Tag: David Hartwell

David Hartwell

David Hartwell

David Hartwell, Senior Editor Tor Books

Much will be written of David Hartwell over the years. This may be the least of it, because I didn’t know him well, or hardly at all, but we did cross paths a few times, and he was a bit of a towering figure to me.

I first became aware of David Geddes Hartwell when I was hanging around with author Robert J. Sawyer for a bit, trying to make a CBC Radio show called Faster Than Light. In between attempts to get our radio show off the ground, I made a couple of documentaries on science fiction. For one of these, Robert suggested I attend one of Allan Weiss’s Academic Conferences on Science Fiction. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was quite a who’s who of Canadian SF attending this particular conference, maybe because Allan had snagged Margaret Atwood as one of the guest speakers, or (more likely) because they’re always like that.

Sitting a few rows up from me was a distinguished looked fellow in his early sixties, one of the few fellows present wearing a suit. Rob pointed him out to me. “That’s David Hartwell. He’s the Senior Editor of Tor Books.” Tor is a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Hartwell was Rob’s editor. At this time Hartwell had already edited hundreds of books, working with authors such as Frank Herbert, Gene Wolfe, and Philip K. Dick. He was nominated for the Hugo Award over forty times. The man was a legend in the SF field.

I decided right then and there that I wanted Hartwell to edit my books. He was the goal, the Holy Grail of editors. I wanted access to Hartwell’s brain, to his knowledge of how to write effectively, how to write books that other people wanted to read, and not just read, but read compulsively, and weep and laugh, and afterwards go wow, what a book.

But Rob didn’t introduce us and I didn’t have a complete novel at the time. I didn’t see Hartwell again until the World Science Fiction convention Anticipation in Montreal in 2007, when I drove up with my pal Fergus Heywood and hung out with the Rayner boys, Mark and Mike. In between all the panels and the boozy nights, I made it a point to attend one of Hartwell’s talks.

I don’t remember much of what he talked about, but during the Q&A I got up to ask him a question, because I still really wanted to pick the brain of this man. I asked him this: “You edit professional writers who are presumably quite advanced in their craft. What do you as an editor have to tell them that they don’t already know?”

He said, “That’s just concise enough a question that I can answer it in less than half an hour.” Everybody laughed. He went on to tell us that the big thing that professional, experienced authors mess up is setting. Their books often have no proper sense of place. There’ll be lots in the way of dialogue and ideas, but no sense of where it’s all happening, to the detriment of the story.

I was heartened by this, because I had spent a lot of time on setting in my novel (which still wasn’t quite finished), and ultimately set it mostly on Prince Edward Island, except those parts that take place on other worlds.

Hartwell also mentioned that Canadian writer Karl Schroeder had given him a 180,000 page manuscript that was obviously too long, and he quickly determined that 80,000 pages of it was a digression, which he urged Schroeder to cut, which Schroeder did. This prompted me to look over my own manuscript for digressions, and I concluded that there was a chapter about seagulls that was a digression, so I cut it. Until my sister Susan said, “You cut the chapter about the seagulls? I loved that chapter!” And my daughters Keira and Erin said the same thing, and I realized that it wasn’t actually a digression; in fact, in some ways it was the heart of the whole story thematically. So I put it back in.

I didn’t see Hartwell again until 2014, when I attended Rob Sawyer’s Academic Conference on Science Fiction, which was also celebrating the inclusion of Rob’s personal papers into the McMaster University library. At the time, I was almost finished my novel. Actually, shortly before the conference I had convinced myself that it was done, because I was tired of writing it. I knew I needed to finish it and get on with the next one, so I ended it, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t really done. I gave it to some friends to read and they weren’t too keen on the ending, so I picked it up again, and by the time I attended Rob’s conference I thought I could wrap up this new draft in about five pages.

I was nervous about attending the conference, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In the end I had a great time, mostly because I met a friend and we spent the day hanging out and attending the panels. Hartwell spoke at the end of the day, and I asked him another question during the Q&A. He said he was always on the lookout for talented writers. I asked him to define talented, and he provided a flip response that got a big laugh from the audience. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what he said, and I don’t want to do the man a disservice by guessing what it might have been, though I will say that I don’t believe it was particularly encouraging. After the Q&A I got a chance to have a proper conversation with him. He apologized for being flip with me during the Q&A.

I’m a little embarrassed about what happened next. I was on a mission. I wanted him to look at my manuscript. What began as a conversation with me, Hartwell and a couple of others quickly became a conversation between me and Hartwell as I monopolized the conversation. I was basically buttonholing him. I remember the look on one woman’s face as she realized what was going on, that she was not welcome in the conversation anymore. I wince remembering it. Looking back, I could no doubt have negotiated that moment infinitely more graciously.

David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013

David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013

Finally, I came right out and asked Hartwell if he would consider reading my manuscript. To my surprise and delight, he agreed, and offered to take it right then and there. But I hadn’t brought the manuscript with me. I hadn’t even thought to put it on a USB key. I figured I would just email it to him.

Also, there was the business of last five pages. I asked him if that was a problem. He said, “No. Just make sure the first five pages are perfect.”

I assured him that I would.

He invited me to dine with him and Rob and several others. I would have loved to, but I had already accepted an offer from my friend to drive me home.

When I got home I was quite excited about getting my manuscript to Hartwell. I realized I hadn’t asked Hartwell for his email address. I emailed Rob and asked him for it. Rob responded right away. In his email, Rob warned me that Hartwell was notorious for taking forever to respond. This fact was quite well known in SF circles, I think, but it was the first I’d heard of it. It was my first hint that Hartwell might take, well, forever to respond. Rob also suggested I only send the first five pages.

I opted to send the entire first chapter, but I didn’t send it to Hartwell right away. I took his advice about making the first five pages perfect. I enlisted the aid of a couple of friends to edit the first chapter. This was another instance of obnoxiousness on my part, presuming upon my friends to get their edits to me quickly. Which they did. Brilliant edits, which improved the first chapter immensely.

I sent it to Hartwell, reminding him of who I was, that we had spoken, and that he had generously agreed to look at the manuscript.

He never replied to tell me got it. I thought, this doesn’t bode well. He’s seventy years old, I told myself. Maybe he doesn’t have email etiquette down. Or more likely, I’m just some pipsqueak who’s not actually important enough to respond to.

For the next year, though, I felt like I could tell people that, hey, yeah, my manuscript’s at Tor Books with their senior editor, they’re taking a look at it.

A little over a year later I decided, well, enough of that nonsense.

I wrote Hartwell a friendly email with the intention of letting him off the hook, to make sure I could show the book elsewhere with impunity. I did not expect a response.

To my absolute astonishment, he replied within two hours. He apologized for not having gotten around to reading my submission. He said I was free to show the book around elsewhere, but promised to find the time within the next couple of months to read it. He wrote that he was “really sorry to have disappointed” me.

It was a humble, gracious note.

I never heard from him again, at least via email.

I met Hartwell for the last time at the CANCON writer’s conference in Ottawa in October 2015. We ran into one another in the hall in the Sheraton, where (again, somewhat to my astonishment) he greeted me like an old friend, and we stood and talked and he told me personal details of goings on in his life that I might have expected from a close friend. I told him that I was considering a publishing deal with another publisher, Five Rivers Press (I signed the contract two days later). Hartwell said he didn’t mind losing out to another publisher, so long as the book got published. I thought, he didn’t mind losing out? He thought he was losing out??! I didn’t pursue it.

We spoke again the next day, when fellow author Melissa Yuan-Innes and I ran into him in the hotel bar, after he insisted on taking a picture of Melissa in her faerie wings (did I mention it was Hallowe’en?). I happened to remark that I was rereading Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogy. He said (as I have written elsewhere), “I rejected that trilogy.”

John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell

John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell


I was talking to a man who had rejected Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogy.

It wasn’t that he didn’t see the value in the series. He explained that Donaldson had originally submitted the first three books as a single volume. To make it work had ultimately required a massive amount of work on the part of Lester Del Rey, an investment in time that Hartwell couldn’t commit to at the time.

Knowing that Hartwell had rejected one of my favourite series, I immediately felt better about him not accepting my book (technically, he never did reject my novel).

A fact I have observed about my life: whenever I want something really bad, I often don’t get it. Instead I get something else. Something that, at first glance, doesn’t look anywhere near as appealing, but that in the end is really just a weird-ass portal to something beautiful (to paraphrase author Lidia Yuknavitch). For instance, when I was in Grade Seven, I wanted to play the trumpet in the junior high school band. I got the baritone instead. I came to love the baritone, a sweet sounding brass instrument which frequently played the melody of whatever piece we were playing. As was so often the case, it was only much later that I realized I’d lucked out.

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

I wish I could believe that I have some kind of guardian angel protecting me, steering me towards what’s best for me. I know that’s not the case. Probably I view what actually happens as positive because I’ve cultivated a positive attitude. Because the fact is we are not guaranteed positive outcomes. Bad things happen. Good people, talented people, important people fall down stairs and die.

I have lucked out with my novel, though. I’ve found a Canadian version of David Hartwell in the form of Robert Runte, who is currently editing A Time and a Place for Five Rivers Press. He’s the perfect man for the job. I couldn’t be happier about it.

In the meantime, I was privileged to have known (however briefly, however tangentially) a man many believe to have been one of the three greatest, most influential editors in the history of science fiction.

David Geddes Hartwell passed away January 20th, 2016.

Novels and Nephews

My nephew Ryley was doing what he loved best: writing and directing films. He was increasing his knowledge of filmmaking and making connections in the Ottawa film community. His films were crewed by fellow filmmakers and shot on location in and around Ottawa. He had several short films in post-production.

It all came crashing to a halt when he started feeling tired all the time and doctors discovered a growth on the mechanical valve in his heart. He’s had heart trouble since the day he was born. Since being admitted to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute in early October he’s received excellent care, but he’d much rather be out making films.

University of Ottawa Heart Institute.  (Photo by Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen)

University of Ottawa Heart Institute. (Photo by Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen)

About a month after he was admitted to the hospital I found myself in Ottawa attending a conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature (Can-Con). (It’s a lot more fun than it sounds.) It had been a rocky month for Ryley, including a stint in the Intensive Care Unit, but it looked like he was on the mend. He figured he’d be out of the hospital by Sunday, so I made plans to drop by his apartment Sunday morning, the last day of the conference.

I drove up in a rented car with Dr. Allan Weiss of York University. This was an excellent start to the conference. Allan and I had lots to talk about, such as what five SF films would you screen in an introductory course on speculative fiction? So many great films to choose from. I can’t remember which films Allan actually includes in his course, but I suggested the following:

Planet of the Apes (1968)
Gattaca
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Silent Running
Moon

None of which would make my nephew Ryley’s list. He prefers grittier fare, such as American History X, and most of Martin Scorcese’s films.

I dropped Allan off at his hotel Friday afternoon and checked into the Sheraton, where the conference was being held.

Several weeks earlier, I had emailed Dr. Robert Runte, Senior Editor of Five Rivers Publishing, looking for clarification regarding their submission window. I had a 110,000 word speculative fiction manuscript I was looking to submit. According to the Five Rivers website, the window looked to be several minutes long sometime in middle of a cold, dark night in January. I wanted to make sure I didn’t blink and miss it.

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Runte told me never mind the window, just send him the manuscript. He was also attending CanCon, and I was looking forward to meeting him.

When I told Ryley that I would be in town for a writer’s conference, and that I had written a novel, he wasn’t particularly impressed. He believes that books are a thing of the past. He knows that I made a short film many years ago, and has told me several times that I should give up my foolish dream of writing books and return to film making.

Ryley himself is a fine writer. He spends many hours writing scripts for his films. Often he will stay up all night writing. He’s good at dialogue. His scripts are visceral, kinetic, sometimes violent. They have strong linear narratives and memorable characters.

Back to the conference.

Dr. Runte had suggested I call him once I was settled in. I did so from the hotel lobby.

“Be right down,” he told me.

Two minutes later I found myself staring at a contract.

A fine start to a writer’s conference.

We spent a good hour talking about the publishing business and my book. This alone was worth the price of admission. Peoples’ eyes glaze over pretty quickly when I start talking about writing. Not Dr. Runte’s.

He told me that he’d given my manuscript along with two others to his assistant editor Kathryn Shalley. After reading all three, Kathryn recommended that Five Rivers take on mine. I don’t know what she actually said, but what Dr. Runte said she said was that she loved it.

I think that bears repeating: she said that she loved my book.

It’s entirely possible that Dr. Runte misunderstood her, and that Kathryn actually said she shoved my book, or loved my look, or was referring to something else entirely, but the important thing is that Dr. Runte heard “loved my book”, so he recommended to publisher Lorina Stephens that Five Rivers publish it.

I shall be eternally grateful to Kathryn Shalley.

“Don’t sign right away,” Dr. Runte advised. “Think about it first.”

I did think about it.

I also thought about my nephew Ryley languishing in a hospital room a fifteen minute drive away. They hadn’t let him out of the hospital after all. He’d developed an infection and a rash. As I considered Dr. Runte’s offer, Ryley was listening to doctors tell him that they would have to operate and that there was a ten percent chance that he would die and that he would almost certainly require an entirely new heart someday.

My novel, A Time and a Place, is about an uncle trying to save his nephew. The nephew’s name is Ridley. I wrote the first draft (and named the characters) long before Ryley was born. Like the uncle in my novel, I once turned into a seagull to try to save my nephew. No, wait, that didn’t happen. But the fact that I should be offered a publishing deal for a book about an uncle trying to save his nephew on a weekend that I would be visiting a nephew in serious trouble struck me as eerily coincidental.

Like the uncle in my novel, I was essentially powerless to help my nephew. I am not at all averse to attempting heart surgery but I expect Ryley would prefer that I not start with him. So I limited my support to texts and phone calls and a visit.

Ryley is a bit of a deep thinker. Our conversations quickly escalate from “Hey, how are you?” to “what do you think of free will?” Ryley believes that every choice we make is dictated by every action we’ve taken up until that point. I asked him how it could be otherwise. He told me that I was just like everyone else; that I didn’t understand. I told him that I understood perfectly, that he wasn’t the only one who ever thought about these sorts of things.

I suggested he consider a thought experiment. Someone has just popped into existence from nowhere and has to decide what to do, but they have no prior experience upon which to base their decision. Would that first decision not constitute free will?

Ryley wasn’t convinced. “It can’t happen. It’s impossible for someone to just pop into existence. So it doesn’t prove anything.”

I told him about a scene in my novel where the main character begins to question the existence of free will. He reasons that if someone from the future tells him that he’s going to drink a cup of coffee because they have seen him do so in his past, and it’s impossible to change that past, then they will have no choice but to drink that cup of coffee. If you can’t change the past in a universe that permits time travel, then everything must be predetermined.

Ryley’s eyes glazed over. I had made the mistake of talking about my writing.

I needed to make a decision myself. That decision would necessarily be predicated upon everything that had ever happened to me. It might or might not constitute an act of free will. It was whether to sign Dr. Runte’s contract and publish with Five Rivers, or hold out for one of the so-called Big Five (Penguin Random House, MacMillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster).

I read the Five Rivers contract late Saturday night. I liked it. Unfortunately, I knew next to nothing about contracts. According to Dr. Runte, it had been written by Margaret Atwood’s lawyer, one of the country’s finest entertainment lawyers.

I signed it.

But I didn’t give it to Dr. Runte right away.

I carried it with me as I attended panels and mingled. There were a lot of smart people around. I asked some of them for counsel. One told me to hold out for the Big Five. Everybody else congratulated me.

There were an inordinate number of doctors at the conference. Dr. Runte, Dr. Weiss, and several medical doctors, including Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes, with whom I’d worked on a CBC Radio play a few years back. This was the first time we’d actually met. I checked out two of her panels and we had a lovely chat afterwards. She asked if I’d considered self-publishing my novel, but did not appear opposed to the Five Rivers deal.

