Monday, December 27, 2004

Writing Anniversary

Twenty-eight years ago, I was a newlywed, living in a small, shotgun-style apartment built onto the side of an older house, working for my father as the office manager of his television and appliance repair shop. Earlier, while I was in college, I had written a few short stories and tried to sell them to various mystery and men’s magazines, with a complete lack of success. I had just about given up on writing for a while, but even before we were married, Livia had encouraged me to try again if that was what I really wanted. So by the winter of 1976, I was writing madly in my spare time, still turning out stories aimed mostly at the mystery and men’s magazine markets. Still with no success. The only encouraging sign was that I had started writing movie reviews for the local weekly paper, so at least I got to see some of my words in print.

I also read every writer’s magazine I could find, and in one of them I ran across an article by a fellow named Bill Pippin. I have no idea what happened to Bill or where he is now, but I owe a debt to him. In his article, he suggested that a beginning writer could sell to the confession magazines and make a little money while honing his craft. I had no idea what confession magazines were. Livia had read a few of them that belonged to her mother, though, and she explained to me that the stories in them were anonymously written yarns about semi-hysterical women who managed to get themselves into bizarre, emotionally melodramatic situations. All supposedly true (hence the title of the oldest and most successful confession magazine, TRUE STORY), they were, of course, written by a horde of freelance fictioneers of the sort I aspired to become. (I found out years later that Harry Whittington, one of the best suspense novelists of the Fifties, wrote confession stories at one time.) Since I was trying to break in anywhere I could, I went out and bought a couple of confession magazines at the grocery store and read some of the stories. Then I sat down and wrote one myself, about a woman who starts getting obscene phone calls. The mystery writer in me even put in a little twist at the end of the story, when the identity of the caller is revealed. I titled it “The Voice on the Other End” and sent it off to a company in New York called Ideal Publishing, which put out the confession magazine INTIMATE STORY. I sent it there first because the company’s listing in WRITER’S MARKET said that they paid on acceptance, rather than on publication like most of the other confession magazines. Amateur though I was, I had already figured out that being paid on acceptance was better.

In those days, I was using my parents’ address on all my stories, and I would go by there every morning on my way to work to check the mail. When I stopped there on December 27, 1976, no one was home, so I got the mail out of the box myself. While walking into the house I noticed that there was an envelope addressed to me, and the return address said IDEAL PUBLISHING COMPANY. This wasn’t the usual manila SASE in which my stories always came back to me with rejection slips, either. It was a business-sized envelope, and you can bet my fingers were shaking a little when I got in the house and ripped it open.

Inside was a check in the amount of $167.50, with a notation that it was for my story “The Voice on the Other End”.

I don’t remember what I did. Jumped up and down and yelled, probably. I was a professional fiction writer, even if it was just one sale. It was a pretty good sale, too. In those days, $167.50 would pay for a month’s rent on our apartment plus a basketful of groceries.

Well, of course I thought that since my first confession story had sold I must have the formula down pat, so I started writing them as fast as I could. Over the next few months I must have written a dozen more of them. But, as you may have guessed, I was overconfident. Only one of the stories ever sold (although it earned me $175.00, being a little longer than the first one). Ideal Publishing bought it, too.

Meanwhile my first story was published, and for some reason the editors at INTIMATE STORY changed the title to “Forced to Listen to My Boss’s Dirty Phone Calls” and totally blew my twist ending. By the time I wrote the second story that sold, I thought I had a better handle on the types of titles the editors wanted, so I called it “I Paid My Husband’s Debts With My Body!” And of course, when it was published, the editors changed the title to the less-frantic sounding “Housewife Hooker”.

That was the end of my confession magazine career, because while all this was going on, Sam Merwin Jr., the editor at MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE, bought a couple of my mystery stories and I abandoned the confessions for my first love, mysteries. I also started selling regularly to the men’s magazines, mostly CAVALIER, DUDE, and GENT, usually the same sort of mystery stories I was selling to MSMM, only with a sex scene added. Those markets kept me busy, plus I soon started writing Mike Shayne novellas for MSMM, and then in the fall of ’78 I decided I ought to try writing a novel . . .

I’m still at it, of course, but I’ve never forgotten Bill Pippin and my brief career as a confession magazine author. And I’ve certainly never forgotten what it felt like to open that envelope and see that first check as a professional writer, twenty-eight years ago today.


mybillcrider said...

Great story, James, and thanks for putting it in the blog. My first sale was a poem, to a magazine called THE RUNNER. Twenty-five bucks. Later I sold a four-line poem to GRIT for $4.00. If I could get a dollar a line for everything I wrote, I'd be a rich man today.

Anonymous said...

Terrific story, James! Congrats on the anniversary! I bet if you go through all your blogs you could pull enough material off them to have a good head start on an autobiography. And it would be one that everybody who truly wants to make a living at this profession should read.

Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

That was a great story, James, thanks for it. It casts hope on everyone who hasn't had a break. Have you ever reread your confession stories? Have you used their settings in your later work?


James Reasoner said...

Thanks, guys. A few years ago I came across the issues where those confession stories were published and glanced through them, but I wouldn't say that I reread them. I haven't seen the manuscripts of the unsold ones in years and don't really know where they are. I don't think anything useful could be mined out of them. There are some of my unsold mystery stories from that era that I remember fondly, though, and I sometimes think of digging them out and rewriting them to try again. Lord knows when or if I'll ever get around to it, though.

Anonymous said...

A little word on Bill Pippin. Bill is now an instructor with Long Ridge Writing Group as well as a freelancer for other magazines and newspapers. He has been showing me the ropes as of late and has been a real help in helping me hone my craft. Just thought you'd like to know.

Anonymous said...

Wow...that were pretty good paychecks for a 1970s TRUE CONFESSIONS-style magazine, I gather, as that market slid into oblivion (if there are any of these still being published, and I wouldn't be surprised, I don't ever see them). I'm amused by the distinction between an MSMM story and a CAVALIER story, given that I was paging through a 1980s romance-fiction magazine a while back, a FIVE GREAT ROMANCES that Harlequin ran throughout the '80s as a digest, though I rarely saw it even in supermarkets, and one not-bad story could easily have been published in ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE of the same vintage, except that the sex scenes were way too with Bill, my first publications were poetry, but I didn't quite make a dollar a line, but Janet Fox at SCAVENGER'S NEWSLETTER did pay $2 for a haiku, so close, in 1989, six years after my first paid writing work, and five years before my first published fiction, in Algis Budrys's magazine TOMORROW. I've been saying Manana (if I knew how, I'd get a tilde in there) about my writing career since, despite about 100 nonfiction pieces and one more short story. Janet Fox's fiction, btw, is criminally overlooked. In a world full of similar injustice...

Mom said...

Bill Pippin is an instructor with Long Ridge Writer's Group and is my instructor if it is indeed the same Bill Pippin that wrote True Confession stories as well as wood Hick,Pig Ears & Murphy as well as many other articles for Newsweek and Fish and Stream, etc. He is an excellent instructor and currently finishing his memoires.