Everything but the Kitchen Sink

I’ve just delivered A Young Man Without Magic to my agent, so before I get busy with something else let me write my promised account of how the “Worlds of Shadow” series came about.

When I started writing for publication my ambitions were relatively modest; I just wanted to tell entertaining stories and make money doing so. While the cliché at the time was that every fantasy writer was imitating Tolkien, my primary models in fantasy were Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber Jr., Michael Moorcock, and L. Sprague de Camp. I wasn’t trying to write epics; I thought of myself as writing sword & sorcery.

I made the mistake of saying that once in front of Lester del Rey, who informed me in no uncertain terms that my work was not sword & sorcery, because Del Rey Books did not publish sword & sorcery.

Could’ve fooled me.

Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey had very definite ideas of what Del Rey wanted from their authors. Sometimes this caused a lot of friction with their authors; Tim Powers left Del Rey and went to Ace because what he wanted to write wasn’t what Lester wanted him to write, Phyllis Eisenstein went into a multi-year stretch of writer’s block after Lester got nasty about her plans for a sequel to Sorcerer’s Son, and Lester and Stephen Donaldson were constantly feuding, to the point Judy-Lynn hired an assistant editor whose primary function at Del Rey was to keep between them and prevent Lester from driving cash-cow Donaldson to another publisher.

Back then I generally got along with them just fine, though; the stuff I wanted to write was more or less what they wanted to publish.

However, Judy-Lynn started telling me somewhere around 1982 that I really ought to write a Big Fat Fantasy (her term, and the first place I heard it), something that had bestseller potential. So I started thinking about that, off and on.

Those were busy years, though; I was writing more than a novel a year, our daughter was born in 1983, we’d bought a small farm I was running and an unfinished house I finished, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to devote to a big project. I got as far as plotting a novel called The Gates of Faerie, which I still haven’t written and probably never will; I had a proposal almost ready to submit in the autumn of 1985 when Judy-Lynn had a stroke and went into a coma. She died early in 1986.

That took the wind out of my sails on The Gates of Faerie. It had been targeted at Judy-Lynn, and she was gone. I never finished writing up the sample chapter for the proposal. Bits from the story have turned up in various works since, but the original project died with Judy-Lynn.

The idea of writing a Big Fat Fantasy, though, lingered. It would have to be aimed at Lester, and his tastes were a little different.

And then one day I was reading Locus, being annoyed that they never seemed to review my work, and I read a review of a Barbara Hambly novel (I forget which) that called it “another war against the dark,” and then went on to be a very favorable review indeed.

“They want a war against the dark, I’ll give them a war against the dark,” I said. “That can be my Big Fat fantasy.”

In fact, I told myself, if they want clichés, I’ll give them clichés. I’ll put every over-worked trope I can think of into a single story, but I’ll make them all new by treating them realistically, instead of the ways they’ve usually been treated.

I started collecting clichés — exiled princes, space pirates, elves, zombies, galactic empires, slave auctions, dark lords — and assembling them into a single story, which I called (of course) The War Against the Dark.

It was pretty dark and nasty. In the real world pirates are vicious thugs, people who try to overthrow tyrants mostly die without accomplishing anything, slavery is brutal and unromantic, and that’s how I was going to treat all this stuff. There would be humor, but it would be black humor. The idea was to present all these old clichés and show just how absurd they were.

Meanwhile, things at Del Rey were getting weird. With Judy-Lynn gone there was no one who could get Lester to meet deadlines, delegate duties, or prioritize his workload. Getting a proposal accepted could take as much as two years, as I discovered with The Spell of the Black Dagger. I wrote every word of Taking Flight while waiting for Lester to get around to reading a twenty-page (double-spaced) proposal for The Spell of the Black Dagger.

Lester was absolute ruler of fantasy at Del Rey; Judy-Lynn had run the SF program and everything else other than fantasy. The War Against the Dark had originally been planned as a fantasy, with the SF elements downplayed, but after the absurd delay on Dagger my agent and I decided to shift the emphasis, play up the cross-genre nature, and sell it to Owen Lock, who had Judy-Lynn’s old job as publisher and SF editor, because Owen could be expected to reply in a couple of months, instead of years.

Sure enough, Owen looked over the proposal promptly, and he and my agent started negotiating — and things got weird again. We’d set a minimum advance we wanted, and Owen had said he wouldn’t pay it, so it looked as if we were going to pick up our marbles, leave Del Rey, and talk to Bantam. (Given what happened to Bantam’s SF/fantasy line a couple of years later, I’m really glad that didn’t happen.) Owen didn’t want that, and broke the impasse in a creative (and in retrospect, downright stupid) way.

He offered three times what we’d asked if I would turn the project from one Big Fat Book into a trilogy.

That is, he wouldn’t pay X for one novel, but he would pay 3X for three. This would mean my very first (and so far, last) six-figure advance, and in theory it would mean Del Rey would have to put some push behind the book. It might well be the break-out project Judy-Lynn had talked about back in 1982.

When my agent told me that on the phone I was kind of stunned. That much money? But turn it into a trilogy? How? It was supposed to be one Big Fat Book.

So I started thinking about it, and concluded it could be done, so I agreed, and we signed the contracts.

What I did was to split the original story in half, as Out of This World and In the Empire of Shadow. I’d intended to have an epilogue, maybe 3,000-5,000 words, that would wrap up loose ends, and that wound up as the basis for The Reign of the Brown Magician, though obviously I added a lot more plot and stuff. I started writing.

I’m really not sure just how carefully Owen Lock had read the proposal; it was only well after the deal was made that he seemed to realize the story could be treated as fantasy, rather than SF. (Pretty dark fantasy, at that.)

