Pretty much everyone starts out wanting to write the same way: I can do that.
You know, you read something that you find wanting and you think, “how did that get published? Jeez, anybody can do that.”
My particular I can do that came when I read the magazine Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. This was a great little magazine with wonderful art and production values. It was MZB’s way to give back to her community. Its raison d’etre was to publish beginning writers, those who had talent but who were at the beginning of their careers and just needed that boost to give them momentum.
Also, she had the sharpest, meanest rejection letters out there — I swear, one or two of them brought tears to my eyes. I never sold to that market, and here’s why.
When I read the stories, all I saw were the flaws. I didn’t see what MZB saw, why she bought them and why she thought they were any good. Accordingly, when I wrote stories for the magazine, I wrote stories that weren’t that good. That’s what she was buying, right?
Man, it was pretty stupid. And I recount my shame here because I see people making the same mistake, scorning what’s published and seeing only the flaws (and sometimes, inventing flaws, but that’s another story). I can do that is a great impetus but it can’t end there. You have to read the best and set your sights on I want to do that.
For the record, it was Esther Friesner’s short stories in the Magazine in Fantasy and Science Fiction that made me say, I want to do that. Friesner and a whole host of others (most recently, Paolo Bacigalupi’s “People of Sand and Slag,” reprinted in the anthology Wastelands) made me catch my breath in awe.
What’s the hardest about I want to do that is that it’s so close to I’ll never do that, and failure is hard to face. I have never written a story as good as the ones I mentioned here, and I might never achieve that, but I’ve written some pretty good stories trying.
When my daughter was about two or three, she looked up at the top of the tallest tree in the yard, a giant cottonwood, and said, “I want to go up there.”
You and me both, kid.