In our last installment, I finished my first novel. To understand what happen next, we need to rewind about sixteen years and take a look at some things I had been up to in the meantime:.
When I got out of college, I read a book called The Awful Truth About Publishing. It laid out the world of publishing and explained the many pitfalls. I learned a lot from this book that helped me in many later endeavors, but the most important thing I got out of the book was that it said in no uncertain terms: Publishing is a Good Old Boy’s system. People get published because they know people. Look among your acquaintances, it said. Someone will be a published writer. Exploit their connections.
I did not have any publishing connections.
I decided that I would have to be the person among my acquaintances who had publishing connections. I set out to get some.
Back then, this was easier than it is now. Many more publishing people attended science fictions conventions than you often see nowadays. Recently, I have been to conventions where no one sowed up from the New York Publishing community. Back then, that was seldom the case.
(As best as I can tell, there are two reasons for this: one, there is less money for such things, and two, many of the people I knew as editors who visited conventions have left editing and are now writers who visit conventions.)
So, after graduating from St. John’s and before heading off to Europe, I attended a small convention called Hatcon in Danbury, Connecticut. For some reason, this was the very last Hatcon, which is a shame because it was a lovely convention with all sorts of interesting people. Right off, I met a number of published authors. There were also well-known artists, reviewers and all sorts of interesting characters. I still recall camping out with my brother in our sleeping bags (we arrived without a room…I went to all conventions without a room for years, until one day, probably around 1997, when John sighed and said he was really tired of sleeping on people’s floors. ) in what must have been the Green Room or the Con Suite, listening to Peter Heck sing “Walking the Dog” on the guitar. I still think of that song whenever I think of him, and visa versa.
(At the time, Mr. Heck wrote Hailing Frequencies, the SF newsletter from Waldenbooks, which I read religiously. Since, he has become the author of some delightful mysteries staring Mark Twain as the detective.
My brother’s most important moment was that he got to kiss a girl, the daughter of a short story writer from Alaska, I believe, in a pool. The most important thing that happened to me was that right after I arrived, practically the first person I met, was a publisher who gave me his card. His company was called Bluejay Books, and his name was Jim Frenkel.
Well, I went to Europe, and when I came back, I went to work for my dad. But I contacted Mr. Frenkel and asked for a part-time internship. I figured the best way to meet publishing people and to know about the business was to work there.
I worked for Bluejay Books for a month, taking the train to New York every day. At the end of that month, I got mono and was in bed for two weeks. The recovery process was slow, and I never went back to work in NYC. But during that month, I learned a great deal.
My very first day, I got to read the slush pile and reject manuscripts. That was a big lesson to me. First, I learned that one’s manuscript could be rejected by a recent college graduate about which the company hiring her knew absolutely nothing. Second, I learned the more flowery the cover letter, the worse the quality of the writing. I don’t know why. It just was.
Nearly everything in the slush pile was pretty bad. Bluejay only published quality science fiction, so I didn’t have to worry about anything that didn’t really stand out. There was only one story I read which I wanted to read the rest of (more than a few chapters) It was The Jehovah Contract by Victor Korman It was later published elsewhere, by a smaller press, I believe. It was a story about a guy who is hired by the devil to shoot God. (I later read his King of the High Frontier, about a private space race, which I enjoyed much more. It used to be just available on the web, but I see it’s now in print.)
On the second day, Jim handed me a letter and asked me to type it. I did not have the courage to explain that I really could not type very well. I just did it….slowly and with a couple of mistakes, if I recall, which I subsequently fixed, but I did it. I remember being surprised that no one had asked me if I could type before hiring me. (If it counts as hiring when someone is interning for free. )
I learned about cover art and C-Prints, which still stand out in my mind for how much more vivid they were than the final version with the title lettering over the picture. I leaned a bit about distributing and sf authors, not much, but enough to build on later.
One day while I was there, Bluejay received a submission of a manuscript that came, complete with pictures, in a hand-carved wooden box. The box was gorgeous. The author sent this enormous package…and there was no return postage or even a return address for the publishing company to send an acceptance to if they had wanted to publish it.
The employees did not even glance at it. “Why not?” I asked. “It will be terrible. Stories that arrive this way always are.” But they told me I could take a look at it if I did not believe them. I did. They were right. The writing was terrible.
My two clearest memories of that otherwise rather hazy period right before I became so ill were:
The moment on the train going in one morning when I realized I had put on two entirely different brown leather shoes that looked nothing alike…so I had a different shoe on each foot..
Seeing Diana Paxson come into the office whose writing I admired from the Sanctuary books.
Some time later, probably at a convention, I ran into Jim Frenkel again. The collapse of a distributor had ended Bluejay’s days as a publisher, but Jim was still running the company out of his house—selling the books he had and sending royalty statements to his authors. Turns out he lived rather close to me at the time, I started working for him a couple days a week. (I was working at Waldenbooks the rest of the time.)
I worked for Jim in his house for about a year, until we moved out of the area. I did royalty statements and typed letters. (My typing had gotten better, though not as good as it is nowadays.) Or whatever he needed done. Jim was basically working as a packager now, getting ideas, writers, and publishers together. There was a lot to learn, and it was quite interesting.
Once in a while, if I was very lucky, I got to have lunch with Jim’s wife, the wonderful, beautiful science fiction writer Joan Vinge, uthor of Snow Queen whose Hugo awards graced their living room. She is just delightful to talk to. That was the best part of all.
I remember one day arriving in tears because my coat, a beautiful down coat my parents had bought me only a few months before, had been stolen when I left it in the food court at the mall. I had recently gotten married and had no money and no way to replace it. Joan took pity on me and gave me an old coat of hers. I kept it for years. Once or twice, I put it on for writing in the hope that some of her creativity would have rubbed off on it. (It didn’t really help, but it made me feel happy. )
Jumping ahead about eight years, John has now finished a novel and Jim Frenkel is now an agent. I won’t go into the whole story of how John got published here, but the short version is that Jim was his agent for his first five books. After that, Jim was hired full-time as an editor for Tor—surely the coolest publishing house in the universe! (Back then, I had believed this for a long time, but now Tor also published John!) John then got a new agent, Mr. Jack Byrne.
It was just around that point that I sent the newly finished Prospero’s Children to Jim. I sent it with the idea that he might consider becoming my agent, but by the time he received it, he was an editor.
All of a sudden, just like that, I had a New York editor considering my manuscript! All my “Awful Truth” inspired work had paid off!
Next week: Part Three: The Long Dark Waiting Of The Soul