Thirty-five years ago tonight, I achieved my first professional sale in science fiction–a short called “The Inevitable Conclusion,” to Amazing Stories, for $50.
In those days Amazing sent out the acceptance, the one-page contract, and the check all together. February 23, 1979 was a Friday. I was still teaching science at Heritage Middle School in Middlebury, and that particular Friday I stayed on the hilltop campus to go to that evening’s Northridge High School basketball game. My first wife, Karla Kube, had stopped home before joining me there, and so was the one to find the envelope from Amazing in the day’s mail.
Karla had become well aware of the 3rd Law of Freelance Writing (“Big yellow envelopes bad news, little white envelopes good news”) and so brought the little white envelope to me. She found me sitting in the sparsely-occupied stands watching the JV game, and it was there that I opened it and learned which of my goals I’d achieved.
You see, I’d started sending out my stories as a high schooler in Camden NJ, back when Ed Ferman sent out rejections typed on the back of the covers of back issues of F&SF.
I took a second run at it as an undergrad in East Lansing, trying to find someone who would look at my (trunk) novel THE OPEN FACE OF HEAVEN. No luck that time, either.
A few years later, I steeled myself to try again, this time as a putative adult living in Goshen, Indiana, and teaching middle school science in a neighboring town. I told myself I wouldn’t stop until one of two things happened: either I became a professional SF writer, or I amassed the world’s largest collection of rejection slips (Guinness certified, of course).
Thank goodness, it was the former. Karla and I made a minor spectacle of ourselves celebrating in the stands, whatever noises we were making completely inappropriate for what was happening on the court at the moment.
But I held onto the rejection slips, just in case the sale turned out to be a fluke.
It wasn’t. I’ve sold almost two million words of fiction, a few hundred thousand more of nonfiction, seen my name on bestseller lists and my ideas in foreign languages, enjoyed a little con limelight, collaborated with Sir Arthur Clarke, added a few notes to the STAR WARS canon. I really can’t complain.
And Northridge even won their game that night, 35 years ago.
But I still have every rejection slip I’ve ever earned, from before and after that date. A certain amount of philosophical humility, having to do with the things you can control and the things you can’t, is a useful tool for a writer.
I’ve been thinking about this anniversary for the last month or so, trying to decide how (if at all) I was going to observe it. This occasioned a fair bit of introspection and reflection about those 35 years, the emotional content of which departed about +2 to -7 from equilibrium. The reactions to the Con Scrapbook photos I’ve been posting this week played into that as well.
So did a private FB message I received this week from an editor I’d been friendly with Back In The Day: “I have wondered for years what ever happened to you; you seemed to have dropped out of sight of the science-fictional community a long while ago. I hope all goes well.”
Well, it’s a fair question.
Of course, it hasn’t all been going well, or I wouldn’t have arrived here. The digest version: My father was killed under circumstances which shattered what was left of my not terribly healthy birth family. I held it together long enough to complete VECTORS, then spiraled down into depression. Other unexpected challenges arrived in their turn.
Those at least presented me with an opportunity to occupy myself taking care of people I love–even if I still couldn’t quite seem to muster any enthusiasm for taking care of myself.
An intervention by two people who love me changed my trajectory from sharply down to slightly up. Even so, a dozen unproductive years have now somehow slipped by. I fight for equilibrium every day. The other responsibilities I’ve taken on are still Job One. And I haven’t yet (re)learned how to stake a claim for the time and quiet I need to be creative.
What I want to do to observe this very personal anniversary is to say in public: I’m not finished yet.
Over the next few months, I’m going to take steps to try to find and reconnect with my readers, so I can ask them if they’d like some more. (You can help with that, and I’d be grateful if you would.)
I’m going to pursue getting all the pieces of my backlist which I control back into ‘print’ electronically.
As part of that, I’m going to put together a collection of my best short fiction, and then spoil it by including one or two previously unpublished stories which I liked better than any editor did.
I’m going to look for a way to make available the nice, fresh first editions and first printings of my novels that I set aside as they were published.
I think I can do all of this under the status quo–a status quo which already stands to change dramatically this fall, when my high schoolers turn into collegians.
But I intend for all of this to just be a prelude to a bigger announcement next August, which will be the anniversary of that issue of AMAZING hitting the stands. An announcement which–dog willing and the creek don’t rise–might even include the future of F*******S.
In short, it’s time to start writing myself a third act. To embrace the coming change, to be prepared enough to invite a little luck, to ask for help from my allies and support from my readers, and most of all to feel the sharp poke in my side that will come from having said all this publicly.
I hope you’ll stick around to see how it all plays out.
Formerly and still,
Michael P. Kube-McDowell
P.S. I’d be grateful right out of the gate for your help finding more of my past and future readers. If you Like/Follow my Page, or Share this post, or in any other way raise the bandwidth, you can help build momentum for my endeavor. In this brave new world where commercial publishers expect vastly more self-promotion from their authors (I hear of first-time novelists expected to have 5000 Twitter followers just to get out of the slush pile), I need all the friends I can get.