Shannon Page is putting a book together covering different writers’ “paths to publication” and I told her — I’ve got one!
If you’ve read my essays about the Writers of the Future Contest, you’ll recognize parts of this story, but I tell the complete tale here for the first time!
I didn’t change any of “Jonny Punkinhead,” my first professional science fiction sale, which appeared in the “New Writers” issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1996. Yes – here it is – the infamous “Nazi Clown” issue. The painting is by my now-friend Kent Bash, who also did the cover for “Chromosome Circus” – somewhat of a sequel to “Jonny” (a much nicer clown!).
So here is a draft of my “Path to Publication” …
My path to publication would have been very different, and may never have happened, if I hadn’t entered the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest between 1995 and 1998. Eventually, I ended up winning two prizes and attending the Writers of the Future events in Hollywood in 1998 and 1999. But my first professional publication wasn’t a story entered in the contest, it came as a result of it, especially help from the head judge: Dave Wolverton (who also writes fantasy novels as David Farland). Another judge of this contest, Kathy Wentworth, was a writer and editor beloved by many. Kathy suffered from cancer and died in 2012. At that time, Dave Wolverton returned as the head judge, so he is also currently the judge of this contest, which continues to help new and aspiring writers and artists.
Back in those long-ago days, we still sent work in the mail, whether on submission to a print publisher, or to a contest like Writers of the Future. The idea of “simultaneous submissions” was very important. Most publications didn’t want them. What if you sent a physical story to six different publications, and more than one of them agreed to publish the work? You ran the risk of “being banned” if editors learned you were trying to save time and postage by taking a “simultaneous submission” shortcut.
The preferred method was to laboriously put the printed story in a manila envelope and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the response – you could either include a large manila envelope in which the editor could return the actual manuscript, or a small, regular white envelope, which would be big enough for a form letter response. The understanding with the small envelope was that the editor could throw away or recycle the manuscript you had sent and just return a note or form letter.
Think about the cost in time, effort, postage and paper!
So, why was I doing this? Starting in Junior High, I had the crazy idea I “wanted to be a science fiction writer.” By the time I was in college, I read an article in Asimov’s Magazine urging young writers to apply to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop – at the time held at Michigan State University. I completed a storylike document by mixing and matching what I understood (not very much!) of a literary story by the well-known author Paul Bowles with the plot of one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. I sent this thing to the workshop and they let me in!
Many of the others at the Clarion Workshop were writing fantasy or horror, so I decided, “I want to be a horror writer!” Stephen King was very popular at the time – it seemed like the thing to do. This outstanding thought process resulted in my “Pudding I left in the refrigerator came alive and ate everyone!” phase. One of my Clarion classmates convinced me to send my stories to the high-paying, and to me – very intimidating – Twilight Zone magazine. I sent three stories to them. I also sent several others to less-intimidating, low paying publications and all were rejected. Considering these tales were mostly about deadly pudding, I can’t blame these editors. I got used to seeing a big manila envelope in the mailbox that I had addressed to myself. Rejection, rejection, rejection.
Because I knew no other writers to talk to after Clarion, I didn’t know that I was “getting close” and receiving personal rejections even for malevolent pudding tales – so when I got a rejection card from Twilight Zone editor Alan Rodgers*, I decided, “You don’t have what it takes, Amy – just forget about it. Devote your time to a real paying job and your family.”
I quit writing for eight years.
After my daughter Meredith was born, her father Mike encouraged me to start writing again since it seemed like my life was consumed 100% by our daughter, my ailing father and grandmother, and job/household duties. I needed something to take my mind off of these heavy responsibilities. Mike reminded me, “Didn’t you want to be a science fiction writer?”
“Yes,” I told him – that was true. I had and did.
Mike pulled out some of his old paperbacks, including Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven. As I read, I realized I remembered reading most, if not all, of these stories from the old days. I discovered the ability to complete an actual story text – and I didn’t have to combine a literary writer’s tale with Star Trek, either. I plugged along, writing from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m. before it was time to take Meredith to school.
Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. 42 of them. But they were “personal” – i.e. written notes from various editors. I knew enough by this time to know that this meant my work wasn’t completely abominable.
I also learned about the Writers of the Future Contest, and the prizes looked great. A lot of writers I respected and admired were either judges, or had won the contest. So I developed a policy: I’d send a story to all the high-paying professional sci-fi markets in order of which ones I thought had the best potential of buying it. If, by the end of this laborious procedure, the story still hadn’t sold – then I’d enter it in the contest.
The first story that fit in this category was “Jonny Punkinhead.” This story is also my first professional science fiction and fantasy sale. It appeared in the “New Writers Issue” of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in June, 1996.
When I finished “Jonny Punkinhead” in early 1995, I knew that I’d “done something.” From what I could determine at that time, it was “publishable.” Inside, I knew that I’d done the very best that I could do. Through this story, I began to learn what I was really good at as a writer. It was about a subject very close to my heart: inspired by the homeless, desperately poor children I worked with through my day job at that time — the director of a charity devoted to helping people in need. I invented the idea of “changed children,” and did much research on slow viruses and genetic mutations to come up with a scenario by which such a disaster might occur. I left all of this “background information” out of the story and instead wrote about what might happen if somebody . . . oh, somebody like me . . . had to try to take care of these kids who were throwaways — the unwanted, the unloved, the bizarre. Kids with heads like pumpkins and three eyes. Kids like “Jonny Punkinhead.”
For reasons that are clear to me today (but unclear to me at the time) I made the protagonist a male doctor – Dr. Hedrick Arlan. But at the time, I didn’t really understand what I was doing although I knew the doctor’s problems with “taking his job home” were similar to challenges I also faced in my real-world job with homeless, very low-income people.
I put “Jonny Punkinhead” in a big manila envelope, along with a self-addressed, folded large manila envelope for its return, and sent it out (one at a time) to every reputable science fiction and fantasy magazine that existed at that time. Guess what happened?
Yeah – same as the Malevolent Pudding stories. Two of the editors, who shall forever remain nameless, actually used these words: “This is an award quality story, but . . .”
But – they still rejected it.
“Jonny” was rejected by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, at that time, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
After all these rejections, I entered it in the Writers of the Future contest. One day, I went to the mailbox and here was another big manila envelope. I trudged back inside and put the envelope on the kitchen counter. I figured, “Another rejection.” The same thoughts I’d had eight years before flooded my mind. “Just quit. You’re no good. You’ll never sell a story.”
I cleaned the kitchen before opening the envelope, quickly recognizing “Jonny Punkinhead.”
Then a letter fell out. It was pretty long—several pages and typed, single-spaced!
The letter was from Dave Wolverton, head contest judge. “Fred Pohl and I both thought that this was the first prize winner,” he wrote. Dave went on to discuss my story in detail, my writing in detail, and by the time I finished, I could hardly breathe. Even then, though, I was still thinking, “You didn’t win anything and they’re sending the story back, unpublished.”
Dave said that the story was “publishable.” That was great! He urged me to send it to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, where he felt it would be a “good fit.”
He had no way to know that the story had already been sent to that magazine and rejected.
Keep in mind this was before regular use of the internet and I didn’t know what to do. How could I send a story “back” that had already been rejected even if Dave Wolverton said it was good and right for the publication? Then I read Fred Pohl’s letter. You may not know who Fred Pohl is, but if you love science fiction, he was the author of The Space Merchants, Man Plus, and the Gateway novels. He was also the editor of Galaxy magazine, and considered to be the best editor in the field for many years. As I read this letter, I knew that Fred Pohl had picked a number of incredibly successful, wonderful writers of short science fiction out of his editorial “slush pile.” Among them, he had “discovered” Cordwainer Smith — and as far as I was concerned, Cordwainer Smith (real name: Paul Linebarger) was a genius.
Fred Pohl’s letter was much shorter than Dave Wolverton’s, but he said, “Being able to read stories like this is why I have continued to judge this contest over the years.” He called my story “award-quality” and my writing “beautiful,” and I believed him. That was when I decided not to quit.
As far as my “but the story was already rejected” dilemma, I wrote Dave Wolverton back. Following his guidance, I put the story back in an envelope, wrote a new cover letter that said, “Dave Wolverton suggested I send this to you,” and sent “Jonny Punkinhead” back to the editor Kristine Rusch at the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Honestly, I didn’t change a word though the cover letter probably said “I revised this with Dave’s advice” (in fact, I’m certain I said that – he told me to!).
And this time, she bought it.
I kept writing. It took me a long time — two years, probably — to recapture the feeling I had when I wrote “Jonny Punkinhead.” I wrote competent, even moving stories in the meantime. But stories like “Jonny” don’t come every day. Stories like that come from heartfelt honesty, caring, and sincerity. How many words had I written before I wrote “Jonny?” I’m not sure. It wasn’t the “million words” that I heard bestselling author Harry Turtledove speak of — he said that writers had to write “a million words” before they became publishable, professional writers. I racked up a total of eighty rejections before my next professional sale.
No one can take “Jonny Punkinhead” from me, or tell me that he’s “not a winner,” because I know that little boy is a winner, even if he lost hope in his own story. Even if he smashed his own head against the wall just the way I wanted to do back then.
My grandfather always told me, “You have to take the bad with the good.” When I was growing up and reading science fiction, my ultimate dream was to be a part of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which was the place where all the writers I most loved and admired published their work. Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Daniel Keyes, Walter M. Miller. Writers like that. My writing has been sandwiched in issues between writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Joyce Carol Oates. That’s not “the bad.” That’s “the good.”
And that *asterisk? *Alan Rodgers, the Twilight Zone editor? I met him in 1998, not realizing who he was until quite a while after he and I had fallen in love. We were either a couple, or very close friends, until his untimely death after a series of strokes in 2014. I had kept the little card he’d sent as a rejection – the one that convinced me to quit writing way back when.
When I showed it to him and told him the story of how the terse, small card had inspired me to quit, he said “Amy, I only wrote 6 or 7 of those the whole time I was at Twilight Zone. That was meant to encourage you.
If you had sent another story as good as that one, I probably would have bought it!”