Today’s tour starts with Robert J. Sawyer‘s Red Planet Blues. What a terrific title. To paraphrase the great Orson Welles,* with a title that good, forget the book, just release the title! Fortunately for us, Sawyer released both.
Sawyer no doubt requires no introduction to readers of this blog. Carol Birch, on the other hand , probably does. An English writer of (at last count) 12 books, she’s the author of the next novel on this section of the shelf, Jamrach’s Menagerie. What a tale this is, with plot elements lifted from the real life story of the whaling ship Essex. If you don’t know anything about what happened to the Essex, great! Don’t go looking. I’m not even going to link to it. Read Jamrach’s Menagerie first, and only then look up the true story. A haunting, unforgettable, riveting tale that will stick with you, and probably dissuade you forever from a career in whaling.
Almost hidden behind that cute little bear up there is The Moon Panther by local Whitby author Jason Shannon, a book I have not read yet. Since writing my own books, I have attended a number of book fairs, and met a lot of other indie authors like me, and if I like them, I generally purchase at least one of their books. This has resulted in a lot of books to read! And I feel tremendously guilty not having read them all yet. This is why, whenever anyone purchases one of my books, I always give them at least ten years to read it, and I’m very good about extensions. But I do very much like to support local indie authors, and I would encourage you all to do the same.
Alongside Jason’s book is Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, with an introduction by Neil Gaimon, as though Rudyard Kipling requires an introduction. This book was given to me by my youngest sister and her husband back when I broke my ankle to give me something to do, as I guess they figured I’d have a lot of time on my hands. As luck would have it, thanks to technology and the nature of my job, I just wound up working from home, so I didn’t have as much time on my hands as expected. Just the same I managed to read many of the stories within, and appreciated the chance to catch up on my Kipling.
Last year, at CANCON, a writer’s convention in Ottawa, I was about to purchase a book in the dealer’s room when I spotted the author of that book. It’s a friendly conference so I thought, oh, I’ll just introduce myself to the author and tell them I’m about to buy their book and maybe they’ll sign it for me and then I’ll have fond memories of our brief encounter while I’m reading the book and forever more. I did so. After informing the author that I was about to purchase their book, my impression was that they could not wait to get away from me. We did not chat and they did not offer to sign their book. So I put the book back and did not purchase it.
Immediately afterward I met the author C. L. Polk, who was as friendly as could be, so I bought her book instead, and she signed it for me. As an author myself, if somebody told me they were about to buy my book, they would have my full and undivided attention, not to mention gratitude. Now, I get that everyone is fighting their own battle, and maybe this other author was having a bad day, or was in a huge rush, maybe really had to pee or something, but… too bad. I bought C.L. Polk’s book instead, and it’s C. L. Polk’s book Witchmark that I’m reading RIGHT NOW instead of theirs. (Well, not exactly right now… when I finish writing this blog post.)
The Knowledge: How to rebuild our World From Scratch, by Lewis Dartnellis the book you want in your hands when civilization finally crumbles, which, from the looks of it, could happen any day now. I bought it thinking it would be handy writing a post-apocalyptic novel, which I’ve always wanted to do. Now I’m thinking it might come in handy in a month or two. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flip about our collective possible fate. I’ll just add that to the growing list of other things I shouldn’t do either, such as walk in the house with my boots on. Shh! Don’t tell my wife.)
Legend by David Gemmell is just a terrific book, one I’ve read several times. Thoughtful action/adventure in the sword & sorcery vein, and a treatise on heroism. Highly recommended.
Dune, by Frank Herbert. An SF classic; enuff said. Well, maybe not enough… apparently they’re making another film version of it. Here’s hoping it’s better than past versions.
Stephen King, a couple of books in the Dark Tower series. Gradually working my way through this one. I was lukewarm on the first book, but quite liked The Drawing of the Three, another clever title, I realized, once I completed the book.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. Another absolute classic. If you haven’t read this book already hie thee to a book store immediately (or, um, as soon as the pandemic is over) and pick this one up. You won’t regret it. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend another, lesser known Haldeman book as well: Camouflage, which won the Nebula Award in 2005. Just a great read.
Born Standing Up is an autobiography by comedian Steve Martin. This is also a great read, really interesting insight into the man himself, the nature of comedy, and his somewhat sad relationship with his father.
