Editorial June 1996

On Writing

The Dated Essay of the Month comes from the June, 1996 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I used to edit. As I tried to pick which dated essay I was going to choose this month, I looked at all of my June editorials. Some are REALLY dated and should remain in the issue in which they were published.

But this one caught my fancy. I had forgotten that we did a new writers issue of F&SF. I kind of remember now, but mostly because the editorial itself refreshed my brain.

After I finished reading the essay, I looked at the June, 1996 issue, hoping to see that all of the new writers contained within had become familiar names. They hadn’t. A few continue to sell an occasional story, twelve years later. The only one whose name you might recognize is Michael A. Martin. He’s published lots of comic related items and even more Star Trek novels. The first short story he ever sold leads off the June issue. And because I couldn’t help myself, I reread it.

The story holds up just fine. No wonder he has an on-going career. (And is just about one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.)

The writing advice contained within still holds true, of course, but you can’t use it to sell anything to me, since I don’t edit any more. And that’s about as dated as this editorial gets.

June, 1996

The first writer I ever met was a too-tall Truman Capote look alike who wrote poetry and taught at the local university. He spoke to my high school Creative Writing class, and all I remember about him (besides the fact that he was the first person I know to wear a cravat) were his complaints about being misunderstood by the publishing community. His talk before our class consisted of a long whine about publishing, two even longer poems, and a question-and-answer session in which no questions were asked.

The second writer I ever met had the most amazing talent: he could pick up anything — a paper clip, a ball of sand, a marble — and tell you what it weighed to the gram. He sold non-fiction to local publications, and made a good living…or so it seemed, until the police busted him for selling cocaine. He never complained about the publishing community. In fact, he never spoke about publishing at all.

The third writer I ever met was a Big Name Professional who came to speak at my college creative writing class. She had an Attitude. At her meet-the-author gathering in the faculty lounge, she refused to answer questions from us wanna-bes. “You’ll never listen anyway,” she said. “And most of you will go on to your little nine-to-five jobs, and look at this as your moment of glory. Of course, you’ll say you never made it because no one understood your art when the truth is most of you will never make it because you refuse to learn your art.”

Part of me still harbors resentment at BNP’s Attitude. As a professional myself, I justify that resentment this way: she had no idea who was in the room, and she should have been polite. (It should be noted here that I was raised in the Midwest where being polite is a virtue above all others.) But in truth, nowadays my attitude toward new writers is probably harsher than hers.

Every month, I receive about 1,000 manuscripts in the mail. These manuscripts, which I never asked to see, come in all shapes and sizes. Most are improperly done: they are written in crayon on yellow legal paper; they have spiders and other bugs tucked in their pages; or they have paperclips so old that the rust has stained the paper. Another large chunk appear fine until I start to read them: the spelling is abysmal, the punctuation non-existent, and the syntax is convoluted. The final group of the hopeless ones have learned how to handle the mechanics, but they have forgotten to tell a story. I don’t care to read about Joe Everyman waking up, shutting off his alarm and stumbling to the bathroom. It simply isn’t interesting.

So when I approach those manuscripts, my attitude resembles that of a classical music critic at a garage band rehearsal: I know I’m going to hate this experience unless something miraculous happens.

Imagine, if you will, trying to entertain a woman in an empty room. She has her arms crossed, her nose plugged, and a frown on her unlovely face. She has already made it clear that she doesn’t like your inexperience, your pushiness, or your friends. And you have to not only entertain her, you have to entertain her so well that she’ll pay you for the experience.

That’s me, folks.

Meet the editor.

I am the sourpuss neighbor, the old maid school marm, the nasty librarian whom you must convince to pull her hair out of a bun, throw away the glasses and dance the night away. I am a writer’s greatest nightmare.

Or a writer’s best friend.

Because once I am entertained, I will dance the night away. And the next, and the next. I love a good story, and I love a good writer even more. Once you’ve gotten past that grumpy woman guarding the door, you’ll find a friend who always makes certain you know the back way into the party.

Why am I telling you this now, after we’ve become such good friends? You didn’t want to see my dark side, to know that I’ve got an Attitude that puts BNP’s to shame. But you need to know right now, this instant, before you turn the page.

Because, as you’ve probably noticed, none of the names in this issue (with the exception of mine and the columnists) are familiar. Every story here was written by a new writer.

And every one of those writers has crossed that barrier. Every one has entertained the grumpy woman in the empty room, and made her dance with joy.

Every one.

I tell you this now so that you will understand why I believe this to be one of the strongest issues we’ve done all year. Most writers get in the back door. What that means is not that they get special favors, or that they know the secret handshake, or they know which kind of chocolate the editor prefers (dark with caramel). What it means is that when they come in, I’m already dancing. I know I like their work. I know they’ll entertain me. I know we’ll have a good time.

It’s the newcomers who have to prove themselves.

There are occasional anthologies of new writers and there is a very good contest run by Writers of the Future, also for new writers. (New writers, by the contest’s definition, are those who have not published a novel, and who have published less than four short stories. We use that definition here.) These are good ways for writers to “break in.” But they are flawed in one fundamental way: the new writers are competing against other new writers. To be the best in that group is sometimes to be brilliant (Robert Reed and Dave Wolverton got their starts there as the best of the new) but it is sometimes to be merely better than the others (which is to say the only entertaining one in the bunch). At F&SF, the new writers must compete against Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe, and Kate Wilhelm for space in the magazine. The new writer’s stories must be as good as an entertaining story by someone whose name is already familiar. And, if the truth be told, sometimes the new writer’s story must be better.

We’re taking a risk here to do an issue of the magazine with only new writer stories. And I wish I could say the risk was entirely mine. This all happened because Matthew Wells sent us a story called “The Aushwitz Circus” which I liked enough to buy. Our publisher, Ed Ferman, liked it enough to assign Kent Bash the cover. Kent’s cover — well, Kent’s cover speaks for itself. Kent showed the cover to our film critic Harlan Ellison, who called Ed and said it would be a crime to put names over this piece of art. Ed agreed and, realizing that I have bought a lot of new writers, suggested the new writer issue to me.

I wish I had thought of it first.

But I’m the guard at the door. If you don’t like a story in this issue, blame me. I’m the one who let the author into the party. But I suspect you’ll like these stories. A lot.

I do.

As for those writers, I mentioned up front, here’s where they stand nearly twenty years later: The Truman Capote look-alike has yet to publish outside of vanity presses. The non-fiction writer, after a long probation (he was sentenced before the War on Drugs), really started to write non-fiction for a living, and discovered it was more lucrative than his previous profession. The Big Name Professional has an even bigger name now, thanks to several literary awards and two bestsellers. I still think she has an Attitude, but I know now that her Attitude is one of the reasons she’s successful. She has seen hundreds of “writers” come and go. Most never listen and most never publish.

It takes a lot of guts, a lot of hard work, and a lot of persistence to sell a story.

It takes even more to make a career.

The folks whose name you see on these pages are real writers.

Let’s hope we’ll be following their careers for years to come.

Copyright 1996 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch