The writer’s life is a numbers game, and the numbers don’t look good

The Way the Future Was: A Memoir
Frederik Pohl, 1978

Frederik Pohl (1919-2013) had the amazing good fortune to be one of the New York City teenagers and young adults who formed the Futurians in the late 1930s. These brilliant, arrogant kids (mostly male, completely white) became the writers, editors, and publishers who created the Golden Age of SF in the 1940s and ’50s.

The entrepreneurial, hard-working Pohl deserved his success. He wrote a hundred thousand words a year, was an ace at editing, won four Hugos and three Nebulas, was voted a Grand Master of science fiction, and was inducted into the genre’s Hall of Fame. But you have to admit, as an example of a person who was born in the right place at the right time, Fred Pohl is hard to beat.

The Way the Future Was has its quirks. Pohl prefers to confine any emotional upheaval to a page or two; his mother’s death was a page, his daughter’s cognitive challenges three pages. John Updike could’ve gotten a novel out of the musical beds Pohl’s circle indulged in in the 1950s, but Pohl casts it off in a paragraph. He resolves the mid-life crisis that ends the book by taking his doctor’s advice to exercise, watch his weight, and get more sleep. Thump.

What I enjoyed was Pohl’s account of editing SF zines and writing freelance in the wake of the war. His goal of writing four pages per day, every day, whether it took him 45 minutes or 12 hours, is a good reminder for miscreants like me: create a routine and stick to it. That’s how you make progress. Even John McPhee, who said he rarely wrote more than 500 words per day, explained his prolificacy by saying, “You put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”

Out where the paychecks begin

In 1959, right before the collapse of the pulp magazine market, there were more than 30 SF zines. (And plenty more pulp zines publishing detective, western, railroading, romance, and war stories.) According to Pohl, the best rate a writer could shoot for in that era was 3 cents a word. Today there are online zines publishing SF, fantasy, and horror short fiction that pay 10 or 12 cents a word; they are not dragged down by the costs of printing on paper. But check any inflation calculator: to match a rate of 3 cents per word in 1959, genre magazines today would have to pay writers 27 cents per word.

Writers will see 27 cents per word in 2100, if the oceans don’t rise up and swallow us first.

The other thing that strikes me about the writer’s life in 1959 is that you could expect to publish something and get paid for it many more times. Pohl estimated his total income for 1959 as a freelance writer at about $9,000. Half that money was from reprints. Everything he published was published again, in the herd of SF reprint anthologies that once roamed the plains. Stories he published in the ’40s were still being reprinted in the ’70s! Today we call that “passive income,” but for writers, we might as well call it “impossible.” Only one of my stories has ever been reprinted. It appeared in a magazine in Latvia that never paid its writers. I know they never paid me.

Reading The Way the Future Was is a voyeuristic pleasure in an age when writers are commonly offered nothing for what they write (meaning no money) or the glory of “exposure” (meaning no money).

Most individuals don’t have time to write for no compensation and no hope of compensation, which only increases barriers to entry for minorities, low-income individuals, those with families, those with disabilities and so many more.

Brenton Weyi, “Literary Entrepreneurship in the Twenty-First Century,” Boulevard magazine, Spring 2020

If you are a writer, prepare to be amazed by the tales in this book.

The way the future was on Earth 2

In the alternate universe where I was born in 1919, if I had survived World War II (not all of the Futurians did), and if I had had 30 or more science fiction magazines to write for in the 1950s, I would’ve published dozens of stories and two novels (Poor Little Starman and Nomads of the Galaxy) before being wiped out by the New Wave of the ’60s. Finding myself unable to adapt to new themes and approaches, and increasingly ridiculed for the recurring virgins-in-peril motif in my stories, I would’ve given up writing and gone into advertising.

