WHEN I WAS WRITING

 

A Literary Memoir

by

Tom Purdom

 

 

 

Installment One: Beginnings

 

Robert Heinlein once complained that writers' autobiographies talk about the things they did when they werenít writing. I have thought about writing a memoir now and then but Iíve always been stopped by the fact that Iíve lived exactly the kind of life Heinlein referred to when he said a writing career is a voluntary life sentence to solitary confinement.  Most of the important events in my life have taken place while I was sitting by myself writing and reading. Iíve done a few other things-- like getting married, raising a child, and doing volunteer work-- but readers generally want something more when they pick up a memoir.

On the other hand, I have done something most people never do. Iíve written things and sold them to editors. Why not take up Heinleinís challenge and write about the things I did when I was writing?

I even have some evidence people may find that interesting. When I give a talk to a science fiction club, I usually take one of my stories and tell how I wrote it-- how I got the idea, the literary problems I encountered, the logic behind the way I developed some of the ideas, my dealings with editors. Most of the audiences Iíve talked to seem to have liked that approach. Some people have told me they appreciate the chance to peek at the process the mind goes through when itís creating something.

When I read Appointment in Samara a number of years ago, it came with a foreword in which John OíHara told how heíd written the book and sold it. He had written the foreword, OíHara said, because it was the kind of thing young writers always asked about "and besides, I like to read that kind of stuff myself."

It was a moment when I felt a true rapport with a famous writer. He might live on heights that I would never reach but we had something basic in common. We were both the kind of people who liked to read that kind of stuff.

A few years ago, Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick published a book, Being Gardner Dozois, in which Michael interviewed Gardner about every story he had ever sold. Gardner couldnít believe anyone would find it interesting but I bought it and read every word.

So hereís my version of the Dozois book, without benefit of interviewer. Iím going to write about some of the stories Iíve sold, as the spirit moves me, and post the results on this website. Iím going to start with my first sale, "Grieve for a Man", which appeared in the August, 1957 issue of a science fiction magazine called Fantastic Universe. The story has never been reprinted, so Iím posting it at the same time I post this essay.

 

My first sale was actually preceded by seven years of effort. I would be giving you a false impression if I talked about the gestation of the story and didnít summarize the efforts that preceded it.

I started thinking about a writing career when I was seven years old. I wrote some kind of a story-- I forgot what-- and my aunt Vincenza Tigna (we always called her Aunt Zena) heard me read it aloud and proclaimed "You should be a writer!"

Looking back, I can now see that my aunt was a young woman in her early twenties who liked to read and had once thought of being a writer herself. Her judgment of my potential was probably no better than the judgment of the thousands of high school English teachers who look at a well written assignment and decide they have a student who could be a literary worldbeater. Still, her words stuck with me. She was, for the next sixty years, the member of my family who had the most interest in my writing career.

I did toy with other ambitions when I was a child. If I didnít become a writer, I figured I could become a forest ranger or an FBI agent. But the idea that I should be a writer never left me. Sometime around my twelfth birthday, I started reading how-to-write books and buying copies of the two writerís magazines that were available in those days: Writerís Digest and The Writer.

Whenever people ask me how they should go about becoming a writer, I always tell them they should go to the library and read all the books on writing that are written by selling writers. Writers will tell you that you canít learn to write by reading books. You can only learn to write by writing. And theyíre right. But I learned that great truth by reading books on how to write.

Over and over again, the selling writers who contributed to the books repeated some variation of the old adage that you can only learn to write by applying the seat of your pants to a chair and writing. They also threw in tips on things like narrative hooks, plot construction, characterization, and the procedure for submitting manuscripts to editors. Some of the best books I read were anthologies, so my reading exposed me to the views of several dozen selling writers.

If I had lived in a major city, I might have learned some of these things by attending writers' conferences or listening to writers give talks. I was living in Riverview, Florida, a town on the outskirts of Tampa, with a population of two thousand.

There was a general agreement that the short story market was the best place to start. Anybody could mail a short story to a magazine and have an editor or first reader give it a look. You didnít need assignments, personal contacts, or a list of credits

We still had a thriving short story market in those days. At the bottom of the market, we had the pulps-- all-fiction magazines, printed on rough paper, with sensational covers, that bought genre fiction at penny a word rates (about fifty dollars for a typical 5,000 word short story). At the top of the market, we had the slicks-- mass market magazines like Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post, printed on slick paper, with millions of readers, that published several short stories every issue, in most of the standard genres, and paid $1000-1500 and up for a short story. In between, there were a few magazines like Argosy and Blue Book that paid in-between rates and bought higher-quality versions of the different action-adventure genres found in the pulps.

