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.
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