Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 4)

So I wrote the story, and spent a few weeks polishing it in a writing group being run by old friend Thomas R. Smith. Then, in March of 1980, I typed up a clean copy and sent it off to George Scithers at Asimov's, who to my delight did not send it back with the usual "thanks but no thanks" rejection, but rather sent it back with a letter saying he would very much like to see it again, provided I fixed the two things that made it unacceptable. These were:

1. He'd consulted a computer banking expert, who assured him that there was then and always would be a paper trail to back up all electronic transactions.
"Oh really?" said The Time Traveler, as he checked his online Visa card e-statement, and then logged into his online bank account to pay bills with e-checks.
2. Asimov's readers would never accept a story that ended with the punk winning.

So I went back and rewrote the ending, slapping on a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance, and resubmitted "Cyberpunk" to Asimov's. This time it stayed away longer, but when I did hear from Scithers again, the news wasn't good. In the meantime, he had consulted a real mainframe computer expert, and was now convinced that the whole idea of punk kids running around wreaking havoc with cheap, powerful, portable computers the size of small notebooks was just too far-fetched to be credible. That, and on further reflection he'd decided the message of this story was, "In the future, teenagers will find new ways to get into trouble," and this idea just didn't seem science-fictiony enough to be worth publishing in Asimov's. So thanks, but no thanks.

Eh. What do you do? You pick up, and carry on. Through the rest of 1980 and into 1981, I shopped "Cyberpunk" around to all the other magazines in the field, starting with the majors and working my way down to the long-shots. Every time it went out, it came back with a "nice try, kid, real close" rejection — until late Spring of 1981, when it went out to Amazing Stories, and instead of a rejection I received a letter from Assistant Editor Britton Bloom, telling me the story was being held for a second reading.

Well, this was something new. So I waited...

And waited...

And eventually grew concerned, and sent a letter asking what was going on, and in reply got a nice letter assuring me Amazing did want the story and the contract would be forthcoming shortly. So if I would just be patient, and wait...

And wait...

And along about Christmas I sent them another letter asking what the heck was going on, and in reply got a nice letter assuring me the contract was all drawn up and they were going to send it out Real Soon Now. So if I would just be patient, and wait...

And wait...

[This was my first experience with The Big Stall. I've gotten it from small-press publishers operating on the bleeding edge of bankruptcy; I've gotten it from multi-billion-dollar multinational media conglomerates. For reference, the lamest excuse an editor has ever used was, "We've run out of blank checks and have to special-order them, but it takes a couple of weeks to get them printed, so as soon as we get more blank checks we'll send you the payment for your story."]

Meanwhile, I was still waiting...

In the early Summer of 1982, I sent Amazing Stories a letter saying that if they didn't cough up the contract and check right now, I was pulling the story and submitting it elsewhere. In return, I received a nice letter from the new editor of Amazing Stories, George Scithers, just hired away at great expense from Asimov's, who told me that Amazing Stories was now owned by TSR (the original publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game), the entire former editorial staff had been fired, and all the manuscripts they were "holding for a second reading" had disappeared. But if I was willing to consider resubmitting my story, he'd be happy to give it a look.

Okay. He obviously didn't remember me from the first time around, so why not? By this time I was doing all my writing on an Apple ][+ computer, so, wanting to make an unforgettable impression on Scithers (my first attempt at doing so clearly having failed), I ran off a fresh copy of the story, sent it off as a 25-foot-long strip of unburst greenbar dot-matrix printout, and waited...

For a remarkably short span of time, as I quickly received a letter from Scithers saying, a.) he loved the story and was going to buy it, b.) could I please write lots more stories just like it, only different, and c.) would I please promise to never send him a printout like that ever again?

The contract and check came in July of 1982. The story was published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Stories, which per TSR's practices of the time was actually on the newsstands in September. And once again, my fingers brushed across the One Ring, but I failed to recognize and seize it.


Well, in SFWA's typically myopic way, "Cyberpunk" was considered my first professional sale, and Scithers was quite clear on the point that he wanted me to write lots more stories just like it. Had I recognized the monomaniacal gonzo loon principle then, seized the opportunity, and written nothing but more stories strip-mining the cyberpunk vein, no doubt I would have had some kind of really interesting literary career in the 1980s, and would now be a highly sought-after futurist with a truly great Wikipedia entry.

But consider it from my point of view. By the time I sold "Cyberpunk" to Amazing, the story was already two-and-a-half-years old. By the time it finally appeared in print, it was closing in on four years old. And in the meantime, I had, as they say, moved on. To be specific, I had:

1. Gotten married, and fathered my first daughter.

2. Continued selling non-fiction, as I had been doing for years before I wrote "Cyberpunk."

3. Continued selling short fiction, to small-press and regional markets, which paid in bird seed and contributor's copies.

4. Been commissioned to produce full electronic scores for two professional theatrical productions.

5. Done two small and forgettable art film soundtracks.

6. Bounced through three computer-industry job changes and relocated to another city, where I ended up working in Software R&D for Passport Designs. In this job, I was part of the design team that:
a. Wrote the MIDI 1.0 spec.

b. OEM'd all the first-generation MIDI interfaces and software used by Yamaha, Kurzweil, and Korg.

c. Developed lines of education software that were used in schools nationwide.

d. Developed the first generation of the music transcription and notation engine that is currently being marketed as Finale.

e. Developed a series of CMI synthesizers that were sold under the "Soundchaser" brand name.

f. Interacted with a plethora of Big Names, most notably Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck (who was a gentleman's gentleman), and Danny Elfman (who was not).
7. Landed my first significant arts grant, for a proposal that was, frankly, ten pounds of conceptual art B.S. in a five pound bag.

8. Oh. And continued writing non-cyberpunk short stories, in SF, mystery, and other genres, most of which eventually sold to other markets.

So you see, by the time "Cyberpunk" finally appeared in print, I was kind of like: "Wow. Cool. Neat. I finally got the story published. Next?"

To be continued...