Melissa Yuan-Innis

Melissa Yuan-Innis

I spent a few moments chatting with David Hartwell, Senior Editor of Tor, a major SF publisher, but we didn’t talk about Five Rivers or my novel. Instead we talked about a high fantasy series I happened to be re-reading just then, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogy, a favourite series by a favourite author. Hartwell had rejected the series for Tor. The series had needed a lot of work, he told me. Luckily for Donaldson, Lester Del Rey of Ballantine Books picked it up and turned Donaldson’s single baroque epic into three separate, readable books.

The Covenant trilogy is about a leper, Thomas Covenant, who is destined to become the saviour of another world called The Land. Covenant becomes healthy in this alternate world, but he refuses to believe that The Land is real. This is a defense mechanism. Covenant fears that if he accepts the reality of The Land and his newfound health, and he’s translated back to reality, he won’t be equipped to deal with his leprosy anymore, and it will kill him.

Covenant wasn’t the only one struggling with reality. So was my nephew Ryley when I visited him on Sunday.

“What if you’re not real?” he suggested. “What if no one’s real but me?”

“I feel pretty real,” I told him.

Later, I wondered under what circumstances someone might believe that they were real when in fact they weren’t. A character in a book, perhaps.

I told him about the Covenant books, and Covenant’s struggle with reality. He wasn’t impressed. Books were a dying art, after all.

They were still worth publishing though, in my view.

Saturday afternoon, Dr. Runte and I discussed my book. He let me have it straight. I wasn’t likely to get rich and famous publishing with Five Rivers. I might only sell a couple of hundred copies. Much of the success of the book would be up to me. But I would get a team of talented people who would help me create as good a work of art as possible, and who would publish it with as much care and expertise as they could muster.

I attended a party that night. I chatted with several authors, including Ryan McFadden, whose novel Cursed: Black Swan was about to come out with Dragon Moon Press. He encouraged me to sign with Five Rivers. Moments later I found myself chatting with Barry King, who used to work with ChiZine, another independent Canadian publisher.

“I won’t tell you what to do,” Barry said, before proceeding to tell me what to do.

He pointed out that I had a publisher who loved my book and was keen to publish it. How often was that likely to happen? I might never have another chance. Barry himself had an unfinished novel in a desk drawer. I encouraged him to finish it. Someday, he said. Maybe.

I had never met Barry before, but I liked him instantly. Speaking to him, I realized that I needed to work with Dr. Runte on this book, and maybe the next one too.

That night I gave Dr. Runte the signed contract.

The day after that I visited Ryley in the hospital.

Ryley likes fine automobiles. He often includes them in his films. When I visited him, he wanted to know what car I was driving. It just so happened that I had rented a Cadillac for the weekend. Which one? Not much of a car aficionado, I couldn’t remember. When I went back outside to put some more money in the meter, I snapped a picture of it.

“Oh, it’s an SRX,” he told me, looking at the photo. “I used to own an SRX.”

What were the odds?

The Rental

The Rental

We talked a bit about my book. I told him I wasn’t looking to get rich and famous.

“Would you be offended if I told you something straight?” he asked me.

“Go for it,” I told him.

“You’re settling,” he accused me. “You need to be more ambitious.”

I used to want to be rich and famous, I told him. Now I have a different perspective. I have a roof over my head. Food in my belly. I’m surrounded by people I love who love me. There’s no empty feeling inside. Call that settling if you will, but I don’t need anything more.

Doesn’t mean I’m not going to bust my butt to sell as many copies of my book as I possibly can.

We spoke a bit about reality and free will. I told him that I was going to dedicate my book in part to him. He thought that was cool, having forgotten, perhaps, that I had no choice in the matter (no such thing as free will) and that I was merely a figment of his imagination anyway.

It was a good visit.

A month later, Ryley had heart surgery. It could have gone terribly wrong. It didn’t. The surgeon was able to clean out the clot and some other growth that was obstructing his mechanical valve. He’s recovering. Hopefully he will be out of the hospital soon and back to making films.

I wish I could end it there, but I can’t.

A week before Ryley’s surgery, I was told that Barry King died. I have no idea how or why. I had only met him once. Just long enough for him to talk me into signing with Five Rivers.

It Begins…

My publishing Journey (graphic courtesy of Addie.Zierman.com)

My publishing Journey (graphic courtesy of Addie.Zierman.com)

All right, I’ve finished the novel. Now what?

First step, seek representation. I know in this day and age you can self-publish but I don’t want to do that. I’ve spent so much time getting the writing portion of it right that I would prefer to do the rest right as well. And I’m in no hurry. I will take my time querying agents and publishers and if I’m lucky, perhaps I’ll find one. I will do so with no real trepidation. I’ve long since come to terms with the reality of the publishing world. There may not be a place for my novel out there. But if there is, I will find it. Slowly, painstakingly.

I was talking to my nephew last night. Not the same one as in the novel (I just made that one up…the one I was talking to last night I’m pretty sure I didn’t make up). Anyway, my nephew loves writing as much as I do, if not more. (He stayed up ’til eight this morning writing.) I was trying to express an idea to him. The idea of savouring every part of the writing process. If you write, and don’t sell what you write, you might feel like you’ve wasted your time. I will not feel that way. Every minute I spend writing, even now, writing this blog post, I enjoy. I know not everyone feels that way, but I do. I’m not saying it’s not hard work. Sometimes it’s excruciating. But it’s always my favourite part of the day. (Well, right up there with spending time with my girls, and eating lunch. I like those times a lot too.)

My nephew was afraid that I was telling him to “settle.” He says people are always trying to get him to settle. I understood right away what he was talking about. He thought I was trying to tell him that he probably won’t be successful, so he should be happy with the process itself, and settle for the satisfaction that brings. But that wasn’t what I was suggesting at all. You should absolutely go for the brass ring, which I intend to do, and which I would expect him to do. I will do my utmost to get my novel out there. Whatever it takes. But I will also completely enjoy every part of the process, from the conception to the writing to the selling process.

Years ago the inevitable rejections I’m about to receive would have bothered me. No longer. Now it’s just a part of the process. Just business. The trick is to keep the book on the market, while writing the next one.

Am I going about this properly? Don’t know.

I expect I’ll learn a lot as I go along.

Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre (SF Academic Conference at McMaster University)

McMaster SF Conference

McMaster SF Conference

Last weekend I attended an SF academic conference at McMaster University.

The conference was in honour of science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer’s archival donation to the university library collection.

It wasn’t a typical science fiction convention. There was nobody in costume. This was a conference in which academics from all over North America presented papers and talks on the subject of science fiction. Talks on subjects like “Russia’s Afrofuturism” by Anindita Banerjee from Cornell, and “Sawyer and Czernada in the Classroom” by David DeGraff of Alfred University.

I wanted to attend for several reasons. One, I’ve known Rob Sawyer since before his first book was published, when I worked on a show he made for CBC Radio’s Ideas way back when. Flash forward (ahem) a few years and we made some other radio together. I’ve read many of his books (I’ll get to them all eventually) and have followed his career with great interest. So I just wanted to be there to help support the man during what would be a pretty significant event in his career.

The Bobbsey Twins -- Ya Gotta Problem With This? width=

The Bobbsey Twins — Ya Gotta Problem With This?

Also, I just want to be a part of the Canadian science fiction community. I’ve read science fiction since I graduated from the Bobbsey Twins (yes, the Bobbsey Twins got me started on the path to reading) and it’s no secret to readers of this blog that I write science fiction. I knew that this would be a relatively intimate affair and afford me the opportunity to meet and chat with some really interesting folks in the SF community.

Finally, I was interested in hearing some of the presentations. But more on that later.

Getting to the conference proved a bit of a task. I was commuting from Whitby to Hamilton (my wife needed the car). This involved a bus at quarter to five in the morning connecting to a subway at York Mills connecting to another bus at Union Station — a three hour commute. I hadn’t slept well so I wasn’t exactly in the best of form by the time I got to Hamilton. Making matters worse, I’d decided to wear my glasses because I don’t trust my contacts these days. I am almost always ill-at-ease in glasses.

