1983: The Writer’s Life

by wjw on April 22, 2011

This is one of a long dang series of posts on my early days as a professional writer.

But first, a confession.  There were two versions of my post for 1982.   The first relied on my memory.  The second, in which I relied on my tax records for 1983, is the more accurate.  (That’s the one you can read now.)  The inaccurate post was up for maybe twelve hours before I discovered my mistake and posted a correction.

Here’s what happened.  As I wrote in my previous post, my job writing historical fiction went up the spout in 1982.  My memory of not having work seemed endless— and at first my best recollection was that I didn’t sell anything new until Ambassador of Progress in October of 1983.  Except, now that I look at the actual records, I see that I actually sold that book in October of 1982.  My period of unemployment thus ran from April to October of 1983— six months.

It only seemed like a year and a half in my memory. I managed to cram eighteen months’ worth of desperation and angst into only half a year!

So that’s why I posted two versions of my life.  One is what actually happened, and the other is how I felt about it.

But getting back to 1983.  My professional life in that year was strongly affected by a problematic relationship with my editor, Jim Baen.   True, he bought two of my novels.  It’s also true that he enjoyed torturing me and also involved me in some kind of weird tax fraud, a fact I only found out years later.

When Baen bought Ambassador of Progress, he knew me not as a writer but as a game designer.  I’d had a rather stuttering career as a game designer for several years— I’d originally had the idea that the game design could support the writing career, an idea that now seems ridiculous.  I made some money, though not enough to make up for expenses and for the enormous amount of time involved.  (Time spent testing games is usually fun, though.)

Anyway, Baen was putting together a software firm, and I’d been recommended to him as a game designer by Fred and Joan Saberhagen, who were putting together a kind of software and design house called Berserkerworks.  They acted as my game agents with Baen, and that’s how he knew my name.  (He hadn’t actually bought any game material from me as of that date, or so I seem to remember.)

So Baen bought Ambassador of Progress in October of 1982, which I was very pleased about.  I’d spent some weeks in Minnesota in September, visiting my relatives and having colossal amounts of alcohol poured down my gullet.  (Because that’s what Finns do when the relatives show up, okay?)   It seemed churlish to decline, especially as they were pulling down bottles of the really good stuff from the shelves, blowing the dust off it, and pouring away.  I’d never had that much booze before or since, and by the end of the trip I realized that I’d been intoxicated literally for days if not weeks, because the alcohol never had time to clear my system before more got added.  I felt like chuck steak that had been tenderized by a sledge hammer, and after I got home I went on the wagon for a month or so, just to give my liver time to recover.

But on my way home, over Columbus Day weekend, I attended a science fiction convention in Austin, Armadillocon at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel.  It was there that I’d got the news that I’d sold a novel.

(I should point out that, though I was not an SF writer, I’d been attending SF conventions since the early 1970s.  They were more fun than the other literary gatherings available.)

How I learned about the sale was that my father stopped by my apartment to pick up my mail, and the phone rang while he was there, and he answered it.  It was my agent with news of the sale.  But he didn’t know my father and didn’t give any details.  So my dad called me in Austin, and got me at the hotel.

I didn’t think it was Ambassador of Progress that had sold, I figured it was one of my non-SF proposals— but whatever it was, it was time for celebration.  I ordered a bottle of room-service champagne brought up to the mezzanine area where the convention folks were handing out, and I poured champagne for everyone there until the bottle ran out.  (I couldn’t afford drinks on the house for everyone, but I could afford a single bottle.)  I remember clinking glasses with Ellen Datlow, but I don’t remember who else might have been there.  Lew Shiner, almost certainly.

Those were the days when there were only three people in the Tor offices.  Jim Baen the editor, Tom Doherty the publisher, and Mrs. Doherty the bookkeeper.  I had my contract a week after the offer.  Five days after I signed the contract, I had my check— and the check came through my agent!

Baen insisted that I deliver the book by the end of the year, which left me with the task of writing something like 130,000 words in two and a half months.   This is where I found out for sure that I’m not a fast writer.  I failed to make the deadline.

When I told Baen I was going to be late, he insisted that I write an ending for the book I’d written thus far and send him the manuscript.  I wrote the ending— it was a damn good ending, too, filled with sadness and pathos— and sent him the ms.

I had no idea why he was being so insistent, and only found out a few years later, when I told the story to another Tor editor.  She thought for a moment, then said, “Oh!  Tax fraud!”  I don’t know any more details than that.  Still, it seems that my editor had made me his unwitting accomplice in a crime.

