1981: The Writer’s Life

by wjw on October 9, 2010

This is third in a series of posts about my early life as a writer, inspired in part by my digging through old tax records.  1981, though the third year in which I earned my living through writing, was the first year in which I was actually published.

I have remarked in the past that I was once so poor that I freeloaded off Howard Waldrop.   It was during one of these periods, around the New Year of 1981, that Leigh Kennedy took me to an H.E.B. supermarket in Austin to show me The Privateer, my first novel, sitting in the wire rack.

As I remember, I wasn’t that excited.  “It’s about time,” is what I remember thinking.  I’d been working full-time as a writer for something like five years, doing part-time jobs and getting help from my family, and something of mine had finally shouldered its way into print.  I’d written the book two years earlier, and I was much more interested in my next project than in the old one.

So I’m phlegmatic and forward-thinking.  Sue me.

(A note on the Privateers & Gentlemen series, for those who haven’t read the books.  These were sea-adventure novels in the mode of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian.  [I believe I was one of three people in the US who knew about Patrick O’Brian in those days.]   I knew even as I wrote them that they were journeyman works written under a [fairly transparent] pseudonym,  but I had no trouble getting paid for learning my craft, as it were, on the job.  I learned an immense amount about writing from doing these books, and even more about how to live on what working writers actually earn.

(Publishers— particularly my publisher, Dell— were buying historical series left and right in those days, based on the immense success of John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles, about characters whose hereditary superpower involved being unable to open a door without literally bumping into a major figure from American history.  Jakes’ books had two-word titles, the first of which was a definite article: The Bastard, The Rebel, etc.  Dell’s slavish adherence to formula meant that my titles had to follow this pattern: The Privateer, The Yankee, The Raider.  In fact by 1981 Dell began running out of suitable nouns to fit this formula: my The Yankee appeared at the same time, perhaps the same month, and from the same publisher, as The Yankee by Dana Fuller Ross.  My fifth book, Cat Island, is the only book that kept my original title, and by that time Dell had ceased to care one way or another.

(A very short time later, Dell saturated the horror market in the wake of Stephen King’s success, and crashed that one, too.   Let it not be said that they learned from their mistakes.

(Anyway, P&G, true to its privateering heritage, was flying under false colors: these were not like books by John Jakes at all, but were a lot like books by C.S. Forester.   The only concession to the Jakes formula, other than the titles imposed on me, was that the books had no single protagonist, but rather featured members of the same family, all privateers or naval officers in the American Revolution and War of 1812.  I originally intended a ten-book arc, stretching through the Mexican and Civil Wars to the First Korean War of 1871.  [Bet you didn’t know the United States fought a war with “Corea” in 1871.   As the conflict was prototypical of all our encounters in Southeast Asia, and therefore unsuccessful, it has been expunged from the history books.]

(Be that as it may, the series ended after Book V.  So greedy and short-sighted were the publishers that they’d overbought historicals, and by 1982 were dumping series left and right.  Historical fiction has never really come back in the U.S.— historical series were staples when I was growing up, and what remains are low-end adventure fiction and gimmicky stuff like The Alienist.  Writers who might in the past write straight historicals are now writing historical mysteries, historical romance, and alternate-world science fiction.]

To return to 1981: All three of the books that I’d contracted for, back in early 1979, appeared during the course of 1981.  The fourth and fifth books in the series had to wait till 1984 to see print, because Dell no doubt felt they had to make sure that any possible momentum was quashed completely. In fact, Dell’s legal right to publish the books had expired by that time, though I was careful not to remind them of this.  Selling Books IV and V of a canceled series would have been impossible, and at least this way they saw print.

At any rate, the first book in the series sold well enough to generate a contract for Books IV and V.  I got a raise, from $10,000 per volume to $12,500.

Books IV and V are in fact a single book that grew unwieldy enough so that I cut it in half, and earned $25,000 for a single work.  Not bad at all, especially for the time.

Schedule C tells me that my business earned a total of $18,071 in 1981, the $12,500 signing money plus $5000 acceptance money for Book III, which I’d completed the previous year, plus a few bucks here or there, mostly interest. (Compare this with $6700 in 1980 and $20,000 in 1979.)

My agent got a commission of $1750.  Car expenses were $1319, office supplies $436, rent on my office $650, and depreciation on my IBM Model D typewriter was $102,96.  (My 1972 Chevy van had apparently grown so old that I could no longer depreciate it.)  Business travel was $1542.36.  (In addition to my visit with Howard Waldrop, I attended the Denver Worldcon, Armadillocon in Austin, and Bubonicon in my home town of Albuquerque.)

My business earned a profit of $4846.59, on which I paid a massive tax of $630.73.

My chief deduction was the cost of my very first home computer.  By that time I had seen the wonderful things that word processors can do, and I very much wanted to do them.  (Cut and paste!  Oh my God! I wept, I cried!)

When the offer came in on Books IV and V, I wanted to begin work immediately,  but I didn’t have the money to buy the computer.  Figuring that the money was on its way, I went to my local savings & loan and borrowed $4190.93 on a 90-day note.  (Surely the money would come within 90 days, right?)  I believe the actual cost of the office computer was something like $6200, so apparently I laid down a couple grand of my own money.

