I walked into Lou Aronica’s office to show him something wonderful: one of my Western authors had dedicated his forthcoming book to me. That’s something you can never ask for; even an acknowledgment, assuming the author found your work notable, is something that has to come from hisser heart, so when it does it’s always gratifying. But a dedication: on the emotional scale, that goes all the way to thrilling! I’d been editing books for about a year now and was feeling comfortable in the position, getting to know my authors and the rest of the field, gradually earning credibility and, I hoped, a modicum of respect (the outside job), and making the trains run on time and the books come out on schedule (the inside job). So I was a little surprised when Lou said, “That’s great!” and suddenly bolted from his chair, leaving me standing there with the precious manuscript page.
Little did I know that Betsy Mitchell, the very talented science fiction editor, had given her notice: she’d been offered a wonderful opportunity to run the sf department at Warner Books (the same place where I’d worked when I first got to town). A light bulb, which I didn’t see since I didn’t yet know about Betsy’s upcoming move, had gone off above Lou’s head, and he was barrelling into the office of our publisher, Irwyn Applebaum, to float an idea. Because Lou knew something important about me: I was a lifelong science fiction fan.
Shortly after I arrived at Bantam as head writer in the cover copy department, I was introduced at the weekly editorial meeting – a nice touch, I thought, since I was way down on the totem pole; our department wasn’t even on the same floor as the editors. (Steve Rubin, who led the meeting, graciously said I was welcome to come back, and I did, whenever I had time.) A few of the friendlier editors made a point of coming up afterward to introduce themselves, and one of them was Lou. But before he could speak, I said, “I know who you are. You’re Lou Aronica, and you founded Spectra.” Surprised, but noticing the twinkle in my eye, he said, “We should have lunch.” “Great,” I said, “but let’s go to that Chinese restaurant where you hatched FULL SPECTRUM, the place with the terrific velvet corn soup.” Lou’s a guy who’s usually one step ahead of you, and he doesn’t believe in ESP. “You must be a fan.” He smiled, waiting for me to elaborate. Yup. I knew what Lou looked like and what he did at Bantam because even back in Mississippi, I subscribed to Locus, the monthly magazine of the science fiction field, full of book reviews and industry news, including photos. I’d read a Locus ad for Spectra, Bantam’s new sf and fantasy imprint, which mentioned the restaurant where Lou and Shawna McCarthy worked out the concept for an original anthology series: the ad even recommended its velvet corn soup. So Lou and I went to what I now discovered to be the Imperial Dragon on 55th Street, and I told him my story.
They say the golden age of science fiction is twelve, haw haw. I beat that by a few years, starting with “juvies” written by the likes of Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton (usually fresh from the Bookmobile; anybody remember them?). Before long I was reaching for paperbacks and magazines. I missed the great pulp-magazine era, but there was still fascinating short fiction in digest-sized mags like Amazing, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF and I are just about the very same age), and especially Analog, with its larger magazine-sized pages. My grandma gave me an Analog subscription for my thirteenth birthday which turned out to be self-perpetuating — the kind where you don’t have to worry about what to give next year — and I was delighted to have it. I read DUNE for the first time as an Analog serial: the cover of one of my first issues featured a giant sandworm painted by John Schoenherr, which became the classic DUNE look, one of the few things David Lynch’s film got right. Novels, and quality anthologies, came from the Science Fiction Book Club or from paperback publishers like Ace, Ballantine – and, of course, Bantam. I can still remember lounging on a hammock on a few summer days at my other grandma’s house, mesmerized by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. I lapped it up, all of it. As Sun Ra put it a few years later, I thought space was the place.
I was no snob, although I tended to read lots more sf (real fans don’t say “sci-fi”) than “epic fantasy,” usually meaning elves and dragons. I preferred social themes to the more technological work of writers who were often scientists themselves. My absolute hero was Ray Bradbury, who didn’t care how the rocket ship worked, only what happened when it got there. And I adored sf and horror movies, which were far less sophisticated back then, but it doesn’t take all that much to blow a ten-year-old mind. Even today I can see right through a distortion of cinematic cheese and really enjoy an old Fifties chestnut, and I’ll cut a contemporary imaginative movie far more slack than I will a realistic drama. But I still know a turkey when I see one. I’m from the Steven Spielberg / Stephen King school: fans aren’t slans, just clans. (If you don’t know what that meant, you might have some more reading to do.)