I’d never met anyone quite like Baen before.  I knew he published a lot of two-fisted heroic action fiction, which produced a contrast in expectations when I met him and discovered he was this wispy little guy with a lisp and a long list of food allergies.  His politics were extremely conservative, his ideas on race dated from (let’s be charitable) the 1940s, and he had an amazing repertoire of sexist jokes (at one point telling me a whole string of them while his wife and daughter were in the next room, and in a position to overhear).

Though his politics were somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun, he nevertheless published lefties like Mack Reynolds and Eric Flint.  And he published me, which is clearly to his credit.

He also bought a number of games from me, for his new Baen Software company.   The whole Baen Software business shows what happens when a lot of really bright people get together to storm an industry that not a one of them understands.

The business plan was this: he’d hire me as a game writer.  I’d then hire the programmers to create the actual game, then adapt it to the various platforms then available.  (C64, PC, Apple ii, Atari 400-800.)  The games would then be distributed like books, by Simon & Schuster’s highly professional sales and distribution team.

This was a recipe for a nightmare.  Firstly, the advances Baen was paying, while suitable enough for a writer churning out quickie paperbacks, didn’t even approach the going rate of a first-rate computer programmer with the necessary skills to produce a state-of-the-art computer game.    This meant that the programmers who actually worked with me were (1) hobbyists who were making a very good living elsewhere but just thought it was cool to create games, and (2) bullshit artists who massively overestimated their own skills.    The latter tended to predominate.  And bear it mind it was me who was hiring the programmers, and I lacked the skills to tell one from the other.

Despite all these handicaps, Baen Software did produce some good games, like Starclash and Force 400. Their catalog included an unlikely one of mine, Pride & Prejudice, the Game of Regency Romance.  (This was my attempt to pioneer an as-yet-undiscovered female market.)  But even after the product began to appear, no one ever saw the games.

It was the large, highly-professional sales force at Simon & Schuster who doomed the project.  They didn’t know computers, they didn’t know computer games, and they didn’t care.  The games appeared in very few stores.

The company continued to drag itself along for several years, however, and drag me along with it, much as Achilles dragged Hector behind his chariot.  (Only, in this particular metaphor, Achilles is as dead as Hector, and the horses are trudging in a dutiful fashion toward Acheron, and not traveling nearly fast enough.)

While the trauma over the software company was going on, I was finishing Ambassador of Progress and reading as much SF as I could.  The sad fact was that I hadn’t read a lot of SF in the preceding decade, not since the Sixties Wave expired.  I was deeply ignorant of the field and the current players.  As an SF professional, I was expected to know this stuff.

Ambassador of Progress is not at all typical of my SF.  It’s anthropological SF, in the mode of Chad Oliver or CJ Cherryh.  The proposal had been written years before, when I was in the middle of writing my historicals.  In terms of style and content, it’s a lot closer to my historicals than it is to any of my later SF.  It’s a strange little anachronism, one of several that have popped up in my writing career.

Jim Baen never bothered to read it.  He never read most of the fiction he published.  I’ve heard Baen’s authors burble along the lines of, “He’s a wonderful editor!  He never asked for a single change, he just sent it straight to the copy editor!”

That’s because he never read your book, bucko.  In my case he passed it on to his assistant, Betsy Mitchell, who then passed it on to the copy editor, who never noticed a grammatical fault in the first paragraph.  I have groaned over that flaw in the years since.

I pitched Knight Moves to Baen and he bought it.   I got an advance of $8500.  Knight Moves is a book reminiscent of a lot of Sixties New Wave fiction, because that was the last SF I’d read in any quantity.   The book gave me a lot of trouble in the writing, in part because before the ink was quite dry on the contract, I’d already moved on.  I’d conceived the book that became Hardwired.

This occurred on yet another visit to Austin, when I was freeloading (yet again) with Howard Waldrop and Leigh Kennedy.  We’d attended the Aggiecon convention, which places the date as April 1983.  On the night before my return to New Mexico, I crashed in a sleeping bag in the dining room, I think because Ed Bryant was crashing in another sleeping bag in the living room.

Howard and Leigh lived in a second-floor apartment, and the dining room was directly above the apartment’s laundry room.  The dryers ran all day and night, and generated vast amounts of heat.   I lay there in this heat cloud sweltering, and had a troubled night, unable to rest.

At some point I finally fell asleep.  At some point I dreamed a horrific scene that was the kernel for Hardwired.  I woke up immediately, and thought about the scene as I lay sweating and unable to sleep.  (I can still see the scene in my mind’s eye.)  I thought about the scene for the rest of the night, and then on the twelve- or fourteen-hour drive home.  I kept trying to think of a world in which a scene that horrific could occur.  By the end off the trip home, I had Hardwired plotted.