My last credits would’ve been a script for the third season of Star Trek (Episode 25, “Ring Around Rigel,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola, three years before The Godfather) and “They Only Send Their Heads,” a story Harlan Ellison wheedled out of me for the infamous The Last Dangerous Visions. Some of my work might be fondly remembered today, and perhaps praised for injecting some humor into the genre, but it would all seem hopelessly dated. I would’ve had a great time, though, plus I would’ve made actual money for what I wrote!

Two interesting books on the writing life

Manjula Martin, editor. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living (2019). Emphasis on strategies to get through the day-to-day. The overall tone is stubborn but not wildly hopeful.

Lesley Conger. To Writers, with Love (1971). Leslie Conger was the pen name of Shirley Suttles, a Vancouver, B.C., mother of seven who wrote a monthly column (collected in this volume) for The Writer magazine. The writing is witty, supportive, and philosophical, plus you get a look back at the tumultuous ’60s.

Random acts of pandemic kindness

Here in Portland, Oregon, we have a school of writing called the Attic Institute. The Attic is located in the attic of an old brick building; I recommend the classes, but not in the heat of August, because, well, attic. A community has grown up around the Attic and its open-mic reading series on the first Friday of each month, called Fridays on the Boulevard.

On March 25, the Fridays organizer emailed us to say that the April Friday had been suspended. But then she wrote:

I also want to extend an offer for anyone in this community to send me a piece of writing (up to 3 pages of prose or poems) at this email address, and I will send you feedback on what I find most successful and engaging about your piece.

Additionally, if you submit a piece to this email address between now and April 1st, I will create a small digital collection and distribute it to this group. It will be a fun way to feel connected and engaged, and give us something nice to read!

I immediately wrote to this person, whom I won’t name because I don’t want to embarrass her and anyway I don’t have her permission. I thanked her for her generosity, said I’d like to volunteer once the series gets going again, and sent her the first three pages of the story I’m writing. She wrote back on April 2 with some helpful, morale-boosting comments.

On April 4, true to her word, she distributed an 8-page PDF with all the contributions she’d received, including an interesting poem called “I’m tired of constantly tabulating right and wrong.” That’s exactly how I feel when I’m fumbling with masks, bleaching what seems like an infinite line of door knobs and light switches, and wondering if I’ve properly decontaminated my groceries or will my pasta kill me.

Writing is a rewarding but tough way to live. The generosity shown by this one person has benefited many, starting with me. Living through a worldwide menace like the coronavirus makes you wonder what’s the point of anything – a question only humans are capable of asking. What’s the point? Maybe asking what’s the point is the point. Geoff Dyer, writing about how “everything non-COVID-related seems so pointless” in the April 13 New Yorker, says it better than me:

We routinely say of a setback, “It’s not the end of the world.” Well, of course it’s not. Even the end of the world as we know it turns out not to be the end of the world. So, to downgrade Fitzgerald’s rhapsodic claim at the end of The Great Gatsby, we plod on – or don’t stop plodding on – for the simple reason that, with few exceptions, we are programmed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s what feet are for.

Editors are back on the job! Has Trump reopened the litmags?

In the first half of April, I received rejections from Copper Nickel (which pays real money, at least by litmag standards) and Joyland (which does not). Editors are a healthy lot, or maybe they just harbor a healthy skepticism toward me. Did they break their self-isolation just to squelch my dreams? Or was this a welcome break in the boredom of their social distancing? Here’s a real question: How many litmags will still be publishing in 2021?

Days since last rejection: 9. In the words of Stan Ridgway in the song “Factory,” “I do what I’m doing ’cause I don’t know what to do when I’m not doing it.”

Days since last rejection: 16

The coronavirus moves faster than a glacier but still flattens everything in its path. The consequences are unpredictable. In our underpaid corner of the universe, the topics will change, but the act of writing will not, nor will writers. “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” said Thomas Mann, and no virus will alter that.

I wonder, though, how publishing will change. This plague might thin the herd of magazines and publishers and even hasten the end of print. I’ll never be invited to deliver the keynote at a major book festival if we can’t hold a book festival.

