Lions Den II: Michael Z. Williamson

The level of interest in the Lion’s Den has been high enough that I’m going to have to post one every week for a while. As it happens, Baen Books author Michael Z. Williamson has a newly released collection of essays and short stories entitled Tour of Duty: Stories and Provocations. It’s eclectic, and as you might expect from Mr. Williamson, restrained to the point of being demure. His post here is a selection from the opening essay “How I Got This Job” and raises some fascinating questions about his past.

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It’s almost a stereotype that science fiction authors have an odd employment history.  I got caught in the first round of military cutbacks in the late 1980s, wound up getting my re-enlistment canceled, and out the gate on a week’s notice.  I had to get all the essential stuff I didn’t have—an apartment, a bed, kitchen utensils, a cat—on credit.  Then I had to find a job in a sucky area for jobs.  Champaign-Urbana being a small town with a large college has lots of well-educated, needy, underpaid applicants for jobs.  I took some hourly positions in fabrication shops, and doing machine maintenance, and even as shift manager at a pizza place, until I could get enrolled for school with the GI bill to help.  I also enlisted in the Army National Guard.

During this time, I hung out a lot with the Society for Creative Anachronism, and someone with a small business asked if I’d both craft armor and weapons for them to sell, and be a sales rep for those and other products.  Every weekend, I was at Drill, or a convention, or a re-enactment.  I stopped working day jobs and did school weekdays. The money wasn’t great, but it was enough to see me through classes.

A funny thing happened on the way to my degree.  I went to a convention in Minneapolis.  I arrived after a day of school, a night of driving, and no sleep, so I wasn’t really lucid after ten hours of setup and selling.  A friend of mine introduced me to a friend of hers, wearing leather and spandex and nothing else except boots and a sword.  We got to talking, and talking some more, and had a great time.  She was curvy and cute, great to talk to, and almost psychic.  While I was trying to come up with a clever way to say “is there somewhere more quiet we can go?” she asked me, “So, should we find somewhere more private?”

Good idea.

I actually was dating someone at the time, though not exclusively.  I made a point of saying so, that I was free for the weekend, but couldn’t promise more than that.  So we had the weekend.

A funny thing about one night stands.  They don’t always last one night.  A month later, she drove all the way to Milwaukee to join me at a convention there, and a month after that, she stopped by the apartment in Illinois on her way to Florida.

She never got to Florida, and still hasn’t.  She managed, very politely, to divert my date for that weekend into an accomplice and roommate, move us into a rental house, find another roommate, and wind up my Significant Other.

Twenty-two years later, twenty of them married, Gail is still here. The bitch just won’t leave.  On the other hand, I haven’t had any reason to throw her out.   But it’s a one night stand.  Honest.

I paid my way through college several ways.   I had the GI bill. I had National Guard drills and volunteered as support for whatever extra days they needed people for.  I was a stripper (yes, really) for decent money, though not often enough.  The small enterprise I worked for moved and folded.  We started our own small business. I worked on blades—repairs, sharpening, custom crafting, and selling retail at SF conventions, SCA events and occasional other events.  She helped with sales, costumes, and the tax paperwork.

Gail went back to school, too, having previously attended University of Minnesota and a local college.  She managed fast food, then wound up doing office management.

Winters were the slow season, and I spent those times trying to build up inventory, scrape money from what small events there were, stringing my wife’s income along into a fine thread, and writing.

I left school without a degree, though I have more than enough credit for a master’s.  The problem is, it’s in electronic controls, history, English, physics, and none of it complete as a program.  I was making enough from events, and enjoying it, that I didn’t miss the official stamps (I do hold a Journeyman’s certificate in HVAC, and a certificate in electrical controls).

Gail’s research suggested that if we moved, we could keep the same cost of living but earn more money. I wasn’t tied to down to any location.  The only complication was that I had transferred back to the Air National Guard at this point, and would have a four hour drive for drill.  It was workable, until I could find a slot in a unit closer to home.

So we moved to the Indianapolis area, staying with friends until we got settled, and yes, managing to earn twice as much money for the same cost of living. So I kept doing it, we managed with some great years and lean years, and in the late 90s, my firearm articles started getting published.  Summers were, and still are, hectic with events.  I took four years of winters to write “Freehold,” which is not my best writing, of course, but was heartfelt and earnest at the time.

SF, though, especially military SF, is not a sellers’ market.  Several experienced authors advised me to “write short stories,” build up a following with sales, then get a novel sold.

It used to work that way.  That was falling by the wayside at the turn of 2000, and is pretty much no longer valid advice, in my opinion.

My shorts got rejected, often because they sucked.  I knew my grasp of language was sufficient.  I knew I had good plots and characters, but something in the construction was missing.

By the time I wrote the first short story that follows, I thought I had a reasonable grasp of the art, and the friends I could trust to be honest not only liked it, but had discussions among themselves about it.  Of course, that didn’t mean it would work for any particular periodical.  It was frustrating.

I groused about this fact on Baen’s Bar, where I’d been holding lengthy debates on the history of weapons and the logistics around them.  I was always careful to spell and punctuate properly.  It’s what I do, and this was a publisher’s site.  I didn’t want to make the people who use the language for a living cringe with my errors.

So I complained about all these rejections of, “Alas, we can’t use it at this time.”  “Alas, it doesn’t quite grab us.”  “Alas, it doesn’t fit our current needs.”

They were saying, “Dear aspirant:  Sorry, try again.”  Why pretty it up with archaic wordage?

Jim Baen replied, “Perhaps they’re trying to be alliterative.  Alack, alas, alay…”  He wrote a whole paragraph of alliterative A-words, which ended with, “That said, send me one. single. chapter. of something you’re working on and I’ll take a look at it.”

After a brief adrenaline shock I shooed my wife from the office (er, kitchen), and I emailed him “One.  Single.  Chapter.”

He replied, “I. Have. Read. It,” and offered some small advice, which of course I took.  He suggested I add a bit on a page about a departure from Earth, describing the shuttle in detail.  I didn’t see the point.  It was a plot device more than anything, connecting two scenes.  But, Mister Baen had been doing this as long as I’d been alive.  I took his advice under consideration, and yes, it turned a break into a segue.  An astute editor, that Mister Baen, which is of course why I’d been trying to court his attention.

He then asked for another chapter.  A week later, he asked for another.  He was politely unhappy with some rambling parts, which I fixed.  We went on.  Finally, he said, “Just send me the rest of the book,” and told me to politely remind him once a month.  Six months after that, I got a late night email that said, “Mike, let’s call it a deal.  I’ll take Freehold for (respectable sum of money for someone desperately broke at that time), and have Marla send you our boilerplate contract.”

I did consult with my friend Dave Drake to make sure I understood all the ramifications of said contract.  But I said yes.

I still only have one TV in the house, and it’s used more for movies and games than TV.  I got cable when it was necessary for Olympic coverage.  My son plays the games.  If it weren’t for the computer (no games here, either) I wouldn’t need a screen at all, really.  I spend most of the time writing, ranting and creating.  I do less events than I used to, but still quite a few.  Some are large for promotion and profit.  Some are small for promotion and to hang out with friends.  I still forge blades and do repairs, but it’s a money-making hobby, not really a job.  I also do product reviews to provide feedback to manufacturers, and to then promote the stuff that holds up well.  I’ve reviewed tactical lights, cameras, guns, backpacks, survival rations, training videos, any number of items relevant to disaster preparedness.

So here I am, doing what I love doing, getting paid for it, and telling you about it.

It’s been a hell of a ride so far.