This is the last in a series of three posts, discussing rejections I received from science fiction magazines years ago for stories I wrote in high school and college. My prior posts are here and here.
My most recent rejection slips are also in the file, both from Aboriginal Science Fiction. I didn’t make notes on these, and I didn’t save a copy of my cover letters, so I can only estimate when these stories were submitted and rejected. Based on the address I used on the cover sheet, I would have written these stories during my senior year of college or the year after, between October, 1990 and June, 1992. I wrote these stories (“Return of the Chicago Tribune” and “Encounter in a Bar”) on my first real computer, a Mac SE with 1Mb RAM and a 20Mb hard drive. I printed them either at the University’s main computer center or at Kinko’s — I didn’t own a printer at that point — which means I saved it onto a floppy disk and walked the disk over to USite or Kinko’s, probably late at night. Here are the rejections (the first is for “Return of the Chicago Tribune”):
Just following the checked off categories of badness, “Return of the Chicago Tribune” was too expository (I told, instead of showing), the characters weren’t alive and/or were too bland, and the plot wasn’t strong enough. I flipped through the ms, and I agree with all of those. Plus, the whole idea (involving the 1948 Chicago Tribune edition with the “Dewey Beats Truman” headline) was pretty bad. At least by the time I wrote this story (age 21 or 22), I had started to gain some historical perspective; after three or four years of college, I had learned something, which I think must be helpful even for fiction writers — you can’t make up everything.
The next one is for “Encounter in a Bar,” which I wrote around the same time:
“Encounter in a Bar” had all of the same problems as “Return of the Chicago Tribune,” according to the editor who rejected it, and one more: the underlying idea had been used so often as to have become a cliche. At least it was a different cliche than the one that made up the plot of my first attempt at publication, “The Laws of Chaos.” I didn’t have to read “Encounter in a Bar” to remember the plot; it all came back to me as soon as I saw the title. I am happy to share it with you, because this blog is anonymous: the main character is in a bar, meets a guy, who puts to him the time traveler’s classic dilemma — if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, preventing the Holocaust and World War II, would you? The main character says of course, and the other guy pulls out a gun and blows him away, because it turns out that he actually is a time traveler, and the main character would, in a few years, get elected president and start a horrible global thermonuclear war. The end.
Like the idea? It’s yours. I’d tell you not to submit it to Aboriginal Science Fiction, but it’s gone now. Wikipedia describes it (at least today) as “a high-circulation semi-professional science fiction magazine,” and that it ran from 1986 through 2001, which is consistent with what I remember. Whatever the former editor, Charles C. Ryan, is doing now, I owe him a debt of gratitude. The checklist may come off as a little impersonal, but the guy took the time to handwrite my name at the top, check the boxes he thought applied to my story, and sign his own name at the bottom. Even if he just had an intern do it, I had no idea; it just meant a lot to me at the time that someone in the business was giving me real feedback.
I have a lot of trouble remembering the process of writing from that far back; was it easy? was it hard? did the ideas flow, or was every paragraph like pulling teeth? I have no idea. Based on the brevity of the stories, it looks like my main concern was getting out of the chair as quickly as I could.
What I do know just from looking at the hard copies is that in just those 5-7 years from “The Laws of Chaos” to “Encounter in a Bar,” the speed at which I could have been writing would have changed significantly, because once I moved to the Mac, I didn’t have to load up a new piece of paper every 300 words. The physical process of writing, if nothing else, had become much simpler.
So why did I stop? I didn’t, entirely. I also found, stuck in the same file with all of my rejected science fiction stories, the never-completed draft of my first attempt at a novel. It was a coming of age story set, unsurprisingly, in Hyde Park, with a first person main character who had just graduated from college and couldn’t find a job — strikingly similar to my own situation at the moment I started the novel, except that to add to the main character’s misery, he didn’t have a girlfriend, while I was living with the future Mrs. Unfocused in a little basement apartment an easy walk from the lake. I stopped writing science fiction stories because I thought I should be working on the novel, and I stopped writing the novel because I was so undisciplined that by the time I got 75 pages into it, I had finished my first year of law school and the story of this lazy, self-pitying kid no longer interested me.
I’ll end this series of posts in the next couple of days with some thoughts about what I’ve learned from this little trip down memory lane.
In the meantime, I made good progress yesterday in Meet the Larssons, 2450 words. I’ve brought my MacBook on the train the last couple of days, which has let me write around 450 words each day just during my commute (I have a short train ride, and don’t always get a seat in the morning), which has been helpful, too. I took advantage of the warm weather this morning and went for my first outdoor run in weeks — it was gray, and the sun wasn’t entirely up yet, but still, it was great. All in all, a pretty good couple of days.
Now it’s back to the election coverage. Unfocused Girl is rooting for Hillary, but will be happy enough if Barack does well, since he’s from Chicago, too. Junior doesn’t have an opinion, except that he likes to say “Baaaaa-rock.”
On the plus side, at least they didn’t think your stories were written in Alpha Centaurian. I wonder how often they had that problem.
I assume that if they added it to the list, it must’ve happened at least once.
On the scale of rejection letters, you’re right. If you got a personal notation and a request to try again, that’s head and shoulders above the usual. You can clearly write, seeing your blog. Keep at it!