by John M. Floyd
At a book signing awhile back, I ran into a friend from a previous life — we were in college together — who said he had only one question for me: “How in the world does someone who worked with computers for 30 years wind up writing fiction for magazines?” I gave him a lighthearted answer because it was a lighthearted question — but the truth is, I got started writing stories because of my IBM career.
If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium . . .
In those days I traveled a lot with my job, and spent many hours in airplanes and airports and hotels. Eventually I started dreaming up short stories to pass the time, and once I started I couldn’t seem to stop. After several years of this, the desk drawers and dresser drawers at home were clogged with manuscripts, and one day — it was in November 1993 — my wife suggested I try sending some of them off to editors and see if I could get something published.
I didn’t like that idea. I was pretty fond of my stories, and I wasn’t crazy about the prospect of sending them off to an editor someplace who might not be fond of them at all. Besides that, I had no clue about how to go about submitting anything to anybody.
But my wife did what spouses tend to do when confronted with ignorance — she rolled her eyes and blew out a sigh. Then she said, “Well, you know where the library is, right? You can learn how.”
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
So I did. I found a book on manuscript submission, which taught me how to format a story with the correct font, spacing, margins, etc., and then hotfooted it over to Books-A-Million and bought a fat paperback called Novel and Short Story Writers Market, which listed hundreds of publications (along with the editors’ names) that would consider unsolicited manuscripts from aspiring authors.
Armed with these tools, I picked out several magazines that looked like good targets for my kind of fiction, and in late December 1993 I mailed five different stories out to five different editors and sat back to wait.
What happened next was due far more to luck than to talent: Four of those first five submissions were accepted and published. (The first sale was to Linda Hutton, at a wonderful little magazine called Mystery Time.) I remember thinking, after hearing back from all five editors, that this marketing thing wasn’t hard at all. In fact in seemed easy as falling off a log. I’d just write a zillion stories and send them to a zillion places and use the proceeds to buy a vacation home in sunny South Florida.
There was only one problem. The next eleven stories I sent out were rejected. Eleven in a row. It hurt my pride, but was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me at that point, because it taught me a lesson: selling stories isn’t that easy after all. Even if you happen to write a good one and format it correctly and send it to the right place . . . it sometimes just isn’t enough. In order for a magazine to accept your piece for publication, that editor has to like that story on that particular day. And if all those stars don’t line up in the firmament, you get another rejection slip. So in some ways it’s a roll of the dice.
But, as with almost everything else (except my golf game), one gets better at something the longer one does it. I never bought that beach house in the Keys, but over the years my acceptance/rejection ratio has improved a bit, thank God, and I hope I’ve improved as a writer. And I’ll always believe that I was fortunate to have had that early success, because that showed me it can be done, and gave me the encouragement I needed to keep at it.
An odd couple of jobs
Now that I think about it, there might be some truth to the silly answer I gave my old friend at the booksigning that day, the one who asked me how a systems engineer can end up writing fiction. My answer to him was: “It makes perfect sense, because you have to be crazy to do either one.”
Especially fiction-writing. Strangeness definitely helps, there.
Which is the subject of next week’s column . . .
More answers to my 3/15/08 movie quiz (next 15 quotes):
16. You can’t fight in here — this is the War Room.
DR. STRANGELOVE (President Peter Sellers, during the crisis)
17. I’ve got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (Rod Steiger to Sidney Poitier)
18. They say they’re going to repeal Prohibition. What will you do then? / I think I’ll have a drink.
THE UNTOUCHABLES (Reporter to Kevin Costner and Costner’s reply, at the end)
19. All these things I can do, all these powers . . . and I couldn’t even save him.
SUPERMAN (Christopher Reeve to his mother, referring to his late father)
20. The next time I see Blue Duck, I’ll kill him for you.
LONESOME DOVE (Robert Duvall to Chris Cooper)
21. He can’t go down with three barrels on him. Not with three, he can’t.
JAWS (Robert Shaw to Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, on the boat)
22. A wed wose. How womantic.
BLAZING SADDLES (Madeline Kahn to Cleavon Little)
23. How will you die, Joan Wilder? Slow, like a snail? Or fast, like a shooting star?
ROMANCING THE STONE (Soldier to Kathleen Turner, before their fight)
24. Oh, my. I hope that wasn’t a hostage.
DIE HARD (Paul Gleason to himself as he watches a body fall from the skyscraper)
25. I’ll take these Huggies and whatever you got in the register.
RAISING ARIZONA (Nicholas Cage to convenience store clerk)
26. He saved my life, and yours, and Arliss’s. You can’t just kill him, like he was nothin’!
OLD YELLER (Tommy Kirk to his mother Dorothy Maguire)
27. Stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF?
SPEED (Driver Sandra Bullock to Keanu Reeves, as they approach freeway exit ramp)
28. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (Cab driver Ernest Borgnine to Kurt Russell)
29. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.
THE RIGHT STUFF (narrator, at the end)
30. He kissed you? What happened next? / Then he had to go invade Libya.
THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (Annette Bening’s sister to Bening, and reply)