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Getting Published: Spell-work or Spade-work?

Casting a spell

There are two questions that writers invariably get: ”Where do you get your ideas?” and ”How did you get published?”

This second question is often asked by aspiring writers looking for a shortcut to success. Indeed, after my first book was published I was ”courted” by a series of aspiring writers who were certain that I knew some secret that, if I would only impart it to them, would get them published, too.

One of these was a doctor who had written a series of interesting vignettes that were wonderful story building blocks, but only suggested a coherent story. He had talent, though raw, and hadn’t really grasped the process of coherent storytelling. He asked whom he needed to meet in order to get published; he was certain that’s how I’d done it—I’d met the right person.

Well, I had, but not in the way he thought—not at a party or a convention or the other venues his imagination provided. I “met” an editor named Stan Schmidt by sending him a manuscript based on the content of the magazine he edited—Analog Science Fiction. The manuscript preceded the friendship, rather than the other way around. I explained this to the doctor, and recommended that he hone his craft, tie the vignettes (which were delightful) into a more coherent form, and send them to magazines that published that genre. I was happy to provide him with names and addresses of editors I thought might be interested.

He was horribly disappointed and simply couldn’t believe that getting published did not require a flight to New York or Hollywood or lunches with the right people. He was certain that I had not only found the Right People, but was hiding them from him. He demanded to know how I had gotten published.

So I gave him the short version: I had words to say, so I wrote a story, I read genre magazines, I found an editor I thought might like my story, I edited it carefully, I put it in an envelope, and I sent it to the above-mentioned editor. In other words, I hewed to Heinlein’s Rules of Writing:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must place it in an envelope and mail it.

That’s my elevator (or awkward lunch) answer. Here is the long version:

I’ve been making up stories my entire life and am pretty sure I’m related by blood to Walter Mitty. There is always a story going on in my head that is usually triggered by the ”real” world but diverges immediately. I started writing as a child, and even won a ribbon in the Nebraska State Fair for an illustrated story submitted by my fourth grade teacher. But it didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties that I might write for publication in more than a company newsletter.

I’d always been in love with science fiction (although we had a falling out during the doom and gloom days of the ’70’s) and had been twiddling with a purely therapeutic science fiction novel for some time. One day I simply decided that if I was going to write anyway, I might as well try to get published. I shaped up the 1100 page novel (I thought), and began to send the first three chapters around at great expense and with no luck except for a couple of very nice rejection letters that told me I had a great voice, but I had a length problem.

I knew that. My high school English teacher had told me that while the 6000 word supernatural (maybe) tale I’d turned in to him was great, no magazine ever bought anything longer than 3000 words. (This is not true, by the way, as you will discover if you read on.) My husband urged me to try short fiction again. To that end, I purchased a literal box full of Analog, Asimov’s, Ellery Queen and Hitchcock magazines at a flea market and began to study the short form.

Hand-Me-Down Town by Maya Kaathryn BohnhoffAbout a year later, I overheard a conversation that gave me the idea that evolved into a 19,500 word novella entitled “Hand-Me-Down Town” (which you can get right here in the Book View Cafe bookstore). Against the advice of all the ”how-to” articles I’d read, which told me I should try the “small markets” first, I submitted to Analog Science Fiction magazine.

Shoot for the moon, right?

My story dealt, not with hard science, but with a solution to homelessness (was sociology a science, I wondered?) but I sent it anyway, because, after reading scads of his editorials, I felt Analog editor, Stan Schmidt, would like the story well enough to tell me where I might market it. I knew the cons: it probably wasn’t SF, it was too long, I was unknown, I should have tried a “little” magazine (the kind that pays in contributors copies) first.

Within two months of sending the manuscript, I got it back with a nice long letter from Dr. Schmidt. I had expected a form rejection slip and so was pleased, if disappointed.

“Look,” I told my husband, who was in the kitchen chopping ingredients for dinner. ”He sent me a nice two page letter. Maybe he’ll tell me where I can sell this.”

Right about then, I got to the second paragraph of the letter which said in part, ”If this is really your first attempt at being published, I’m impressed. … I’m probably going to buy ’Hand-Me-Down Town’ even though it’s only marginally science fiction.”

I uttered a shriek heard round the world and almost cost my poor husband a fingertip.

The story appeared in the November 1989 issue of Analog with art by the amazing Janet Aulisio. Stan did get letters complaining that the story wasn’t really SF and threatening the cancellation of subscriptions, but he also got letters from several people who worked with the homeless, thanking him for publishing the piece. Those, I keep on my “wall of honor,” to remind me that shooting for the moon is a good thing to do now and again.

Antiquities Hunter coverSince then, I’ve gone on to write and publish fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, mystery, alt-history, paranormal, mainstream and magical realism in Analog, Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, Amazing Stories, and other magazines and anthologies. My first novel was high fantasy. The most recent (THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER, Pegasus Books) was a mystery/detective/adventure novel set largely in the Yucatan. I’m nothing if not eclectic.

You’re wondering what happened to the doctor and others who begged to be introduced to the Goose Who Laid the Golden Contract? As far as I know, none of them ever published anything, and they may still be chasing that fictional Goose.

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