Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 11)

From time to time, Vox asks me why I still stick with Ashley Grayson. I can sum it up in one word: gratitude. Ashley negotiated my release from the Baen contract. He did something extremely unusual and advanced the money out of his own pocket to buy my freedom. He took a chance on me when no one else in the publishing industry would, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Some things are more important than NPV, ROI, and all those other economist's TLAs.

(Hmm. In hindsight, though, Ashley was able to do all of this because he also represented Christopher Pike, who was at that time one of the hottest YA horror writers on the market, and he'd just closed a big movie deal for Pike. So in a sense, if not for Christopher Pike, Horror Writer, there would be no Vox Day, Christian Fantasy author... Man, causality can just drive you nuts if you spend too much time thinking about it.)

Freedom isn't free, of course. In exchange for Ashley's help in getting out of that contract, I agreed to come up with a commercial project just as fast as possible. We both agreed that Cyberpunk was too damaged and poisoned to be worth pursuing further at that time. We did show it to a few editors who'd been clamoring most loudly for it, but they all kicked it right back with the same comments, which amounted to, "Huh? Where's the cyberspace? Where's the virtual reality? How come this isn't just like a Bill Gibson novel?!"

Next up was a collaboration with Phil Jennings. Ashley wasn't too excited about this one because it was a split deal, Phil having signed with a clear Rule #4 agent, but he was willing to give it his best shot — if we could finish the book. That proved pretty much impossible, though.

Remember how I said that Phil and I had led strangely parallel lives? That was still holding true, as about six months after I got served with my walking papers, Phil's wife booted him out the door and filed for divorce. One of the key differences between us became apparent at this point, though, as Phil had worked to put his wife through medical school, so in the final settlement she got the house and the kids and he got a large enough cash buyout to play full-time writer for a few more years. I, on the other hand, had worked to put my wife through an office technology certification program at one of the local business colleges (by her choice), so in the final settlement, she got the house and the kids, and I got her unpaid tuition loans.

Consequently, Phil was able to devote much more time to this project than I was, and it went wobbly on the tracks almost from the start.

I'll cut this short. The book was full of good ideas, and one of these days I'll have to pick some them up again and reboot the project. But if there was a wrong way to collaborate, we discovered it, and in the end we had to write the whole thing off as an educational experience and walk away — in different directions, with our hands in our pockets, and with both of us promising not to be the first to turn and fire.

In the meantime, Ashley had been keeping his ears open and looking out for other opportunities for me to make good. He sold some short stories and novellas I'd been having trouble selling. He found me a couple of slick-magazine non-fiction gigs. And then, in 1994, he found me The Big Opportunity.

Warner Books, a division of Time Warner, was getting ready to launch a new SF imprint, "Aspect." The editor of Aspect, Betsy Mitchell, was not only ex-Baen and another person on the list of People With Whom He Who Must Not Be Named Will Never Work Again, she'd also decided the time was right for a book that did to cyberpunk what Terry Pratchett had done to fantasy. So if I could move quickly, and get together a partial and an outline...

Well it just so happened that one of those stories I'd been having trouble selling was a little piece of nonsense called "The Last Cyberpunk Story." So, using this story as a springboard, I did something I'd never done before; wrote a reverse outline, in which this story was the last chapter, and then worked my way back through time and figured out everything else that had to happen in order to set up this ending.

The result was Headcrash, and Betsy loved it. The deal was signed in 1994. I jumped immediately into writing the book, and the experience was —

How to put this. Betsy was very much a hands-on editor, but it was a diametrically opposite sort of hands-on. When Betsy saw something that she thought was a problem, she didn't tell me what to change and how to change it; she pointed out the problem and let me find a solution. Sometimes, if I seemed to be stuck, she might suggest some alternatives, but in the end, the decision was mine.

And in the end, I wound up writing an award-winning book.

Then it got better. Headcrash got bumped up to being Aspect's premiere title. It was going to be the first book released in the new line, to be released with much hoopla at Glasgow WorldCon. (So you'd better get your passport in order, eh?) We got a U.K. deal right away, for nearly simultaneous U.S. and U.K. release, which is almost unheard of. We even got a t-shirt...

I didn't make nearly the money off Headcrash that everyone seems to think I did. For one thing, a sizable chunk of my U.S. advance went straight to repaying Ashley the money he'd fronted to buy me out of that contract. For another, the U.K. department of Inland Revenue impounded most of my U.K. advance, and it took me several years to prove to their satisfaction that I was not a British subject and therefore not required to pay U.K. taxes. (And let me tell you, by the time I was done with that ordeal, I was ready to go dump some tea in Boston Harbor! But that, as they say, is another story.)

Never mind all that. In the late summer of 1995, things were looking about as good as they could be. I was remarried (this time to the current Mrs. Brb), living in a house again, the father of a newborn son, gainfully employed, and looking forward to the upcoming launch of my breakout book. There was just one tiny fly in the ointment.

As part of the publicity blitz, Warner had given me a stack of promo copies and instructions to apply them wherever I thought they might do some good. But I'd already had a few run-ins with the St. Paul Pioneer Press's books editor and knew there was no point in sending her a copy, so I was running short of ideas for local promotional opportunities.

And then I took another look at the back page of the Pioneer Press Tech section, and took a closer look at that photo of the weird kid with the mohawk who wrote their Computer Gaming column, and figured, "Oh, what the heck and why not?"

To be continued...