THE FIRST CHECK
by James Lincoln Warren
As you have already read, Leigh almost didn’t make yesterday’s deadline. He called me and asked if I could fill in for him in case his internet woes defeated him. Of course I agreed, and ginned up the followingâ€”when he came through, I decided this piece would do very nicely for my own slot, so here it is.
I invited Leigh to participate in Criminal Brief based on his lively and articulate participation on The Mystery Placeâ€™s Readers’ Forum, and on the fact that he won the coveted Ellery Queenâ€™s Mystery Magazineâ€™s annual Readers Choice Award his very first time at bat. I thought heâ€™d be able to bring a fresh perspective to the discussion of short crime fiction, and Iâ€”and, I am confident, Gentle Readers, you as wellâ€”havenâ€™t been remotely disappointed.
But the circumstances got me to thinking about the first story I ever sold.
I was 19 and had been submitting stories to science fiction and fantasy pulps for three years. I was already well acquainted with form rejections. But this storyâ€”the storyâ€”was different. It was not my usual space opera or sword-and-sorcery attempt. It was not actually like anything I had ever remotely attempted. (The moral is: unique is better than commonplace.)
I had just changed colleges and moved to New York, and one of the books my roommate, the 17-year-old Michael Newman, had brought with him to our apartment was Henry Fieldingâ€™s classic 1750 novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. I devoured it. I loved everything about itâ€”its invention, the narratorâ€™s urbane wit, the rollicking ribald humor imbued with warmth and compassion. It is still one of my favorite books.
I was also a devoted Flashmaniac, and had been for a couple of years. (I have now been a devoted Flashmaniac for over thirty-five years.) In a seizure of inspiration, I wondered if I could write a comic historical story in imitation of George Macdonald Fraser and Fielding. I would add an element of the fantastic to make it palatable to the s.f. market.
I feverishly did some research and chose the year 1711 for my tale. I then typed out the story, single-spaced, on lined high-pulp paper from a Big Chief tablet. I made copious notes in ball point pen and pencil on the manuscript, and then retyped all 3500 words of my new masterpiece on erasable bond paper. “The Purvess Incident” (the central name, a fiendishly clever adaptation of “Purvis”, was stolen from the hero of a series of comic science fiction stories by Arthur C. Clarke collectively known as Tales from the White Hart) was born. Then, with a pang of exquisite parental pain at sending my tender and naÃ¯ve offspring into the uncaring wide world, I posted the story to Fantastic Stories, chosen because they featured a column written by s.f. and fantasy master Fritz Leiber, whom I worshiped with the pure and searing frenzy known only to the True Believer.
I was to receive four credulity-straining, lava-spattering shocks.
First, the story was accepted. I remember the sense of electric thrill, but nothing else. I was too overwhelmed with extremity-numbing surprise and an intoxicating swoon of proprietary pride. I do remember telling everyone I met about my triumph, though. Several times. Several times during the same conversation.
Second, my byline was on the cover. (In point of fact, every single contributor’s byline was on the cover, but that didn’t make it any the less sweet.) Tiny, to be sure, but right below Fritz Leiberâ€™s!
Third, the editor had saved my story for the 24th Anniversary Issue, and I shared the honors with George Alec Effinger (whom I met twenty years later), L. Sprague de Camp, Avram Davidson, Lin Carter, and Barry N. Malzbergâ€”giants of the fantasy genre, every one.
Fourth, I got a real check. $35.00, a penny a word. Being a penurious student, I cashed it at once. That is, after all, what checks are for. No, I donâ€™t wish I had saved it. I have the magazine as a souvenir.
It took me another twenty-three years before I again sold a storyâ€”and that was a tale of the 18th century, too, oddly enough (albeit in a different genre), the first period piece I had written since â€œThe Purvess Incidentâ€. I also remember that sale very well, because after twenty-three years, I had finally proved I wasnâ€™t a one-trick pony. I remember laughing and crying while I danced with a disapproving cat in my arms.
I’ve put the story up on my website, if youâ€™re at all interested in reading itâ€”hereâ€™s a linkâ€”although I did make some minor changes, which I rather think is all right after thirty-some years, because the original was printed with all my original spelling errors and wee historical inaccuracies intact. (I never read anything Iâ€™ve ever had published without wanting to change something. But never the fact that it sold.)
Iâ€™m not at all sure that itâ€™s a very good story, really. But it was my firstborn, and will always fill a special place, a magic place beyond price, deep in my heart.