A Short Duel of Words
by Robert Stout
No one knows what set Thompson off that morning. It may have been another magazine rejection for one of his short stories. It may have been being ignored by yet another publishing house for his latest novel. What is known is that having Thompson in a bad mood was never fun for anyone. He’d snarl at his loving and much put-upon wife. He’d snap at the dog who loved him unconditionally.
“Damn it!” he swore. “I have a single book in print, no longer carried by any brick and mortar bookstore, and Weaver has four linear feet of his dreck clogging up every bookstore in the nation. It isn’t fair!”
He wife tried to cheer him up: “I thought your latest novel was your very best to date. I don’t know what those foolish editors are looking for!”
He looked at her, then sneered and turned away. “You have to tell me my work is great. It’s part of our marriage vows.”
“No, that’s not it. I really think your writing is amazing!”
“Yet, I can’t get published, and no agent will consent to represent me. I don’t even think they read their slush piles.”
“Well, what can you do about it? You can’t force them to read your work.”
Thompson grew quiet, always a bad sign. “I’ve got it! A duel!”
“Nobody has duels. That’s so eighteenth-century. Who would you shoot, anyway?”
“Not that kind of duel. A challenge that a famous author can’t turn down!”
“Exactly like Weaver. Go on his website and see when his next personal appearance is.”
She clacked on the keyboard and replied, “March, in Anaheim.”
“And Comic Con, in San Diego, a couple of months later?”
“Perfect. Get us tickets to each. We’re going to California!”
She had to get scalper tickets to San Diego, but Anaheim was easy enough. They flew out on Southwest and stayed near Disneyland. Thompson trimmed his unruly beard neatly and wore a suit and tie.
Mitchell Weaver was part of a roundtable panel discussion for new writers in meeting hall A at 10:00 a.m. Thompson worked his way into the crowded hall and near a microphone. Weaver and his pals droned on for about thirty minutes, then opened the floor to questions. Thompson was first.
“Mr. Weaver, thank you for taking my comment. I am Alan Thompson, a writer of horror and science fiction. I contend that the reason so many of us remain unpublished is you, sir. You write so quickly and publish so many alternate cover editions of your books, that the shelf space is crowding out the newer writers. I challenge you to a duel, of sorts.”
The crowd laughed, but Weaver quieted them down. “What sort of duel?”
“The two of us each write a short story in the same genre, genre to be specified by you. We each have seven days to write and edit our story, then a neutral third party submits them both under aliases, without literary agents. If I get published first, you stop writing for five years, with a public acknowledgement at Comic Con in San Diego.”
Weaver frowned. This could be very expensive and personally embarrassing. “And if I get published first?”
“Set your stakes.”
“If I win, you no longer write for publication, ever. Nothing online, nothing in print, and a public apology at Comic Con.”
“I agree. One more thing, if neither of us get published, we reveal the names of the magazines who failed to pull Mitchell Weaver from their slush piles.”
“Agreed. The stories we write will not refer back to any of our previous work; completely new stories!”
“I agreed. Do you accept my challenge?”
“Wholeheartedly. It’s almost eleven o’clock. I suggest our week begin then.”
There was cheering from the audience. Thompson made his way up and shook Weaver’s hand.
Once again, Weaver quieted the audience down. “Mister Thompson, our genre is Romance!”
Now, this caught everyone by surprise, especially Thompson. He had never written a romance in his life and had no idea where to start. Weaver smiled evilly. He knew he had suckered Thompson into a match he couldn’t win. The crowd counted down to eleven and shouted, “Go!”
Thompson headed out and back to his hotel. Weaver’s agent pulled his client aside and whispered, “What the hell was that?”
“A million bucks worth of free advertising. Win or lose, the news is going to be all over this!”
“Can you win?” asked his agent.
Weaver sneered, “What do you think?”
Thompson got back to his room.
“How did it go?” asked his wife.
“He accepted, and if he wins, I no longer write for publication.”
“I know you’ll win! Did he pick horror or science fiction?”
“I don’t understand.”
“He picked romance.”
“That doesn’t make any sense! He’s a horror writer!”
“I’ve never read, much less written, a romance.”
“And you think he has?”
“Why else would he pick it?”
