For most of my life, I’ve felt the urge to write. It’s always seemed the ideal path, despite the naysayers and often overwhelming obstacles that plague even the most accomplished writer. Storytelling is probably a desire that occurs as a result of both a specific type of creative personality and the circumstances of youth. Some individuals grow to love a variety of artistic pursuits; others find a certain creative outlet and then stick with it. For instance, I’ve always loved drawing. As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved to imagine my own characters and worlds. But somewhere along the way, I discovered the thrills to be had through reading and writing stories.
I believe, from the kind of perspective that only two decades’ worth of retrospection can offer, that I came upon the writer’s compulsion at the age of two. The tendency of my fiction has always been to venture into the worlds of the imagination. Some of these worlds are the grand settings found most commonly in space opera and other types of futuristic science fiction; some are all too familiar in their resemblance of our modern-day world; others are rooted in the stuff of nightmares, the stuff one might uncover in an old issue of Weird Tales, or the bibliography of someone like Stephen King or Richard Matheson.
The soul of my writing has always been in that otherworldly escape, that search for the unknowable that resides outside the realm of mainstream literature. At age two, I caught a case of pneumonia that had me hospitalized for what must have been at least a week. No doubt some of my earliest, most deep-seated fears stem from that experience: fear of the dark, fear of solitude, fear of silence; even the most basic fear of death. It would be foolish to assume that the illness did not affect me in any way. It was the hospital I spent that week in, a gloomy place of dust-gray corridors and linoleum that gleamed like the surface of a frozen lake, that led me into an encounter with my imagination’s lifelong symbol of science fiction: the robot.
I can’t recall whether I ever got to handle the remote control of the most sophisticated toy I’d ever seen—to this day, I can say honestly that I’ve never encountered another children’s toy quite so marvelous—but I was quite content to watch. The machine tread by way of a set of small rubber wheels, and its face was far from human; yet I got the sense that this creature comprised of twentieth-century plastics and metal was a being with a soul. Although it walked unlike anyone else, it still indeed walked—albeit a bit more gracefully than human legs could manage, and only when commanded. I don’t remember whether it talked, or if perhaps it merely traveled about the hospital playroom, silent save for the whirring of its motors, but I remember thinking that somehow the robot and I would have a lifelong relationship; that such machines would become a part of who I was.
The rest of my childhood, one can trace with some precision, proceeded almost certainly as a direct result of that experience. My parents, no doubt relieved to have me out of the hospital and back home, never seemed to forget my awe at the sight of that remote-controlled robot. My dad, whose library included only nonfiction works by Isaac Asimov, lacked the vast literature of science fiction, except for a modest 1986 paperback edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune that I would eventually swipe from him years down the road. Lacking stories about my favorite machine-beings, I instead relied on the graciousness of my mom during trips to the local video rental place, Hogan’s Video, to acquire such classic 1980s and -90s films as Short Circuit, Batteries Not Included, Transformers: The Movie (and, of course, the many volumes of the television series), and Star Wars.
One can see the obvious allure of science fiction to a young boy growing up in the Midwest: there’s simply nothing quite so compelling as an Imperial Star Destroyer or a sentient robot like Johnny Number Five to be found among the endless acres of Illinois prairie grass and cornfields. When a child with an aptly nurtured imagination discovers the true vastness of the galaxy, and the possibilities the future might hold for humankind, a chair or a room suddenly becomes a starship; toys and siblings become crew members on an interstellar voyage. There’s something magical about that childlike willingness to accept the impossible. Writers no doubt share a common appreciation for it, and hence we are blessed with the literature of Clarke, Dick, Asimov, and Bradbury.
Unfortunately, the urge to write coupled with a healthy imagination is merely the foundation for a writing career—they are at best the most basic of prerequisites. Writing is an art form, a craft, and therefore it’s not an inherent gift, but rather something that must be learned, practiced, unlearned and then practiced further. Like any skill, it requires constant discipline. For some, this is a hard truth to face.
Years ago I found Stephen King’s tremendous memoir, On Writing, on the shelves of the now-defunct Waldenbooks of Galesburg, Illinois, and dipped my nose in it from time to time. Mostly I enjoyed the more indulgent autobiographical parts; I found little use for the advice on craft. Until I rediscovered my love of reading—and, by extension, writing. After punching out one finished novel and several failed attempts at a second, I finally made the decision to take my writing seriously in an attempt to achieve publication. Then I read the On Writing portion of King’s memoir in earnest. I started typing up stories in feverish bouts of creativity and raw, inexplicable energy.
In February 2010, I sent my first short story submission to Weird Tales. It wasn’t quite what they were looking for, Ms. VanderMeer said politely; so I sent another. I sent stories to Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and dozens of other wonderful markets. I collected over one hundred rejection slips, and came to terms with the reality of my situation: the learning isn’t over. Will never be over. I’ve got work to do if I’m to have any real success with my writing.
Myths abound in the world of fiction writing. There are notions of commercial marketability; there are notions of literary merit. Some favor obscure artistry over effective communication; some favor close examination of the mundane over a tale of warring intergalactic civilizations. The truth of the matter is that, like any art, quality in fiction is subjective. You know it when you see it. You look for more. The publishing industry has functioned this way for centuries; writers have resisted the cycle for at least as long. Whether one’s fiction is written for the sake of opposing the status quo or for gaining a wide readership (like it or not, the latter seems to be far more profitable), reading widely and regularly, and then consistently producing new works of fiction, is the only way to develop any measure of style or the fundamentals of storytelling.
There are countless books on the subject of writing—on craft, on the publishing industry, on how to write for a specific genre—but without practice and a thorough grasp of the fiction that people are reading, no such book is going to be of any use to anyone. Another unfortunate fact is that the more you learn about the craft, especially from books about the craft authored by working professionals, the less you truly know about writing. It’s all a balancing act: you have to synthesize your own “rules” of writing, because if you read enough books on craft, you’ll quickly realize that no one agrees entirely on any one aspect of the business (this is becoming more and more true as the industry continues to evolve through the advent of electronic books). Maybe that’s why I think of writing as literary art; there are critics, and there are those who create. Both can benefit from understanding the other’s point of view, but the two will almost certainly never come to an agreement over what constitutes quality. That’s a task best left to readers; it’s a writer’s job to write—and if he or she hopes to be read, to never stop. There will always be some weakness to overcome, rejection to be faced, and staggering competition. Perseverance, along with a firm grasp of proper submission etiquette, is everything.
There is hope to be found in three modest fiction sales to three different science fiction and horror anthologies, but there is also the desire for more. There is the desire for professional-level writing, and stories that reflect such a skill. And in the desire to write, of course, is also the desire for escape, for making a return to the worlds in which I spent so much time as a boy. I long, perhaps, to one day meet my robot friend once again. Therefore, it isn’t enough to simply write; one has to continue exploring, searching for more, reading as much as possible. In books one might stumble upon truth, and thereby strengthen the imagination. Through that imagination, and the constant practice that is the requisite of the truly competent writer, one might eventually tell one’s own truth.
And truth, I believe, is something worth sharing.