Here’s the obvious thing I’ve noticed: I had submitted stories to 16 litmags (including a litmag called LitMag) well before the coronavirus hit. Those submissions are all still out there. No acceptances. No rejections. No editors begging me to send more because they just can’t make up their minds. I guess everyone’s busy washing their hands and shotgunning British police procedurals and keeping away from everyone else.

Lately, I’ve asked several writers what they think of submitting stories in these strange times. Don’t we all have better things to do, like trying to stay alive? But wouldn’t it help these zines to pay their contest fees so they have at least some money coming in? Shouldn’t we all be doing work that means something to us and keeps our hopes alive?

I don’t have any answers, and the writers I approached haven’t said a thing. They don’t know me and probably think I’m a hacker in a Russian server farm. So what I decided to do is wait until some editor somewhere replies to me – that will give proof through the night that our publishing industry is still there. Then I’ll hit the SEND button.

Take care of yourselves. Keep writing.

What to do with rejections

Writing is one of the best vocations you can pursue during a pandemic. Most writers are experts at self-isolating; at parties we’re happy to avoid the black-clad groupings and their brittle banter and instead hang at the buffet tables where we can stuff our pockets with spring rolls, meatballs, or whatever comes our way. Also, most writers make no money. Is the economy running wild? Is it hiding under the bed? It’s all the same to us.

Today we’re going to talk about rejections, the one thing the coronavirus can’t kill, though I haven’t received one since March 13. What can you do with rejections? In the 20th century I could tape them to the wall or fly them, on fire, out the window, but in the 21st century almost everything is automated, online, and impervious to sarcasm.

Professional writers counsel you to pay attention only to those rejections that actually say something about your story. Good advice, but the lengthiest rejection I’ve received in 20 years informed me that I am a misogynist. Is this why my wife moved me to the garage? She said it was social distancing.

I’ve discovered that there are only two things you can do with rejections.

  1. Laugh at them.
  2. Figure out how many rejections your accepted stories endured before they were accepted. Whatever the number is for your most-rejected, accepted story, that is the number beyond which you should never go.

In the last century, where I used to get paid for what I wrote, I never sold a story that had more than 10 rejections. In this century, where I don’t get paid for what I write, I’ve never had a story accepted that had more than 21 rejections. Therefore, by this reckoning, I should give up on any story that returns home with a dead mouse with that 22nd rejection.

As my Dad always said, “Do what I say, not what I do.” The story of mine that has received the most rejections from editors here in the 21st century now has 55 of the things…including the charge of misogyny and a confused note from another editor complaining that the narrator saw “harsh realities” as “humorous.” He didn’t say how misogyny fit into that.

But I still believe it’s a good story! I don’t care that it might chalk up another 45 rejections, assuming the coronavirus doesn’t kill off every magazine and website that publishes fiction. I can’t give up on it. But I still advise you to count your rejections and discover how your stories perform. My system doesn’t help me, but it might help you.

Days since last rejection: 5

For those about to read, we salute you

Boise, Idaho, is located in the high desert, 2,700 feet above sea level. The trees (especially cottonwoods) follow the paths of the Boise River and whatever creek they can find. The high hills that surround the city support grass and sage, Basque wagons and sheep. In the summer, the air is blisteringly hot, but with so little moisture that you can smell a running garden hose a hundred yards away.

Spring arrives in Boise while it’s still solidly rainy in Seattle and Portland. The ground thaws and in the foothills where we walked our dogs when we lived there, there’s a season within a season: mud. The mud can suck your boots off your feet. Even if it doesn’t, by the time you return to your car, your boots resemble thick frisbees of mud. (Corgis are light enough to walk atop this quagmire.) By May, the land has turned to dust.