“An even playing field. If he’s never written one, then you two would start evenly.”
“You think he’s that fair?”
“You had better hope he is!”
“Have you read any romance stories?”
“Of course. It’s the most popular genre in the world.”
“Then you’re going to have to edit. I’m going online to read a few stories and get the feel for them.”
Thompson read for three days. He read on the airplane home, he read the rest of the weekend. On the fifth day, he sat at his computer trying to write a good romance story. His wife would walk by, read over his shoulder, and say, “No.”
He would delete it and begin again. Now, Thompson was a fast writer, faster than Weaver was reputed to be. It wasn’t unusual for him to type a lengthy story in less than two hours. He had been trying to craft his romance for the past five days in his head without any success. On day six, he threw up his hands.
“I’m so screwed!”
“Why do you say that?”
“I can’t come up with anything! Every time I try, it turns into a different genre.”
“What do you always say about writing?”
“I don’t write the stories. I copy them down from my inspiration and let them go where they lead.”
“I’m not saying there’s a big market for horror / romance, but look at those vampire books. The woman sold a hell of a lot of them, and they weren’t even well written. Where is your inspiration leading you?”
“Science fiction involving time travel.”
“Then that’s what you story is about. Have a time traveler fall in love with someone from the distant past. They can’t do anything about their passion because it would change the future.”
“I’ll give it a shot!”
Thompson was done in thirty minutes. He gave the laptop to his wife, who edited it for over four hours.
“This story is more from you than me,” he said.
“I’m not having my husband’s career ruined by that hack from Maine! Print it and send it!”
The judge received both stories just before eleven o’clock on the seventh day. He made up romance sounding names and sent them each to a major romance magazine. They were both rejected, but amazingly in two days instead of six months. He sent them off, again, to another publisher. Once again, they were rejected, but the reply was unusually quick. It was as if they had their entire staff cleaning out their unsolicited submission piles. On the thirteenth try, one of the stories was accepted. A check based on the word count quickly followed. They had a clear winner.
At San Diego Comic Con, a meeting hall was set aside for the announcement. It was packed by the media. Newspapers and television stations from all over the world were in attendance. Weaver and Thompson walked up to the long table at the head of the room and sat at opposite ends. The judge, the owner of a large publishing house, sat in the middle with a sealed envelope.
The judge started, “This contest was closer than any of us thought it would be. Acceptance checks were received only one day apart.”
Weaver and Thompson looked at each other. Both feared a loss.
“The first check received was for ‘Time Away From You’ by Alan Thompson!”
The audience gasped. Thompson looked stunned. Weaver smiled his crocodile smile.
“I can’t accept the win,” stuttered Thompson.
“Why is that?” asked the judge.
“My wife, Lorraine, substantially rewrote the story during editing. I was unable to successfully write a romance without her. Mr. Weaver, I apologize and will withdraw from writing.”
Weaver smiled, went to accept the check, but then caught the smug, self-satisfied look on his ex-wife’s face as her hand began to rise. He panicked.
“Don’t!” Weaver said. “My ex rewrote mine, too. It seems America’s favorite horror writer can’t write romance, either.”
“I’m confused,” said the judge. “Who won?”
“Our wives,” said Weaver. “They successfully fulfilled the terms of the duel.”
“Who bought the stories?” asked Thompson.
“Analog magazine bought them both,” said the judge. “We received so little interest from the romance publishers, and as they both had science fiction settings, I sent them both to Analog. They were snapped up immediately.”
“How many publishers passed on them?” asked Weaver.
“Twelve,” answered the judge.
“Twelve? How many actually read them?” asked Thompson.
“All of them. None of the rejections were form letters.”
“They all read their slush piles and answered with written letters?” asked a stunned Thompson.
“The duel had so much publicity, no one wanted to be the magazine that buried Weaver’s latest masterpiece.”
Weaver started to laugh, “Connie Weaver’s masterpiece. Alan, it looks like we have new competition!”
Weaver and Thompson stood and shook hands. The judge handed them each the envelopes containing the checks.
Weaver whispered to Thompson, “Maybe we should do it again. I’ve never received thirteen replies in two months!”
Copyright © 2019 by Robert Stout