I submitted my very first story back in early January 1993 and I have been submitting stories ever since. Back when I started, I wanted to believe that one day, I’d sell a story, but I didn’t quite dare to. It’s funny to look back over the path that persistence takes you through. I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, if for no other reason, to show what I went through with the thought that others go through the same thing.
I’ve identified 9 distinct phases to the evolution of my writing career. They are not all equal in duration, and some of them overlap, but I went through all of them, and continue to go through some of them.
1. The Newbie (1993)
I decided that I wanted to be a writer, and that was enough. I was in my junior year of college and I told everyone around me, whether they wanted to hear it or not, that I was a writer. I wrote a dozen stories in rapid succession without knowing anything about how to tell a story. I wrote sex stories and sent them to Playboy thinking that is what the magazine published. I wrote science fiction stories and sent them to the science fiction magazines. I wrote a story about a cat and sent it to Cat Fancy. I collected, with glee, my first rejection slips. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was writer, dammit.
The big lesson for me here: read the market guidelines! Otherwise you’re just wasting time (and in the early-mid 1990s, postage).
2. The Fanboy (1994-1996)
I read a lot of autobiographical work by my idols, and decided I was going to be just like them. When I was in my Piers Anthony phase and received a rejection, I took Piers Anthony’s attitude that the editor was an idiot. Moreover, I didn’t just want to be like my idols, I assumed I already was. If Isaac Asimov could write a good story in an hour and sell it two hours later, well, by God, so could I. After all, I had all of the experience of three or fours months. And I had the rejection letters to prove to anyone who asked that I was a Real Writer.
The big lesson for me here: I am not Isaac Asimov or Piers Anthony. I am me and I had to figure out my own strengths and weaknesses and not pretend others.
3. The Impressionist (1996-1997)
Have you ever had a friend who claimed to be a great impressionist, and who, after making such a claim, went on to do a Ronald Reagan impersonation that sounded exactly like your friend and nothing like Ronald Reagan? Well, I felt like I was the Rich Little of science fiction, and my favorite impression was Harlan Ellison. During this phase, every story that flowed from my pen was written in what I perceived to be the Voice of Harlan Ellison. This is incredibly painful and embarrassing to admit, for as you might imagine, my impression of Harlan’s writing was like that friend’s impression of Ronald Reagan. But when I finally burned through this phase, I turned the first major corner in my evolution as a writer. I’d gotten the newbie, the fanboy and the impressionist out of my system. I had become, in fact…
The big lesson for me here: Voice needs to emerge naturally in a story. If you try to fake it or imitate another writer’s voice, readers can tell.
4. The Beginner (1998-2002)
I deliberately began to set aside attempts to be like my heroes and write like my heroes and instead find my own voice. I also began to write stories that, at last, had distinct beginnings, middles, and endings. If only I could have started from here, but the truth is, I think I had to go through those first three phases, if for no other reason, to learn first hand how to do things the wrong way. It was during this phase that I received my first two personal rejection slips. The first came from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, back when she was editor of F&SF. The second came from Algis Budrys when he was editor of Tomorrow.
The big lesson for me here: Editors really do read what you submit. And they take the time to provide feedback on those submissions they feel warrant it.