My only real chance to do this came when my union went out on strike. I was not needed for the picket line, so I went home, and for the several weeks that the strike lasted, I wrote short stories as hard and as fast as I could. I went back to work when the strike ended, x-raying jet engine parts. A job with a future, I was told. But the only future for me, at that point, was freelance writing.
Over the next months, I began selling those stories. My first sale was to William Hamling's magazine Imagination. After that "Doc" Lowndes' Future Science Fiction. Then the others began to sell. I found an agent -- the redoubtable Frederick Pohl. He said to me, at the beginning of our association, "I'll sell every word of science fiction you write." It was the finest compliment I've ever received. Isaac Asimov, also a client of Fred's, said some encouraging words to me. Not long after that, I gave up my factory job and entered the precarious world of full-time freelance writing.
Oh, those early days of writing full time. Too bad you can only write full time for the first time once. I got an office in nearby Fort Lee, the extra room of a dentist's suite. And I went there every day and I wrote and wrote. And just about everything I wrote sold.
I have sometimes been asked how I got my story ideas. I had no specific method. Ideas would come to me at any time. Something I read, or something someone said to me, or something I overheard, would provide the initial impetus. Or, just doing nothing, an idea, or a chain of associations would come up, and I would follow them to a story idea. I kept pocket notebooks on my person at all times, and soon after I had an idea, I would jot it down. Otherwise I was likely to forget it.
I sometimes wondered if I shouldn't try a formal study of the short-story form. Should I read books on how to get ideas? My more or less instinctive answer was a resounding No! I felt I was similar to the goose of the old folk tale that laid the golden eggs. Attempts to find out how I did it would be more likely to screw up my interior works rather than to make them go better. I tried to preserve the attitude I'd had since childhood: that I was a pulp writer, one of that anonymous (to me) bunch of writers who used to write for the old detective pulps. At the same time, I also had the feeling, hardly ever voiced, that I was something more than a pulp writer with the connotations of mediocrity that that label implied. I wanted to write better, to make better stories, to make stories that the reader would feel, not just go along with the narrative's mechanical properties. I wanted to be damned good, but I never talked to myself about what I meant
by that. I had no single model at that time. O. Henry still appealed to me, but I recognized the mechanical and predictable qualities of so many of his stories. At the same time I felt, arguing in my own head with his critics, "If it's so easy and explainable, let's see you do it."