When I was in high school, my dream was to be on The Tonight Show. This was still during the Johnny Carson era, which is perhaps a bit too revealing about how old I am. Anyway, I imagined myself sitting on that couch, lobbing bon mots at Johnny while Ed McMahon shouted, “Hi yo!” beside me. It was gonna be great.
The novel was going to be my big splash. My epic, my magnum opus, the Book That Would Change Everything—the book that would ensure that someday, my name would be uttered in the same breath as Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.
A boy could dream. Right?
The first sign my dream might not quite come off as planned came was the stack of rejections I collected. I was sending stories to Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction every other week, which meant every other week I was getting those stories back in my carefully prepared self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Usually they came with a pre-printed card featuring a generic “Not for us” message (implied: not for anyone). Sometimes the card had a scribble of ink that might have been someone’s initials. Hard to say. Maybe it was a bored doodle.
The second sign my dream might not come off quite as planned is the novel I was writing was called The Hunter of Fishes. Now, writers all know working titles rarely end up being the actual title, and sometimes they’re pretty silly—if not outright placeholders. (My current WIP is called Joey 2, since it's the second book about my character Joey. No idea what the actual title will be.)
But the thing about The Hunter of Fishes is it was pretty much an on-the-nose title, except the “fishes” in question were giant space fish and the “hunters” in question were both named after the producers of the movie The Graduate. (Why them? Who knows?)
This magnum opus, this genre-bending science fiction epic came in at a hefty 175 manuscript pages, and we’re not talking single-spaced, zero margins. My manscripts were typed according to publisher standards, which meant my epic was barely a novella.
Also, it was terrible. And I mean that in the most generous sense of the word. Ter. Ri. Ble.
So the dream didn’t turn into reality. At least not that dream. One thing that did happen was Asimov’s Science Fiction sent me a check for $275, though they never ended up publishing the story. Maybe it was a consolation prize. “We’ve rejected you so many times we’re sending you a check out of the forlorn hope you’ll stop submitting this dreck.” Still, money! But not “Hi yo!” with Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson money.
That Asimov check arrived in 1981. My first novel was published in 2007.
During the intervening years, I wrote a couple more terrible novels, and a bunch of short stories, some of which were actually published here and there—occasionally for a few bucks. Johnny Carson retired. Then Jay Leno retired. No one invited me to appear on The Tonight Show. Nobody had reason to invite me to appear on The Tonight Show.
But I kept plugging away. And in the process, I found out that the crazy fame and fortune dream was a lot less important than the plugging itself. In fact, I’m not even sure what I’d say if I actually ended up on The Tonight Show couch. (“May I have a blanket to hide under?”) My next book, Property of the State, comes out in about a month, and that’s the real dream. I plugged away for a lot of years and wrote a book I’m proud of (my fifth overall, and my first YA!) And in a few short weeks people will get the chance to read it for themselves.
That’s a dream worth working toward.