In 1949, when I was thirteen, I commandeered my motherís black Underwood portable typewriter and started sending stories into editors. I did exactly what the books on writing said you should do. I wrote a short story, putting it through a couple of drafts, and typed up a final copy in the approved manuscript form. I made up a list of the markets that might buy it, with the best paying market at the top, and mailed it off to the top market with a stamped self-addressed envelope enclosed. When it came back with a rejection slip two weeks later, I recorded the information on my list, and immediately mailed it to the second market.

In the meantime, I had done something else all the books urged you to do. I sat down, as soon as I finished the first story, and started writing my next story. I soon had several manuscripts circulating. Nine-by-twelve manila envelopes, containing rejected manuscripts, appeared in our mail almost every day.

Itís a learning process that requires a kind of double think. On the one hand, you have to understand that you may have to endure years of rejections before you make your first sale. If you donít understand that, youíll give up after your first few failures. On the other hand, you also have to believe that every story you write could be the story that does it. You arenít turning out practice work. Youíre doing the real thing. If you truly feel that way, youíll give every sentence your best shot. And you will slowly get better.

I was now in the eighth grade, which meant I took a bus to a larger school with a well stocked library. One day, while I was exploring the libraryís shelves, I discovered a book on space travel by a German immigrant named Willy Ley. Willy Ley is almost forgotten now but his book went through a long series of editions and retitlings before he died in 1969. He introduced thousands of young minds to the basics of space travel in the years before Sputnik. His book convinced us space travel was possible and his warm, conversational style surrounded it with romance.

A lot of people my age became space enthusiasts because they read science fiction.  In my case, the influence went the other way.  A few months after I read Willy Ley's book, around the time I turned fourteen, I made one of my regular visits to the Tampa public library and picked up the other book that had a major impact on my life. Adventures in Time and Space was the first hard cover collection of modern magazine science fiction-- a cross section of the best stories of the 30ís and 40ís, mostly taken from John W. Campbellís Astounding Science Fiction. When I finished it, I went right down to the local general store and bought my first science fiction magazine.

1950 was a wonderful time to become a science fiction fan.  Science fiction had just entered the first years of a historic boom. Astounding was still in its prime. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction had printed its first issues. The first issue of Galaxy appeared on the stands early that summer.  Major publishers were bringing out books like Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Heinleinís The Green Hills of Earth, along with anthologies that mined more of the wealth produced between 1930 and 1950. Old fashioned pulps like Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories were still churning out flamboyant space opera. New digest-sized magazines were crowding onto the stands.

Most of the stories I wrote after I read Adventures in Time and Space were science fiction stories. My first SF story went to John Campbell and he returned it with a note saying he found it "too familiar" but that he "rather liked your style of writing" and hoped I would try him again. (It was an encouraging gesture but it was also Campbellís standard encouragement letter. My next submission received a printed rejection slip. Three or four stories later, I received another copy, word for word, of his first note.)

My family had moved to Florida when my father retired from the navy after WWII. If nothing had intervened, I would have graduated from Brandon High School in Florida and probably attended a Florida college.

On June 25th, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and President Truman opted for intervention. In October, my father was recalled to active duty. My mother stayed in Florida and I finished the ninth grade at Brandon. Then my father came home and we left Florida for good. When I entered the tenth grade, we were living in chief petty officerís quarters at the Bainbridge Naval Training Station in Maryland, and I was enrolled in a small local high school in Perryville. In September of 1952, at the age of sixteen, I became a freshman engineering student at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

There was a direct connection between the Korean War and my transformation into a premature college student. Truman had reinstituted the draft and the Ford Foundation had funded an experimental program that would let bright students finish two years of college before they reached draft age. There was a lot of overlap between the last two years of high school and the first two years of college, the theory ran. Good students could take most college courses without sitting through the high school versions.

I had opted for engineering because I was interested in space travel. Lafayette had set up a special program for "pre-induction students" who wanted to take engineering and lacked the math and science courses they would have taken during their last two years in high school. We took a course called Foundations of Engineering that drove us through the fundamentals of trig, analytical geometry, differential calculus, and other relevant subjects in two semesters.

My decision to take engineering was a mistake. I was convinced a writer shouldnít major in English literature-- I still feel that way-- but I wasnít cut out for engineering. I liked reading about science and engineering, but I didnít have the drive it takes to study it. If I had been older, with a better understanding of my limits and interests, I probably would have majored in history or political science. In February of 1954, I dropped out of college and proceeded to implement the plan I had been thinking about ever since I had first started writing: get a job, get an apartment of my own, and write in the evenings and on weekends.