I mention this because this summer, writing in the Clarion West Write-a-thon was a lot like March in the foothills above Boise. I probably shouldn’t have done this, at a time when I’m trying to handle family illnesses, insane old people, and slow-moving bureaucracies. Trying to get the latter to do anything is like playing fetch with an arthritic dog. And then there’s the blogging I promised to do. And the dieting. And the family visits. And our annual safari on Mt. Rainier.

The quiet life is not for me.

I am hopeful

Everyone who participated in the write-a-thon has spent this weekend reading what they wrote. As for what I wrote, it wasn’t the word count I had dreamed of, but I like it. My novel is moving again, and faster than the Veterans Administration, too. I don’t regret signing up for this trip.

I reintroduced myself at the gym this afternoon. I’m ready to return to normal life, whatever normal may be, and to keep writing.

Way back in the first week of the write-a-thon (by the way, I fixed all the dates on my posts – I was about a week off), I mentioned that I wanted to master the art of writing a shitty first draft and moving on. I didn’t master it.

But does everyone have to write a shitty first draft? Not Dean R. Koontz, a man with more than 100 novels to his credit. Koontz is so prolific that Elvis Costello wrote a song about him: “Everyday I Write a Book.”* The man works about 10 hours a day, yet produces surprisingly few pages. This is because he rewrites each page 20 or 30 times.

“I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt, as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block,” he once said. “By doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting around brooding about it.”

Yes, I revised new pages before writing newer pages. It works for me and Dean.

Koontz also said, “Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. [And] sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled.” I don’t agree – writing for me is a refuge – but I know people who would.

Awake and sing

My novel is back and so is my writing blog. I’ll keep working on both. I’ll try to be interesting in both. Thank you for reading along and thank you forever to my Clarion West Write-a-thon sponsors, Karen G. Anderson, Kate Schaefer, and Jerry Kaufman. Your thank-you notes will go into the mail the day after the next meeting of the local typewriter club. So long as those nerds own typewriters, I don’t have to.

* One of my favorite Elvis Costello lyrics:

All your compliments and your cutting remarks
Are captured here in my quotation marks

Day 41: What you get from your writing is what you put into it

Clarion West almost didn’t happen. My Clarion West – 1986. And when it did happen, we were sparsely populated. We were the Wyoming of writing workshops.

The original Clarion West ran from 1971 to 1973 in Seattle. It was relaunched in 1984, still in Seattle. Clarion West was an offshoot of the original Clarion, founded in 1968 in Milford, Pennsylvania, and now held in San Diego.

(Seattle and San Diego. Nothing says “catchy internet copy” more than Clarion West North and Clarion West South.)

Not long before the 1986 Clarion West, the relaunchers stepped back, and the workshop almost lost molecular cohesion. I know two of the people who saved it: queenpins Linda Jordan and Donna Davis, to whom I will always be in debt.

Unfortunately, this ninth-inning change in administration and the lack of time before opening day caused a problem in promotion and recruiting. There wasn’t much of either. My Clarion began with eight students. This was the only Clarion West class with fewer than 17.

Bonding was difficult. Everyone was either in their 20s or their 50s. There were only four or five people rattling around in the dorm. Group lunches were awkward. What little progress we made at unification was disrupted when two new people joined us for weeks five and six. (The workshop needed the money.)

This being 1986, we were all Caucasians of European descent. And this being 1986, I never noticed.

Enough complaining.

Linda, Donna, and their assistants (actually, I’m not sure they had any) were stellar, the readings were good, the parties were fun, and one of my teachers, Susie McKee Charnas, changed my life. Not only was she the first writer I’d ever met who wrote the way I wrote (growing stories forward and backward from the original idea), when she challenged me to write something beyond my reach, what came out was not science fiction. I was not a science fiction writer, despite what I had believed since I was 12. This knowledge was worth every penny I’d borrowed from my girlfriend to go to the workshop.