And finally, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, a neat little SF tale, with a tragic story at its core, that I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.
*Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovitch told Orson Welles he was thinking of changing the title of his film adaptation of the novel “Addie Pray” to “Paper Moon,” but wasn’t sure whether the new title worked. Orson allegedly told him, “With a title that good forget the film, just release the title!”
This past Friday I headed up to Ottawa to attend CANCON 2018, an annual convention devoted to readers, writers and fans of speculative fiction with an emphasis on the writing part of it all. It’s the only such convention I attend regularly, having attending three times now in four years. It’s the kind of convention a person can really feel at home at, for a lot of reasons. It’s inclusive and welcoming, attended by a lot of friendly, like-minded people. Importantly, it’s got a well-thought out Code of Conduct designed to protect attendees, a Code of Conduct that’s enforced and taken seriously. It’s got great programming on everything from “Advice to Aspiring Writers on the Craft” to “Rules of Writing: Are They Really Rules?” to “Swiping Right on the Monster”. There are pitch sessions during which you can pitch to various publishers and Meet the Agent sessions with big-time New York Agents and Meet the Editor Sessions with Big-Time New York Editors. It’s attended by newbies and professionals and famous folk in the field and everybody in between.
The first time I ever attended CANCON I got offered my book deal for A Time and a Place. Which as you can imagine was really exciting and has resulted in a lot of good things. So there’s a special place in my heart for CANCON.
So, bottom line, it’s a con that’s got a lot to offer. I attend for all those reasons, but I also attend because I have never failed to find it a rejuvenating weekend, a weekend that leaves me better off than when it found me.
This year was a particularly striking example of that.
I landed at the Con Friday afternoon after driving up with my friends Tanah Haney and Tonya Liburd. I always drive up and like to take a few other people with me, because that’s more fun, and also it’s helping others out who might find it a bit pricey to get up to Ottawa. On this particular day I was really exhausted for some reason, coming off a busy stretch of wearing myself a little too thin physically and mentally. Tanah and I met up with our good friend Jenn Delagran (second year in a row we’ve done the con together), and I socialized a bit into Friday night, but I was feeling really fried. By the end of the night I was seriously wondering how I was going to make it through the con. I imagined feeling this way the entire con, having to fake smiles and pretend that I wasn’t about to completely fall apart, and I did not find that prospect the least bit appealing. So I made it a point to hit the sack early Friday night, hoping that the Power of CANCON would work its magic through the night and restore me to something resembling my usual self.
Con Pals Tanah Haney and Jenn Delagran
And it did.
I felt so much better Saturday morning. And it just got better from there.
I headed down for breakfast around 8am and got a table by myself. It never fails that someone interesting comes along when I do that. This time it was Ira Nayman, novelist and editor of Amazing Stories magazine. We had a great chat about a wide range of subjects. Discussing dogs, Ira observed that, “In a worst case scenario, they will eat your face,” which struck me as unnerving but amusing.
From there it was off to the Dealer’s Room, where Myth Hawker, the (fabulous) Travelling Book Store had graciously consented to sell A Time and a Place, which they have been doing successfully for a few weeks now, having sold copies to a trucker in Vancouver and to a cat lover in Ottawa and others that I have failed to obtain biographical information on. I was their “featured author” for an hour and a half, during which the Myth Hawker crew (mainly Lisa Toohey and Diogo Castelhano) tried to teach me how to sell my wares better (“don’t cross your arms!” “Work on your pitch!” “Seek out cat people!” and so on). We did manage to successfully sell one copy while I was the featured author, though me and another writer also managed to frighten one potential customer away by inadvertently ganging up on her. It continues to be a learning process.
Kurestin Armada speaking at CANCON 2018 (photo by Lisa Michelle Toohey)
I attended a few panels and readings. I like to support people I know, so I often eschew more popular panels to attend book launches and readings from friends and acquaintances. I attended a launch for Maaja Wentz’s new book Feeding Frenzy and a panel on writing for themed anthologies that featured my travelling companion Tonya Liburd. I actually abandoned the programming list, trusting the opinions of my con pals Tanah and Jenn to lead me to interesting programming of their choice. I was glad I did, following them to a talk by Guest Editor Kurestin Armada of PS Literary Agency, who spoke of her Manuscript Wish List, and walked us through the first few pages of several successful recent novels, explaining where and how they fit in and why they worked. Afterward I chatted briefly with Kurestin about what kind of space opera she liked, as I happen to be polishing up a space opera right now, which I hope will become my second published novel.
