Paranoid Fantasy No. 1Paranoid Fantasy No. 1

American Atheist

This short-short story was the first fiction I ever sold. Not the first writing, but the first fiction.

Return with me now to those ancient days of 1974, when I had flunked out of Princeton and was living in a run-down but extremely cheap apartment in Pittsburgh, upstairs from an ice cream shop. (Sweet William's. It's long gone.) I had my comfy garret, equipped with a gas space heater, assorted second-hand furniture, and an electric typewriter.

Princeton's policy then -- and so far as I know, now -- was that students who flunked out had to stay out for at least a year to get their heads together, but could then be readmitted if they could demonstrate that they'd done something other than spend the time watching TV in their parents' basements. Usually this involved getting a job, or joining the Peace Corps, or something equally constructive, but I saw it as an opportunity to spend a year trying to break in as a fiction writer.100 Fantasy Short-Shorts

I'd been a feature writer for a small-town newspaper back in high school, and was convinced I had the makings of a writer, so I spent a year in that Pittsburgh attic, churning out short stories (and half a really bad novel I still haven't salvaged). I bought the latest edition of Writer's Market, which is exactly what it sounds like; in those benighted internetless days, a big fat book of markets for freelancers, updated annually, was the best way we had for finding out who was buying what.

I wrote twenty-eight short stories in various genres, from mystery to sword-and-sorcery, and sent them out to various markets, and accumulated seventy-three rejection slips, which I then packed up and sent to the Dean of the College when I applied for re-admission, to prove I'd been writing seriously. Which worked; I went back to Princeton in September of 1975.

The thing is, along with those seventy-three rejections, I got one acceptance, and it was on a submission I'd made as a joke. Specifically, it was for "Paranoid Fantasy #1."100 Hilarious Little Howlers

There were, in fact, four paranoid fantasies out of those twenty-eight stories, numbered one through four. They were all short-shorts, under 1,000 words each, and had subtitles; #1 was "A Day in Whose Life?"

I don't remember much about the other three; one was a mood piece subtitled "Darkness," one was a deal-with-the-devil story, and I can't remember the other one at all. I never sold those. Some of the other twenty-four stories later got rewritten and sold, but none of those did.

So what was the story, and where did I sell it, and why was this a joke?

Well, it's a short-short, as I said, about 400 words, about a guy who lives his entire life trying to ward off bad luck. It's really more a dumb gag than a story. When I'd written it, I hauled out Writer's Market and went looking through the listings for fantasy markets, trying to decide where to send it.

It didn't strike me as very likely to sell to F&SF, and I knew it wouldn't sell to Fantastic. Analog had the "Probability Zero" stories and it would fit fairly well as one of those, except that it was clearly fantasy, rather than science fiction. Ted White's Amazing was obviously not a viable option. So I dug deeper into WM, looking at markets that were not primarily fiction, but would consider fantasy. Playboy was the biggie there, but I was not foolish enough to think that what was then the top fiction market in North America would buy my silly little piece.

And there was a listing for American Atheist Magazine, saying they would consider fantasy that mocked religion. (They phrased it more diplomatically than that.)Crosstime Traffic

American Atheist was the official magazine of Madalyn Murray O'Hair's atheist movement of the time -- if you're too young to know who she was (she was murdered in 1995, so she hasn't been around for awhile), think of her as the Richard Dawkins of the '60s and '70s, but more litigious and without the science background.

I'd never had anything to do with O'Hair's people; they seemed pushy and obnoxious, even when I agreed with their positions. However, I had this story that mocked superstition, and I didn't have anywhere obviously better to send it, so what the hell. I figured the listing was a mistake, or that they wanted longer, more serious stuff, but I was willing to waste the postage, so off it went, early in 1975.

And around May of 1975 I got an acceptance letter and a check for $10. The letter informed me that my story would be in the August 1975 issue.

As in fact it was.

I was twenty when I got the acceptance, twenty-one when the story was published.

This wasn't much of a credit, but hey, it meant I was a published writer! (I never thought the newspaper articles or various self-published 'zines counted.) Not that anyone would ever find a copy; the magazine was, to say the least, obscure. I was resigned to having the story disappear.

But then a few years later I was approached and asked if I had any fantasy short-shorts available for reprint in an anthology, and I admitted I did -- but I revised it a little, because I'd learned a lot about writing in the intervening years. That version appeared in 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Terry Carr, and Martin H. Greenberg -- and then I included it in my collection Crosstime Traffic, and it also got reprinted in a Barnes & Noble "instant remainder" anthology, 100 Hilarious Little Howlers, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, and Martin H. Greenberg.

So it's been published four times -- not bad for a stupid little gag I wrote when I was twenty. And as this webpage is about as long as the story now, I'd say that's quite enough information.


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