Reflections on the Writing Life

From the time I was very small, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I first started writing down my stories when I was in grade school. However almost all those first stories have since been lost. Only when I was in junior high and high school did I start carrying my stories everywhere with me and kept them in a folder so that they wouldn't end up in a trash can somewhere because they'd gone astray and the finder didn't see any value in them.

When I was a senior in high school, I took a creative writing course. One of the stories I wrote for that class was "The Day There Was No Bad News, a humorous piece with a Russian protagonist. Although the writing is a little crude and shows the worldview of a teenager, it was oddly prophetic of the coming rapproachment between the US and the now-fallen Soviet Union.

When I was a freshman in college, I took one college-level creative writing course. However, I soon discovered that the instructor considered science fiction and fantasy a waste of time. He wanted me to write "serious" fiction, by which he meant stories set firmly in the mundane world. I found writing such stories too boring for words, but since I needed a decent grade to avoid trashing my GPA, I decided Moscow would be a sufficiently exotic setting to satisfy me while being sufficiently here-and-now to satisfy him, and wrote Leading a Double Life. Because of the pressures of getting all my required coursework done on time, I didn't take another course, although I continued writing and rewriting my stories as best I could on my own. And I dutifully sent stuff out to various magazines, mostly sf and fantasy genre. However, try as I might, I couldn't ever seem to get anyone to like anything I wrote well enough to actually buy it.

In my senior year I finally discovered my first writers' workshop, the old by-mail Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop which was run by Kathleen D. Woodbury. It gave me an opportunity to correspond with other aspiring writers, although the lag time as letters and critiques wended their way through the postal system was often frustrating. The monthly newsletter published a number of my articles over the years, beginning a pattern of getting far greater success as a writer of non-fiction than of the fiction I really enjoyed. I also made a number of friends, many of whom I still correspond with.

In the early 1990's I got my first computer and modem and finally got online. I started out in the old GEnie Science Fiction Round Table topics, where I discovered the joys of online workshopping. No more waiting weeks or even months to hear back on story critiques, not to mention being able to correspond on a nightly basis on the forums with all the friends I made there.

This was also the period in which I finally began to see some tangible success in the form of sales. The magazines in which I placed those early stories were obscure and the payments correspondingly small, but even those small triumphs were a welcome change from the continual stream of rejections.

However, as things so often seem to go, it soon proved to be two steps forward and one step backward. During this time I also had pro-level publication come into my reach only to be snatched away not once, but twice. This sharp disappointment is why I tend to get very annoyed with people who trivialize white-collar crime. It may not be as up-close and personal scary as street crime, but it still hurts when your dreams get dashed because some embezzler destroyed the company that was going to make them possible.

When I went back to graduate school in 1994, I was finally able to gain access to the broader Internet through the university. During this time I joined several other online critique groups, getting new perspectives on my writing. As the middle of the 1990's was also the period in which the Internet went from being mostly an educational and scientific realm to a general cultural phenomenon, I was able to get critiques from a wide variety of people in all walks of life.

It was also the period in which the World Wide Web really took off. In 1996 I put up my first website on Tripod, one of the many free webhosting services that appeared at the time. Learning HTML seemed daunting at first, but I soon got the hang of it and was able to put up a wide variety of material, including some of my first published stories.

During the 1990's I sold several stories to the first generation of Web-based zines. However, I soon discovered that many of them were of decidedly uncertain quality. Some vanished without ever publishing my stories, and at least one of them published my work but never got around to paying me.

However, 1998 was also when I got my first lead on writing for ready-reference publishers. The money was sufficiently good compared to the various publications I'd been selling my fiction to that I was more than glad to work for them.

As the 1990's gave way to the 2000's, things actually seemed to be looking up for me. I finally got a SFWA-qualifying story sale that didn't disappear into the mist: "Spiral Horn, Spiral Tusk" to Beyond the Last Star: Stories from the Next Beginning, the last SFF-net anthology. With SFWA membership, even if only at the Associate level, I thought sure the doors would start opening for me, that I'd finally get a chance at all those wonderful invitation-only anthologies I was always hearing about, and even finally sell one of my many novels.

I was also getting more article commissions, including ones form the more prestigious reference publishers. Librarians actually recognized my name from having directed patrons to articles I'd written.

However, the problem of two steps forward and one step back was never far away. The anthology of stories in John Ringo's Posleen War universe fell through, so my novella "Food Will Win This War" never went beyond the teaser on the CD-ROM that came out with the hardcover release of Hell's Faire.

Then I went through a series of financial reverses that made it necessary to take on more and more non-fiction projects, leaving me with very little time for fiction. Try as I might, I couldn't find the upward path from the pennies-a-word ready-reference assignments to higher-paying technical writing work. As I tried to make up the financial gap by taking on more and more low-paying gigs, I finally burned out completely. It was one of the most frightening experiences in my life, to be literally unable to make my mind address itself to the subject at hand, no matter how hard I applied willpower. I'd just sit there at the computer, staring at the screen, willing the words to come, and they Just Wouldn't.

Finally, unable to get any more article assignments at all, I turned to creating AdSense websites in hopes of bringing in some more money. I could work at my own pace, with no hard deadlines looming over me. If I became weary of writing about one subject, I could shift to another that was of more interest to me without penalty. However, that netted me the merest trickle of income, nothing like the stuff people were talking about in the articles that touted AdSense as a path to easy income.

But most importantly, I got back to fiction writing in a serious way. I got stories back out to markets after two years of being too overwhelmed to do anything more than send stuff to a few top-level markets. A lot of the older stories needed some major rewriting, a task that had to compete for my limited writing time with new stories.

However, sending them out soon proved to be another exercise in frustration. After having gotten to the point in the early 2000's where I was generally getting personalized rejections on a regular basis, getting nothing but form rejects (if that -- some places don't even respond if they're not buying) made me wonder if all my perceived improvement in writing ability might be naught but an illusion.

There were some bright spots here and there. My story in progress "The Hedgehog's Daughter" was mentioned in the translator's notes for Vasili Grossman's The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays (New York Review Books Classics). I also sold a few flash fiction pieces, and then some stories to anthologies.

During this period, the indie market began to really open up. However, after decades of being told that submission to traditional publishers was the only route to professional publication, that self-publishing was vanity publishing and the mark of a loser, I was hesitant. Only when my brother told me about his success serializing a story at JukePop Publishing did I finally decide to take a chance.

I got a rather lukewarm reception with A Separate War, a story from my Gus on the Moon timeline. I tried another story, but it got even less interest, so when the storyline got stuck, I really didn't have the interest to unstick it right then.

At the same time, several other people were reporting good results with Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing program. So I decided to try it. I've put up two novels, a non-fiction book, and numerous shorter works of fiction. Sales have been a slow drip, a few dollars a month, so I've continued to submit stories to magazine and anthology markets, since even the occasional anthology sale has netted me more than all my KDP earnings to date.

But I'm always aware of how easily progress can come crashing to a halt. I can see the storm clouds on the horizon, the possibility that this respite could suddenly end and leave me stuck back in the nightmare of toiling day and night over gritted teeth for paltry wages, with nary a moment to even jot down the ideas filling my head. So I try to get as much written as I can while the good times last, but know that they could easily vanish with the next major setback.

Last updated March 6, 2017.