A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Robert Cleary, a member of an online group whose members collect copies of Wargamer’s Digest. I was not surprised to hear about the group, since the Internet has something for every interest imaginable. But what surprised me was that he wanted to hear about how I came to make my first professional sale to the magazine – a short article called “Fantasy – Battles for the Runestaff”. He sent me a copy of the article (mine not being easily locatable), and, once I had reassured myself that the article was not too badly written, I started to remember.
I like to say that I sold the article when I was fourteen. Strictly speaking, though, that’s an exaggeration. To be completely accurate, I pitched the idea when I was fourteen and it was accepted. I didn’t actually finish the article until I was sixteen, and it wasn’t published for several more years. Nor did I find out that it had been published until long after it appeared; I can only assume that the editor was as casual about such things as I was then. By the time I actually pocketed the $40 I made from the sale, the idea was well over five years old.
Fantasy readers might recognize a reference to a series of books written by Michael Moorcock. Set in the future, The History of the Runestaff series is the story of how a group of heroes centered around a kingdom in Provence resist the expansion of Granbretan, a feudal empire whose nobles wear metal animal masks and show a pathological fear of revealing their bare faces.
Looking back, I realize that to call the books in the series potboilers is to insult the kitchen industry. Even their author does not claim that they were literature. However, in my early throes of adolescence, they seemed heady enough stuff, and I re-read them at least three times.
While I was reading about the Runestaff (and every other fantasy or science fiction book I could find), I was also absorbed by board games and history. I collected at least a dozen Avalon Hill games, and was especially fond of Feudal, a chess-like war game that used 3-D figures of medieval warriors for pieces. Whenever the erratic magazine deliveries to the local hobby store allowed, I picked up Wargamer’s Digest. I painted countless figures for wargaming – mostly medieval, classical and fantasy – and devised the rules for games of my own imagination, in some cases even finishing them.
My one problem was that, if other wargamers existed in my neighborhood, I didn’t know about them. Today, a teenager like me could probably find someone to play against on the Internet, but, in the 1970s, my options were more limited. Occasionally, I dragooned a friend into playing, but those games rarely got finished. More often, I took turns playing one side then another.
Looking back, it wasn’t a bad education in how perspectives change with circumstances. But it wasn’t very satisfying. For one thing, I could never surprise myself.
At the same time, I had writing ambitions. What exactly I wanted to write, I was unsure, but, hearing how early some famous authors had begun, I thought I should get a move on. The summer I was 14, I knew, would probably be the last one I had free. With university starting to loom, I would almost certainly be working the next summer. I had one last chance.
Half-overcome by my own chutzpah, I submitted a query letter to Wargamer’s Digest. I chose the Runestaff series both because I was re-reading it when I made the query and because the magazine didn’t publish much about fantasy gaming, so I figured I had more of a chance with that topic than with one that was more mainstream.
My query was accepted, and I promptly had a failure of nerve for a year and a half. Then, timidly, after two or three false starts, I wrote to ask if the editor was still interested. He was, and over the Christmas holidays, I pounded my game notes on the Runestaff into what I hoped was a reasonable imitation of the magazine’s style.
Then – nothing. I received my first payment for my writing when a poem of mine took third place in the Alberta Poetry Yearbook. I graduated from high school and started university, and otherwise got on with my life.
Moving out of my parents’ house at the start of my third year in university, I came across my old stack of Wargamer’s Digest, and thought to query about the article. To my surprise and delight, it had been published some months before, and I had the profound pleasure of seeing my work in a magazine, and finding it, after all that time, not only free of typos, but more authoritative in tone than I had hoped.
I wish I could say that the experience was the start of my professional writing life. But the truth is, the experience was so fragmented and so drawn out that it proved to be a false spring. It was another seven years before I ventured into writing articles again (although I did sell the odd poem and story), and another decade before I started to make a living as a freelance journalist).
The fault was mine for not following up, I realize now. Still, I wonder what might have happened if I had. Would the early success have given me the courage earlier in life to freelance? Impossible to tell now, but I still get a small thrill re-reading my long ago article in PDF form and wondering how it fits into my early life.