As co-owner of this website and this small press I could write anything I want here and no one could stop me. (Well, Jonathan could try.) But I guess I’ll stick with the truth.
I’m in my mid-fifties, but I’ve only been writing for about ten years. I wasn’t very fond of English class in school and I never thought I had any particular talent as a writer. When I went to college, I studied architecture and my creative talents were directed to things other than the written word. Now that was a true statement, but I bet you thought I meant that I directed my talents towards architectural stuff—wrong! I spent most of my time in college playing wargames and Dungeons & Dragons. I’m still amazed that I ever graduated. But even though my professional training went in one direction, all those D&D games (first as a player and then as a dungeon master) did hone my story-telling skills. But once out of school I had less time for games and my story-telling abilities fell into disuse. I should probably add that my older brother is a professional writer. He’s pretty good at it, but his perpetually impoverished situation certainly did not provide me with any encouragement to try writing myself.
Eventually, I came to work for Temple University. At the time this just seemed like another job, but it did have one critical difference: as a Temple employee, I could take classes for free. And, as it happened, Temple has one of the very few graduate programs in military history in the country. Military history has always fascinated me and I was quick to take advantage of the situation. I started working on a masters degree and had the good luck to have Russell Weigley as my advisor. Weigley was one of America’s top military historians and in addition to having an encyclopedic memory, he was a very good writer and demanded that his students write competently, as well. In the course of my studies I found myself writing lengthy papers and, to my surprise, enjoying it. After a few years I got my masters degree and then decided to try for a Ph.D. Why not? It was free, after all.
Unfortunately, it was also a lot more work than the masters program. At the same time I was having some troubles with my personal life. I had two young children and my wife was having serious medical problems. Schoolwork was becoming a real drag. I was burning out.
Then fate took a hand.
In addition to military history, the other things that I read avidly were science fiction and fantasy. My father and older brothers had had that same addiction so there had been dog-eared copies of Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke all over the house when I was growing up. I did a 2nd grade book report on Starship Troopers. So, even though I was swamped with graduate work I still read SF&F to relax. At the time, I was reading a series of SF books that I enjoyed a lot. I had become involved with an Internet group that followed the series and made some interesting friends. At the time, we were all eagerly awaiting the release of the next book in the series. The main character had been left in a terrible fix at the end of the last book and we were all speculating on what would happen next. During the long wait I had come up with my own mental image of what would happen. I knew that I wouldn’t get all the details right, but I had a sort of checklist of Things That Must Happen. Well, eventually the book was released and I devoured it in a single night.
And was mightily disappointed.
While much of the book had gone as I expected, some of it didn’t and worst of all, when it ended there were several very important points on my checklist that were still unchecked. In my opinion the darn thing had ended about three chapters short of where it should have. I was seriously irritated. So I fumed for about a week and then decided to take matters into my own hands.
I wrote the missing chapters.
It was fan fiction, of course, although at the time I wasn’t really even familiar with the term. It took about two weeks, but at the end of that time I had the three ‘missing’ chapters.
And something unexpected happened.
First, I really enjoyed the process of writing. I had never done anything like this before. I had cranked out about 30,000 words of prose, something I would have considered quite a chore before that point, and I had really liked doing it. It was fun. And after several years of graduate school I truly appreciated the fact that I did not have to do any research, nor footnote what I wrote. I just made the stuff up! What an idea!
The second unexpected thing was that other people really liked what I had written. I shared my fan fic with my Internet buddies and they loved it. They told me it was as good as what the original author had written. They told me my chapters were what the original author should have written.
I thought that was really cool.
So I wrote some more. Quite a bit more, actually. I wrote two entire novels, about 400,000 words, set in this other author’s universe. I made up most of the characters and situations but I made free use of the other author’s background. Again I circulated it among my internet friends (but never posted it on-line, I was aware of the legalities of fan fiction by then) and again they praised it heavily—even total strangers. Many of them told me I should start writing original stories and by the end of my second fan fic novel I had reached the same conclusion. Oh, and that was also the end of my Ph.D. I dropped out about halfway through the second novel.
My first original novel, The Terran Consensus, took about nine months to write. Even though it was set on Earth and in the not-too-distant future, I quickly found that building my own world was a lot more work than borrowing someone else’s! I should note that by the time I was finished with my second fan fic novel my head was getting pretty swelled from all the positive feedback. And while it was true that what I was writing probably was as good (or better) than what the original author had written, I had not really appreciated what a gift that pre-made universe really was. So, my first original novel was rougher and more amateurish than my fan fiction. But it was still a good story and I had that confirmed more quickly and emphatically than I could have expected.
