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.
5. The Student (1997-present)
I tried to learn everything I could, not just about writing, but about the genre that I loved so much, science fiction. I skimmed a few books on the subject of writing, but I’ve always been hesitate about how-to books when it comes to writing. My sense was (and generally, still is) that each person has to find their own way of doing things, and what works well for one person, may not work so well for another. But the education I got from my reading of the genre was invaluable. I read David Hartwell’s Age of Wonders and made a list of a dozen or more books he cited, fiction, to read. It was a real branching out for me and served to show the amazing things that could be done by talented writer.
It was around this time that I began to find the method that worked best for me when writing my own stories: know how the story will end before you start. My problem was the once I figured out the ending, I rarely deviated from that, even if the story wanted to take me in other directions. I continued to submit stories, although at a slower pace than before. I collected mostly form letter rejection slips, but an occasional personal rejection came in now and then.
The big lesson for me here: You don’t know it all, and you never will. Reading is just as important to being a writer as writing is.
6. The Rookie (2002-2007)
I’d written a pair of novelettes that I thought were pretty good, even taking into consideration the pitfalls I’d already encountered. I’d submitted them around to all of the major short fiction markets and they’d been roundly rejected. One of these, a story called “Shunting the Trolley,” I decided to retire. The other story, a fun somewhat Heinleinesque novelette called, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” I really liked and didn’t want to give up on. I decided to submit it to Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show magazine, which was relatively new at the time, having put out just 3 issue. I submitted the story and a year passed before I heard anything.
Meanwhile, I continued to write stories. Not frequently, but when I did write a story, it had what I thought was a solid structure. Also, I felt that I’d conquered the opening. I could write a lead-in hook that was as good as any out there. My problem was that often, the rest of the story simply didn’t live up to the opening hook.
Almost a year to the day after I submitted “Learned Astronomer,” I received an email from the editor of the magazine, Edmund Schubert, expressing interest in the story. We went back and forth through a round of revisions, and finally, he accepted the story. A few weeks later I received a contract, and a few weeks after that, I received my first check, $500, for something I had written in my spare time for the sheer pleasure of writing. The story was published in the July 2007 issue of the magazine. I was a professional writer, based on Stephen King’s definition of that term1
The big lesson for me here: Persistence and patience are two key virtues of being a writer.
7. The Broken Record (2007-2008)
When my kids do something I think is funny, and I laugh, they immediately try to replicate what they had just done in order to get me to laugh again. It is sometimes funny the second time, amusing the third time, and by the fourth and fifth time, I feel ready to move on, and only stick with them because I don’t want to upset them. Adults behave this way, too, sometimes, and I certainly did after that first story sale.
Several of the next stories I wrote were attempts to capture whatever magic had worked for “Learned Astronomer.” The problem was, I had little idea of what worked in that story in the first place. Edmund had said he loved the voice in that story, and so naturally, I wrote several stories in which I overcooked the voice. The strange thing for me is now, looking back on the list of titles I wrote in the wake of that first sale, while I remember the stories and while they were not as nearly as bad as the stories I wrote in the early phases of my development as a writer, I don’t remember sitting down and writing them.
I submitted more during this phase, but received a slew of rejections, most of them form letters, which admittedly stung because I thought that, having sold one story, I’d crossed some magic line. I even received rejections from IGMS, which felt like a big step backwards after making a sale there.
The big lesson for me here: There is no magic line, there is no secret to getting a story published. Like Stephen King says, you have to read a lot and write a lot, and learn as much as you can from your efforts.
8. The Journeyman (2008-2011)
With that first sale, however, came my formal entry into the science fiction community. I attended my first science fiction convention. I joined SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I joined a local writer’s group, and I began communicating online with other writers, almost all of whom eventually became my friends. I found mentors in this community, as well as people who burned with the same passion for writing and for science fiction as I did.
And I continued to write. I sold a story I had written years earlier to Apex Magazine and then, after 2 lengthy personal rejection slips from Stan Schmidt, sold a new story to Analog, which was like a dream come true for me. I was home with my little boy on the day I learned of that sale. He wasn’t feeling well. We were downstairs in the family room. I had my laptop on a table on one side of the room, and I’d been playing with him. I glanced at my email and saw the name Stan Schmidt in my inbox. I looked at the message which began, “Dear Mr. Rubin, I’m buying ‘Take One for the Road’ for Analog…” and I jumped up in the air screaming, and in the process, frightening the little man into tears.
The big lesson for me here: When an editor says that they like your writing and please submit again they really mean it. That is exactly what Stan said to me in those first two rejections slips, and clearly, he meant it.
9. The Writer (2012-present)
I’d say that it really wasn’t until early 2013 that I crossed the threshold into the “Writer” phase. It was then that I began to write every single day. Indeed, since late February 2013, I’ve written 411 of the last 413 days. There are only two days in that time when I didn’t write anything, and I had pretty good (although not great) excuses each time.
I wrote the first draft of my first novel during that time, and then I went on to write 3 new stories, one of which sold 4 hours after I submitted it. I wrote and sold four pieces of nonfiction. I wrote a regular book review column for InterGalactic Medicine Show. I found beta-readers in the community willing to read my stories and provide useful feedback, and I do the same for them. I volunteered for SFWA, acting as this years Nebula Awards Commissioner. I sold a story to an original anthology, had a story reprinted, and had an audio version of my first story produced.
But mostly, I write every single day. I have a schedule in mind for each of my writing projects, and I have evolved a process that works very good for me and helps me to produce the best possible story that I can manage.
I still receive rejections slips, although I will admit that it has been a while since I’ve received a form letter rejection. Rejection slips always sting, but these days, I have enough experience to try to learn from every rejection I receive. And perhaps most important, I feel like I’ve earned the title, “Writer.” I worked for 22 years to get to this point, and have the scars and victories to show for it. There are plenty of writers out there who did it a lot more quickly (and probably more easily) than I did, but we all start out with different levels of talent and determination. I had little of the former but a lot of the latter.
The big lesson here for me: I can’t say, yet. I’m still relatively new to this phase. Ask me again in a year or two.
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- King has written that if you’ve written a story, submitted the story, had the story accepted and received a check for the story which you were able to cash and use to pay your heating oil bill, then by God, you’re a pro. ↩
Chriss Offutt says to be a real writer, it’s a must to be one in the mind. Thank you. I loved your post. So lovely written.
I am far, far, far behind you in this “Stations of the Cross” of being a writer. 🙂