14 January 2012

It's Just Another Case of (Publishing) Karma Repeating Itself

If you’re here for the “Inside Publishing” part of the program, go ahead and take a caffeine break. Heck, shoot for something alcoholic. The more you know about the current state of publishing, self-publishing, markets and marketing, the more you’re likely to need it. No, I won’t tell. Scout’s honor. (Seriously, I was a Girl Scout for fifteen minutes once. Actually, I was a Brownie, but that’s a story for another day and a honking big bottle of chocolate liqueur.)

But if you’re here for “Business As Usual”… (User cracks knuckles.) Honey, pull up a chair.

As you may have gathered from my contributions to this blog, my usual in this business qualifies as everybody else’s “peculiar in the extreme”. There was the editor who wanted a story about dragons and bacon. Yeah, that one fried a few synapses. The story finaled in the 2011 WSFA Small Press Award, which fried even more. Then there was “Personal Demons”, a short story which was rejected with prejudice by every male editor in the business. Ten years after it first started making the rounds, it found the female editors of Hellebore & Rue, and is now collecting rapturous reviews. Ten years! For a story everybody suddenly loves—go figure.

What you may not realize is that this pattern was set when I was very young, and as I have lately learned, it’s set in stone. You might call it destiny—my karma, even. Though I’m scared to think about what kind of past life could account for it. I know exactly when it started, too.

You can blame my passion for writing on the comics, specifically Lois Lane and Brenda Starr. They taught me early that reporters had the best of all possible lives. They were smart, good-looking, had great wardrobes (and shoooooooes!) and got paid to satisfy their overpowering curiosity. (The hot guys who ran after them weren’t exactly a disincentive, either, but I digress.) In pursuit of a reporting career, I wrote for everything my elementary school, junior high and high schools had to offer.

When I was fourteen, I knew I was on the verge of my big break. Considering what would become the pattern of my publishing life, it was only natural the opportunity came from the unlikeliest of all possible sources: my ninth grade German teacher. In the late Mesolithic when I attended middle school, a German-American cultural organization called the Karl Schurz Society published a magazine for high school students. The magazine sponsored an annual essay competition, and my ninth grade German teacher promised an “A” for the quarter to any student who finaled in the competition.

Given that we’re less than a month away from the holiday season, you can be forgiven for looking for parallels with A Christmas Story. As it happened, this teacher strongly resembled Miss Shields in full Wicked Witch of the West mode, only with a German accent. The prospect of an “A” for anybody in her class was so slim, everybody in class submitted something. Then we waited, and waited, and waited for the results. By May, four months after the contest deadline, I figured somebody had to have heard something, even though all traces of the magazine—which had formerly been required reading for the class—had vanished from the classroom and the school library. So I asked my German teacher. She snarled and told me I was insubordinate for presuming to bring up the subject of our class’s complete and utter failure. We were stupid! Useless! We broke the magazine! I swear, her maniacal cackle echoed all the way to Oz.

Fast forward to a year later. My dad had retired from the Army, and we’d moved to Pennsylvania. My new German teacher was as different as could be imagined from the Wicked Witch in everything from gender to accent. It was a few days before school let out for the summer, and we were mostly goofing off, catching up with German-American student newspapers and translating articles in popular German magazines.

I was deep in Der Stern, when one of my classmates called across the room: “Hey, Jean Marie, you used to live in Texas, right?”

“Yeah, San Antonio.”

“What school?”

I tried to cock an inquiring eyebrow at him and failed. At fifteen, my eyebrows skills were decidedly limited. “Robert G. Cole. It’s the base school for Fort Sam Houston.”

“Why didn’t you tell us you finaled in last year’s Karl Schurz contest?”

I told him he was nuts, and I believed it…until he shoved the magazine in my face. Did I mention that the teachers of students who finaled got something more tangible than an egoboo from the contest? That was something elseI learned that day.

The experience only made me more determined to succeed as a writer. Throughout high school, college, my gigs as a freelance journalist and my first government jobs, I submitted novels, short stories and poems to any venue foolish enough to publish its address. Since I adored Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, I made a particular effort to get published in the small press magazines specializing in sword and sorcery, magazines like Weirdbook and its spin-off Eerie Country.

I even subscribed, though I knew the ratio of Brian Lumley stories to Fritz Leiber stories was something like twenty to one. I confess, I didn’t read all the magazines I subscribed to. I read enough to get a feel for the stories they liked to publish, but beyond that, what was the point? Face it, there’s only so much Brian Lumley a girl can stand. But I saved them all, just in case I had a spare hour or ten someday.

Fast forward to last month. After thirty years, I finally resigned myself to the fact I was never going to read that much Brian Lumley. So I stacked my collection of small press magazines next to my computer and started cataloguing them for sale on eBay. Being something of a closet librarian, I diligently scanned the contents for writers and stories that could be selling points for potential collectors.

There weren’t any surprises until I opened Eerie Country 4. On the table of contents under “Poems”, between William Scott Home and Joseph Payne Brennan was a listing that shouldn’t have, oughtn’t have, never ever could’ve possibly been there.

But it was: “The Soft” [by] Jean Marie Ward.

Making a high, thin noise that sent the cat running for his hidey hole under the bed, I turned to the page indicated. There, in all their awful glory were five lines of free verse that had my juvenile writing fingerprints all over it. I didn’t keep a lot of the poems I wrote in the late Seventies and early Eighties. In fact, I tried to forget ever having written most of them. They were that bad. I have many reasons to be grateful to the editors who rejected them and consigned them to oblivion.

All except “The Soft”, that is.

When? How? What? Why didn’t somebody tell me?

Where the hell’s my contract?

Okay, ignore that. Unlike the episode with the Wicked Witch of ninth grade German, this was most definitely NOT a case of malice aforethought. Nobody made any money on magazines like Eerie Country, especially not on 21-word poems. It was all about the publication credit. I’m quite sure it was a case of the paperwork being lost in the mail, and if I’d read the magazines like I was supposed to (having subscribed and all) I could’ve cleared up any confusion, oh, thirty-one years ago.

Holy rhyming crap, Batman, I’ve been a published poet for thirty-one years!

The really sad thing is the kink in my karma that causes these slip-ups isn’t done with me. Last year, a writer/editor I know, like and respect made the leap from editor to agent. Like everyone else, I’ve got a novel that needs a home, and there are a lot of places where you just can’t submit without an agent. So I queried her in September, and she asked me to send a partial. Then…nothing.

I let it go until the end of the year, when I asked if her non-response meant she wasn’t interested. No harm, no foul, regardless. I’ve been in this business a long time, and a lot of the folks who’ve published me have also rejected a story or two along the way. But as it turned out, she emailed me requesting a full after Thanksgiving.

Nope, I never got the email.  It never made it to my inbox, my trash or any of my filtered boxes. I checked. But there’s no question she sent it.

Like I said, business as usual.

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