I mentioned in my last post that a writer’s first publication is an incredible moment. As someone who writes both in the academic sphere and the fiction sphere, I can honestly say that the fiction sales are especially wondrous. Academic writing — at least for me — is professional. It’s business. But fiction writing … well, that’s personal.
My own first fiction sale was to Black Gate Magazine. I’d been writing fiction for years, but I’d never really thought seriously about what to do with it. I didn’t know how one managed to get published, and I was highly uncertain whether my work was even remotely publishable.
The shift toward seriousness — in the sense of thinking about submitting my work for publication — really started in the course of my second Master’s degree. I was in my first or second semester at the University of Rochester, and one of my classmates happened to be a fellow named Fred. He was (and is) an awesome and rather brilliant dude. I like to think I’m a fairly clever fellow, but Fred puts me to shame. A group of us would go to this wonderful pub in Rochester, the Old Toad, for beer, food, and fellowship, and one of the weekly events was a trivia night. I’d always thought I was the king of such things, but Fred convinced me I was more the prince to his grand crown. Just brilliant.
He was also at that time, interestingly, associated with Strange Horizons, an online “magazine” of speculative fiction that was still pretty new at that point. We got to talking, he graciously agreed to read some of my work, and ultimately, over a couple pints of beer at the Toad on a November evening in 2003, he suggested that I should try publishing it. When I asked how to even start doing such a thing, he told me about the one website every aspiring spec-fic writer should know: www.ralan.com.
So, late that night, I got on the computer and poked around Ralan’s enormously helpful site. I had two stories in particular that I thought were pretty good: a 14,000-word Science Fiction piece, called “The Keeper Alone,” and a 12,000-word Historical Fantasy retelling of Beowulf called “Penance” (a title later changed to “The Song of Beowulf” before being published as “The Hand that Binds”). Those word counts automatically cut me out of the vast majority of markets that I found, and of the two I decided that “Penance” was the stronger. Looking through Ralan’s site, it seemed like it might fit Black Gate Magazine, so I figured I ought to check the magazine out since Fred (sagely) told me that reading a magazine can give you an idea what they might buy. As I recall, it was the next evening that Sherry and I trundled off to the big Barnes and Noble in Rochester, where I got a chance to look at the magazine in the flesh. Not only did the magazine look nice, it seemed like the sort of place that might like my work. So I bundled up “Penance” and sent it away: my first short story submission.
I turned then to polishing up “The Keeper Alone,” figuring that if I didn’t work on something else I’d just dwell on the fate of my submission to Black Gate. When I thought it was decent, I stumbled back through Ralan’s site and happened to discover the Writers of the Future Contest (WotF), which I’d never heard about before (like I said, I didn’t know anything!). It was free to enter, had judges I recognized, and winning meant a substantial check. Plus, it accepted long works. Off it went.
Weeks later, I was downstairs doing something — watching ESPN, I imagine — when Sherry went upstairs to check email on the computer. A few minutes after she was gone, she called me upstairs, her voice quavering. I rushed up, concerned that something terrible had happened. When I got to the office, she was sitting at the computer, her eyes wet but a most wondrous smile on her face. I can’t remember if she said anything in those initial moments, but I do remember walking up and reading the words on the screen, in which the editor/publisher of Black Gate, John O’Neill, said he loved my story and wanted to buy it and print it.
I gasped out something about whether this was real. Sherry said it was. She started to cry. I staggered backward in my shock, trying to process the moment. By the time my back ran into the wall, I was tearing up, too. I remember looking around the office at my shelves and piles of books and having this strange, sudden feeling of connection to them. No, I’d never be as good as this writer, or that writer, but I was, in that special moment, a writer. A kind of glorious joy overtook me, and I smiled.