Friday, May 27, 2022

Trunk Story Week • Part 3

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

— L. P. Hartley

There have been so many revolutions and so much evolution since I began writing fiction half a century ago that it’s become almost impossible to keep track of it all. When I began, writers wrote using typewriters, and mailed paper manuscripts to editors, who sometimes accepted them, and then marked them up with a wonderfully arcane and cryptic set of glyphs known as “copy-editing marks” and sent them on to typesetters, who introduced entirely new and wildly creative typographical errors into the story, which were rarely corrected because it was too expensive to make changes once the pages were typeset. 

[You think I exaggerate? There was a typo in the original 1938 publication of John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” that has remained unchanged to this day, no matter how many times the story is reprinted. Specifically, it’s in this paragraph:

“I think you should know the structure of the place. There is a broad plateau, a level sweep that runs more than 150 miles due south from the Secondary station, Van Wall says. He didn’t have time or fuel to fly farther, but it was running smoothly due south then. Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has damned back the ice creeping from the south.

I leave finding it as a test of your proofreading skills.]

When I began writing, there was a healthy market for the kinds of mid-list, mass-market paperback original novels that used to fill the spinner racks in bookstores, dime-stores, grocery stores, school libraries, and truck stops all across the country. More importantly, there were at least a half-dozen publishers competing to fill that shelf space, so that opened up lots of opportunities for the aspiring would-be novelist. As for short stories, there were at least a half-dozen “A-list” magazines that published a lot of new fiction monthly and paid well for what they published, and another dozen or so “B-” and “C-list” magazines that didn’t pay as well, publish as often, or have the circulation, but were worth considering submitting to. There were even a few magazines that paid up to $5,000 for original science fiction short stories—that’s in actual 1970s dollars, not inflation-adjusted dollars—though they published relatively few stories, and if your name wasn’t Vonnegut or Bradbury your chances of selling to them were pretty slim.

Still, that was the market for fiction that once existed, and it imposed a natural outside limit on writers. Once you’d submitted your story to the A-list and B-list markets, and had a good long think about whether you wanted to try it on the C-list markets, you realized your time probably would be much better spent chucking that story into the trunk and working on something new. 

Whenever there was a change in editors at one of the A-list magazines, of course, everyone rushed to their trunks to pull out that old story the outgoing editor had rejected, to see if the new editor might like it better. But a funny thing tended to happen: if you’d kept at it—if you’d written stories, submitted them, come to accept that they were rejects and moved on, writing new material—very often, when you finally opened up the trunk and read that old manuscript you’d squirreled away years ago—your first reaction was, “My God, this thing is terrible! I have gotten so much better at writing since I wrote this old thing!”

Whereupon the old story would go back into the trunk, and you’d decide to write something new to try to impress the new editor, and success, fame, and fortune were sure to follow.


Kersley said...

So, that's how hell froze over...

~brb said...