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Over in her journal, sallytuppence posed this question: "I'd like to hear, either in comments or linked to an entry in your blog, about how you started writing. I don't want to hear that you were a writer ever since you could hold a crayon in your chubby little hand, no. I want to hear about how you got serious as a writer. What catalyzed it? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?"

Though I've talked about some of this before, I thought I'd repost my answer here:

I suppose you could say I got the crayons from my first grade teacher. I was in a combined first/second/third grade class at Buchanan Street Elementary School in Los Angeles when I was six. It was October and our teacher announced a Halloween short story contest for the class. All the entries would be read aloud, and the class would vote on the winner.

Most of the stories were happy little tales of ghosts and haunted houses. I, who liked to scare myself watching bits of "The Outer Limits" and "Night Gallery" on TV when I wasn't supposed to, wrote a little story called "Rattlesnaks [sic] and Cobras." It was a first-person story where the narrator gets attacked by shapechanging snakes in his backyard and dies.

A couple of girls cried when the teacher read my story. I won the contest hands-down. And that's when it crystallized for me. I was going to be a writer, no question.

I told my teacher and she starting letting me use the electric typewriter next to her desk. My first project at the typewriter was to try writing a "Star Trek" script. (Fortunately, that page is lost to time.)

I considered a lot of different ideas for day jobs during the next nine years, but writer was the one constant. Whatever job I ended up taking, I knew I'd be a writer too. I always wrote stories, often during class, but I would say it wasn't until the age of 15, in the spring of 1983, when I was a junior in high school, that I really got Serious.

My dad, trying to help me figure out what to do with my stories, found a copy of Asimov's on a 7-Eleven newsstand and brought it home for me. There were submission guidelines inside, so I sent them a story. A couple of months later I got my first rejection (a form letter with Shawna McCarthy's name at the bottom) and was crushed. But I kept at it.

My parents were encouraging, and couple of my other friends wrote the occasional story too, but really I was pretty much on my own. I subscribed to Asimov's, and during those first two years a couple of articles about Clarion appeared, one from a teacher's perspective by Algis Budrys, and another from a student's perspective by Lucius Shepard. In early 1985 I cajoled my dad into letting me apply to Clarion. He didn't want me to go, but he let me apply. I don't think he expected me to get in, but I did, and I went. I was 17.

Everything changed at Clarion. For the first time I wasn't the best writer I knew, but I was also part of a community of writers for the first time. I was pushed there in ways no parent, friend, or teacher had ever pushed. I received honest, if flipping harsh, assessments of my work. But maybe the most important thing of all was that all those older people took me seriously as a writer, and didn't condescend. There were no pats on the head, which of course made me feel more like a real writer.

Kate Wilhelm, during the last week of Clarion, called me the most improved student, which could have sounded like damning with faint praise from someone else but not from her. She and Damon told me to forget about setting any records, since I was already older than Chip Delany was when he made his first sale, and keep writing while I got more life experience. They predicted I'd start selling in about five years.

As it turned out, it took seven years* after Clarion and something like 200 rejection slips before I made my first pro sale. So I guess the watershed moments for me came at 6, 15, 17, and 24. Maybe I'll sell a novel before I'm 40!

* For two of those years, though, I was a missionary and writing almost nothing.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 4th, 2006 03:42 pm (UTC)
The age thing is funny when it comes to hopeful writers. I feel it myself, often lapsing into the kind of thoughts where I hear, "Gosh, I should have done more by this age! Christ, I'm thirty (almost), should I have have published 'x' by now?" Delany always seems to feature in these interior conversations, but I think we can all agree that he is a special case.

For my part I do not consider those youthful wunderkinder all that exciting. What really turns me on is these guys and gals making really interesting and important work that could only come from an older voice. Most of the best writers and stylists in SF really came into their own in their thirties and forties.

The genre feels, by some part of its new nature, rather ageist, in that youth reigns supreme for many folks' sensibilities. I believe this is an unfair pressure to put on and what will happen when today's leading young writers start getting old?
Aug. 4th, 2006 03:54 pm (UTC)
I guess I should mention also that I am not really quite sure why I want to write, and, like most things, I simply find myself very interested in it. I wasn't sure that I wanted to be an editor either, and, yet, here I am editing. This mercurial self of mine, what shall I do?

Perhaps if I had to get into the metaphysics of it, I would say that there are some feelings and impressions and maybe even a beingness I feel I want to express, in order to help me define it better, and I find that writing is the easiest way to do this. I like the idea of publishing these things, but I don't necessarily find myself driven to become a published writer like many I read about on LJ, even though I kind of am a published writer in a limited way. These are such oceanic and undefined feelings I have, Bill, you know?

I feel like my life is giving me good training to become a fiction writer, though, as hard as it is. But, beyond that, I feel that the end-result of writing is not necessarily to create fun stories for someone to read, or maybe to see my own stories in a magazine or in a book on a shelf. But that end-result? I'm working on it.
Aug. 4th, 2006 07:57 pm (UTC)
There's so much pressure in all aspects of our society to be prodigious as a youth. Maybe in our day and information age, the feeling that you can and should be an instant master is overwhelming. I'm glad I didn't get hailed instantly as the Next Big Thing when I didn't quite burst onto the scene. What pressure to live up to! Better to build up slowly, I think.
Aug. 4th, 2006 04:28 pm (UTC)
I've always wanted to write, going back as far as third grade (when we were reading about Russia in Social Studies and I wrote a story on what I thought it would be like to visit Russia). The desire seemed to grow the more sf I read. In high school, me and my buddy strausmouse wrote a series of Douglas Adams-like stories that we passed around school, and which today would probably have us retroactively expelled.

But it wasn't until January 1993 that I decided that writing is what I really wanted to do. It was then (I was 20 at the time) that I began writing stories that I intended to submit for publication. I added a creative writing minor, which helped some. 14 years later, I am still writing, still submitting (hopefully better) stories and still have yet to be published.

I think I do it for three reasons: (1) I love making up stories, especially ones that make people think. I think anyone who reads sf over a long period of time can understand this "sense of wonder". (2) I love the process of sitting down and writing. I use Isaac Asimov's method: I think up a problem and solution, and make up everything else as I go. It's like an adventure, not knowing exactly what is going to happen next. (3) The ego trip. I have to admit, if I'm to be honest. I want to see my name in the pages of ASIMOV'S or ANALOG or F&SF someday.

One of the biggest boosts I've gotten is from a rejection slip from Sheila Williams that praised a story I had written, and also pointed out it's flaw. For me that was a kind of turning point; no editor had taken the time to point out a specific flaw in a story before. I took it to mean that I was good enough to make it, I just needed to keep trying. Now it's just finding the time to keep plugging away at it.

It's one of the reasons I like reading Bill's journal (and others): I see that there are other writers out there who go through similar experiences, but they make it in the end. Bill mentions 200 rejections slips.

Well, I guess I'm about halfway there.
Aug. 4th, 2006 04:36 pm (UTC)
Nobody gave you the crayons. Writer is what you are.

Good story!
Aug. 4th, 2006 04:57 pm (UTC)
I guess what I would say is, the crayons felt right in my hand when they were given to me.

Aug. 4th, 2006 06:14 pm (UTC)
That is an excellent way of putting it.
Aug. 4th, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC)
Also, 200 rejections before your first pro sale. Wow. You don't know how much I admire that kind of persistence.

Aug. 4th, 2006 04:38 pm (UTC)
One last thing.

You will sell a novel before you're 40. So go finish the damn thing!!
Aug. 4th, 2006 04:56 pm (UTC)
<snapping salute> Yes, ma'am!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


William Shunn

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