By an odd series of coincidences I had made the acquaintance of author Eric Flint. At that time he was not nearly as well known as he is now. He had only a few books in print, but he was clearly an up and coming author. For reasons I won’t go into here, Eric agreed to read The Terran Consensus. He declared that it was absolutely of publishable quality and ‘as good as most of what you see getting published today’. Well, I was thrilled. Doubly so when he offered to try and get his own publisher (Jim Baen) to take a look at it. At the time I was only starting to become aware of just how horribly difficult it is for a new author to break into this business, but I still appreciated this as the enormous favor that it was. So, with the ink barely dry, my first manuscript was off to be read by a major publisher.
Of course, it took a while for Baen to get around to reading it. Quite a while.
In the meantime, thoroughly pumped by Flint’s endorsement, I leapt back into the writing with both feet. I had a new story idea and I cranked this one out in just four months. My second novel was named Ruins and it was much better than the first. When the wait for Baen had gone on for nearly a year I pestered Eric to take a look at Ruins and he liked it even better than The Terran Consensus. He really liked it a lot and proposed that we get Baen to look at it instead of my first novel. I readily agreed.
Well, Baen was busy and having some health problems and the wait dragged on and on. But I wasn’t sitting on my hands. I turned my word processor to fantasy and wrote The Seventh Sword. I showed this to Flint and although he wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about it as he had been about Ruins, he made an offer that left my head spinning. He proposed that we become a team similar to the arrangement he had with David Drake on their Belisarius series. He would come up with a series based on The Seventh Sword, sell it to Baen, and then I would do the bulk of the writing and it would be published as a collaboration. I couldn’t believe it. A ready-made writing career offered up on a silver platter! How lucky could I get?
However, all of this was dependent on Baen buying Ruins. If he wouldn’t buy my novel, there was no way Flint could sell the idea of a collaboration. But Flint was very confident that Baen would buy Ruins and I had no choice but to share that confidence. I was on Cloud Nine and inspired to keep right on writing. I might add that about this same time I sold a short story I had written in collaboration with Jonathan Cresswell for Eric’s first 1632 anthology, Ring of Fire. I was a published author! I had a check to prove it! Life was good. I started a new novel called Earthmen Rising and was well into it when the sky fell on me.
Baen refused to buy Ruins.
Actually, Jim Baen never read it, it was turned down by the chief editor at Baen, Toni Weiskopf. She had some nice things to say about it, but the bottom line was that they wouldn’t buy it. So, that was the end of the fantasy series with Flint, as well. From a shoo-in to out-in-the-cold in one easy step. I was pretty devastated, because this had not been some pie-in-the-sky, novice’s fantasy pipe-dream. It had seemed like a very, very good chance. Every author expects rejection slips, but this was different.
I suppose I should be proud that I didn’t just give up at that point.
But Eric still believed in me and offered to help as much as he could. He directed me to his own agent, but she never responded to his inquiries. He also used his other contacts to try and drum up interest for Ruins.
There wasn’t anything for me to do but pick myself up and keep writing. But Earthmen Rising wasn’t going well. For the first time I had to stop and look and admit that what I was writing wasn’t very good. So I put it aside for a while and sent out some of my finished novels to other publishers. This became kind of depressing when I realized that there were only about three major publishers who would even look at submissions from unagented authors and that response times were in years. But send them out I did. Then I decided to take a whack at another idea that had popped into my head. I started writing Fires of Memory, another fantasy novel.
I started writing and could not stop. This one just poured out of me. Night and day. I finished an 180,000 word novel in just 90 days. And it was great, absolutely the best thing I had ever written. But what to do with it? I didn’t feel like I could keep shoving stuff at Eric. He was becoming increasingly famous and increasingly busy and had pretty much told me he could do no more to push me with Baen. So, I packaged it up and sent it off to a publisher with the others.
Then I went back to work on Earthmen Rising. I took a hard look at it and started ripping stuff out and putting other stuff back in and bit-by-bit I managed to finish another novel. This was a good one and I was especially satisfied with it because I had come back to a stalled effort and made it work.
But by this time the rejection slips were starting to come it. They weren’t as devastating as the first disaster, but I was becoming increasingly depressed. I was running out of places to send stuff. And the whole system seemed very unfair.
Then my luck turned again—or so it seemed. I got an e-mail from Eric and he had made contact with the owner of a small press, Meisha Merlin. They weren’t big, but you could find their books on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble, so they weren’t totally off the radar screen. Eric had told them about Ruins and they agreed to look at it. Not expecting much, I sent it off.
To my utter amazement they said they wanted to buy it!
