The Altered I: Two versions of an anthology containing my first ever professionally published story. Excerpt here.
View from the Edge: Another writers' workshop anthology, containing more than one of my stories. One example is here.
Traitor's Citadel: A complete novel of mine currently bouncing from publisher to publisher. And a brief excerpt can be found here.
One of the worst things you can do when you have a story is talk about it before you've written it. At least, that is what I find. From way back, ideas would come to me unbidden, and rattle around in my head, growing in detail, until I found a way to get rid of it. This was by telling someone verbally, or writing it down, or writing and drawing it. (I used to make my own comics. If I was that age now and lived in Japan, there would probably be a future in it for me.) Whichever way, once it was done, the pressure was off and I could get back to life until the next idea came out of the blue.
I have done a number of articles for this web page, but the ones undergoing the least amount of progress (such as that secret societies article, and the Aussiecon I review) are ones I have plugged on my Main Page as "coming soon". Probably some level of my subconscious thinks the fact of mentioning them at all was enough.
I really liked writing compositions when I was in school, so much that when was about ten, I wrote one just for the heck of it, never intending it to be handed in to a teacher and get marked. (From memory, it involved the crew of a ship being kidnapped by aliens, and then taking over the flying saucer. This was in 1960 or so, when most UFOs came from a habitable Venus, and alien abductions were not yet "in".)
When I wrote my first short story intended for publication, I was still in high school. I wrote it in longhand, and the girls in the typing class liked it enough to turn out the finished product. (It was the final days of term after the end-of-year exams, and for those who had not been pulled out of class by their parents for one reason or another, there was time for this sort of thing.) The problem was that they had divided the manuscript between them to save time, and apart from the occasional blank space at the bottom of a page there were different type-faces, and one girl had written in ALL BLOCK LETTERS, and it needed some touching up before I dared send it anywhere. This looked like it would involve getting my own typewriter (which I eventually did) and learning to type, (which took a long time, but was better than pecking out a story with what seemed like half-hour breaks between keystrokes). In the meantime I kept the manuscript with my Most Treasured Stuff in a cardboard box in the same place as the rest of the family stuff in storage, figuring it would be relatively safe there. (For reasons why so much family paraphenalia was in storage, see Nostalgia Isn't What it Used to be, another work in progress). As it turned out, nothing at all was safe.
In 1967 my father decided to have a clean out of all things he figured we (particularly me) did not need anymore – and everything went in one go. For a few months the manuscript had sat in company with things like my 1963 diary, a postcard from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with a personal message on it, a full collection of Fantastic Four magazines starting with issue nine (which I had bought new), a Twin Earths comic, an even earlier Buck Rogers comic, and a whole pile of other stuff that is painful to think about now. My favourite S.F. books of the time went too, and included titles like The Wailing Asteroid, and The Shores of Space. By haunting second-hand book shops, I was able to replace most of them over the next five years. (Back then, not all second hand dealers realised they could successfully charge higher than the original marked price for certain books.) Harder to replace were the comics. Although I now know of specialist shops where I can get them, most of them are so rare as to be right out of my price range. At the last comic convention I was at, I recognised a Superman comic I had lost back then, which had cost me the equivilant of ten cents. There were three digits on the left of the decimal point now, however, and from memory the story was not all that hot.
Totally irreplacable, of course, was the manuscript. I had kept the handwritten originals separate from the typed manuscript, as a precaution against some unimaginable disaster, but those went too, in the same undiscriminating sweep.
Some years later I sat in front of my typewriter, trying to remember what I had written in one rush in a storm of feeling so long ago, and failed miserably. Nothing I wrote could live up to what I could remember of it. Even now, from memory that first story was not all that bad. It was called The Man Who Overslept, and involved a scientist who puts himself into suspended animation. Despite meticulous precautions to the contrary, he never gets revived. Vast periods of geological time go by, two or three pages worth, before our hero wakes in a far future dying Earth. I will never try to redo that story. It might not be totally awful, but it was bad enough.
The first story I ever wrote entirely on a type-writer was for a school short-story competition. I had just recently helped my father take down a roof of a shop in my home town's main drag. The sleek front and interiors you can see from ground-level on the street are one thing, but the delapidated tin rooves and back alleys out of sight are another world. In my story, the hero finds a gadget that can nullify or magnify his weight. Then the aliens (or whatever, I was deliberately vague) who lost the gadget come to get it back. The bulk of the story was a chase across amazingly similar tin rooftops, with incredible leaps and bounds being made by both sides. The story did not even get a placing and was never returned to me. This was also the last time I typed anything without making a copy.
The second story for publication I typed myself, making carbons. Unfortunately I still have it. At the time the idea came to me, it seemed so good. Reading my own writing as I went along was a rivetting experience. I knew people seldom sold their first story, but this was something for which I had high hopes. When the manuscript came back from the USA with a rejection slip, several months later, I was amazed at the publisher's lack of appreciation for quality. I reread my masterpiece one more time and ... to cut a long story short, it stunk. In the intervening months I had obtained a sufficient distancing from the work which would have been nice to have had the first time. The story was set some generations after a nuclear war, when the surviving population had moved deep underground and largely forgotten about the surface. Our hero, driving a tunnelling machine, comes across a volcano shaft. It is hollow for some reason, and he sees daylight way up above. Fortunately he just happens to have a rock-climbing stretcher in his machine, and goes up top to look around. When he gets there he finds vast swarms of insects in control, and a sun in the sky that is bloated because global radioactivity is somehow making the Earth spiral into it. The story is actually worse than I make it sound.
In the years that followed I sent story after story to the USA, giving Worlds of If first try every time. (They had a policy of printing one never-before-published author per issue, but never gave me a go, however). I built up an impressive collection of rejection slips, which came in a vast variety of sizes and colours, and developed some idea of doing a wallpaper from them, some time in the future. This idea came to a crashing end when I was cleaning out the combustion stove one day, and came across some charred end fragments that were all that remained of some distinctive-looking slips. They were there, as it turned out, on the grounds of "You don't really want them".
My first-ever published piece of fiction was After the Wreck of the Stellar Queen, written one night at the writers' workshop for the 1975 World Science Fiction Convention (being held in Australia for the first time ever). The workshop was run by Ursula LeGuin, along Clarion-type lines, and was high-profile enough for a printed anthology, The Altered I.
For the first time my name was in professional print – school publications do not count – and when I saw it there, I felt something inside me go "Well, that's done. Now I don't have to write any more."
Since that day, ideas have no longer come at me unbidden. I have had to force myself to write ever since.