But the problem was I’d just sold another book entirely, and I was obliged to write that one.  So, with my head on fire from this other book, I set myself to compose Knight Moves.

Another problem arose later in the year from that source of misery, Jim Baen.  I’d had to fire a programmer off one of my projects, resulting in delays, and Jim didn’t like delays.  (I can understand that he was under pressure, running a company with his name on it that had a fatally flawed business plan that was slowly dragging us all into the Pit— but on the other hand it was his damn business plan, not mine.)

Anyway, Jim informed me— at the Baltimore Worldcon, no less— that he wouldn’t pay me the advance on signing for Knight Moves until I delivered on the game project.

Now, this was a problem on any number of levels.  Firstly, the game contract and the book contract were from two different companies.  He was threatening to ruin Tor’s reputation for honesty and timely payment in order to solve a problem at Baen Software.  Secondly, I had done my work.  It was the programmer that had screwed up.  Baen was punishing me because I was the guy he had under contract— he had no business relationship with the programmer at all.

And then, that summer, someone broke into my apartment and stole my Tandy Model II, my only computer.  I was happy to see the last of it, but there was an incredible hassle with the insurance company, which claimed that they only covered stuff in my apartment that was not business related.  I pointed out the rider which specifically mentioned the computer by serial number, and in the end they paid the full value, $6003.95.  I bought an IBM PC for $4398.00.  (Yes, that’s what a PC cost in 1983)  Still, I managed to make a profit off being robbed.

I had jumped from the sinking ship of historical fiction, and ended up in a place that strongly resembled Hell.  Being a science fiction writer was awful.  It was like being punished for something I hadn’t done.  I am amazed that I survived that years at all without either blowing out my brains, or blowing out someone else’s brains.

I hired a new programmer, but I cleverly inserted a new clause in the contract that if he failed to deliver, he’d repay my advance as well as his own.  He turned out to be as good at programming as he was at reading contracts.   I ended up having to sic the sheriff on him.  I eventually heard from his attorney, who offered me the money— the attorney’s own money, in point of fact.  The programmer had offered to pay his lawyer by computerizing his office.  (I managed to stifle hysterical laughter long enough to cash the check.)

I returned the money to Baen.  I delivered P&P on schedule.  I was still on the hook for two more games, but I had a good programmer for both of them.  So good, in fact, that Baen borrowed him for other projects.  Since it was Baen who had stolen my programmer, he could scarcely complain that I wasn’t delivering, and eventually Baen Software folded with the games unfinished, a publisher killed by the ignorance of everyone involved with the project. (Some of the games are available online as freeware.)

Baen’s threat to withhold the advance from Knight Moves ended when he left Tor Books.  He had started Baen Books, and for a while it looked as if he’d be editing both lines, but the Science Fiction Writers of America, in a rare moment of belligerence, made threatening noises in his direction, and he left Tor.

My new editor was Harriet McDougal, with whom I got along very well indeed.   (She was married to James Rigney, better known by his pseudonym, Robert Jordan.)  Harriet okayed my advance, and she and James visited New Mexico in the latter half of the year, whereupon I pitched Hardwired.  I really sold the hell out of that book.  She was dubious about buying a bleak, near-future dystopia, but agreed to look at the proposal.

I was still writing Knight Moves, but I could not contain Hardwired any longer, and I wrote a piece of it, “Sarah Runs the Weasel,” which in the latter part of the year I sold to SF’s top short fiction market, Ellen Datlow at Omni. (Due to the complex publishing schedule at Omni, the story wasn’t published until 1986, and even then— because advertising had sold at the last minute—  it was serialized in two issues, becoming the world’s only serialized novelette.  I was reminded of a comment from Bruce Sterling that selling to Omni was like having your story buried in the nicest coffin available at the undertaker.)

And now the raw figures, derived from my tax returns.  I got $4250 completion money for Ambassador of Progress, $4275 on-signing money from Knight Moves, and $1000 advance from Baen Software.  Various agents took 10% off the top.  I earned nearly a thousand dollars in game royalties, and I got my $6000 insurance payment and nearly $300 in interest.  This added to nearly $16,000, which wasn’t bad, except that I couldn’t count on being robbed so conveniently in the future.

I spent $1035 utilities and telephone, $4398 on a new computer, and had $629.83 in car expenses.  Travel and entertainment came to $2704.71.  Rent on my office was $720.

Because the insurance payment that made the single largest contribution to my income wasn’t taxable, I paid only $427.49 for 1983.