I was one of the first to arrive at the conference. I sat in Gilmour Hall wondering if it had been a mistake to come. I was actually feeling kind of panicky. Apart from Sawyer, I realized, I wouldn’t really know anyone. There would be a few people there I’d met before, like Peter Halasz and authors Julie Czernada and Robert Charles Wilson, but I didn’t really know them. I was confronted by a day of social isolation, crashing a party that really had nothing to do with me, attempting to make myself welcome in a community in which I probably didn’t really belong.

And I wasn’t quite sure how getting home would work.

This is how my mind works when I’m tired and wearing glasses.

Rob Sawyer arrived. He saw me, made a beeline for me and welcomed me warmly. The man almost seemed to go for a hug, which I botched by sticking my hand out. We settled for a hand hug. We chatted briefly, catching up (not having seen one another in about four years), and afterward I felt a little more welcome. Maybe this wasn’t such a mistake after all.

I sat back down.

Nah, it was still a mistake.

Two women entered and sat two rows ahead of me. Weird, I thought. They look just like a mother and daughter pair from my karate Dojo. Impossible.

But the daughter is university age. In fact, she’d be starting university this year.

I got out my Samsung Galaxy and texted my Sensei. Is so and so attending McMaster? Does she like Science Fiction?

Sensei texted me back within minutes. Yes and “she loves that stuff.”

It had to be them. Emboldened, I made my way to their row and sat down beside them.

“Hey,” I said.

The daughter looked at me blankly. The mother looked at me blankly. I had the wrong mother daughter pair. I felt lost. Alone.

“Would it help if I put on a gi?” I tried.

Finally recognizing me, they loosened up immediately. “Hey, what are you doing here?” the mother asked.

I explained all, and so did they.

From that moment on the entire day was gold.

They were a lot of fun. Margaret (the mother) and I attended all the academic sessions together, writing notes to one another throughout with our (to us, at least) witty observations. The three of us had lunch and dinner together and I got to know them both a lot better than when violently throwing punches and kicks at one another back at the dojo. And Margaret generously drove me home afterward.

John Robert Colombo

John Robert Colombo

The day began with a speech by Canadian author John Robert Colombo called “400 years of Robert J. Sawyer.” Evidently Sawyer is older than I thought. It’s a great pleasure listening to accomplished public speakers like Colombo. He speaks well and elicits many laughs. One listens to every word. Damned if I can remember any of his speech now but I remember being impressed at the time. Okay, just kidding. Sort of (hey, I didn’t think there’d be a test afterward). The gist of his speech was about how science fiction is about four hundred years old, dating back to the writings of Cyrano de Bergerac (“The Other World“). The question he posed was, would we be reading Robert J Sawyer in four hundred years? To which I would emphatically respond, not unless we make a great deal more progress in the science of senescence. Okay, OTHER people might well be reading Sawyer, but probably not me, so I’ll just have to do my best to read the rest of his works in however many years I have left.

After Colombo, Margaret and I trotted off to Chester New Hall where we took in Herb Kauderer, Associate Professor at Hilbert College & PhD Candidate, Buffalo, talking about “Fedora Hats and the Great Gazoo: Pop Culture References in Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Triggers and Red Planet Blues.” At the risk of doing a terrible injustice to Herb’s presentation, which was much more expansive and erudite than I can possibly present here, Herb wondered (among other things) whether the pop culture references in Sawyer’s work were distracting, especially considering some of them could not possibly be understood or appreciated (without research) by many younger readers (the Great Gazoo dates back to the mid-sixties). I believe Herb came down on “no,” and I would agree. I wondered as Herb spoke whether Sawyer’s work (and the work of other modern authors) would have to be annotated in the future, as classic texts are now. Of course they’ll have to be.

Next up were Rebecca McNulty (MA Candidate, University of Florida) with a speech entitled “‘Let Me Reveal Your Future!’: Robert Sawyer’s Use of Prediction in Near-Future Narrative”, followed by Carrie J. Cole (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) discussing “Science and the Staging of the Speculative Imagination:Interdisciplinary and Intertextual Performance Strategies”.