Well! I wasn’t quite as high as I had been a few years earlier, but I was definitely on Cloud Seven or Eight. A sale! At last! This could open up some doors for sure.
But, as the saying goes: the Devil is in the Details. In this case, the detail was to get them to actually buy the darn thing. Oh, they said they wanted it and on that promise I pulled the manuscript out of the Tor slush pile, where it had been sitting for over a year. But no offer materialized. They said one was coming, but they had suffered some financial setbacks and I would have to wait. I waited and waited but no offer ever came. Meisha Merlin is out of business now and they never made me an offer.
So, another kick in the head. Again, this wasn’t just a rejection slip, this was a realistic hope for a sale dashed away at the last second. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take.
But I kept writing. Novel #6 was Across the Great Rift, another SF epic. I was quite pleased with it, but again, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I had been rejected pretty much everywhere that still accepted slush. But another strange quirk of fate was just around the bend.
As I’ve mentioned my older brother is a professional writer. He knew of my writing activities but was not in a position to offer me any help. But then he sold a series of books to Penguin and he felt that he could at least ask his agent to take a look at one of my manuscripts. He had just read Across the Great Rift and liked it and suggested I send her that. With nothing to lose I did so. I was quite surprised when she said that she liked it and wanted to become my agent.
Hey, this was great! I had an agent (a real one, too, she’s with an old and very respected Manhattan literary agency with some very big name clients)! All of those publishers who don’t accept slush were now open to me.
I soon found that the only real difference to having an agent is that the rejection slips come faster. Mind you that they were very nice rejections. They were full of praise and most said things like: ‘If we’d seen this ten years ago we would have bought it in a second, but today it doesn’t fit our marketing strategy’. It seems that the marketing strategists are running the publishing industry now and it doesn’t matter a bit how good or bad the story is. If it fits, they buy it, if it doesn’t then no amount of good writing will change their minds. In an amazingly short time my agent had run out of places to send Rift. And to my dismay she didn’t seem interested in trying to sell any of my other novels since they were out of the same mold.
Another dashed hope. Why did I ever start writing? I loved it, but the heartbreak that went with it was becoming unbearable. I wrote good stuff, darn it! Good stories that people enjoyed reading. This wasn’t just my opinion, dozens of people had told me so, many of them disinterested professionals. In some ways it might have been better if I had not been told all of this, if Eric had not encouraged me so much right at the start. If I got rejections and just thought: ‘well, I have to write better stuff if I want to make a sale’, that might have been better than not making a sale while being told that my stuff was already good enough to sell. The experience left me very bitter.
In spite of everything I could do, my writing ground to a halt. I turned my creative impulses elsewhere. I had always liked building models and I was an avid wargamer. Almost without planning to I started up a small company called PaperTerrain which produces model buildings made out of paper. It has been extremely successful and made far more money for me than I probably would have if I had sold my novels. An outlet for my creativity that actually made money could not be ignored!
But I still love to write.
And I still had seven darn good novels already finished. What to do with them? Just let them languish on my computer’s hard drive until someday when I die they’ll be lost forever? That seemed like a shame.
Then I discovered a company called BookSurge. They were a vanity press, but with a difference. They were owned by Amazon.com and anything they print is available for sale through Amazon. And they use print-on-demand technology so I would not have to buy thousands of copies and try to sell them out of my basement. And, if I could supply a formatted PDF file and cover artwork, they are very economical. Fortunately, my dear friend, Jonathan Cresswell, in addition to being a brilliant writer is a talented artist and knows all about formatting and such things. He was willing and able to help me out. I decided to self-publish Ruins (soon renamed to War Among the Ruins). This worked out just fine. BookSurge is a great company with a great product. In a very short time I had a copy of my novel sitting in my hands.
Of course, I still needed to sell it to people.
Somewhere in the course of getting Ruins ready to print the realization struck Jonathan and I that we had the potential to form our own publishing company. Jonathan had several very good novels unsold on his computer, just as I did. With BookSurge as our printer and Amazon as our distributor all we needed were some good books—and we just happened to have those in abundance.
Thus, Stellar Phoenix Books was born.
It is a company still in its infancy and we know it will never make us much money, but that is no longer the objective. We both have good stories that deserve to be read and enjoyed by people. If this endeavor can get our work into the hands of even a few people it will be worth it.
And it might even inspire me to start writing again!
Oh, and on a personal level, I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and work at Temple University. In addition to everything else I’m a Civil War reenactor. I’m married, with two daughters, a dog and a cat.
Jonathan Cresswell lives and works in Toronto as a graphic designer. He has been published in OnSpec magazine and the 1632 anthologies Ring of Fire and Ring of Fire 2.