I Have No Time, And I Must Write

by Joan Slonczewski

The year is 1979, and a member of the New Haven Science Fiction Writers Workshop just got his first novel published. When I read Kevin O’Donnell’s article in Empire about the travails of publishing Bandersnatch, my first reaction was relief: thank goodness I’m not a professional writer. My next thought was: wait a minute; I just sold a book to Ballantine....

Until two years ago I had no intention of writing for an audience. As a child, in fact, I used to encipher my stories in order to ensure secrecy. My main goal was to become a molecular biologist, so I majored in biology and chemistry at Bryn Mawr and went on to graduate school at Yale.

But during my college days, two exceptional women changed my mind about writing. One was a roommate who spent most of her time writing fantasy, while she kept an A average. I thought she was crazy, until I discovered Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin’s work showed me that science fiction was an ideal medium for exploring both scientific and philosophical ideas, which intrigued me. The only problem was that I couldn’t find enough of it; so, as many other readers have done, I decided to write my own.

During my last carefree summer after graduation, I started a novel, “Dreamsherds of Theron,” about a tragic encounter between humans and an alien race in which all children were male and adults female. My husband Michael, a classics scholar, provided helpful criticism, particularly on style. He also gave me the deCamps’ Science Fiction Handbook for my birthday — one of the most useful gifts I’d received in a long time.

Summer’s end approached, and we both had to start grad school. So I concluded the story at 40,000 words by blowing up a planet-full of characters, xeroxed it the day before moving to New Haven, and sent it off to Ballantine. Why Ballantine? Mainly because Judy-Lynn del Rey was the only female SF editor mentioned in the Handbook.

Two months later I left my lab bench long enough to send a query letter; no response.

The script returned, nearly a year after I sent it, with a letter from del Rey. She apologized for the delay, and said that the main fault of the story was its length: too short for a novel. She gave specific suggestions for incorporating a subplot, and added, “If you ever do rewrite this book, I would be glad to read it again.”

I was thrilled, of course, but aside from the year-long hiatus two facts dimmed my interest. First, graduate work demands all one’s time. Also, I had already decided that “Dreamsherds” was no good and therefore had started another one.... My college roommate’s habits had left a permanent mark.

So I shrugged it off until February, this year, when del Rey sent another letter to remind me of her interest in the first book.

This time even Michael, who usually offers practical advice, suggested I reconsider. I wrote del Rey to offer the new book, which was then in progress; she responded within two weeks, an encouraging sign.

So I spent my next vacation finishing Still Forms on Foxfield. In this story, Quaker colonists who coexist with the local aliens on a distant planet face the return of powerful Terrans who attempt to reassert their former authority. (If shades of William Penn come to mind, that’s the idea.) The story aimed to offer an alternative to the colonial exploitation in Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. As I wrote I tried to overcome some of the weaknesses of my earlier attempt, which had taught me a great deal. I also made a special effort to incorporate scientific constructs that acted as metaphors for the human concerns.

On April 10th the manuscript went to Ballantine. This time the waiting was unbearable, because I had reason to expect something. My anxiety grew as the weeks went by, until one day I spotted Al Sirois’ phone number tacked up in a bookstore and thereby discovered the New Haven SF Writers’ Workshop.

Suddenly I had found a new world of people who wrote and sold SF and were determined to improve their own writing. With some trepidation, I gave them a few chapters of Still Forms; they gleefully tore it to shreds, but assured me that I did have something worth pasting back together. That’s when I began to realize that I, too, was a “writer.” (A writer? Who, me?)

I also began to hear strange horror stories about the fantastic world of SF markets, peopled with publishers, editors, and other treacherous alien beings. Privately, I thought is sounded so strange that even Analog wouldn’t buy it, but then —

On July 27th, an offer for Still Forms on Foxfield arrived from a senior editor at Del Rey Books. He named an advance and royalties for “world rights” and urged quick acceptance to ensure April 1980 publication.

Fortunately, it was Friday, so I had three days to recover from the shock. On Monday I steeled myself for First Contact with an Alien Being: the editor.

When I phoned him, I learned that my manuscript had to be fixed up within two weeks, in order to fit the production schedule; that Del Rey Books required several in-house corrections (such as changing “said Jane” to “Jane said” throughout); that I wouldn’t see the script again before typesetting; and that I shouldn’t argue, until I became a “famous author.” So I agreed, and hung up.

Something about this arrangement disturbed me, however. I called Kevin O’Donnell for comment, and he said, “What? Get an agent, fast.” But his agent was out of town, so I had to sit back and think for myself.

I thought hard about what the book meant to me at that time. The cash I didn’t need right away, but the content was something over which I had agonized for months, and now I seemed to face loss of control of it. The whole situation baffled me.

An old Quaker maxim came to mind: “Speak truth to power.” On that principle, I got up the nerve to call the editor back. I asked him to explain the rush job, in view of the fact that, without a contract, I could pull the book at any time if things went sour.

