There comes the point in life where you appreciate the craftsmen—the cabinet maker with wood or the potter with a lump of mud. In my field, it’s the storyteller. A great example of this workman-like approach to writing is Gene O’Neill, who I had the pleasure of visiting this week via Zoom.
Gene is the author of seventeen novels and novellas, five collections of short stories, hundreds of short works of fiction that have appeared in various publications and anthologies over the past 40-years. He is the recipient of a Black Quill Award from Dark Scribe and three Bram Stoker Awards. He’s a former Marine, boxer, postal worker, right-of-way agent, a contract specialist for AAFES, and he coached athletics for kids with special needs.
We talk about how writing has changed, the importance of rejections, and the hitchhiker effect. BSF edited our conversation for length and clarity.
BSF: When did you start writing?
GENE: I started writing in 1978 with children’s stories. I didn’t like the heavy-handed morality in most of them. So, I wrote eight and sold four of them, and I thought that was pretty good. Next, I wrote a couple of stories for adults. Then I qualified to go to Clarion in 1979 (Clarion Workshop – a prestigious workshop for science-fiction, horror, and fantasy writers held at Clarion State College in Pennsylvania). That’s where I met the first writers I’d ever met in my life. Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm kind of took me under their wing, and they encouraged me.
BSF: How did they do that?
GENE: After Clarion, I’d go up to their house in Eugene, Oregon. It was about an eight-hour drive up there and another eight-hour drive back. I’d stop in Davis and pick up a writer I know you’ve heard of – Kim Stanley Robinson. He was an academic, and I was more rough-and-tumble, so he learned a lot of street stuff from me, and I learned the stuff that everyone knows about writing, except in those days, I didn’t.
BSF: What came out of that?
GENE: Some time there, in the middle of these trips, I took up a story called The Burden of Indigo, and rather than dumping on it as they do in those kinds of things, I got a pretty good response. Kate didn’t say much, but she came up to me in the kitchen and said, “I knew you had something to say.” I knew I was a writer after she said that to me. That was the moment I crossed over. Eventually, I sold it to Twilight Zone Magazine, and that’s how I started.
T.E.D. Klein was the editor over at Twilight Zone Magazine at that time, and I got to know him pretty well. There was some sexual stuff in the story, and he told me grandmothers and grandfathers buy this magazine for their kids, so we can’t accept this. In the meantime, I had sent it to another publisher. He liked it for an anthology and was sitting on it. Ted had sent to Carol Serling, Rod Serling’s wife – the executive editor—and she told him to buy it. So, the other guy he didn’t like and wouldn’t release it for two months but eventually T.E.D. Klein talked him out of it.
BSF: What happened to your Clarion classmates?
GENE: At my Clarion, maybe only two or three of us went on because most people can’t stand the rejection you get in writing. Scott Edleman, he’s made a living as a writer since he was seventeen. He worked as an editor for several magazines, wrote in the comic book field, wrote a lot of the continuity for Captain Marvel, and all that. So, he came over to visit me, and we went to the Jack London Museum over in the next valley. They had a stack about four feet high of his rejections. Now that would bum some people out looking at that, but Scott and I, we looked at that stack, and that inspired both of us. If Jack London could stick it out, then so could we.
BSF: How has writing changed over the years?
GENE: It’s changed a lot. In those days, there were a lot of magazines that paid pro-rate. And the big three were F & SF, Asimov, and Analog. There were lots of anthologies back then, and I liked the anthologies and the series. I think there was more opportunity for a young writer, and in those days, you established your credentials as a short story writer. Then, because you couldn’t make a living writing short stories, you’d go to novels. Now there are a lot of people who never write short stories, and they just write books. Another thing that’s changed is that it’s difficult to get a good agent. I had several that were better friends than agents.
You know what’s disappeared from the big New York publishing houses is the mid-list writer. The guy who could make a living at it maybe 70 to 80 thousand a year. Now it’s either someone new who is being pushed in the industry or a old timer who sells a lot of books. You tell people you’re a writer, and they think you’re making a lot of money, but ten years ago, I read that the average writer was making maybe $6,000 a year.
BSF: What’s the biggest mistake new writers make?
GENE: I think the major mistake that young writers make is they may send their stuff out four or five times, but they quit too early. Rejection does too much damage to their ego or their psyche. The number one thing about getting rejected, which a writer should accept as a part of the process and getting a stack four feet high, is that you have to know your market. If you are a science fiction writer, there are magazines where you can send them. You start at the top based on what they pay, and when they bounce it, you send it to the next one, and then the next one. And eventually, it’ll get published. You get a personal note or something at the bottom of your rejection, and you better send that guy something else because your writing impressed him.
BSF: I once got a rejection that said, “too good of a story for such a cheap ending.”
GENE: That’s great. That is.
Take that personal rejection and improve. Your point in your writing is always to improve. I think the established writers’ mistake is that what they do well is what they focus on, and they rewrite that all the time rather than what they’re weak at.
