This weekend I relinquish the stage to my publisher, Lorina Stephens, and my editor, Dr.Robert Runte, who were kind enough to say a few words at my recent book launch. Lorina and Robert, take it away!
The launch took place at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction in Toronto.
“How’d the book launch go?” somebody asked me the other day.
There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to answer that question.
“Amazing,” I tried.
Sephora Hosein introducing me at the launch.
I could also have said, “Magic.” Or: “One of the best days of my life.”
All completely true. Certainly the beginning of an answer.
Here’s a longer answer.
It’s been kind of a strange year. I broke my ankle in January. At the time I thought, well this is kind of bad luck. Is that what kind of year this is going to be? This is the year my novel A Time and a Place is supposed to come out. Is this a bad sign?
Of course, any rational person knows that breaking your ankle in January and having a book come out in October have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Thinking that an event in January (never mind that it happened on Friday the 13th) might set the tone for an entire year is clearly ludicrous. I like to think of myself as a scientific rationalist. I don’t usually indulge in such thinking.
But sometimes I do.
Anyway, it turned out that breaking my ankle wasn’t all that bad. Courtesy of the Canadian Healthcare System, I received first class medical care. Afterward I was able to work from home. I got lots of sleep for a change. I watched a few movies I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to watch. I got to spend more quality time with my wife and family. As the year progressed, other good things happened. My ankle healed nicely. I got seconded into a nifty new position at work. My book edged ever closer to publication, and I began planning the book launch.
I was determined to get the launch exactly right. Not just for me and the book, but for anybody who might show up. I didn’t want to waste anybody’s time. Truth be told, the launch became a source of some anxiety. I don’t throw a lot of parties. A handful in my life. For my fiftieth birthday, for example, I’d always thought I’d throw a big party, but when the time came, I settled for a quiet dinner with my family and a couple of close friends.
I wanted to go bigger for the book launch. I figured it might be the only one I ever have. It was to mark the culmination of several years of writing a novel that for the longest time I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish. Twelve years of hard writing preceded by many years of false starts and dead ends. I wanted to mark the end of that long journey appropriately somehow.
I read blogs and articles and talked to fellow writers about how to hold a proper book launch. I discovered that such a launch is supposed to be more than just a celebration of finishing a book. It is, as the name suggests, supposed to launch the book, propel it forward into the great wide world. From a marketing perspective, the idea is to make as big a splash as possible to give the book the absolute best chance to succeed. You want as many people to come as you can manage. It may sound a bit crass, but the fact is you also want to sell as many copies as you can.
Some big decisions had to be made. Where to hold the launch? Four immediate possibilities came to mind: home, a bookstore, a pub, or a library.
I didn’t want to have it at home because my house isn’t big enough. It’s also too far away from downtown Toronto. And it wouldn’t have lent the event any cachet. I wanted the launch in Toronto where it could generate the biggest possible turn-out. As for bookstores, the most appropriate would have been the science-fiction and fantasy bookstore, Bakka-Phoenix books, but I didn’t feel comfortable approaching them because I didn’t have a relationship with them. As for pubs, I could think of a couple that might have worked, but I wanted a location with more significance.
I approached my friend Annette Mocek, a librarian at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction in the Toronto Pubic Library on College Street. She passed my request onto Lorna Toolis, Head Librarian at the Merril, who discussed it with the Friends of the Merril Collection, and I was thrilled when they agreed to host the launch Thursday evening Oct 26th. A Time and a Place is a science fiction/fantasy adventure; other than Bakka/Phoenix Books, there really was no more appropriate venue in Toronto.
Lorna, who has hosted many book launches, suggested I approach Bakka-Phoenix Books about selling copies of A Time and a Place at the launch. I felt awkward about this because, as mentioned above, I didn’t have a relationship with them. I live in Whitby, well outside of Toronto, and Bakka-Phoenix Books is located too far from where I work in downtown Toronto to make it easy to drop by. Bookstores are often approached by new authors seeking help, whether it’s to sell their books on consignment or hold a book launch or what have you, and they are understandably skeptical when approached by authors who, as far as they know, have never frequented their store.
I had in fact visited Bakka-Phoenix when it had been located on Queen, and I’d also met the manager, Chris Szego, at a conference, but it was unlikely that she’d remember me. Still, I steeled myself and undertook the long walk up to their current location on Harbord, just off Spadina, about fifty minutes away from where I work. I was just back on my feet after recovering from the broken ankle—it was a good test of the freshly healed foot. I still had a bit of a limp, and the bad foot wasn’t quite pointing in the right direction yet, but it got me there.
Chris Szego, Manager of Bakka-Phoenix Books
Chris was there when I limped in. I began by asking for some recommendations. Chris suggested two books, both of which I bought (Company Town and Ancillary Justice). I did this because I wanted to give her business before asking something of her, but also, I was not going to visit a science fiction bookstore without purchasing some science fiction. I mean, seriously.
Afterward, still feeling awkward about the subject, I brought up the business of the book launch. To my delight, Chris immediately agreed to help out, possibly because the Merril Collection was already behind me. We resolved to connect again when we got a little closer to the date.
I had one small concern about hosting the launch at the Merril Collection. Because it’s located within the Toronto Public Library system, and is a collection of valuable SF materials, we could not have food or drink in the venue. This bothered me because I felt badly about inviting a bunch of people to come celebrate with me only to offer little in return other than a bit of speechifying and a brief reading. My friends Ann Jansen and Dave Carley suggested I invite everyone out for drinks afterward, but my wife and daughters would be along, for whom there would be school and work the next day, so that wouldn’t work.
Dave suggested a pre-party. I immediately latched onto the idea. Ann researched some possibilities, and we settled on the Free Times Café, just down the street from the Merril Collection on College. The owner of the Free Times Café, Judy Perly, booked the Bistro part of her restaurant for me, and I pre-ordered a few platters of food for everyone, without any idea how many people might show up. I told Judy between ten and seventy.
In the Bistro of the Free Times Cafe before the launch
There was still work to be done. By this time, I had been introduced virtually to Sephora Hosein, who had taken over as Head of the Merril Collection upon the retirement of Lorna Toolis. Sephora assured me that we were still good to go.
One month out, I sent out invitations to everyone I could think of who could conceivably be interested. Rather than one mass mailing, I sent personal invitations to everyone, using a template for the details, but personalizing each invitation. This took many hours but was absolutely worth the effort.
For one thing, making the invitations personal felt right and good. I tracked it all on an Excel spreadsheet so I’d know who I’d invited and who responded. I invited about two hundred and twenty people, almost all of whom I knew personally. Well over one hundred people responded. About eighty said they planned to come, twenty declined, and another ten or fifteen said maybe.
Just for fun, I also invited the Mayor of Whitby, where I live, and the Mayor of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, where much of the novel A Time and a Place is set, and where I hail from originally. The Office of the Mayor of Whitby wrote back declining the invitation, but proposed an invitation of their own, that I come to meet the Mayor, Don Mitchell, so he could purchase of a copy of my book. Delighted, I agreed to meet him the afternoon of the launch.
The Mayor of Summerside wrote back personally and offered to purchase a copy of the book, so I sent him one. I didn’t charge him for shipping, so I lost money on that purchase, but what the heck, it’s my hometown Mayor.
I also promoted the event on Facebook and Twitter, as did the Merril Collection and my publisher. As well, I placed posters, created by the Friends of the Merril Collection, on every floor of the CBC Broadcast Centre, where I work.
Neither the owner of Five Rivers Publishing, Lorina Stephens, or the Senior Editor of Five Rivers, Robert Runte, could make it to the launch, so I asked each of them if they’d mind making a short video of themselves saying a few words. They both agreed and sent me a couple of minutes each, which I edited together in a single video for the event.
Fast forward to the day of the launch. Everything was booked. I had a short speech prepared that I’d gone over several times, along with a short reading. Together, they would take less than fifteen minutes to deliver. I didn’t want to bore anyone. It was shaping up to be a good day, though of course there was still the possibility of disaster. It was entirely conceivable to me that no one would show up.
In fact, starting that morning, I started receiving emails from people expressing their regrets for various reasons. For one thing, it turned out I’d booked the launch on parent/teacher interview night in Toronto.
I’d taken the day off work so I could concentrate on the launch. My wife, (Lynda) and I hung out in the morning. It felt like an ordinary day. I wasn’t that nervous; I think all my elaborate preparations had a lot to do with that. I packed the car with boxes of my book. Seventy-eight copies; I figured that ought to do it.
At twenty to two, Lynda and I headed off to see the Mayor of Whitby, Don Mitchell. Mayor Mitchell and his Executive Assistant, Andrea Kennedy, were both funny and charming. We chatted with them about science fiction and publishing and had a great visit. The Mayor paid me for a copy of the book and I signed it for him. Or, began to sign it for him…
I had just written, “To Mayor Mitchell, fellow science fiction” when he jokingly asked Lynda what it’s like living with a temperamental artist like me.
With Whitby Mayor Don Mitchell
Distracted, I put a comma after “science fiction.”
It had been my intention to write, “To Mayor Mitchell, fellow science fiction fan,” but placing a comma after science fiction messed it up.
Darn it, I thought. I’ve screwed this up.
While Lynda answered his question, I quickly worked out a possible solution.
I added “and fantasy fan” making it “To Mayor Mitchell, fellow science fiction, and fantasy, fan.” Which was far from perfect, but seemed less of a disaster. It was better than, “To Mayor Mitchell, fellow science fiction, fan.”
Despite my blunder, the meeting was a great prologue to the launch.
After meeting Mayor Mitchell, we collected our daughters and headed into Toronto. Annette met us at the Merril Collection and helped us carry the books upstairs. I gave her my laptop so she could hook it up to the projector.
Here I encountered the first (and only) heart-stopping glitch of the evening: I couldn’t log into the laptop. Kept getting either the password or the username wrong. All the while thinking: well, I guess we could skip the video. Except, I really didn’t want to—Lorina and Robert had gone to a lot of trouble to film themselves for me, and I was certain the videos would add a lot of value to the evening.
Finally, after about twenty tries, I got it working.
Messing with the laptop made us about ten minutes late to the Free Times Café. Several guests were already sitting in the bistro section that had been reserved for us, but they didn’t all know one another and were sitting separately, so I set about introducing them to one another. Soon, the entire bistro except for one booth was packed with people attending the launch.
I wanted to say hi to everyone, so I worked my way around the room, grabbing a chair at one point to carry with me, and spoke to as many people as possible. There were plenty of CBC’ers who hadn’t seen one another in a while, and who were happy talking to one another, so I didn’t have to worry so much about them. But there were others who didn’t know anyone, and I wanted them to feel comfortable and welcome. Time flew by. At six-thirty it was time to head back to the library for the actual launch.
Rushing to the library, we passed a homeless woman in rough shape who asked me for spare change. As I gave her some, I was struck by the difference in fortune between the two of us. I was enjoying what was shaping up to be one of the greatest nights of my life. She was living a nightmare. I didn’t know what to make of this disparity between us. I still don’t.
Shortly before, in the Free Times Café, I had asked a friend who I hadn’t seen in years how she was doing.
“It’s been an adventure,” she told me.
“Lots of traveling?” I asked.
“A stroke,” she told me. “And then I had a bad fall.”
She was chipper about it all, obviously not wanting to put a damper on the evening. She had endured all that and yet had come out to see me on this night. I really didn’t know what to say.
Rushing back to the Merril Collection, thinking about the homeless woman and my friend, I wondered about enjoying good fortune while other people suffered. Of course, I experience extreme good fortune pretty much all the time relative to many people in this world simply by virtue of the circumstances of my existence. But the contrast seemed especially stark on this night, and I have thought about it a lot since. It bothers me. A subject for another entire essay.