That day in his office, it struck Lou that I might be a credible choice to succeed Betsy. Working on Westerns, I’d figured out the nuts and bolts of the job well enough that somebody had actually dedicated a book to me. The learning curve would be far less severe this time, because I came packed with a fan’s knowledge of the field: you might say that in my case, batteries were included. I already had the appropriate title (Senior Editor), and, he surely also reasoned, salary; I would view the change of scenery itself as a promotion, without the necessity for any new dinero. Lou was right, too: when he offered me the job I could hardly believe my ears. I had the rest of Betsy’s notice period to get ready for the transition and prepare to inherit her authors. Plus, I needed to go to Atlanta right away to meet Locus’s editor and publisher, Charles N. Brown. But before I do that, let’s pause to consider what happens when an editor is replaced.
You may recall from Part II that my first taste of shaky author/editor relations was with Terry C. Johnston, who was none too happy with me (before he got to know me, that is). That’s because I was not the person who acquired his work – and an author’s relationship with hisser editor is part of the potential equation, probably second only to money (sometimes pluck even trumps the buck). But a book contract is an agreement with the publishing house, not the editor, so if the editor leaves, the books under contract stay. (Furthermore, most contracts feature an option on the author’s next work, usually meaning you have to show it to the current publisher first, and if you decline its offer, you can’t sell it elsewhere for an equal amount or less.) Same with movies, records, etc., even literary agency: if you decide to change agents, you can’t take with you the books he already represents. Absent any provable cheating, they’re hers for life. The very biggest of shots may have “key man” clauses that trigger reconsideration or outright renegotiation, but that’s just for superstars, if it exists at all.
To the incoming editor, the authors’ contracted titles are “inherited.” To some authors, they’ve been “orphaned.” (Even though a foster parent is standing right there, but let’s not stretch the metaphor too far.) Forget the titles: let’s consider the people. If you have a contract with a major publisher and do well enough to keep working with them for years, you will almost certainly experience a change of editorship. Your editor might leave for a better opportunity, as did Betsy and Greg Tobin, my Western predecessor. (And as I was doing right now from the perspective of most of my Western authors!) Or there might be a corporate belt-tightening, and your editor’s given a nice buyout package, or simply becomes the victim of downsizing; there are great editors who’ve lost their jobs during the current climate of uncertainty. Another publisher might even dangle a better deal at you. Mark my words, though: stick around long enough at a major house, and someday you will have a different editor.
If your editor is conscientious (almost all of them are; it kind of goes with the job), s/he will make a list of authors and their agents, including you, and go down it one by one with a phone call essentially saying, “I want you to hear it from me: I’m leaving for a new opportunity. I’ve loved working with you and maybe we’ll do so again some day. Meanwhile, Tom is going to take over for me. He’s a great guy, you’ll like him. He’s gonna call you in a day or so to say hi.” It’s better to alert the agents first so they can be ready for the client’s panicked call (agents go through this all the time and tend to be more sanguine about it – if they know me personally, they can really help), but the conversation is basically the same. Depending on the length of the list, it can take two or three days to finish. After a round or so of these calls, the outgoing editor hands the partial list to me and continues while I begin following up with a second call: “I’m Tom, I know you’re sad to lose Betsy, but I really respect you and your work/client, and I look forward to a great relationship.” On both Betsy’s and Greg’s transitions, some authors and agents told us they were glad, even impressed, to hear from the two of us on the same day. I had a better story to tell Betsy’s authors than I did Greg’s – remember, I was brand new to Westerns when I began – so his personal help was essential. His writers took him at his word that I was a good choice, and left the prove-it part up to me.
