I learned this morning that science fiction Grandmaster James Gunn has died at age 97. His novel, The Listeners, set the standard for first contact stories. He created and ran the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in Lawrence, Kansas. His Road to Science Fiction anthologies offer an eclectic range of stories that chart the history of the genre, in U.S. and around the world. And unlike most science fiction grandmasters, I had a personal connection with Jim, and he had a direct influence on my writing career.
In the summer of 2008, I had sold 2 stories. I learned that James Gunn was running an online version of his famous science fiction writing workshop. Outside of creative writing classes I took in college, I’d never done any kind of writing class or workshop, but I knew of Jim’s reputation, and decided to give this one a try. The course lasted 6 weeks, I think, and a group of writers would meet virtually, to learn, discuss, write, and critique stories, with Jim as our leader and instructor.
At the end of the course, Jim gave high praise to a story I’d written for the course, and suggested I send it to Analog. Analog was the top magazine in the field for hard science fiction, at the time, and had been around longest. It was legendary in my mind, and the hardest possible market to break into. I’d sent a dozen stories or more to Analog in the past, always resulting in brief, form letter rejection slips.
Still, Jim was telling me to submit, so I did. And to my surprised, I didn’t get a brief form letter rejection slip, but a lengthy note from Dr. Stan Schmidt, longtime editor of Analog, passing on the story, but providing valuable feedback. I was thrilled, and immediately set to work, putting to use what I learned in Jim’s workshop–and taking advantage of the friends I’d made in the workshop to critique what I’d written–writing another story. I submitted it to Analog and once again, received a lengthy rejection slip from Stan that could almost be read as an acceptance if you held it up at just the right angle.
I kept plugging away, encouraged by the rejections. In the summer of 2010 I’d written a story called “Take One for the Road” which I submitted to Analog. It was out for longer than usual, and as the 60-day mark approached, I grew increasingly anxious. My son was a little over a year old, and I was downstairs with him when I saw an email in my inbox from Stan Schmidt. He was taking my story! I had sold a story to Analog. I jumped up and screamed so loud, that my son, frightened, burst into tears. The story appeared in the June 2011 issue of the magazine.
After that, I began selling stories more rapidly to a variety of magazines. I also started selling nonfiction pieces. Over time, I not only sold a couple of stories to Analog, but was also asked to write 2 editorials for the magazine.
To this day, I credit Jim Gunn and his workshop for the adjustments they introduced to my writing that led to this breakthrough. I was delighted to tell him (and my classmates) about that first sale to Analog, and he was cheerful and supportive in his return.
In 2013, at the World Science Fiction convention in San Antonio, Texas, I finally got to meet Jim in person, and made a point of thanking him, and letting him know that it was him, and his workshop that got me past the final hurdle and taught me to learn of to tell a good, print-worthy science fiction story. I am forever grateful to Jim, grateful that I was able to attend his virtual workshop, grateful for his support, and especially, for being able to meet him in person and thank him for all he had done for me. I will always think of myself as a Young Gunn.
Rest In Peace, Jim.