It was almost seven by the time I made it back to the Merril Collection. The place was already packed. Before I even got through the door, I was waylaid by friends who wanted me to sign their copy of the book. Other copies of my book had been neatly stacked on a table to sell. I signed a few on the edge of the table. Chris from Bakka-Phoenix Books was there doing the selling. Oliver Brackenbury from the Friends of the Merril Collection was there too. I thanked both of them for their help.
An impromptu line formed for me to sign books. This surprised me—I had thought that I would have time to mingle before getting up to play the video and talk.
I was just about to make myself comfortable signing books when Annette whispered in my ear that we had best begin the proceedings. I made my way to the front. Sephora began her introduction. Standing off to the side, I saw that the place was packed. Friends had driven from as far away as Omemee, Peterborough, and Niagara-on-the-Lake to be there. There were also quite a few faces I didn’t recognize. I was a little gobsmacked, and a lot grateful.
Annette played the video from my laptop. First, Lorina Stephens, Publisher of Five Rivers Publishing, said a few kind words about me and my book. Then, Senior Editor Dr. Robert Runte told a couple of amusing stories about acquiring my book and editing it. Both went over well.
Then it was my turn.
I have a love/hate relationship with public speaking. Many times in my life I have been forced into situations where I have to deliver speeches or act as Master of Ceremonies. I can do it. Sometimes I even enjoy it, but it does not come naturally to me. As a teenager, I once hosted a variety show at my high school during which I could not even lift my eyes to meet the audience until the show was just about over. I was determined to get better at it, though. Eventually, I figured out that the key to success is preparation. I began thinking about my speeches days or weeks ahead, and rehearsing them mentally over and over until I had them completely memorized.
I got reasonably good at it, until the day I completely botched a speech at work because I’d grown too cocky. I hadn’t bothered to prepare. Figured I could wing it. Seconds into my speech, in front of dozens of people, I realized that I had no idea what to say. It just got worse from there. On the plus side, I never failed to prepare for a speech again.
So I was ready for this speech. I hadn’t completely memorized it, but I knew it well enough. The crowd was incredibly supportive, laughing at all the right places, and even a few places that surprised me.
Afterward, Sephora ushered me over to a table that had been set up for me to sign books. She even gave me a special pen that she said other authors seemed to like. It was indeed a fine pen. A line formed, and I spent the rest of the evening signing books, taking long enough with each person to chat a little bit and attempt to personalize each signature. Even if I knew perfectly well who someone was, I asked them how to spell their name, just to be sure.
I had thought I would have time to mingle afterwards, but it wasn’t to be. I signed books right up until the end. There were a lot of people who came that I didn’t get to talk to. I felt a little bad about that, but I think everyone understood.
“You were pretty busy,” a friend reassured me later.
We sold fifty-eight copies of A Time and a Place that night. Chris told me later that it made A Time and a Place the top selling Trade Paperback at Bakka-Phoenix books for the month of October. My deepest thanks to everyone who purchased copies.
Finally, only a handful of us were left: Sephora, Annette, Chris, and my family. We took a few final pictures and said our goodbyes. Outside the library, mundane reality reasserted itself by playfully hiding our car. In the dark, my family and I didn’t recognize the narrow alley way down which we’d parked, and we walked well past it before finally clueing in and turning back.
Still, it had been a brilliant night. Not a prelude to becoming a rich and famous author (neither the goal nor the expectation), but confirmation that I had friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances kindly disposed toward me, willing to give up an evening of their busy lives to help me celebrate.
I wrote the first words of the novel that eventually became A Time and a Place in July 1988. I made the final correction to the manuscript about a week ago, in April 2017. So technically it took me almost twenty-nine years to finish the novel.
I hasten to add, I haven’t been working on it all that time.
I wrote a few pages by hand in 1988, then put it aside until 1993, when I found those pages, decided they possessed a certain merit, and promptly wrote the first three chapters.
Then I made the classic beginner’s mistake of trying to get those first three chapters exactly right, revising them endlessly, never really making any progress, frequently distracted by other projects.
Finally, during a labour disruption where I work, I found myself with extra time to write. So did I work on my novel? Heck no! I started a blog about the labour disruption. I posted daily, revising minimally, and by the time the labour disruption was over two months later, I discovered that I had written over one hundred pages of reasonably respectable material.
