L.E. Modesitt, Jr. is the bestselling author of over sixty novels encompassing two science fiction series and four fantasy series, as well as several other novels in the science fiction genre. His latest novel is Cyador’s Heirs, part of his extensive Saga of Recluce.
When John DeNardo approached me about doing a genre-related guest post with some reflections for SF Signal, I didn’t realize how many recollections I’d have to sift through and how few it took to fill up the allotted space, but the three that follow may shed a little light on some aspects of being a SF&F author.
All editors know what they like and what they don’t, but not all editors can make the distinction between what they like and what’s good or at least worthy of publication. I’d written short stories for about eight years before I wrote my first novel, and I only wrote the novel, as some readers know, because Ben Bova, who was then the editor of Analog, refused to buy any more of my stories until I went and wrote a novel. When I finished the novel, Ben was no longer editor of Analog. I’d thought I’d offer it to him for serialization, but that was out. So I began submitting it to others myself because I didn’t have an agent. I still don’t, but that’s another story. After three or four editors at various houses rejected the novel, I sent it to Jim Baen, then the editor at Ace. I got a fairly quick response from him, telling me that it was a good book, one that he intended to publish. Except… I never got a contract, only more encouragement. After some considerable time, close to a year, as I recall, I got the manuscript back with a note that said, among other things, “This is a good book, but I can’t publish it. I kept telling you and myself that I would. I can’t. It’s not my kind of book. Someone else will.”
He was right. The very next editor who looked at the manuscript was David Hartwell, and he bought The Fires of Paratime for Timescape. The point that tends to get overlooked when I’ve told this story is that Jim Baen knew that something that wasn’t his kind of book could still be good. While I won’t name names, there are more than a few editors who can’t make that distinction. I feel that way about some writers as well. While I admire their ability with words and the craft that goes into character and plots, I hate the finished product. That doesn’t make it bad; what they do is just not to my taste.
No matter what we writers say, every writer I’ve ever known is more thin-skinned than they’ll admit, and almost all of us like to be appreciate, but writers can get upstaged in ways that are unexpected, even from those who admire your work. My first World Fantasy Convention was in 1997 in London. Earlier that year, The Soprano Sorceress had been published, and I’d been fortunate enough to get a glowing blurb about it from Anne McCaffrey, and she’d even given a better blurb for the second Spellsong book – The Spellsong War – although that hadn’t yet been published at the time of the convention. Because the convention was in London, I asked my wife Carol Ann, who is a professor of voice and opera, and a soprano, if she’d like to come. She was more than willing.
We had been at the hotel for less than an hour when someone came looking for me, saying that Anne McCaffrey wanted to see me. When Anne McCaffrey wants to see you, you want to be seen. Anne was holding court, but she immediately insisted that Carol Ann and I sit down beside her, Carol Ann on her left and me on her right. Then she insisted that I sign her hardcover copy of The Soprano Sorceress and told me how much she’d enjoyed The Spellsong War. With that, she turned to Carol Ann and said something like, “You’re so fortunate. I sang, but I could never sing solo because I always had a burr in my voice.” They talked for almost an hour about music, and Anne ignored everyone but Carol Ann, including me and my publisher, Tom Doherty.
One of the other aspects of writing that’s become clear to me, after more than forty years of professional publication is how quickly readers forget once a writer stops producing books, or stops producing them quickly, except in the case of George R. R. Martin, but then most writers don’t have a big-budget, high-profile television series based on their books. In so many cases, it happens rather quickly. In 2002, Carol and I attended WorldCon at San Jose. One of the writers I’d read, and met occasionally when I lived in Washington, D.C., was Jack Chalker, who wrote close to 60 books and who was a Hugo-nominated, award-winning, and best-selling author in the 1980s and 1990s. I ran into Jack at the Tor party and spent some time talking to him. At that point, he was not in the best of health. Although he was still writing for Baen Books, from what I recall, sales and reviews of his last books had been disappointing, but we had a nice chat, and I was called away, as Tor authors can be at Tor events. Carol Ann, however, was concerned, and kept glancing back at Jack. She recalls vividly that, after we left, not a single person talked to him before he departed, alone, some twenty minutes later. I’ve remembered that incident all too well… and so has Carol Ann.
In the end, it is all about the books. While all of us in the field — the authors, the editors, the publishers, the publicists, and all the rest of us – like to think we each add something special, I’m reminded of another event that happened at that first World Fantasy Convention I attended in London. I was doing a signing at Forbidden Planet when a well-dressed gentleman approached me and said that he liked my books. I thanked him and asked if he’d like me to autograph a book for him. His reply has also remained with me for years, because he said, “No, thank you. I like your books. I’m not interested in you.” And that’s the bottom line.