 

I had been writing and collecting rejection slips all through the ninth and tenth grade. I had even managed to do some writing during my year and a half at engineering school. Now I settled down to a seven day a week schedule, turning out a thousand words (four double spaced pages) in approximately two hours every day. I finished a story every two or three weeks and submitted every story to twenty markets. I can still remember how I felt when I looked at a rejection slip from the Saturday Evening Post and realized it was a step above the standard rejection slips the Post had been sending me.

After about a year on this regimen, I did something would be writers should never do. I sent a story to a fee-reading agent.

A fee-reading agent is an agent who agrees to look at your manuscript for a fee. He is supposed to criticize your work if he thinks itís unsalable and take it on for marketing if he thinks itís good enough.

Most fee-reading operations are scams. The agent praises the authors, tells them their stuff is being marketed, and lives off the fees. All the books I had read said you should stay away from fee-readers.

However--

I had been looking at the ads in Writerís Digest since I first started submitting. The ads for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency listed a number of new sales every month. They were an active agency and they represented writers I had heard of, like Arthur Clarke and Poul Anderson. I have always believed, furthermore, that you have to pay for things. I would never approach a selling writer and ask him to critique a manuscript, as many would be writers will. I sent Scott Meredith three or four manuscripts with a check that covered the five-dollar-per-story fee.

Scott Meredithís pedagogical approach emphasized the plot skeleton: a sympathetic hero gets in trouble, his attempts to deal with the problem get him into deeper trouble, the situation reaches a climax, and the hero resolves it through his own efforts. Their first letter to me described the plot skeleton and noted that my stories tended to fall apart at the end. The hero didnít overcome in some satisfying way. I was writing "comes to realize" stories, in their opinion. My heroes triumphed when they came to realize something.

The books I had read had taught me a lot about openings. I knew you had to hook the reader and get into the story as quickly as possible. I knew editors normally only read the first two pages when they looked at slush pile submissions. I hadnít applied the same rigor to my endings. The plot skeleton isnít the only pattern a salable story can follow, but itís a good one. Scott Meredith gave me the advice I needed at that point. They didnít hand out false encouragement either. I sent them several stories over the next few months and they took my money, told me what I was doing wrong, and returned the manuscripts.

Then they let me know they were experimenting with a new program called Personal Collaboration. Under the PC program, you sent them several brief story ideas, and they critiqued the ideas, told you if they thought any of them were worth developing, and worked with you from first draft to finished product if any were. PC cost twenty-five dollars per month and you signed up for three months at a time. The amount of writing you did was up to you. They would respond to everything you sent them.

I worked with the PC program for six months. I finished ten stories to their satisfaction and they took them on for marketing. "Grieve for a Man" was the first story I wrote after I finished my PC period.

 

I was working for a company called Aero Service that did aerial surveying. I worked with a big mechanical desk calculator, doing calculations that adjusted the raw data from the aerial surveys. A friend of mine who worked for Aero Service had put me onto the job. One day I stopped by his office and we started talking about bullfighting.

I was a big Hemingway fan. Like a lot of people, I had been captivated by the way Hemingway wrote about the aesthetics of bullfighting and used it as a metaphor for art. My friend criticized bullfighting on the usual grounds most civilized people raise when they assail it and I defended it by referring to Hemingwayís aesthetic ideas. (I had never actually seen a bullfight, of course. And still havenít.)

My memory of the conversation is a little vague, but I believe Rinehart argued that if bullfighting really was mostly a matter of aesthetics, you could do it with robots. I responded, as I remember it, with Hemingwayís idea that the bullfighterís actions were aesthetically moving because he performed them in the presence of danger. Bullfighting was actually an affirmation of the value of human life, I argued. If you didnít value human life, you wouldnít care if the bullfighter lived or died.

Rinehart smiled. He knew lots of people, he said, who would be more upset if you wrecked their car.

And that sparked an idea: a future in which human matadors had been replaced by robots because people really did find the robot more exciting. I started thinking about it while I was talking to Rinehart and kept on thinking about it after I left him.

The story, I decided, would be a variation on the John Henry, man vs. machine theme. The audience preferred to watch the robot for two reasons: it was better than any human could be and they felt that something they had made was more valuable than the creature that made it. The hero would be a matador who would challenge that idea by competing with the robot mano a mano.

In the standard man to man, matador to matador contest the two matadors take turns. I decided I needed something more dramatic. At the end of the story, a standard science fiction gadget, a force field, would divide the arena in half. The matador and the robot would fight in separate halves at the same time, with the matador directly competing for the audienceís attention.