My Clarion had its faults (some of my colleagues probably held a dim view of me), but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

I’ve been thinking of the current class. Today was their last day. I wish them luck and a not-too-bumpy transition back to civilian society.


One of my sponsors is supporting me in memory of Vonda N. McIntyre. Vonda attended the Milford Clarion in 1970 and started Clarion West in 1971. I am also in debt to Vonda. Sleep well, Starfarer.

Day 32: Endorphin rush

When you win a game in a chess tournament – when you’ve been sitting across the board from a stranger whom you’ve been mentally engaged with for three or four hours, when the two of you have combined to dance the pieces around until one of you has found a solution, when the clock is ticking down and the penmanship on your scoresheet is devolving – you feel fab. You are on top of the world. Your brain triumphed.

When you write something that feels right – when you’ve been staring at an empty screen or a sheet of paper for so long that you’re close to snow-blind, or when you realize you haven’t been writing, you’ve been typing, and this is the first sentence that’s not only worth saving, it’s worth sharing – it’s a similar feeling. Your writing is not a pas de deux as in chess, but you’ve still triumphed.

I’ve been looking for a while for a knockout opening line for my book. I was thousands of words away from the opening when a candidate broke the surface somewhere in the back of my head. I tried it out. It works. And I can see the influence from one of my literary idols. My brain triumphed.

That’s all I wanted to report tonight. I wrote some sentences today. I hit one of them over the fence.

Special offers

Check out these opportunities to do some good in the hood in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon).

Can’t let you go without a chess quote

From the fourth world chess champion, Alexander Alekhine (pronounced “Al-yekken”):

I would like to be able to create alone without the necessity, as in games, of adjusting my plans to those of an opponent, in order to create something that will last. Oh! This opponent, this collaborator against his will, whose notion of Beauty always differs from yours and whose means (strength, imagination, technique) are often too limited to help you effectively! What torment, to have your thinking and your fantasy tied down by another person!

In writing, we are all on our own. Thank God.

Day 30: Where am I going and why am I in this basket?

On July 18, 1877, Thomas Hardy entered the stadium in Dorchester, Dorset, England, to begin work on his sixth novel, The Return of the Native. The crowd applauded as the confident young novelist marched onto the pitch and settled himself at his desk, then went quiet as he dipped his pen in his inkwell.

But Hardy began by drawing a doodle, which, after some consideration, he signed. After he finally wrote a word (“The”), he crossed it out, gazed into space, then signed his name again. “It’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles all over again,” the play-by-play man lamented, until Hardy, seized by inspiration, rewrote “The,” changed it to “A,” and then galloped off toward his first verb. The crowd was on its feet as he finished the sentence, and after only three hours of writing.

This may be meaningless scribbles from Monty Python, but in some ways it describes my writing process. “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” noted Thomas Mann, a man who had no trouble writing. Most of his books are thick enough to brain a horse. But I take his point.

When I sit down to write, I am dazzled, sometimes blinded, by all the possibilities. A story can go anywhere. I want to get the words down, write a draft that leaks and patch it later when the adrenaline has subsided, but I also want to write well. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Hemingway used to say to himself early on, in Paris. “Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Thomas Hardy and Ernest Hemingway might have been less distractible than me. I’m very distractible – not by television or the internet, not by dinosaurs or cheerleaders, but by my own thoughts. In yesterday’s session, as I was warming up, a sentence came to me for a new story. A week before, while carpooling to work, I had told my co-worker about an incident in an office from long before computers made it impossible for anyone to hide anything. I guess that that memory, which had been dozing for years, woke up and began to sprout, because suddenly I was off and writing fluently, easily, and 90 minutes later I had a 2,000-word story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Another 1,500 words and one more character and it’s done.

This story has no relationship with my novel.

Is this procrastination? If it were, I’d still be doodling – spaceships, probably – and signing my name. One of my teachers once told our class her “red dress theory” of writing: She didn’t write her ideas down. Whatever idea was still in her head, still shining, when she started writing was the one she went with. When the red dress appears, wear it. I’m not sure what my red-dress equivalent would be. An Alpha Romeo? More like an album by King Crimson.

