I’m a successful writer. It’s the publishers failing me.
That sounds like an ironic joke but consider: I’ve been a writer for 48 years, submitting (at first sporadically, I admit), for 40 years, and publishing for 24 years. My first published fiction was “Weal & Woe” in the Spring, 1990 issue of MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY’s FANTASY Magazine, if you’re curious.
At 16 I sent ESQUIRE a story, now lost, called “Not Buzzard”, about a creepy little guy who walks into a zoo clutching his secret to himself in sweaty palms. He walks up to various exhibits and mutters, “Not buzzard,” until finally he finds the buzzards, where he smiles, reveals his secret. He shows it to the mothers, children, and attendants, all of whom scream and run. He calmly raises it to his head, pulls the trigger, and falls to the ground, not buzzard. Conceptual anticipation of modern America, basically.
So I’m out shoveling snow when my aunt Nancy, who was living with us at the time, calls me in to the phone. It was a woman with an English accent. Identified herself as Rust Hills’s secretary or one of his sub editors. Wanted me to know they loved my story, were thrilled with it, but had never heard of me. Wanted to ask me some questions about myself for a short bio.
My mistake was honesty, as so often is the case in life
We talked about the work, we got on smashingly, we laughed and agreed on the sub-themes and so forth. All was well as I gave her my full name, as I told her I lived in Ebensburg, PA, a county seat, (Cambria), and so forth. Then she asked my age and I said, “Sixteen.”
Silence. She coughed. “Sixteen?”
She gathered herself, regained her poise, and got off quickly.
Later in the week I received an envelope from ESQUIRE. The New York City post mark looked wonderful to me. The letter covered two sides of a half a sheet of typing paper, single-spaced typing from an old Underwood, looked like. It was written by and signed by Rust Hills, the famous fiction editor. It praised my work, told me I was a good writer who would only get better, and other things I liked hearing.
It ended by saying, “…but at 16, your world experiences simply don’t add up to a hill of beans, and I publish for business executives in their 40s…”
That was 1974 and I was none too eager to submit anything to anyone for a long damned time even though I kept writing, reading, learning, and improving my craft and, eventually, my art. Thomas Pynchon called his short story collection Slow Learner. Regarding submitting and publishing, that has certainly applied to me.
In 1980, at age 22, I got married and we moved to Japan a few years later, where we had our first child. Wanting to bring in some money, I started submitting erotica to various glossy magazines and digests. For a few years I made decent money filling various confessional and third-person short erotica markets. Yes, they used to pay fairly generously for such material, especially if you could supply it reliably on demand. I could and did. I will also say that it taught me much about commercial genre writing and stripped away literary pretensions every callow youth entertains. Contacts kept asking for erotic novels but I resisted, citing the poor per-word rate. Why work harder for less?
All along I honed my craft, writing my own stories on spec and also writing what I have called practice novels. I figured practice is how you learn anything, so if you want to learn to write novels, practice. During these years I submitted the occasional story to genre magazines, collecting my fair share of standard rejection slips, until, in 1990, MZB liked a short fantasy, “Weal & Woe”. It was loosely patterned on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and had mythic touches, as did much of my erotica come to think of it.
From then on I’ve sold at least a handful of stories per year to genre magazines.
I’ve also published erotic novels as Everett Bedford for Pink Flamingo Press. That started at Olympia in England but the royalties are better stateside so I jumped ship when contractually able.
My own novels I have submitted sparingly and always with a cringe. In pre email days it cost a goodly amount to prepare a clean typed copy, get photocopies made, box them, have them weighed, and mail them snail to be destroyed by handling for a year minimum before you heard back. This after having sent an inquiry package describing the book and asking if they’d deign to stoop low enough to glance at it. In truth, I heard back from only about a third of publishers, which kept me reluctant to bother submitting novels at all. It’s hard to force myself to submit novels even today, via email.
Along the way I’ve had minor triumphs. First publication. First story chosen for Year’s Best Of. (“Wooden Druthers” in Datlow & Windling’s Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror #7) First erotic novel published. Being tapped to help cobble the series bible for Jerry Pournelle’s WAR WORLD anthologies, edited by John F. Carr. I invented the Harmony religion, vetted stories, and wrote extra material for introductions and segués. Wrote half a dozen novellas for that series, too, only one of which saw print (or brought pay) during Jim Baen’s life but which are slowly coming to light via Carr’s Pequod Press in high-end collector’s editions. Beautiful volumes.
Best editor I’ve ever worked with is Debbie Vetter of CRICKET. She’s been bumped upstairs at Carus Publishing now, deservedly so, but she was superb as a story editor and ushered several of my stories into print.