While I was writing, Del Rey was changing. Lester was eased out, and then died. Owen Lock moved up the corporate ladder out of editorial. There was a shake-up of the editorial department, and my favorite editor in the entire world, who I’d been working with for years, Deborah Hogan, left the company. (Lester had been the acquiring editor, but Deborah was my line editor, doing the detail work, since about 1985.) Deborah was there long enough to accept Out of This World, but she was gone well before the second book was finished; in fact, there was no longer anyone at Del Rey who had read the original proposal and understood just how dark the series was meant to be.

So the first book was packaged as something relatively light, with a bright cover and a quote on the back about whether a flying car looks more like a Buick or an Oldsmobile. Horribly misleading. I think that the people responsible thought the other two volumes would cheer things up and lead to a traditional happy ending.

And while it was published as a hardcover, it was not the lead hardcover — Owen Lock, a huge fan of alternate history, had instead decided to put the entire promotional budget for the month behind the first volume of Harry Turtledove’s WorldWar series.

Sales, to be blunt, sucked. And I got hate mail from readers who had expected a light fluffy read and instead got grief and pain and despair.

So the second volume was published in trade paperback, instead of hardcover, and sold even worse, because who’s going to buy the middle book of a trilogy in a format the first volume was never in?

The third volume was then delayed so long that the contracts had to be amended, and eventually appeared only in mass-market paperback.

By that time I had left Del Rey and gone to Tor. Judy-Lynn and Lester and Deborah were all gone; there was no one at Del Rey I cared about, and no one at Del Rey who cared about me. I think the guy who “edited” In the Empire of Shadow was already gone, as well — in fact, I don’t even remember who edited The Reign of the Brown Magician. Probably the same guy, but I’m not sure. He was a nice guy, but in my opinion a lousy editor, which is why I’m not naming him.

And my sales hadn’t been good enough to keep Del Rey collectively interested in keeping me around — not at the price they’d paid per volume for the “Three Worlds” trilogy (as it was then known), anyway. When we asked the same price for Touched by the Gods, they didn’t negotiate, they just said no.

So I left, and got that advance from Tor, instead.

I’m much happier at Tor than I ever was at Del Rey after Judy-Lynn’s death.

Anyway, I think “Worlds of Shadow” is a good story, and I’m very proud of it, but when Wildside reprinted it, I made sure they packaged it dark, almost like horror, because that’s what it is. Del Rey mishandled it horribly, in my opinion. They never really looked at it to see what it was they’d bought.

If it had been marketed differently, I still think it might’ve been a hit.

9 thoughts on “Everything but the Kitchen Sink

  1. Wow, what a tale. Thanks for taking the time to type that up.

    I’ve always enjoyed reading the origin stories behind your novels, and I hope you continue to write them for your new works, should you find the time and inclination.

  2. It must madden writers to have publication be such a whimsical and contingent business.

    So, anyway, speaking of publication: What’s A Young Man Without Magic? It sounds fantasy of mannersy, but that might be misleading. And is it the same book as Sorcerer’s Justice, mentioned your upcoming books page?

  3. The Wildside trade paperbacks didn’t sell worth a damn, but the all-in-one hardcover did okay. No one ever did any publicity on the series, but by that point I didn’t much care; I just wanted it back in print.

    As for A Young Man Without Magic, yes, that’s the retitled Sorcerer’s Justice. Whether it’s a fantasy of manners depends on how you define your terms; you could see it as one, yes. I’ll be writing a post about it in a few days.

    And yes, publication is a very erratic business, but that’s just something you learn to live with.

  4. So, it looks like you finally got your trilogy published. Request: could you put up publication info here? I’m part of MITSFS (a SF society) and I think it would be cool to get for us.


  5. Oh, it was published ages ago, as I just explained. The Del Rey editions came out in the 1990s, the Wildside edition is available on Amazon.

  6. I remember picking these up at the library when I was in Jr. High or High school, and the only other book I’d read of yours was The Misenchanted Sword. At first I was kind of thrown by them, but once I got into the story, I really enjoyed the series, and I do think the packaging had a lot to do with that.

    Thanks for the story behind it, it’s always fascinating to hear the crazy world behind the scenes like that.

  7. I found the Three Worlds series to be horrible, and did not finish reading it. From this new perspective, however, I can see that it wasn’t *horrible*, it was *horrific*. Very different.

    Not gonna reread it, though.

  8. I was fascinated by this series, and was fortunate enough not to take any cues from the packaging — I just bought it because it was a Lawrence Watt-Evans book. Apart from the deconstruction of cliches, it seemed to me to be an excellent illustration of the potential effects of “concentration of power.” Of the three worlds, power/technology on “ours” is the most diffuse. It requires extensive infrastructure, I suppose you could call it, but by that I mean human knowledge and co-operation as well as industry. We can produce weapons of truly epic destructive force, and do a myriad of marvelous things as well, but it takes hundreds of millions of people to maintain this level of technology. The “space opera” world is intermediate, with ray guns and space travel that appear not to require a civilization of a complexity anywhere near our level. In the “fantasy” world, absolute power has been concentrated in the hands of a single person, who requires no support of any kind from anyone else. The fantasy world is also a terrible place to live if you aren’t the ruler. The space opera world is not as awful, but is significantly less free and pleasant than ours (or at least than the relatively affluent democracies in ours). Of course, three points of data isn’t much to go on, but in my mind at least, there seemed to be a direct and pretty obvious inverse correlation between the ability of a small group or an individual to hold significant power over others and the quality of life for those others.

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