That’s how it goes if the transition is smooth. What if the parting is involuntary, and the company has shown the back of its hand? Even then, most editors with any experience have developed an emotional stake in their authors’ careers. But some who feel they’ve been treated unfairly may choose to retaliate. The initial phone call may be brusque or petulant, or fail to occur at all. I haven’t inherited the list of anybody like that (though I’ve heard stories), but on rare occasions the system can glitch (for example, an unheard “call me immediately” voice-mail message), and I wind up being the first call. Awk-ward! Sometimes the incoming editor can be a dick. A well-known author reported that an inheriting editor proclaimed to hisser face that s/he hadn’t acquired hisser book and didn’t give a damn about it. This editorial moron had no future with any serious publisher, s/he just didn’t know it yet.
The point is, being an “orphan” is no fun. (For a hilarious turn on this issue, read Dick Lupoff’s introduction to his brilliant but terribly-titled Dell paperback SPACE WAR BLUES.) But neither is being a “foster parent” to somebody who’s acting out. Nearly everybody I ever dealt with was at least willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, even if they were a tad trepidacious. The more you settle in and contribute, the more that background pressure dissipates, and eventually it’s gone. Then one day, you’re making the first call – like I had to do to most of my frontier authors at the same time I was making call #2 to Betsy’s people! Nobody understands the deep and peculiar relationship between author and editor better than an author – or an editor. So it’s wrenching to both when that relationship has to change. But listen: it’s gonna happen, and all either of you can hope for is that you’ll find a new partner who’s just as sympatico, maybe even more so. Because that happens too.
But I digress.
The first weekend after I learned I was joining Team Spectra, Charlie Brown was scheduled to present the annual Locus Awards, voted by the magazine’s readers, at a throwdown called Dragon*Con in Atlanta. I’d been to a couple of World Science Fiction Conventions (a fan, I tell ya!) and of course Western Writers of America. Both of these cons were primarily concerned with printed literature. Dragon*Con brought comics, gaming and filmed media into the mix, and their fans tended to overwhelm the sf bookworm types. (The San Diego Comic-Con was still in my future; it’s to Dragon*Con what the Hulk is to Bruce Banner.) To Dragon*eers, the guy who inked Ferret-Man #275 is a demigod, yet a legendary author like Robert Silverberg can walk down the hall unrecognized. Go figure.
To bolster its traditional sf cred, the convention offered to host the Locus Awards banquet, and for a few years, Charlie withstood the media mob. Lots of interesting authors were there, after all, and one of his jobs at conventions was to conduct one-on-one Locus interviews, which he expertly edited into monologues to focus unwaveringly on the author. I got my one-on-one too, only no tape recorder, just a delightful dinner and wide-ranging conversation. We talked about sf some, but also music, museums, New York versus Oakland (Locus World HQ – I’d never been there), the state of publishing, you name it. We got along fine. This guy was erudite, amazingly well-read, funny, a little curmudgeonly but in an oddly affecting way – and I think he satisfied himself that I cared, which is all he really wanted to know. We all miss him.
I met a few authors at Dragon*Con (the most fun was a long impromptu dinner with Gardner Dozois and Connie Willis, both smart, funny, warm people whose generosity of spirit made me feel right at home during my fairly stressful inauguration), but I couldn’t give you a complete list because I was always mentally pinching myself: don’t fawn. Act like this happens all the time. Geez, that’s Robert Bloch! I’d finished calling all Betsy’s authors, so it was common knowledge that there was a new guy at Bantam, one nobody had ever heard of. With only a touch more reticence than the Western writers, people came up to me one by one to say hi, and over the weekend I’d met most of the Locus Award-winning writers who’d made the trip. Now it was time to get to work.
Science fiction and fantasy make different demands on the author and reader. Most works of science fiction – especially “hard sf,” with its exacting technological verisimilitude — are allowed a “Big Lie,” such as, “we’ve learned how to travel backward through time,” or “we can handle a long manned interplanetary journey by employing suspended animation.” Now the author speculates on what the consequences might be were that Big Lie true. Fantasy is a different animal. The sf writer asks, “What if?” The fantasy writer says, “Magic just exists. Work with me on this.” (Sometimes the two fields are deliberately blurred – the dazzling THE DRAGON MASTERS by Jack Vance feels rather like a fantasy, but it’s sf all the way. Let’s just keep things simple for now.)