I realized that if I tackled the novel the same way, I could have the whole thing written in six months. So I did exactly that, refusing to revise even a single word until the first draft was complete. A mere three months later I had the entire first draft written, close to one hundred thousand words.
And then spent the next several years perfecting it.
Which was fine. I wasn’t in a rush. I’d written the story out to the end, so I knew where it was going, more or less. It was just a question of making the journey there as smooth and compelling as possible. The final draft bears little resemblance to that first draft, which was a map without any roads. It showed me where I needed to go and some of the forests, rivers, and mountains in the way, but I still had to hack, swim, and climb my way to get there.
The initial idea was simple: a young man messes with powerful forces beyond his control, frightening those closest to him. I originally envisioned it as a short story. When I discovered those first few pages five years after having written them, it wasn’t the idea that I found compelling, it was the tone—a certain tongue-in-cheek quality. Both the idea and the tone have matured considerably since then, but they’re still discernible in the finished product.
One of the reasons it took so long is that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to write. I had a day job and an active family life. Mostly I wrote on the Go Train commuting to work, but I trained myself to be able to write whenever and where-ever I could: art galleries, cafés, swimming pools, doctor’s offices, wherever I could steal a little time with my laptop.
Where most of A Time and a Place was written
While others sat on the Go Train completing their crosswords and Sudokos, I was consumed with my own gigantic puzzle, using pieces (sentences, paragraphs, chapters) that I’d fabricated myself out of words. Gradually the puzzle grew more complex, the plot and characters more compelling, to me at least. At night I would lie in bed mulling over this or that thorny knot that I’d inadvertently written into the story, trying to figure out how to untangle it. Then I would fall asleep and allow my subconscious to do the heavy lifting. Sometimes the answer would present itself the next day. More often than not it required a whole lot more contemplation and revision.
I was constrained by rules I’d imposed upon myself, some borrowed from writers like Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty), others from editors like Thomas McCormack (The Fiction Editor), and yet others from well-thumbed copies of Writer’s Digest. Never use a word other than said to carry dialog. Never use an adverb to modify the word said. The birds flew, not the birds were flying. Err on the side of conflict. Show don’t tell except when doing so would take all day. Avoid clichés. They’re not for everyone, these rules; not even me, necessarily. They were just guidelines for this particular novel. And I didn’t always follow them.
I drew inspiration from the works of others, most consciously from writers like Edmund Hamilton, Dr. Paul Linebarger (a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith), Roger Zelazny, and H.P. Lovecraft. There’s some Stephen R. Donaldson and William Browning Spencer in there, too. Friends helped. Over the years, I’ve read much of A Time and a Place aloud to members of the Saturday Night Scribes, an informal writing group I’ve been privileged to be a part of for many years. Without their enthusiasm for A Time and a Place, I would not have finished it. Friends and family have read bits and pieces of various drafts, sometimes yielding useful feedback, but mostly it was their encouragement that I cherished.
Roger Zelazny, a favourite author. Go read Lord of Light. Now.
When I finished writing A Time and a Place, or, more accurately, when I thought that it was done, that there wasn’t a single change left to make—that it was, in other words, perfect and unassailable—two skilled and caring editors dissected it with surgical precision. Arleane Ralph and Dr. Robert Runtè astonished me with their discoveries. Flaws blindingly obvious when they pointed them out: logical inconsistencies, grammatical errors, confusing passages, or worse, boring passages, and other ghastly errors too numerous to mention.
This feedback did not bother me at all. I welcomed it, as it was all about making the novel better. I challenged some of the suggestions, but implemented most of them, ultimately rewriting two and a half chapters.
So you can see, A Time and a Place was not exactly dashed off. It was about as easy as threading a wrought iron chain in one ear and out the other. Still, writing it was usually my favourite part of any day. Probably it took me so long to finish because I loved writing it so much. Had I not finally received a deadline, I’d be tweaking it still.
Whether all that time and effort has resulted in a novel worth reading remains to be seen.
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
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
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
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.