MZB taught me a lot, too, when one of my stories, at the last minute, needed wordage cut. Without time to consult me she did an emergency appendectomy on my story, then let me know about it. When I read the published result I was amazed. Not a scar showed. It was seamless and improved the story. I’m always glad to learn such useful things and have benefitted from what I’ve learned about how to rewrite, and why, many times. I actually like rewriting; gives you a chance to improve things.
Now I’m concerned with getting my work more widely published, including novels. Still find it hard to submit them due to the responses I’ve tended to get. Brilliant, but… is a standard. Richard Curtis, the agent, called my work, “Brilliant but unpublishable.” Jeanne Cavelos said, “Brilliant stuff, reminds me of Salinger, but we don’t publish this kind of work.” Ashbel Green of Knopf called my work, “Brilliant but we’re cutting back.” Harlan Ellison called me, “One of the good guys, we gotta get you more work.” That’s how I was fired across Curtis’s bows. The splash left nary a ripple.
Then there are the editors who break things and call it fixing, or who cannot read metaphors and take everything strictly literally. It is maddening and despair accompanies all my submissions these days. Why hope for insight or, Thoth and Gwydion forbid, appreciation and enthusiasm when the pattern of not getting it is so strongly established?
Thing is, I believe in my work. I know it speaks for me, eloquently at times. (We all get lucky now and then, right? Just don’t ask me which ones are the good ones.) I’ve had my writing abilities confirmed and affirmed by professionals at every level so I know it is not a sentence, paragraph, or page problem. I can write. It’s just that what I write does not strike the gatekeepers as something that would have wide enough appeal to sell well enough to gain them profit. It is approach, voice, and perhaps content holding my work back, that’s all. If you believe the gatekeepers. My voice in fiction is not familiar. I don’t echo, nor do I write pastiche. I’ve always been off by myself writing what I call Ficta Mystica, or mystical realism, and even though that genre sells hugely well and always has, stories of encounters with unseen things and unknown worlds are seen as too literary, or not schlock enough, or what ever terms the gatekeepers use that day.
“Tartan & Plaid”
A lovesick teenager has broken up with a girl over Christmas break. In the process a coat was left behind. Agony over the breakup clashes with a bitterly cold winter but the teenager abandons the coat and walks home freezing rather than facing the confrontation involved with its retrieval. Arriving home nearly blue, the teenager is confronted by an angry mother demanding to know where the new plaid coat is. It had after all been the big gift the mother could afford that year to give.
The teenager tries to explain that the coat had been lent, in a more loving moment, to keep the beloved warm, just prior to the bitter argument that led to the breakup. “You lent your new plaid coat? You march right back and get it it, young lady.” In frustration and anguish the teenager yells, “It’s tartan, not plaid. There’s a difference, you know.”
The hidden trick in this story is that the first-person narration focuses on the girl who betrayed the narrator. How superficial she has proven to be, how disloyal, how duplicitous and cruelly callous. How badly she has treated the narrator by whimsically going off with another at such a festive time of year.
Everyone who reads the story presumes the narrator is a boy until the last brief scene when the mother confronts the narrator. We learn the narrator is a girl casually, off-handedly. We’re dealing with a lesbian relationship gone wrong.
It’s a small surprise in a character study but when my mother read it she was shocked. She told me she had to reread it several times to get it into her head. In her defense, things were a lot less overt back then regarding same sex relationships. What shocked her was her own unexamined presumptions. Society’s bigotry had patterned her to misunderstand the story, which is written carefully to avoid mentioning the sex of the narrator.
The underlying message is ironically brought home by the mother seeing tartan and plaid as the same thing, and the narrator finding them intolerably different and distinct. Two invisible worlds are colliding.
That is the kind of fiction I was writing in high school. I’ve since lost that story, along with “Not Buzzard” and so many others. “The Watchers” about visitors long before Strieber’s Communion came along and about their connection to faerie, elves, brownies, and pixies; the free-associative poem “Sympathy in Asia Minor”, for the first six lines of which it took me ten pages of exegesis to demonstrate the criss-crossed, woven references and meanings when an English teacher called it nonsense, which affronted me. “Pains of Glass” about a very young boy wandering through an adult dinner party where the people had been frozen and sliced into strange geometric shapes by panes of glass cutting through the room at off-kilter angles; the boy was too young to understand quite what he was privy to as he got near each couple and heard echoes of their conversations, which were bitter, acidic, and venal, full of fear and hate. It was a remark about growing up and being trapped in social facets. So many works I recall but cannot reproduce were lost.
No, to be blunt, I threw them all away when I got married. Arrogantly I decided to see my marriage as an ascent into adulthood. (Still waiting.) My writing up to that point, then, would be juvenilia and I wanted nothing to do with such childish stuff. I filled three large black plastic garbage bags with my childhood writing and took them to a dump. That I did this appalls me to this day and I’m reminded of Charles Dickens having a three-day bonfire to rid himself of a life-time’s correspondence. Fits of melancholy and chronic depression are evidently cleverly disguised at times.
