Friday, August 17, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 8)

Of necessity, there are questions I'm skipping in an effort to keep this moving. For example, was I still working for a bunch of meth-crazed bikers? No, by 1988 I'd long since quit that job and was now in the middle of a lengthy stint with UNISYS. What did I mean when I said that being compared to John W. Campbell Jr. was not a compliment? That is a topic for another time. How do you find a literary agent? That also is a topic for another time. What was it like to meet and work with Isaac Asimov? No comment. Are sci-fi cons really as weird as they say?

No. They're weirder. There are apparently many people for whom science fiction is not merely a subset of literature, but in fact a full-fledged alternate lifestyle, in which they get to act out their weirdest hedonistic fantasies and work out their personal psychiatric issues in the comfort and safety of a largely nonjudgmental and consequence-free environment. But most of the things I've seen at cons are way too weird to talk about in a blog that my children sometimes read, so let's stick to something fairly innocuous. For example:
When you are a "pro" at a sci-fi con, the fans will provide you with all the booze you could ever possibly hope to drink.

This is one of the reasons why I like Niven & Pournelle's Inferno so much. The first chapter is so absolutely true. And, I'm sorry to say, this is a part of the sci-fi lifestyle that I did get into, big time.

By the time we got to the 1988 WorldCon in New Orleans, then, my wife was getting pretty fed up with my behavior, and my marriage was coming apart at the seams. We went to New Orleans together, but since she was then five months pregnant with our third child, she and Phil's wife pretty much skipped the con and spent most of their time sightseeing around New Orleans, while Phil was off somewhere being very serious and literary, and I was off somewhere else, playing almost-famous pro author and mostly getting very drunk. I am told I went on some spectacular, near-legendary binges at that con. Luckily, I don't remember the worst of them — at least, I don't remember anything after that party where I tried to prove to a bunch of Japanese fans that I could pound down shots of hot sake just as fast as they could.

New Orleans was a dismal experience for another reason as well, which was that the political divisions between the Official Card-Carrying Cyberpunk Movement writers and pretty much everyone else were becoming clearly defined, and I had a number of irritating run-ins with pretentious gits who seemed to find my very existence inconvenient because it contravened their established orthodoxy and creation myths. In fact, I was so cheesed-off by one of these encounters that a few weeks after the con, I wrote a long letter to a sci-fi community friend, detailing my many and sundry complaints about "the Movement" and the people who belonged to it.

Bad move. Information never simply vanishes anymore. A couple of months later my screed showed up in a fanzine (with, I will admit, my permission to reprint it), which probably would have been the end of it except that a copy of the fanzine then somehow made its way into Jim Baen's hands. What got his attention was not any of the brilliant arguments I made in my whine, but my claim in the final paragraph that I had a fully written rough draft of my definitive cyberpunk novel already in hand.

It was sheer puffery, of course. What I had was the still-unfinished story cycle, which altogether ran something over 100,000 words, but of which only the first 40,000 or so words hung together like something resembling an actual novel.

Never mind that. Baen contacted me and asked to see the manuscript. I sent off the first hundred pages and a detailed outline of where I wanted to take the remainder of the story. He called me back, to spend half an hour on the phone telling me everything that was hopelessly wrong with my book, and then to tell me that he wanted to buy it.

Actually, no; what he wanted to buy from me was two books, one being Cyberpunk and the other being a novel to be named later.

With visions of Cyberpunk and a sequel dangling before my eyes, I chomped down hard on the bait, and he set the hook. Actually, he said, we weren't talking about a sequel; what he really wanted to offer me was his standard Rich & Famous deal. He wanted my original novel, yes — but for the second book, he wanted to pair me with an older and established Baen author, who would show me the ropes and guide me through the process of writing a co-authored novel in the older author's universe. (Apparently he'd learned from Tower and other similar experiences.) My big-name co-author and I would split the money 50/50, and I would enjoy the twin benefits of being mentored by a seasoned pro and of writing a book set in a world that the fans already loved. In fact, if it went really well, he might actually put that book out first and save Cyberpunk for later.

The scheme is called sharecropping. As with agricultural sharecropping, what it amounts to is that young, usually broke, and often darn near nameless itinerant writers are hired to sweat it out in the literary fields and add to the value of the intellectual property holdings of the old guys, who just sit back and collect the money and publication credits. Baen did not invent literary sharecropping, but he certainly raised it to an art form. While it no doubt worked as described in some cases, what I mostly saw was some old pro collecting a nice fat check for scribbling a few notes on a soggy bar napkin and allowing his name to be printed on the cover, while some poor young schlub found him- or herself stuck with the job of writing a full book from scratch for half the usual advance money. (It's being split 50/50 with the big name, remember?)

But this is hindsight speaking. At the time, it sounded like a decent deal to me, so I said it sounded great but I needed to bring my agent into the conversation.

Uh-oh. No agents. Baen hated agents. He kept trying to convince me I'd be better off if I fired my agent and negotiated the deal myself, but I insisted on keeping my agent. Eventually he conceded that point, and moved on to the next. Was there anyone in particular I wanted to work with? He had in mind a deal involving [name deleted].

My turn to say no. First off, I didn't much like the guy's books, and secondly, even I was aware that he was starting to become a joke inside SFWA. ("Oh look, a new [name deleted] book. I wonder who wrote it?")

Okay, no problem. Baen had lots more big names in the stable. He suggested a few; I was lukewarm. Finally he asked if there was anyone I would really like to work with, and I answered with the truth. Of all the big names he was then publishing, the one I would darn near sell my soul to work with was Keith Laumer. And specifically, I would dearly love to work with Laumer on a new BOLO book.

Baen's turn to object. Laumer was in poor health. It was extremely difficult to get Rogue Bolo out of him. He probably wasn't up to another book.

Okay, I said, how about something like the Man-Kzin Wars? The BOLO stories are widely loved. How about if we get a bunch of young writers together to do a sort of tribute anthology? Maybe we could even do two or three of them.

Baen said he'd think about it.

It took a few weeks, but in time Baen called back. He'd talked to Laumer, and while Laumer was definitely in too poor health to actively participate in the project, Baen had struck a deal with him to open up the BOLO universe to other writers. Instead of my being just one among many contributors, though, he had a new idea. How would I like to be the editor?

That was the deal now on the table. He was willing to double his original offer. He was also willing to commit to doing three new BOLO anthologies. I would not only get to write a new BOLO story for each book, I got to find, recruit, and ride herd on all the other writers working on this series! Why, if I played my cards right and everything went right, I'd have my name on the covers of four books, and between Cyberpunk and the BOLO books, I would make ten thousand dollars!

My agent tried valiantly — first to talk me out of it, and then, to negotiate the best terms he could. But there wasn't a lot of room for negotiation with Baen, who for some reason had also decided he wanted the Cyberpunk and BOLO deals structured as separate contracts, and in the end my agent called me up one day to say, "Well, the contracts are done. For better or worse, you are now a Baen author. God help you."

To be continued...