The main task of an editor in both cases (besides watching for poor usage, echoes of specific words, etc., which you would do for any author) is to make sure the writer consistently follows hisser own set of rules, and expresses them clearly enough so that the reader can understand. That’s lots harder than it sounds. Everybody has a favorite example of the dreaded “info dump,” most frequently seen in those Fifties movies I was talking about: “As you know, gentlemen, fifty years ago our space scientists developed an anti-gravity space gel called zabfrabmium. This is what powers our space rocket on its space mission. Hail space!” If you wrote fiction as a kid, I’ll bet you used this device too. It lets you hurry up and get on to the good stuff. Pros don’t have that dubious luxury. (Some people were annoyed by James Cameron’s “unobtanium” in AVATAR, but as Cameron well knows, it’s a genuine term used by physicists and engineers for something that’s prohibitively costly or would work only in theory.)
Editing sf and fantasy is more fun than a barrel of monkeys because every world, every author, has a different set of rules, and discovering them is a great part of the attraction for devotees. Plus, at the time I was working in the field (post-PC, pre-Internet-as-second-nature), the digital revolution was just beginning to open new vistas of possibility for great writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker. I was able to work on a couple of Bruce’s books: he has to be the single brightest guy I know personally, and the new world of instant communication fit him like a glove. (It’s interesting that the one thing all the futurists missed, from H.G. Wells on down, was the ubiquity of the personal computer. Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, you name it: nobody saw that coming but Bill Gates. A well-read sf devotee has suggested another candidate, and linked to his prescient story, in the Comments section below.) Some think the last great creative convulsion in the sf field was “cyberpunk,” the dingy-but-digital milieu prefigured in BLADE RUNNER but best exemplified by Bill Gibson’s kinetic style. All I know was that, for once, reality was outpacing even the most feverish imaginations. It was an especially exciting time to be working with forward-thinkers.
The authors frequently (okay, usually!) know the worlds they have built better than you do, but sometimes that intensity of detail can cloud over the ability to perceive specifics. Inconsistencies and implausibilities tend to be more evident to a stranger, and the lack of a needed piece of knowledge almost always is. You’re carrying it around in your head, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that you neglected to write it down. Your readers don’t want an info dump, but we do need for you to otherwise impart the info. That’s where the little tacks thumbed down by an attentive editor can really help.
I’ll never forget the day I sat down to write an editorial letter to Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I had never met her, but I knew her work, whoo boy, did I. Plus, she was in the middle of her Hugo-winning stint as editor of F&SF, which is still my favorite of all the mags. Now I’ve inherited a new fantasy series, THE FEY, and here’s the first novel. Ms. Rusch has probably forgotten more about editing than I will ever learn. A serious pro, she has turned in the script on time, and it’s frickin wonderful. I only have a few slight cosmetic problems, then some questions about the world she’s created — particularly important here, since we’re inaugurating it for readers who we hope will follow subsequent books — which if I were more of a fantasy reader, maybe I’d already understand. I took a breath, looked again at my notes, and started typing – being careful to begin with a compliment, as was my way, but in this case, duh – and laid it out as I would have for anyone else. Never was I more relieved than the day I heard back from Kris, thanking me for my suggestions. When I finally met her a few months later, she professed surprise at this backstory: “Why were you nervous? Your letter made sense!” That’s when I realized that even veterans simply want an ear that’s not too stern, not too fawning — nope, forget all that crap: they simply want you to make sense. That was the last time I was ever nervous about writing an editlet – and my subsequent authors had Kris Rusch to thank. (Or curse!)