Writing is fun, and though my novel is starting to move I loved this sprint into the unexpected.

Clarion West box score

While the Clarion West class of 2019 slaves away in Week 4 in Seattle, 166 people (from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, France, India, Malaysia, Spain, Taiwan, the U.K, and the U.S.) are scribbling away in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon). Two of those people are Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Jules Verne.

Dead or alive, Verne is never going to improve.

The Write-a-thon has brought in $10,727 to help keep Clarion West going. My sponsors (all three of ’em) are doing their part: Karen G. Anderson, Kate Schaefer, and Jerry Kaufman. Bless you!

Day 25: A good heroine beats a good hero every day

Weeks ago, I took a vow before the head of my order to spend my summer participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon), blogging about it, dieting, punching the clock on my last job, and coping with sick family and arthritic bureaucracies. I didn’t foresee that the one thing I’d be least likely to do would be blogging. I thought for sure it would be dieting.

The older you get, the more bureaucracies you get

Are you frightened of a future full of sick old people? Grow up, you big baby! They’re your responsibility. However, if you act early, you can decrease the number of people by following this tip from the professionals: Marry an orphan.

Set the controls for the heart of 1966

In that year, Roland, my favorite English teacher, attended a writing conference at Georgetown University. Decades later, he gave me his notes. “I have no further use for them,” he wrote in his elegant, slanted penmanship. I want to share some of what I’ve found on these faded steno pad sheets.

Remember James T. Farrell? No? He was a rock star of the Depression!

The opening address was given by the novelist James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. Studs holds the 29th spot on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. I’ve never read Farrell, but I have read that Normal Mailer was inspired to write after reading the Studs Lonigan books, which makes me want to not read James T. Farrell.

Judging by Roland’s notes, Farrell gave a remarkable speech that encompassed social commentary and the nuts and bolts of writing. He said that much of our sense of the world comes from the movies, not conversation or direct experience. He divided the world into two kinds of people, the glamorous and those who admire the glamorous. He decried the manipulation of art and its takeover and cheapening by business – exactly what Ursula K. LeGuin was talking about when she attacked Amazon at the National Book Awards in 2014. “Man must strive to attain the full stature of his humanity,” Farrell admonished the crowd, quoting Robespierre.

If so far this sounds like a writing conference today, you’re right, but there were things that went down in 1966 that wouldn’t go down at any conference today. For example, the language all of the writers used, male and female, and that Roland wrote his notes in, was male.

Farrell, paraphrased by Roland:

In terms of public, all that is important in a writer is his mind and heart as it is put on paper. He should not be made a public spectacle.

Unless a writer retires to solitude he will not find himself. He must master solitude. He must accept that as part of his destiny.

From R.A. Knowlton, a well-known editor and writing teacher of that era:

The successful fiction writer must be an untrustworthy fellow who can tell a good lie and get away with it.

As far as I can tell from googling the names Roland jotted down, there were no writers of color present and almost no recognition of what today we’d call marginalized populations. I found two exceptions:

  1. James Baldwin was included in a mention of the hot new writers, along with Saul Bellow, Isak Dinesen, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
  2. The Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was praised for Epitaph of a Small Winner, an 1881 novel that must have just been translated into English.

“Women’s magazines want emotion. Mass circulation mags want action!”

The particulars of writing for magazines in 1966 were fascinating to me. Writing for magazines is what I’ve been trying to do for most of my life.

R.A. Knowlton did not have a high opinion of what he called the mass circulation, slick paper magazine. Fiction in these magazines isn’t supposed to mirror reality, he said; it’s an escape. “Truth,” says Mr. K, “makes very poor fiction.” He said that magazine fiction doesn’t carry much prestige (“Amateurs get all the applause”) because readers still want “the old virtues and illusions in their fiction.” This is why writers should never use divorce and divorcees in slick fiction. “Your main character must want something, but not anything illegal or immoral.”