I love these titles. The speeches were usually infinitely more interesting than the titles suggested. I won’t get into the gist of all the speeches (you really ought to have been there — shame on you for not attending).

I do have one critique, and it’s about public speaking. And I trot this out based on my years working for CBC Radio, working with freelancers and actors of all stripes. This is what I have learned. When speaking in public, it is VERY hard to be entertaining and properly engrossing if you are reading from notes. Almost certainly you will read too fast and the audience will miss much of what you say. It’s okay to have notes, it’s even okay to have it all written down, but don’t read from it. Refer to it from time to time if you have to. The speakers at this conference illustrated this to great effect. Some read, others spoke. The ones who spoke were a lot more fun to listen to than the ones who read (unless they were reading an excerpt from a book, which is different).

And I say all this as someone who struggles sometimes with public speaking. It’s hard to put down the notes. What if you freeze? I froze once during a speech. But that was because I wasn’t prepared (and somebody had told me not to be funny… I need to be funny, or at least try to be, to put myself at ease before the audience). So that’s my two cents. Lots of folks at the conference had plenty interesting to say, but they need to take a page from John Robert Colombo’s book and put down the notes.

David DeGraff (Alfred University)

David DeGraff (Alfred University)

One great talker I’ll point out was David DeGraff of Alfred University talking about “Sawyer and Czerneda in the Classroom.” DeGraff, a youthful (despite his full head of gray hair) professor spoke with enthusiasm about using fiction effectively as an aid to education. I’d take one of his classes in a heartbeat.

Another great speaker — actually, among the best of the day — was Chris Szego of Bakka-Phoenix books, who spoke about “Independent Bookselling: Two Parts Circus, One Part Gong Show.” Speaking from the heart about her experiences selling science fiction books, complete with facts and figures, refuting a few myths about the trade and just generally being interesting and engaging.

And now we come to the highlight of the day for me.

One man I really wanted to hear talk was David Hartwell, Senior Editor at TOR books. He was among the last to talk on Saturday. I had heard him talk at Anticipation in Montreal a few years back and he had some great things to say about the editing process which have since informed my writing. He’s Sawyer’s editor and has a reputation for being good to Canadian science fiction writers. He read excerpts from a book he’s working on about science fiction anthologies.

David Hartwell, Senior Editor Tor Books

David Hartwell, Senior Editor Tor Books

There was a Q & A afterward with both Hartwell and Szego during which Hartwell commented that they are always on the lookout for “talented” writers. I asked him to define talented, which got a big laugh from the audience. But I really wanted to know. How does he define talented? What the heck does that mean? His answer was rather flip, which also got a big laugh, and I’m afraid I don’t remember quite what it was, though he (or maybe it was Chris, or Rob) went on to say essentially that talent manifests itself in many ways.

I spoke with Hartwell afterward. He apologized for his flip response, though it hadn’t bothered me at all, its saving grace being that it was both funny and true (if only I could remember what it was!) I was treated to a rather lengthy conversation with the man, during which (I fear) I peppered him with many questions about editing and writing, all of which he answered graciously. I asked him (for instance) what kind of editing one does on a writer of Sawyer’s calibre (“it’s all about detail,” he told me, or words to that effect).

Before we parted I couldn’t resist telling him that I would love to send a manuscript his way one day. “Send it to me now,” he responded, to my astonishment.

“What if the last five pages aren’t quite done?” I asked him, panicking a little.

“Just make sure the first five pages are perfect,” he said.

Naturally I forgot to ask him for his email address (which Rob generously provided later).

Now, I am not a complete fool. I am well aware that nothing may come of this. Mr. Hartwell was probably just being nice. But his comment did have the effect of galvanizing me. I spent the next week not only making sure the first five pages of my manuscript are perfect, but finishing the last five. I think it (more or less) rocks now.

Whatever comes of it, Hartwell’s offer was a terrific end to a thoroughly enjoyable day.

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