Immediately the picture changed. The production schedule turned out to be flexible, I would see and approve the copyedited manuscript, and I was invited to lunch to get acquainted. I blinked and decided that “famous author” meant “author who talks back.”

The contract arrived two weeks after the original offer. It did not appear too bad, for a first sale. It included an auditing clause, reversion of rights for foreign licenses unsold after three years, and a warranty clause that limited the author’s liability to “judgments finally sustained.” On the other hand, the publisher demanded every right I could think of, including final say on content of the manuscript.

So I read several model contracts and gathered advice from my workshop friends. Then I went to New York and discussed the contract both with the senior editor and with Judy-Lynn del Rey. A few changes were made: first serial and movie rights were deleted; the publisher agreed to “notify Author of any licenses obtained;” and the advance would be payable two-thirds on signing, instead of half on signing, half on publication.

Del Rey refused to budge on the question of author approval in the contract. She assured me that I would in fact approve the final manuscript, and that they never charged authors for galley proof corrections, but the contract would not record these facts.

After consulting an agent, I decided that I probably had little choice but to trust the publisher and see how things worked out. The final consideration was foreign rights, which Ballantine wanted for 25%. An agent, on the other hand would take at least 15% of foreign sales, plus 10% of the rest. Ballantine’s foreign sales department had a good reputation, and the rights would revert in three years. So I figured that, since I had gotten this far, I would take the deal and go it alone. After all, this experience was a new adventure for me, and I wanted to make the most of it. (In the years since, I’ve had two agents, and ultimately have come back to my original conclusion.)

The amended contract appeared for signing within another week. The first advance check came four weeks thereafter.

Meanwhile, the editor sent me a brief list of script queries. They were reasonable, and I kept them in mind as I made my final revisions. He also expressed enthusiasm for some of the changes demanded by my workshop friends (who promptly asked for a share of my royalties). And in the workshop I found myself suggesting that substitution of “Jane said” for “said Jane” can sometimes improve style....

When the copyedited manuscript of Still Forms arrived, it held few surprises beyond corrections of spelling. The one thing that did infuriate me was a sprinkling of word changes in Judy-Lynn del Rey’s handwriting — because some of them actually made sense, so I couldn’t cross them all out. (I finally “retaliated” by threatening to rewrite the whole book then and there. This threat, even in jest, can really scare an editor at a late stage of production.) I did send back some minor changes, and the galley proofs were promised for early November.

I also found that practically any aspect of production was fair game for discussion, at least, and in some cases persistence paid off. For example, my title survived, despite an editorial pronouncement that it “sounded like a poetry collection.” On the other hand, the cover artist decided to draw a church instead of a genuine Quaker Meeting House, and this was discovered too late to be changed. I had to console myself with the observation that SF editors seem as ignorant of Quaker authors as I am of editors.

Nevertheless, I’ve come to realize that editors are actually people underneath and like to be treated as such. They respect professional communication and actions that make their jobs easier, such as prompt delivery of a manuscript. They also try to keep authors happy, when possible; as Heinlein noted in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, you don’t get milk by beating the cow.

I’ve been asked how I developed writing skills without working up through the magazines. I guess it started with a teacher in second grade who forced me to write a “story” every week. (My parents till shudder when they recall those days.) Beyond that, I wrote for my own enjoyment, until I went to college and stopped making time for it, for a while. But in the long run, the college experience made invaluable contributions to my writing.

The best aid I’ve found is workshop criticism, which definitely helped me to improve Still Forms. Nevertheless, I question the value of such input for a real novice. If I had found the workshop two years ago, would “Dreamsherds” have become a better book — or would I have given up altogether and never sent it out? Some beginners may need time to themselves before they face the full reality of what they are up against. As Algis Budrys observed in Locus, it takes as much skill to use criticism effectively as it does to provide it.

I can’t finish without noting that other activities and commitments such as religious involvement, peace activism, and a career in science contribute to what I write by providing ideas and insights about people. In fact my best writing seems to develop subconsciously at times when I am most preoccupied with other concerns. And constraints on my time prevent me from writing at all unless something inside demands to be said.

So what happened next? Still Forms was a Prometheus runner up, but received little notice. And Del Rey declined my next book, about the all-female planet (A Door into Ocean). That one found a home later with David Hartwell, now at Tor, who has published my fiction since then.

But some things haven’t changed. Tor wants my next book, and Norton wants my next textbook, and NSF wants results from my last experiment, and Michael wants me home for dinner, and....

I have no time, and I must write.

A version of this work appeared originally in the Winter 1979 edition of Empire: For the SF Writer, issue 18, vol. 5, no. 1. It's also in The Helix and the Hard Road published by Aqueduct Press, part of their WisCon Guests of Honor series. Copyright Joan Slonczewski, 1979, 2013.

Last modified: March 10, 2014

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