Wish I still had that material to look through, just to see.
There was a one-act play, “Breathe”, using only colored gel spotlights, a curtain, and sound effects that reduced down to a person taking a deep breath into a hot microphone. This was filmed by a high school teacher of mine, Miss Pauley, for her film class at a local college, where it won a first prize. No mention of who’d written the script, of course. No mention of conceptual correspondent.
This was not the first time such a thing had happened.
In grade school I’d drawn the tangle of pipes in a photograph of a nuclear reactor. It was a study for perspective drawing. My work was taken, unbeknownst to me, out of class and entered into a contest in Pittsburgh as her work by the art teacher, Mrs. Saylor. It won both prize and money, and a picture of it appeared in the newspaper, which is how I found out. I took the clipping in next day to show the teacher. She merely looked daggers at me as neither of us said a word. I’d taken measure of her and we both knew each other’s worth quite well in that instant.
When I married I threw away the juvenilia, stopped having literary ambitions, and began learning how to produce plot-point extruded genre fiction product. For the next 35 years or so I tried hard to warp my work to fit genre tropes and topoi. Never worked. I’d always unintentionally sabotage somehow. Unacceptable elements cropped up, strict pattern demands were blithely ignored, etc. It was a mental block, I thought.
Perhaps I was right, but perhaps it was protecting my inner fiction, rather than keeping me from learning to conform to others’ standards, which I now know is the fastest way to fail and to destroy one’s abilities. I tend not to handle time linearly, for example. I tend to see narrative as interpenetrating among setting, character, and event. I tend to like tossing in seemingly random items such as quotations or oblique glimpses of scenes that become coherent parts of the whole only at the end, and often only if you think about them outside the narrative context.
When I paint it is often abstract expressionism. When I play guitar it is often jazz ad libbing. Why should I write any differently if that’s how my mind works?
As you can see from this exemplar, I am capable of structured expression, although I do have a penchant for digression and expatiation. Another pet peeve about genre editors is their insistence upon dumbing down vocabulary. They either demand copy written at a fourth- to sixth-grade level, or they cannot read anything written above that level. In my days of trying to learn to write for genre markets, so I could more reasonably expect to earn some money for my nascent family, I spent time with the Gunning-Fogg and Flesch indexes. These were programs that analyzed written work to peg the education level required for full comprehension. Back then the goal was sixth-grade reading level. Now it has declined to fourth-grade.
It is not merely vocabulary but sentence structure. Simple, declarative sentences are fine. Compound or complex sentences, not so much. And do keep your paragraphs tidy. One topic per, no more and no less, or else. Confuses the punters, don’tcha know? Do not even THINK about multiple viewpoint, or any kind of narration other than third-person limited omniscient past tense discursive. I’ve actually heard readers, reviewers,and editors state that they hate, for example, second person narrative because they don’t like anyone getting into their head and bossing them around. (?) Or that they hate first person because THEY didn’t do or think any of those things. (??) Then there is what I call hand-holding, wherein one must include all the steps between point A and point B or the poor widdle weaduh will get wost. Yes, it is that bad much of the time. They cannot connect dots, extrapolate transitions, or accomplish the story in any meaningful way unless you explain every tiny little thing. It’s maddening and destroys the prose of even otherwise good writers like Stephen King.
Now you know why many fine movies fail while many dreck squeeps prevail.
This also explains why the Young Adult (YA) category is booming, by the way. More people are choosing to buy and read those books because they’re written more simply, despite often having the most cutting-edge content and topics. They’re both more interesting conceptually but more accessible at the reading level.
Taking time with rich, layered prose, counterpointed conceptual frameworks, and thematic complexities is less common by the hour, it seems. Readers do not want challenged in an age when cursive writing is no longer even taught in schools, when logic is not a school topic, and when Twitter defines public discourse as 140 characters or fewer. (They’d say, “…or less” by the way, not being bothered to get things correct.)
I’ve many times heard vampire fiction fans proudly assert they’ve never read Dracula by Bram Stoker, the quintessential vampire work, because it is “old-fashioned, boring, and hard to understand”. Nothing is further from the truth, it remains a thrilling mystery of breath-taking pace and alluring eeriness. The glorious, hilarious, poignant, and eloquently concise work of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain are considered too difficult to bother with, too dense to sort out, by too many modern readers.
Despair, my old friend; how y’doin’?
Writing is a heart eater. Know that if you’re contemplating a writer’s existence. (One hesitates to call it a life.) If you do choose writing, keep at it in your own way. Working to others’ standards is the surest way to fail and to destroy yourself and your art.
Be soon and write well.
/ Gene Stewart, et alia
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