My plotting was weak when I first started, so I concentrated on plotting and reading well-plotted stories, like Roald Dahl. That guy wrote fantastic plots with twists and double twists. You write a double twist in a science fiction piece, and that’s gold.
Another thing a lot of writers don’t appreciate is that there is a helluva lot of turnovers in editors. What one editor might reject, another person will want and pay top professional rates.
BSF: That’s a good writing tip. Any others?
GENE: The important thing in writing is forming a vivid image for the reader and that comes from using precision in your writing. Everybody thinks they can write, but the fiction writer uses precision so that the reader isn’t reading but experiencing it.
For most of my career, I was in physical education for kids with special needs, and I was always impressed with what they could do. That was the important thing that I learned from them. And I think that’s an important thing in our society that people ignore or don’t care about. Too many people just point the finger at something and when you point your finger, what you’re doing is pointing away from yourself. And that’s what I look for in my characters is what they can do, not what they can’t do.
BSF: Is it fair to say you’re primarily a short story writer?
GENE: Yeah, I got a couple of hundred stories, and then I published them in collections, which helped with my income, but in recent years I’ve been doing more longer stuff. I think one of the hardest things to write is a short story in the genre field. Maybe 4,000 to 5,000 words. And that’s a difficult story to do and do a bunch of those in a year. Whereas if you establish a good idea for a novel or a series of novels, you just work on that. The next book I got coming out, The White Plague, which comes out in February of next year, some of that writing goes back five years. It’s a big book. You can use it as a doorstop if you don’t like it, but that one has some of my best writing in it.
BSF: Ever run out of ideas?
GENE: You should never run out of ideas for stories because ideas are like going to the beach and looking for pebbles – they’re all over the place.
BSF: Let’s talk about genre. You’re known as a science fiction and horror author, but your latest book, Kiss of Life, is about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I found many of the stories in Dance of the Blue Lady were mainstream fiction. Is genre a myth or just unimportant?
GENE: It’s unimportant to me if the readers say it’s good. Early on, I was considered a science fiction writer, but from the first, my vision was mixed genre. Most of my main reading was in the literary field. So, I’d write a story and send it to Asimov, and they’d say this is a great story, but it belongs someplace else. And so, I’d send it to another magazine, and they’d say, this is great, but it’s science fiction. I had a hard time with the mixed genre stuff. Science fiction magazines wanted something that was pure science fiction, and horror magazines were only interested in scaring the reader – that kind of thing. But in recent years, I’ve been on panels for mixed genre writing. It’s preferred at some places where you don’t just stamp it as SF or horror.
But I’ve written a lot of stuff that you’d call mainstream or mystery fiction.
BSF: I agree. It must be a great story.
GENE: Scott Edleman had a good method for finding a good story. If he liked it, he’d set it aside and then a month or two later take it back out and read it, and if it were memorable, he’d buy it. He bought five or six stories of mine. He also edited a wrestling magazine and recruited science fiction writers to write articles for it. T.E.D. Klein was one who wrote for him.
A lot of times, a great writer will disguise a lot of messaging in his story with his pedestrian prose. And I’ll give you a good example: Frank Herbert’s Dune. His prose is pedestrian, and some of it isn’t very good. The same thing with Heinlein, but some of the stuff he wrote was great. I like his short stories better than his novels.
BSF: What’s the secret to your longevity?
GENE: I think part of it is that I haven’t written often for anthologies that are themed. Because I had a full-time job when I started writing, I didn’t have to sell this stuff. I wrote what I wanted to and what interested me. To this day, I’m still writing what interests me, and I haven’t run out of interests. I think to write what you’re interested in is critical for a writer, not necessarily to write what’s commercial.
BSF: What’s the big lesson you’ve learned writing after all these years?
GENE: I like to write parts of stuff that’s emotional out of my background, maybe 4,000 words, although I try to disguise some of the characters. Then I share the emotion with the reader, and they’ll hitchhike on that. That’s what I call the Hitchhiker Effect (a collection of intimate short stories by Gene published in 2015).
A lot of people read those stories, and they say, man, what you were doing there, that felt real. Well, it was real. All those stories in the Hitchhiking Effect had an element that was real in my life. So, I believe that when you’re writing sad things or horrific things, and I saw some terrible stuff in the Marines, you get it out of your system by autobiographical writing. Kate Wilhelm told me, “All writing is autobiographical.”
You know how after you’ve been writing for a while, you look up, and three hours have passed. You’re in the zone. Players in sports will say that. And when your writing is going well when you’re in the zone, then you’ll find that your reader isn’t reading it; he’s experiencing it.
BSF: Thank you, Gene.
GENE: Good talking to you, Scott.
You can buy Gene’s books on Amazon or at booksellers everywhere. Find him on Goodreads and look for The White Plague, released early next year. You can view a clip from my Zoom call with Gene here. He talks about collaborating with other writers on projects.