make a living as a science fiction short story writer!
Actually, I didn’t entirely quit my day job — rather, I switched to a day job that was way less stressful and allowed me to have time to concoct my little bejeweled masterpieces of short story-writing. All I had to do was crank out short stories until I got really good at it, then send them out — and watch the money roll in. I got myself a travel mug that entitled me to cheap refills at the local Caribou Coffee, and then set about discovering just how much caffeine a human could consume in a five-hour period before hallucinations set in.
By the third or fourth travel mug of nuclear-grade depth-charged Mountaineer Blend, the ideas were flowing, and I was cranking out story after demented story. I was going for a sort of gonzo sensibility, Don Webb meets Kathy Acker meets J.G. Ballard, with a large dose of Iain M. Banks. And with enough java in my bloodstream, I felt as though my mania could pass for genius. There was nothing more exhilerating than the thrill of just getting words on a page, especially if those words were wrapped around the weirdest ideas my mind could dream up.
An apocalypse that only obese people survive? Gold! A space princess foils an assassination attempt via exploding cactus gentalia? Best idea ever. A spaceship’s faster-than-light drive runs on human guilt, and the ship becomes stranded because one crewmember is incapable of feeling guilty? Why not?! Vomit-eating sewer monsters are bombarding women with subliminal messages to make them bulimic? Storytelling greatness. Sylvia Plath’s poetry is secretly about aliens who have been living among us and plotting to take over? Absolutely! Oh, and then there was my “lesbian dung beetle family values” story, which is kind of hard to sum up in a sentence.
Actually, looking back at my early output, a surprising number of those stories were about coffee, maybe because I was injecting the stuff intravenously. There was my story about a man who develops time travel — only to find that coffee tastes really bad when you send it back in time a few million years, which is a problem that apparently needs solving for some reason. There were a few other stories in which coffee played a vital role in solving the main problem, or was a crucial motivation for the main character. Coffee!
Even apart from the fact that the output of several small South American countries was going into my plastic travel mug every day, I was on a high a lot of the time. The first time I actually figured out how to end a story, it was like I had the power to levitate mountains with my mind. I came up with an ending! I still think that’s always sort of a miracle, to be honest. And I was convinced these stories were each better than the last — probably true — and that they were among the greatest works of fiction anybody had crafted ever — clearly false.
After the high, a crashing low would follow as I reassessed my story in the sober light of day, when the coffee had worn off or I was preparing to print it out and send it to editors. Why exactly did the starship’s FTL drive run on human guilt? Wasn’t that kind of a design flaw? Maybe the idea of a future society where the rich live in higher gravity and the poor are in low gravity, until a daring Robin Hood-style thief tries to steal some gravitons, was a bit silly? I would pore over my prose, coming across phrases like “Vengeance has arrived, and it tastes like eggplant!”, and wonder if this was really the masterpiece I had previously believed.
I would start to doubt myself — but I would still send my latest story off in the mail. I was like a well-oiled story-sending machine, and I kept careful notes on the process which I still have. I aimed to complete a new story every week — some weeks, I didn’t quite make it — and send it off to my top market, followed by my number two market, then the number three market, and so on. I assiduously kept track of the response times of the different magazines, because you could only send a story to one editor at a time — and I wanted to pile up the largest amount of rejections, in the shortest possible period of time.
I succeeded. I have a folder that bulges with rejection slips from this period. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
I wrote this at the bottom of my detailed submission log:
Remember: rejections should be welcomed because they give me the opportunity to send out a story once again. There is nothing more joyful and optimistic than the act of putting a story in the mail, especially if that story has already come back once or twice. When I send a story, I commit to it anew every time it goes in the mail, in the belief that half a dozen or a dozen rejections are simply bringing that story closer to final publication.
I just cut and pasted that from my submission log document, which is now something like 28 pages long, and only covers up to 2007, when I quit keeping such careful records.
Like a ton of other writers, I spent way too much time trying to make my rejection slips tell a story. Legend had it that the color of your rejection slip from Realms of Fantasy conveyed how much the editor liked your story. Another editor, legend had it, used different Word macros depending on how much he enjoyed the story, and if you got the form letter with the word “regrettably” in it, that meant you were close to a sale. I haunted various SF writing forums online, gleaning every last bit of wisdom that people dispensed there.
And some of these early stories actually got published, in tiny publications that I’m grateful are impossible to find now. The story about the exploding cactus genitalia appeared in one of those adult newspapers that used to be a venue for stripper ads, with a bit of content thrown in to fill column inches — in Arizona, if memory serves. What the strip-club patrons of Tuscon actually thought of my deadly cactus genitals, evil clones, and court intrigue, I will never know. I may have single-handedly put a few men off their lap dances.
I knew that there was room for improvement in my writing. That was sort of the point of writing a story a week, after all — to write the million words that James MacDonald, aka Yog Sysop, insisted were necessary before you would start getting any good. Those million words had to be drained from you, like poison, before the fresh, clear ichor of storytelling could start to come out. Of course, I believed on some level that I was the sole exception, and it would take me a mere hundred thousand words of fiction before I hit my creative peak.
Meanwhile, I joined a local writing group — at least one of whose members I still keep up with — and got tons of feedback on my stories that (to my everlasting shock) did not simply consist of praise for my cleverness. Actually, there were countless bad habits that I wasn’t even aware I was falling into, which made my prose look even more amateurish than it actually was. Occasionally, the feedback may have been a bit too honest — one story received the comment, “There is a germ of an idea here. Have you considered disinfectant?”
And I went to local conventions where there were writing seminars, in which I sat and tried my damnedst to figure out what made a story saleable. I joined the throngs of writers following small-press and medium-press editors around, trying to understand what they could possibly want from me that I wasn’t already sending, in spades. I stayed up all night in the consuite or hotel bar, listening to other semi-unpublished authors rambling about their great story ideas: “And then — get this — the convenience store owner turns out to be the zombie, not the customer! Great, right?”
The one consolation through all this was that my stories did improve — slowly — and I was just aware enough of my shortcomings as a fiction writer to keep sloughing layers of dead skin. That rush that I got the first dozen times I was able to come up with a proper ending for a story? There was a comparable rush the first time I was able to come up with a middle. (Which turned out to be way harder than coming up with an ending.)
Slowly, my short fiction become less and less reprehensible, although I’ve never stopped being seduced by the throwaway idea or the dumb shortcut. The only way I could really tell for sure that I’ve improved is by re-reading the old stories and being horrified by how terrible they were — and then confronting, for a moment, that I would be equally horrified one day by the stuff I was writing now. (Surely not!)
Looking back at them now, these stories that once seemed so wild and vibrant now seem amazingly bland, because the characters are nondescript. Literally, “nondescript” is the best word for them — they’re not really described very well, and they’re mostly ciphers on which a bunch of action is hung. The stories are over before they really get going, or they drag on and on without developing anything.
Recently, I was talking, half-seriously, about having a “trunk story slam” at a convention — a bunch of us would read our worst unpublished story. The author with the absolute worst story would win, although I’m not sure what the prize would have been. It seems like fun, but then something about reading one of these stories aloud seems a bit too exposed, like displaying a dirty shameful piece of myself. And at the same time, I feel a great tenderness and nostalgia for these stories — more as I remember them than as they actually are.
Plus you never know — I might be able to repurpose bits of them one of these days, or just rewrite a couple of them from scratch, keeping the few good bits . After all, you’re the only author you’re ever allowed to plagiarize.
Top image: Detail from cover of Warlord of Mars #4 from Dynamite Comics, art by Joe Jusko. This essay originally appeared back in 2011.