How I Sold My First Story
by Michael A. Burstein

Copyright © 1995 by Michael A. Burstein. All rights reserved.

First appearance in Proper Boskonian 36, December 1995.

I have enjoyed reading science fiction for as far back as I can remember, and I always wanted to write it as well. Like many of us, I suppose, as a teenager I committed a lot of failed stories to pen. I even went so far as to submit them to some of the major science fiction markets. I still remember the pile of personal rejection notes I had received from George Scithers at Amazing Stories; at the time, I didn't realize that every story submitted to him got a personal note.

I gave up sending out stories at the age of 14 or so, and got through high school and college without doing much in the way of fiction writing. Oh, I did an occasional story here and there, and I even submitted a mystery story to some of the major mystery magazines, but that was about it. I guess I had decided that although writing was fun, I wasn't very good at it, or it simply didn't hold the appeal for me that it once had.

Then I entered Physics graduate school.

There is something about graduate school that can make a person feel contracted, almost irrelevant. You're asked to remain intensely focused on one particular subject, and heaven forbid it if you express interest in Having a Life outside of your field or discipline. I was fortunate, in that I didn't get involved in a research group right away, but I saw what friends of mine were going through once they had joined a group. Their group leader would expect them to submerge themselves -- mind, body and soul -- into their work. Already I could tell that this wasn't the life for me, and that I needed some outside release from the world of equations and problem sets.

I was also fortunate in that I met the woman who would later become my wife during my first year of graduate school. She was also a science fiction fan, and in early 1992, she took me to my first real fan run con. I was hooked. All these people, sharing many of the same interests as me -- and all these panels with real science fiction professionals spouting their opinions! The parties, the filking, the Ôzines -- the ambience. That Monday, I went to my computer with a renewed vigor for my goal -- to become a science fiction writer.

I spent the next two years paralleling my pursuit of a Master's degree in science with an attempt to become a master in the field of science fiction. Oddly enough, I never had problems coming up with ideas for stories. It was putting those stories into readable, interesting form that gave me problems. I wince when I remember an early attempt to exploit the Copenhagen interpretation in Physics, by writing a story about God being the ultimate observer. A friend I showed it to had two comments -- it was a great lecture on quantum mechanics, and the descriptions of the dinner that the two main characters ate made him hungry. Needless to say, I had a lot further to go.

So I did two things. I read, and I wrote. I read every single useful book on writing that I could get ahold of, books on characterization, plot, structure, dialogue -- and of course, books on writing science fiction. I also wrote as much as I could, when and where I could, and for a brief time gave up discouraged when my stuff sounded wooden and mechanical. Fortunately, a chance participation in an SCA dancing event gave me new inspiration, because one of the people I met there struck me as a really great character. I went home that night and wrote a thousand word character sketch based on her, which I later turned into a 6,000 word story. That story still hasn't sold, but that wasn't so important. What was important was that it helped me break a period of writer's block, during which time I had thought I would never write anything that sounded good again.

I left graduate school in 1993 with my degree but without any story credits to my name. I took a job as a high school teacher in New York City, which made me even more eager to sell a short story, so I could establish my identity as someone creative.

Finally, two things happened near the end of 1993. First, I received my first personal rejection letter in recent history, a short note from Stan Schmidt at Analog, who turned down another failed attempt of mine to break into the "Probability Zero" section of the magazine. Secondly, I got an idea for a story that intrigued me, that grabbed ahold and would simply not let go. I got my first idea that needed, that demanded, to be written.

The idea was based on something that I heard at a lot of cons. I've been on the Internet since 1987, and a lot of people in the world of science fiction -- and now, in the world at large -- have made elaborate claims about the role of the Internet, to the point where one person said that by the year 2000 everyone would have an e-mail address and free access to the so-called Information Superhighway. I was on a panel with someone who said that, and I was one of only two panelists who pointed out that the "free information" out there was not free -- at the very least, you need to be able to afford a computer, modem, telephone line, and an Internet provider. I decided that I wanted to point this out to people in a science fiction story.

Of course, the Internet isn't science fiction anymore, so I had to extrapolate a little. Instead of writing about a poor person not having access to the Internet, I created the idea of a disadvantaged boy not having access to the school of the future, a Virtual Reality classroom in which students from all over the country could interact with each other and with a teacher. (AT&T and NYNEX are now touting primitive versions of this concept on some television ads.) The boy, who I made a black student living in Harlem, New York City, hates his decrepit home school, and one day finds a pair of spex and sneaks into a private Telepresence School. And after enjoying a morning of learning and fun, he is found out...

I wrote a version of this story, and sent it to Stan Schmidt. Oddly enough, I got the story back on the same weekend as Lunacon '94, when I had a chance to have lunch with Stan and a few other people. Stan hadn't quite rejected the story; he had typed up a one-page note explaining the problems in the story, and had enclosed a few newspaper clippings about kids sneaking into schools in better districts. But nowhere in the note did he explicitly ask me to revise the story. So I asked him at Lunacon if he wanted to see another version, and he laughed and told me yes.

I took a few weeks to expand the story a bit, involving the character of the teacher more, a woman sympathetic to my protagonist's plight. But I got it back from Stan again, with a note that it was not quite there yet, and still needed work.

By this point, I had been accepted by the 1994 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop in East Lansing, Michigan. I wrote back to Stan, saying that I was going to Clarion, and that I'd have the story for him in publishable form by the time I returned.

Although my attendance at Clarion is an important part of this story, I've covered my Clarion experience in another article which should appear in Mimosa 17 (but which I'd be happy to pass on to anyone who wants to see it). With respect to my first sale, though, let me just say that Howard Waldrop is a god. We sat down for over an hour going over what the problems were in my story, and what could be done to make it work a lot better. By the time we were done with our session, I had two pages of notes on what to do with the story.

Clarion ended on July 30. I finished a third version of the story in late August and mailed it to Analog. By October, I had the cheerful news of my first acceptance, which finally appeared as "TeleAbsence" in the July 1995 issue. A second sale to Analog, inspired by the circumstances of my first sale, happened almost right afterwards, and "Sentimental Value" appeared in the October 1995 issue.

And so, after either ten or three years of trying, depending on how you count, I found myself a published science fiction writer. Although I'm still very, very much a neopro, a lot of people who are in the same situation I was just a little over a year ago have asked me how I did it. Well, this whole article is about how I did it, but the problem with stories like this is that they are so personal it is hard to glean any useful advice from them. So, finally, I would like to give a little piece of advice to anyone who wants to get published in science fiction, tangible advice that anyone can follow.

If you want to sell their first story: Write. Write and write and write and write. And maybe, like me, you'll be lucky.