How I’ve Been Learning To Write

11 09 2013

October 1989

The first writing advice came from rejection letters written by George Scithers:

“The protagonist must protag.” “The protagonist must be likable.”

Mind you, I still needed to learn this after two college level “Creative Writing 101” classes. My classes were taught by published authors who may not have been great teachers. Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention during lectures (cough).

I think I submitted over a dozen stories to “Weird Tales” until 2001.


That same year, a friend of mine named Alan tells me about a writer’s workshop he attends with members of the Weird Tales editorial staff. I join up.

Through the workshop, I meet WT slushreaders Lee and Diane Weinstein, and Co-Editor Darryl Schweitzer. They encourage me to read slush for George. I visit George’s house in King of Prussia, PA off-and-on for the next decade.


Slushing With George Scithers:

“Don’t reject your story before you send it. Rejecting it is the editor’s job! Send it!” “You aren’t submitting to the magazine. You are submitting to the editor.”


That last advice spoke to the human element of submitting a story. Follow the publication guidelines. Buy copies of the publication and be acquainted with what it publishes. Compliment the editor on a recent publication. Be polite. Don’t lie. Be humble. If you are given advice, apply that advice to your next submission. Do not resubmit the same story until asked. Editors will forgive naivete, but not rudeness, and publishing is a small community: Piss off a few editors, and you become gossip.




Barry Longyear’s book “The Write Stuff”

“The first paragraph has to establish setting, tone, point-of-view, and protagonist.”


Early ‘90’s

Algys Budrys’ book  “Writing To The Point”

Chapter Seven covered how to structure a three-step plot, and this time I was ready to receive the lesson.


Reading More Slush For “Weird Tales.”

“The conflict must happen by 25% of the way through the story.”

I do not recall if George pointed this out, or I wondered and figured this out by myself. Probably George asked a guiding question and made me think it out.

Reading slush was helpful in that I could see that the first thing a writer must do is not frustrate the editor. Of 100 submissions per week, fifty would be rejected for basic illiteracy, illegibility, being too long, and not knowing what “Weird Tales” published. Of the remaining 50, easily 40 of them were from previously rejected authors who had established a rapport with George or co-editor Darryl Schweitzer.

Then works were filtered for quality. Protags not protagging. Characters not being likable. Flat descriptions. Believability being too strained. Poor pastiches of other authors.

The few surviving stories were given a last consideration: did the magazine have enough room. When an editor says “I wish I could publish all the finalists”, the editor is not kidding. These decisions were painful. However, those who had a rapport usually faired better.

Speaking of pastiches, I tried my hand at a Lovecraft story. Darryl Schweitzer is one of the greatest living experts on Lovecraft, and man he picked my story apart. He also told me:

“If you are going to write about magic, invent your own system.”

I liked that, and have done so ever since.


Also, George would hand me a story and ask, “What do you think of this?” Nervous, I’d read it and express my honest opinion that the ending was flat or that a magic system seemed too easy. Then George would nod. “Yes! I thought that too. You confirmed it.”

I knew what a good story felt like, I just hadn’t thought much about the mechanics.


Meanwhile, George likes a few of my submissions, but Darryl does not. I develop an unreasonable dislike for Darryl.


Somewhere along the line:

“The more personal the subject, the more the reader will want to see it.”

I misapplied this advice. While my descriptions became more vivid, the subject matter triggered my obsessiveness. These subjects were vital to me, and I had to get them right. The subjects I obsessed about dealt with big themes of Romance and Hate and Growing Up, so there had to be stories in them somewhere.



Catherine Petrini

“Use more smells and textures.”

Cathy is in my writer’s group Noble Fusion. She’s been a professional editor and her critiques aren’t just surgical, they are curative. This advice is from years’ of proofs and suggestions given by Cathy, Lawrence Schoen, Arthur Dorrence, and Barbara Hill.


A Rejection Form Signed By Marion Zimmer Bradley

“A word in your story’s title is misspelled.”



Dour Moment of Realization

“Sometimes, there is no story in your idea.”

I looked honestly at stories I’d been rewriting for a decade. The story about Eros’ vengeful brother. The chaos magician who created a perfect lover, who turned out to be an internet game. The high school guys whose dead friend wanted them to shoot up their school. Each rewritten over ten times. I threw them in a file and have not looked at them since.

Except for this one rather grody gaslight body horror story. It started as a “Romance Sucks” story, but its grown into something interesting.


“’Almost’ matters.”

Editors started sending personal responses, then more, and everyone told me I was getting close.


My first semi-pro publication was “’Til You Just Can’t Boogie No More” in a now-defunct print magazine named “Terra Incognita”.  It takes ten years to get published, so I’ve been told. I got published nine years and six months after my first try. I knew the publisher/editor from my writer’s group.


March 2000

Gothic.Net likes my grody gaslit body horror, which is titled “Determination.” It is my first pro sale.


Various sources:

“Find a story and take it apart. Use it as a template for the story you want to write.”

I ordered a book titled “Black Humor” online, thinking it was an American anthology published in the ‘60’s. Turned out it was a collection of surrealist works compiled by Andre Breton. A story called “The Urbane Tiger” catches my eye. I rewrite it using a ghoul instead of a tiger performing a menacing burlesque. About ten rewrites later, the protagonist develops and the twist ending appears. Darryl Schweitzer finally likes this story, and it appears it “Weird Tales” in 2001.


“Sometimes you take what you can get.”

George told me, “I didn’t really like that story of yours we published. Darryl liked it, so I went with it.”


It’s been another decade since my first pro sale, and I haven’t sold another pro level market since. The grody gaslit body horror is now a fix-up novel, three other chapters of which I have sold to semi-pro markets to very good reception from their readers.


So, now what? I keep learning.



Gordon Van Gelder said, “Evoke three senses in every paragraph of description.”



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