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A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Advent of TOF

TOF's first paid publication was a collection of fillers and quotes, for which he was remunerated the princely sum of $60, but his first actual paid story had a more checkered career.



TOF and his brother Dennis had been writing SF since they were wee lads, and filled many a spiral notebook with the pencil-scrawled and usually fatal adventures of space explorers. The stories were illustrated at first with pencil drawings, later with MagicMarkers. The old-fashioned, solvent-based, get-you-high marker pens. Woo-hoo.

As time went on the two of them dared to send stories to Galaxy and F&SF, obtaining in return a handsome collection of form rejection slips. TOF can only imagine the great suckitude of these juvenile efforts.

Then, in high school -- this was after Dennis died -- TOF was coming home from school and was waiting to change buses at Fourth and Northampton, where a magazine stand stood in the lobby of the Northampton National Bank. In the rack, he saw a 8.5x11 SF magazine called Analog. The cover featured a story about a planet called "Dune."  He bought this, and then another each month until he learned of a custom called "subscription."  He has maintained that subscription ever since.

So when he wrote a new and complete story entitled "Ashes" he sent it off to Analog. In return the editor -- John W. Campbell, Jr. -- sent a three-page critique of the story, now lost, that ripped his poor tale to shreds.

Little did he know that no editor wastes three pages of critique on a complete loser story not fit to wipe the doggy-doo from your show-bottoms and that, when properly translated, the three pages read "Put these shreds back together along the lines discussed and I'll look at it again." Instead, crushed, the Teenaged TOF threw it in a desk drawer, convinced of its fundamental suckitudity.

Some years later, having emerged from the cocoon of academe into what we delightfully call the "real world," TOF stumbled across "Ashes" and read it. 

It really sucked. 

And so TOF rewrote it and sent it off to Analog, by now edited by Ben Bova. It was returned with a form rejection and returned to its drawer to lick its wounds.

Later, a more mature TOF saw another magazine, Galileo, edited by Charlie Ryan. It announced a contest for unpublished writers, promising a sum of incredible proportions. TOF reasoned that he fell into the eligible category, so he wrote a completely new story called "Slan Libh" and sent it in to the contest in January 1979.

A year later, he received a letter. Mr. Ryan wanted to use the story for the regular issue and promised an even larger sum. TOF had been accepted for publication!!!

Thrilled at the prospect of riches undreamed of by Croesus, TOF whipped off a new story, "The Feeders" and sent it to Galileo in Dec. 1979, where it was promptly rejected. It was subsequently rejected by Twilight Zone, F&SF, and Oracle. Write fast, die young, like they say. TOF had tried too write too quickly. Patience, young grasshopper!

Alas, Galileo paid on publication, not on acceptance, so no money had arrived before the financial demise of Galileo.  But Charlie wanted to try to put an anthology together using the stories he had accepted but never got to publish. TOF agreed, but in the end nothing came of it.

TOF's brothers, in the true Irish fashion, declared that Galileo had obviously gone under because it had been reduced to buying my story. 

Gradually, a new idea formed in the wrinkled recesses of the TOFian brainpan. If one editor had offered to buy "Slan Libh," perhaps a second could be fooled as well. And so in Sept.1983 he sent the story off to Analog, now edited by Stan Schmidt.  Imagine his surprise and delight when it was accepted and he was paid $300 bucks on acceptance in 1984 money (=$688 in today's more debased currency), making it the first TOFian story for which legitimate moneys changed hands. Woo, as they say, hoo.

At this point, TOF wondered whether he could sell a second story, remembered "Ashes" and found it and read it. 

And it still sucked. 

But now TOF realized something very important. He now knew why it sucked.

Somehow, by reading the stories in the magazine with the thought of writing them, and the experience with "Slan Libh" and "Feeders," some notion of how to write had seeped into his recalcitrant brain. Consequently, he rewrote it again, and when he mentions that it was at least a third shorter than it had originally been, Faithful Reader may understand that suckity is, like gravity, often proportional to mass.

It was sent in Feb. 1986 and, third times being the proverbial charm, the estimable Dr. Schmidt bought the story a month later for $225 (1986), the second story of mine to be so honored. Because of the vagaries of magazine editing, however, it saw print after another, longer story called "Eifelheim," but it was in fact the second purchased story.

TOF being on a roll, he completed two novella-length stories. One he had written in high school under the influence of H.Beam Piper's "Gunpowder God" and was an alternate history set in Pennsylvania. This he rewrote. (See above, "suckitude") The other was a new tale of two researchers who gradually uncover evidence that aliens had been stranded in medieval Germany. He sent both of them off to Analog at the same time, in Dec.1984.

Do not do this.

It gives the editor the crazy idea of buying one but not the other. TOF thought Dr. Schmidt would buy "The Forest of Time" but reject "Eifelheim." Instead, he bought "Eifelheim" and rejected "The Forest of Time." Eifelheim went on to make the Hugo ballot (and eventually became a novel which also went on to the Hugo ballot). When TOF later told Dr. Schmidt about his premonitions about which he would buy and which reject, he replied with a twinkle, "That's why you're the writer and I'm the editor."

A year later, TOF revised and re-sent "The Forest of Time," but was told that since Analog had just done an alternate history story he should wait a year and try again. He did, and it was bought, and it also wound up on the Hugo ballot, as well as in Gardner Dozois' annual collection. Go figure. 

Meanwhile, "The Feeders" had been languishing. As TOF sold additional stories, 1988 being a peak year, he nerved himself to revisit his second serious submission.

You guessed it. It sucked.

But being more practiced now, TOF revised yet again and sent it to Analog in May 1989. He heard back in July 1989 and received munificent recompense. The story appeared in Jan. 1990 and has been posted for your delight (or not) on the story preview page for the next couple weeks.

But TOF (I hear you say) why don't you post your very first written story ("Ashes") or your very first purchased story ("Slan Libh")?

Simple, grasshopper. Those stories were written before the art of inscribing on floppy discs had arrived. To post them would require typing them from scratch, something to which TOF is for the moment disinclined.

3 comments:

  1. Well, you could scan a published copy (I presume the original manuscript was scripted a mano) and run the resulting image through some OCR software, and only retype the typos made by the software. You will be so gratified by the time savings that you will never realize that it would have been quicker just to retype it directly into your document editor.

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  2. I've decided this tale is actually more frightening than the vampires--that it could take years to be able to recognize and fix a story's suckitude. I had the epiphany this morning the short story I was working on is actually about something completely different than I thought it was. Any remarks about the (possible) relationship between having a clue what's thematically central and the parsing of suckage?

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