I had a great many delicious experiences in sf, but one that stands out was the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow, where it was my high honor to accept Isaac Asimov’s posthumous Hugo Award for Best Nonfiction Book: I. ASIMOV. I never thought I’d ever touch a Hugo, and here I was entrusted with bringing the sleek rocket-shaped award back to New York and presenting it to Isaac’s wife Janet on behalf of the Worldcon voters. (Charlie Brown chided me in Locus for failing to mention Isaac’s brother Stanley from the podium, but he was confusing this book with Stanley’s just-pubbed collection of Isaac’s letters, YOURS, ISAAC ASIMOV, and he graciously apologized by phone and in print.) My wife and I had already planned a leisurely driving trip through the Scottish Highlands for a week after the con, so we bundled up Isaac’s Hugo in our luggage and proceeded. But I, who was driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road, never forgot it was there. Several times, especially as we were heading in and out of Glasgow (to return and rent, respectively), and I found myself stymied by a reverse roundabout, the screaming Locus headline passed through my mind: BANTAM IDIOT MANGLES ASIMOV’S HUGO IN CAR WRECK. In the meantime, though, we had a majestic trip through the sheep and heather, and one day I just couldn’t resist. I unwrapped the doggone thing and took this photo, way up in the Highlands:
Isaac’s Hugo and Scottish heather.
That Glasgow event was also where I met Norman Spinrad, with whom I’d been working for bloody months on a novel called HE WALKED AMONG US, just pubbed by Tor, and by just, I mean 2010! (It’s a long story, and I don’t mean the book.) Norman suggested the Ubiquitous Chip, a venerable spot frequented by performers of all kinds, the place where I was first able to stomach haggis. Stomach, get it? One of the characters in his novel was a crack addict, and Norman had described her downfall so vividly that I asked him on the trip to the Chip: “Have you ever smoked crack? You describe the effects so well.” Norman said, “Have you?” “Nope.” “Then how do you know? It’s called fiction, Tom.” I had fallen under his spell so utterly, even I hadn’t realized it, and I was editing the sumbitch page by page!
David Gerrold has always prided himself on Tuckerisms – that is, working real people’s names into his fiction. One day I was chugging along on one of his manuscripts and realized he’d nodded to all of my departed Bantam colleagues, but he’d forgotten about me! “Qwicherbichin,” replied David, and the relevant passage from his novel THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE now reads:
“Do I have to list for you all the ships we’ve lost? Just in the last three months, the Aronica, the Stout, the Mitchell – you can’t afford to give up the Star Wolf.”
“–And the Silverstein, and the McConnell. We’ve lost more than you know. At least the Dupree is still online. Unless you know something I don’t.”
I spent three delicious hours with Robert Silverberg in some little Bay Area diner, talking about sf nearly the whole time. We got into these fancy-bound Easton Press Masterpieces Of Science Fiction; I subscribed to the series, Bob was simply chosen (his Masterpiece was DYING INSIDE, I believe), and part of his payment was the complete set. *Sigh* I’m a THEY’D RATHER BE RIGHT hawk; I don’t think it deserved its very early Hugo Award for Best Novel, or its place in our semi-shared Masterpieces fancy-bound set. But Bob has the mind of a scientist, and he immediately sussed that I had to have been no more than four or five when the Hugo in question was bestowed, nor did this rather obvious fact diminish my critical zeal. Hmmm. Kid’s OK.
Dan Simmons, his agent Richard Curtis (remember him from Part II?) and I found ourselves in Minneapolis. I’d pre-booked a very nice dinner for our trio, but hadn’t realized how far outside the central city the convention hotel would actually be. So when we crawled into a taxi, as the Allmans might say, the road went on forever. Fortunately, I happened to mention to Dan that I was working with the writers of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. He went nuts: huge fan! If I’d known this previously, I might possibly have arranged for a tour of their Eden Prairie studio for one of the finest authors anybody has ever known. Too late: we had a wonderful dinner, then spent the whole cab ride back exchanging MST3K quips (the courtly Mr. Curtis remained above the fray). My reward was this, in the last phrase of the acknowledgments on THE RISE OF ENDYMION: “…and my editor, Tom Dupree, for his patience, enthusiasm, and shared good taste for loving Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Much earlier, I was sitting next to Dan when he won the World Fantasy Award for his gorgeous story “This Year’s Class Picture,” and even though I’d had nothing to do with it, the first thing he did when he heard his name was to turn and shake my hand. Such tiny things help make editing worthwhile.
I’ve got a million of ‘em, but I’ve gone on long enough, so I’m going to save a couple for a little tributary I floated down that helped change the Locus bestseller lists forever.
NEXT: Shared worlds – including one in a galaxy far, far away…
Part I Part II Part IV Part V Part VI