(Attendees were advised of various taboos: no curse words in Boy’s Life, no teenage drinking in National Future Farmer. Was it OK to switch?)

However, Knowlton noted that contemporary (as in 1966) editors “want more force and emotionally contentious stories.” “Cream puffs,” he predicted, “are on their way out.” How I wish I knew what he meant by cream puffs. Is that what I’ve been writing?

And we’re back to the old people

At one of the panel discussions Roland attended, he was told that your main characters must be “reasonably” young – certainly not over 40. “Older readers can remember what it’s like to be young but young readers can’t imagine what it’s like to be old.” This reminds me that it was Thomas Wolfe, of all people, a man who wrote millions of words without ever understanding the female half of the human race, who figured out why we rarely get heroes in their 70s and beyond: No one lives long enough to understand how to write them.

Other nuggets for the aspiring magazine writer:

  • “A good heroine beats a good hero every day.”
  • “Stick to your own sex, also to one viewpoint.”
  • “Frankness seems to be most desired in non-fiction…the trend is to things that where formerly said only in the confessional or a doctor’s office.”
  • “Women’s magazines want emotion. Mass circulation mags want action!”

The most compelling remark in the pages Roland sent: “The only sort of story you can write is one from yourself.” Amen.

Cashed out

In 1966, the best-paying fiction markets in the U.S. were McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan. The New Yorker could not have been far behind.

McCall’s, a zine with a bank vault straight out of Richie Rich’s basement, offered $3,000-$4,000 per short story. According to my inflation calculator, $4,000 in 1966 would be $31,000 in 2019. Now you know how the Johns – Updike, Cheever, O’Hara – made a solid middle-class living writing short fiction in the 1950s and ’60s.

You can bet your ass and six of your goats that no one writing science fiction, mysteries, or westerns made this kind of money in those kinds of genres. In one year in the ’50s, Philip K. Dick earned $1,500 from the sale of about a dozen stories. He mentioned it because it was a superlative year. At least he could say that the only sort of story he wrote was from himself.

On to Day 26 of the Write-a-thon

So we beat on, keyboards against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Day 17: You only fail if you stop writing

Tonight I turn to one of the finest philosophical minds to have emerged from postwar North America: William Shatner.

“Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff. I’m content.”

It would be easy for me to succumb to regret. How did I lose all this time? Why has it taken me 200 years to get this far into my novel, only to find myself at the bottom of a metaphorical mineshaft? A situation so desperate that the only way for me to bust out was to join the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon) and go on a diet?

These questions are impossible to answer, and anyway, according to Shatner regret is useless. He’s spent enough time in alternate universes to know.

All you can do is seize the day, as I did today, but one sentence at a time rather than trying to do everything in the world by 9 o’clock. I picked a goal of writing one scene and then I wrote the scene. I wrote a few paragraphs after that, too. I’m a big tipper.

This may not sound like much, but John McPhee claimed he rarely wrote more than 500 words a day, and he’s done fairly well for himself with his Pulitzer and his National Book Awards and everyone bowing down to him and showering him with swag bags and stuff.

“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific.’ God, it doesn’t feel like it – nothing like it. But you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”

How to write lots and lots or pretend that you do

McPhee once tried tying himself to a chair to force himself to write more. This scheme failed, probably because he became annoyed and untied himself. In 2019, it’s more important to disable the internet. Also, stashing a dog under your desk can backfire. As the dog sinks deeper into sleep, it will emit sleepion particles. Humans cannot withstand sleepion particles. There are other hazards as well. This is why I like coffee shops.

The title of this post is from Ray Bradbury, a man who knew something about putting one word after another.

Tomorrow: More sentences, more scenes, more seaweed and carrot sticks on my stupid diet.