Yes, a home computer system cost $6200 back in 1981.  Figure that as being worth about $20,000 in today’s money.

What I got for my money was a Tandy Model II, with 64K RAM, using 8-inch floppy disks, along with a Disk Expansion (an enormously heavy steel cabinet for up to three extra drives, in my case holding only one), and a Epson MX-80 printer.

The computer was a fucking pig.  The 8-inch floppy was in constant contact with the read/write head, which meant that any power failure, power surge, or static discharge could “spike” the disk— and since the read/write head was almost always in contact with the directory track, that meant that I lost the directory every time that happened.  There was no backup directory track.  This made backups crucial, but the disk drives were so slow that it took 20 minutes to make a backup— that was twenty minutes of me sitting in front of the drive, swapping floppies in and out.

The other problem was that a Tandy machine could only be serviced at a Tandy store, and they charged a premium and did dreadful work to boot.  Plus, it took them at least a week to get around to doing the job.  And then they almost always figured out a way that I’d somehow violated the warranty, so that I had to pay for their incompetence on the previous job.

Some time later I wrote a short story with “Tandies” as the villains.  There was a reason for that.

That said, TRS-DOS was a nice, efficient little DOS, and Scripsit a fine word processor for the period.  My job instantly became a lot easier, at least when the computer wasn’t in the shop, and I later missed Scripsit when had to switch to WordStar, which offered more features but was far clunkier.

The Epson MX-80 printer was a groundbreaking machine for its time, the first dot-matrix intended for personal computers.  Unfortunately it was a 9-pin dot matrix, which meant the output looked very “computery,” and was faint compared to what a typewriter or daisy-wheel would do.  (My manuscripts from that time have now faded into illegibility.)

The Epson wasn’t very good at things like strikethroughs or underlining.  In order to underline a letter, the Epson would first print the letter, after which the print head would return to the neutral position on the left of the machine, reprogram itself, then zoom out to print the underline.  Then it would move back to the neutral position, reprogram itself, and zoom out to print the next letter, after which it would go through the whole sequence again.

The frail little table that held the Epson would sway back and forth during this operation, like a hula dancer, only not as entertaining.  I kept expecting that it would hit some kind of fatal resonance and collapse, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but it never did.

Now, as you remember, I had borrowed the money to purchase this equipment.  On a 90-day note.  Surely my publisher would send the money within 90 days of my signing the contract?  (In my mind’s eye I can now see writers who happen to be reading this clutching their sides and falling off their chairs with laughter.)

As it turns out, there was no one to send me the money.  My editor had resigned.  (Part of the reason that P&G failed is that there were five editors on five books— Dell was apparently a hideous place to work in those days and couldn’t seem to keep anyone employed.   New editors are understandably not as enthusiastic about something acquired by a predecessor, not to mention three or four predecessors back.

(Five editors on five books might be some kind of record, you’d think, but how about six editors on one book?  That was The Praxis, if you count both American and English editors, which you should, because I had to deal with all of them.)

Back to 1981.  You’d think that I could simply contact my editor’s superior and have him sign off on the money, but in fact that person had left, too.

So the days were counting down, and I began to get increasingly desperate.  In fact my bank was on the verge of sending a registered letter to Dell demanding that they pay up, when someone (probably my agent) managed to get through to someone at the company, and a check arrived literally hours ahead of the deadline.

Tandy and credit rating saved!  The kid is a winnah!

1981 showed me continuing the upward trajectory begun in 1979, an upward trajectory that would turn into a death spiral a year later, when the third stage failed to deploy.  I was a professional behaving professionally, learning to write better and better and making all my deadlines, and having a lot of fun hanging out with my fellow writers.

The books I was writing had certain similarities: they were all about men on ships crewed by a couple hundred other men.  Variety under these conditions was limited, and I had to go to authorial extremes to get women into my stories at all.  I was getting a little frustrated with all this, so I made certain experiments.  During the town time between contracts I had written some science fiction.

Some time in 1980 or 1981— before I got my word processor, anyway, because the originals were produced on a typewriter— I produced a proposal for Ambassador of Progress, which became my first SF novel; and I also wrote the first part of Voice of the Whirlwind. It’s hard to imagine more disparate science fiction works.   Clearly I was doing my best to innovate.

I don’t think I was particularly serious about writing SF, though.  First, I didn’t think I was good enough.  (After having grown up reading Zelazny, Delany, and others of the Sixties Wave, I had high standards for SF.)  Second, I didn’t think my mind really worked that way.  Thirdly, I had this whole big career writing something else!

A career that would prove short-lived.

Ralf the Dog October 9, 2010 at 7:14 am

If I remember, the TRS-80 model II had two advantages over the model I when it came to work.

1. You could type upper case letters. I am sure this could come in handy for a writer.

2. No graphics. Having a total lack of games is a very good thing in relation to productivity. That is x2 when you are working from home.