The spine of the story would be a series of failures.  The matador would try to affect the audience's emotions, the audience wouldn't respond, and the matador would resort to increasingly dangerous maneuvers.  At the climax, he would adopt the ultimate tactic. He would let the bull kill him. He and the robot would both be destroyed at the same time and he would look around, as he died, to see who the people were watching.

I wrote the story in about three weeks and sent it off to Scott Meredith with a fee-reading check. They accepted it for marketing and I started working on other stories.

 

In February of 1957 I came home from work and found one of Scott Meredithís undersized, yellowish envelopes in my mail. The agency always had its employees correspond on note-size paper-- presumably to encourage them to write short letters. This one advised me they had sold my story "Grieve for a Man" to a magazine called Fantastic Universe. The magazine paid on publication so it would be awhile before I would get the check, but they assured me this was a definite sale.

This is your first sale, isnít it? the letter ended. Congratulations!

At that time, the SF magazine field was divided into the Big Three-- Astounding, Galaxy, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction-- and All the Rest. The science fiction boom of the fifties was approaching its end but many of the magazines it had generated were still hanging on. Fantastic Universe was a strong contender for fourth place.

My first impulse was to act very professional and put in my nightly writing stint. Then I decided that was silly. This was, after all, a major event in my life. I bought two bottles of Moselle and indulged in a mild celebration with some friends of mine who lived in West Philadelphia. It was a nice evening but I returned home feeling I was having an unshareable experience.

Itís very hard for non-writers to understand exactly what my kind of first sale means to a writer. In the eyes of one group, you have become a "published writer"-- an awesome status that somehow sets you apart from ordinary unpublished human beings. In the eyes of another group, the check looks small, the publication is obscure, and there is no indication you have anything in common with real writers like William Faulkner or Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I eventually dealt with my feelings by writing a short poem that made one last use of the aesthetics of the bullring. A young matador has just killed his first bull. He thinks of the future, of the possibility he will someday join the greats like Manolete and Belmonte. Then he finishes

To know that you are good enough to be in the ring

For me, for now, that is enough

 

I consider "Grieve for a Man" my first sale. It was actually the first sale I heard about. A few days after the August issue of Fantastic Universe reached the newsstands, I attended a meeting of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. My friend George Heap was kind enough to announce that the society had a new writer in its ranks.

George and I were both dumbfounded when he told the society I was starting my career with two stories in the same month. He didnít know I didnít know I had a story in the August issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. The PSFS members all laughed when I got up from my seat, left the meeting, and hurried down the street to the corner news stand. I wrote Scott Meredith the next day, they told me they had seen the second story, too, and a few days later I received my second check.

"A Matter of Privacy" was one of the stories Scott Meredith accepted for marketing during my PC period-- the only one that ever sold. A secret agent named Conrad is supposed to kill a courier. They are traveling from Ganymede to Earth in a small spaceship with four or five other men and no privacy. In the end, Conrad knifes the courier after they disembark, as they are both moving through the safest environment he has found-- the crowd at the spaceport.

The interplanetary war in the story was inspired by an Arthur Clarke story that referred to the Jovian War and gave me the impression it bore a general resemblance to the Boer War. I got the assassination technique from a book on hand to hand combat that claimed it was used by the French resistance in WWII. The assassin would walk past the victim with a knife held flat against the inside of his arm, strike a backward blow as he passed, and fade into the crowd without breaking his stride.

Aspiring writers often fret about the possibility an editor will steal one of their stories. Old Hands always tell them itís a remote danger. In this case, I suspect some undercompensated staffer made a mistake or the publisher was trying to put off payment as long as legally possible. Science Fiction Quarterly was a low paying pulp edited by Robert Lowndes-- an editor with real potential who never managed to work for a magazine that had a decent budget. Anybody with a modest knowledge of the science fiction community would know its network of clubs and other contacts would eventually bring a publication to the authorís attention.

 

That November, at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference, I had a brief talk with Hans Santesson, the editor who had bought "Grieve for a Man". Hans felt the story was poorly constructed. There had never been a moment, he pointed out, when it looked like there was any possibility the hero could prevail. But he had bought it anyway.

Most of the science fiction stories I had been submitting had been human interest stories set in the kind of interplanetary background Heinlein had created for his Future History stories. They reflected my passionate interest in space travel. "Grieve for a Man" had a more original science fictional idea at its core. So did the other stories I sold over the next two years. I realized that at some point and kept it in mind.

 

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Copyright 2005 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.

When I was Writing: Installment Two When I was Writing: Installment Three

When I was Writing: Installment Four

When I was Writing: Installment Five

When I was Writing: Installment Six

When I was Writing: Installment Seven

When I was Writing: Installment Eight

When I was Writing: Installment Nine

When I was Writing: Installment Ten

Grieve for a Man (complete text)


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