Myth Hawker, the fabulous Travelling Bookstore, run by the equally fabulous Pat Flewwelling
And the day continued in that positive vein.
You know how they say extroverts draw energy from people, and introverts expend energy that they must re-acquire in privacy afterward? I expend energy with some people, and draw energy from others. I don’t know what that makes me. An ambivert, or freak, or something. Anyway, I was drawing energy from the people at this con, friends and strangers alike. By the end of Saturday I was feeling pretty good. This despite some adventure Saturday afternoon when, to my horror, Tanah and Jenn got stuck in an elevator for an hour! I spent that hour at the front desk on my cellphone texting Tanah, reassuring her that help was on its way. There were ten people trapped in that elevator, but they did a pretty good job of keeping themselves cheery and calm. I was terribly afraid that Jenn and Tanah (and the others) would find the experience deeply troubling, and that it would ruin the con for them, but it wasn’t the case. Although not a lot of fun while they were trapped, they managed to forge some new acquaintances in that elevator, and treated it as an adventure afterward. For my part, I got to know one of the con co-chairs, Marie Bilodeau, as we worked together at the front desk to relay info and try to keep those trapped calm. If I ever get stuck in an elevator, I want Marie on the outside working to free me (I actually was stuck in one once in the middle of the night on my birthday, but that’s a story for another blog post).
Tonya Liburd on one of her panels.
Sunday morning I woke up even more refreshed, having slept in a bit. Waiting for the elevator to head down for some breakfast, who should step out of the room next to mine but Special Guest Kurestin Armada, the New York Literary Agent. “I’m so sorry,” she said as we waited for the elevator. “I was watching television late last night, and only too late realized that I might be keeping you awake.”
“That’s okay, whatever you were watching was very entertaining,” I said, attempting to be funny, and then hastened to assure her that I was just joking, I hadn’t heard a thing.
Before we parted, I said, “I’m gonna pitch you later, if that’s okay,” meaning that in a few months I would send her a query letter and a pitch for my new novel.
She said, “Oh, come and find me after eleven, I’ll be hanging around the second floor and would be happy to hear your pitch,” or words to that effect.
I hadn’t been clear. “Uh, okay,” I said. “I would be a fool not to accept that invitation. I’ll see you later!”
And then over breakfast became afraid that I’d come off like a jerk, threatening to buttonhole her later, and that she’d only said to come and see her to be polite. I resolved to look her up afterward to explain that I hadn’t meant to obnoxiously pitch her at the con, but to do so later via email.
Looking her up at the appointed hour, I found her about to talk to someone else, and asked if I could have a moment afterward, which she readily agreed to. And felt even more like an obnoxious jerk, because in my attempt to reassure her that I was not some obnoxious, self-serving pitch-wielding asshole, I felt like I was ironically beginning to appear as exactly that. So I decided to forget the whole thing, and just enjoy the rest of the con, and email her my query in a few months as I originally intended.
I attended a few more panels, chatted in the dealer’s room, bought my quota of three books (including my colleague David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother, whose panel I had attended the day before, during which he related a quite amusing account of the publication of The Bone Mother with Chizine Press), had a lovely lunch with Tanah and Jenn, and shortly afterward gathered my belongings from my room, intending to leave this yet again excellent, rejuvenating con.
On the way out, I ventured into the Dealer’s Room one last time. Kurestin Armada was sitting by the door behind Chizine’s table. She smiled and waved me over. I awkwardly set all my belongings down somewhere hoping that people wouldn’t trip over them and grabbed a chair next to her.
I tried to explain to Kurestin that I hadn’t actually meant to pitch her just then…
Kurestin Armada of PS Literary Agency
“Shut up and pitch me,” she said, except not in those words, she was much more polite than that, explaining that she was in fact there to seek out new talent.
So I shut up and pitched her.
Maybe it helped that we were sitting right next to Myth Hawker, where my first novel was prominently displayed. I showed it to her. I don’t know what she thought of that, but maybe it helped that she saw I’d already successfully completed one novel that a famous, fabulous travelling bookstore felt comfortable carrying.
“Send me the first fifty pages of your new novel,” Kurestin suggested.
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.