I understand the next big wave coming to replace all the gay vampire books is competitive speed knitting fiction. I understand it is a fast paced life full of excitement. I recommend you learn everything you can about it. If you can become THE speed knitting author, you will be the next Anne Rice Rice

Matt October 9, 2010 at 9:07 am

Funny, I though you were younger than me. I don’t know if we first met at ArmadilloCon or AggieCon, but you never struck me as my elder.

Oz October 9, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Apple IIe. Bought used from Jason’s boss in the military. I had painstakingly typed parts of his master’s thesis in 1982 on Mt. St. Helen’s eruption and the gasses emitted (he had flown around the devastation and seen it firsthand). Then we got the IIe and he learned Wordstar and did the rest himself. Truly amazing. With a dot matrix printer, yes. I also remember using a 300 baud modem for my Cobal programming courses. On that same Apple IIe.

Cut and paste is one of the world’s greatest inventions.

wjw October 9, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Matt, did I mention I was 15 when all this happened? No?

I think what sold me on the TRS II was that it had all of 64K RAM, and all the competition had 48 or, worse, 16. But those 8-inch floppies were a lot more trouble than they were worth.

Foxessa October 10, 2010 at 4:46 am

I knew Dell editors at that time. What a zoo.

The IBM mag card is what I was working on. I didn’t get my first home computer until like 1991 or something. I wrote on correcting ibm selectrics at home and the mag card at work — until work began in some places transitioning to computers. Publishing was about the last to do that — and i was working in publishing still at that time. (O, the industry used computer technology for all kinds of back office and production tasks, but I meant on the desks, in-house, no — except for the art dept.)

Love, C.

Foxessa October 10, 2010 at 4:48 am

I have no recollection now — your 1812 war novel — did it involve the Chesapeake and Baltimore? Needlesss to say, this year I am spending a lot of time with the War of 1812, in that region.

Love, C.

wjw October 10, 2010 at 5:34 am

Foxessa, none of the books take place in the Chesapeake area, though the book centered on New Orleans might interest you.

Though I happen to know a fair amount about the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake simply by doing all the research. If you have any questions, I’ll try to answer them.

Foxessa October 10, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Thanks! But I think I’m good with my resources ….

But as usual, I’ve learned things that just don’t reveal themselves without boots on the ground. And the people there still take the War of 1812 very personally, as they suffered very personally from it. The lore is passed down to this very day. Though where we are — somebody played both sides, and thus no one on the Chester River got their plantations or town ravaged, pillaged, burned and the men murdered and the women raped and beaten, which happened to very many communities on the Upper Bay.

And hopefully, sailing on the waters. There’s a huge event coming up for the Starr Center that has brought us down whichon is a period sailing ship, from Baltimore, called the Lynx.

Love, C.

wjw October 10, 2010 at 10:07 pm

The Lynx is a replica topsail schooner similar to many War of 1812 privateers. Apparently it regularly engages in combat with other tall ships, firing blanks but otherwise trying to be authentic to the period.

Man, they never did that in =my= day.

I’d love to go aboard and poke around, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

TCWriter October 11, 2010 at 3:41 am

It’s astonishing how much better – and cheaper – tools for writers have become, yet the potential for making a living isn’t a whole lot better, and appears to be trending downwards.

And while “cut and paste” gives me a warm, tingly feeling in my naughty bits (my first PC was a 128K Mac in 1985), nothing beats backspacing.

Brian R October 11, 2010 at 8:32 pm

I remember see the cover of The Privateer on the rack in 1981 when I was twelve but not having the cash to buy it. I never looked at the author.

The next time your writings came to my attention was with your story Panzerboy in Asimov’s (1986 I think). That of course led to me reading Hardwired and the rest of your science fiction.

Then in 1990 I acquired your Privateers & Gentlemen game without making the connection to your science fiction. I don’t think I looked at the author on the game box until I had played the game for several years. The game mentioned the book series but I never could find copies of the books until 2003 when I was able to obtain them through interlibrary loan (from a library in Oklahoma IIRC). Upon seeing the cover of The Privateer I immediately flashed back to book cover I saw in 1981 .

If I had the cash in 1981, I’d have begun reading you five year’s earlier in a completely different genre. Would love to see the rest written.

I’m currently waiting for your next in whatever genre and getting painting some ships for a game of Macdonough’s battle on Lake Champlain. 200th yeat anniversary of the War of 1812 is coming up. Could be a good marketing tie-in.

wjw October 13, 2010 at 1:17 am

Brian>> a marketing tie-in for =what?= All that stuff is out of print now, alas.

Brian R October 13, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Re-releases! Another edition of the original novels and a chance to continue with the 10 book arc. Of course, that is extremely unlikely. Sigh.

It would be a good opportunity for someone to start a War of 1812 series giving the War of 1812 the treatment that Bernard Cornwall did for the Peninsula campaign. Or, maybe done as a dark comedy considering some of the amazing incompetence displayed in that war.

Etaoin Shrdlu July 14, 2018 at 10:14 am

Epson MX-80 printer

Those things were absolute tanks. I dropped mine (boxed) down a two-storey escalator, flipping end over end the entire way until it slammed into the ground floor. The only damage was that one of the access covers popped loose.

I miss mine, but OTOH laser printers are a lot quieter, faster, and better quality.

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