I even had enough money to buy a new car!  I bought a slightly used 1983 Ford Escort for something like $4500.  It only had 3700 miles on it, and the guy sold it to me because his company gave him a company car and he didn’t want to go on making the payments.

Hey!  Good luck!  Sometimes it happens!

How, I wonder in retrospect, did I survive 1983?  I conclude that this is because I was as crazy as any of the people I was dealing with.

By the midpoint of the year, I was a staggering, raging wreck, filled with madness and raw cunning.  I was a complete convert to the Law of the Jungle.  Jim Baen had showed me that only ruthless sociopaths could expect to prosper in the world.

I was prepared to eat or be eaten, kill or be killed.  I simply didn’t fucking care any more.  I wanted to grab a ballpeen hammer and start crushing heads.

This proved a useful state of mind next year, when I started writing Hardwired.

Oz April 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm

You do know that there’s no statute of limitations on tax fraud? It’s a dangerous word to throw around. Let’s just say that a completely uninformed opinion of another editor was ‘tax fraud’ as opposed to ‘aggressive tax position.’ Unless, of course, you know that he was actually hauled before the IRS and that was the conclusion, that whatever he did was fraudulent. Me? I can’t tell what about that would have been fraudulent, not from that information.

You were prepared to eat or be eaten, kill or be killed. I think I’m glad I didn’t know you when.


Will April 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Outstanding story! I first picked up on your work with Hardwired in the late 80’s and you got me hooked on distopian near future (aka Cyberpunk). Still read and re-read that original copy. Thanks for sharing the background!

wjw April 22, 2011 at 7:30 pm

The IRS are unlikely to reach into the afterlife to chase Jim Baen— at least I =hope= they don’t have that ability. As for the fraud charge, I merely report what I was told.

TCWriter April 23, 2011 at 4:24 am

I was prepared to eat or be eaten, kill or be killed. I simply didn’t fucking care any more. I wanted to grab a ballpeen hammer and start crushing heads.

Dang. I was going to remind you to write the email interview I sent, but now I believe I’ll sit quietly in the corner and hope I’m not noticed.

Every freelance writer probably needs to go all beserker at some point, if only because the alternative is something even less palatable than quiet desperation…

DensityDuck April 23, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Interesting! A little Violent Torpedo of Truth, there.

“Their catalog included an unlikely one of mine, Pride & Prejudice, the Game of Regency Romance. (This was my attempt to pioneer an as-yet-undiscovered female market.) ”

Do you still own the rights (or at least some of the copy) for this? It might be something that could be redone as a “mobile game”. Heck, it sounds like the kind of cell-phone game that the Japanese are really into these days.


“The dryers ran all day and night, and generated vast amounts of heat. I lay there in this heat cloud sweltering, and had a troubled night, unable to rest.”

Is this why it’s so damn hot in Hardwired?

“At some point I finally fell asleep. At some point I dreamed a horrific scene that was the kernel for Hardwired.”

Of course, the immediate question is…which scene?


Jim Baen sounds like the classic mold of the nerd who decided that since he liked something, he’d start his own company to do that thing. Doesn’t know what he’s doing; any succeess is despite himself; sees everything as a personal relationship rather than a business arrangement; a weird combination of whimsical, sentimental, and petty. Insists that tactlessness is honesty and crudity is humor. I’m sure he was absolutely awesome if he was your friend and you agreed with him about everything; otherwise, well, he was so wrapped up in the I Am Smart And Therefore Always Right mindset that he’d never ever fire you, but always wait for you to leave on your own, so that he could pretend that the whole thing was your fault.

DensityDuck April 23, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Oh, and PS: I remember a year or so ago, there had been some suggestions that you and Baen ought to try and form a relationship where they’d publish your backlist. Does this post present some reason for why that didn’t (and won’t) happen? Or are you willing to deal with anyone who approaches you in a professional manner?

Florin Pîtea April 23, 2011 at 10:17 pm

“Because that’s what Finns do when the relatives show up, okay?”
According to William Gibson circa 1982, a certain Finn offers military-grade Russian software to unsuspecting American customers, therefore being related to some Finns appears to be one step up, or at least slightly more entertaining and a little less life threatening. 😉

wjw April 23, 2011 at 11:04 pm

DD, I have the sense that you may have had a boss like Jim Baen at some point in your past . . .

I have perhaps mentioned that Jim Baen was in many ways a visionary. He did two things years ago that all the rest of publishing should have done years ago.

He got his company out of New York, which is too expensive, and he took the idea of ebooks seriously long before anyone else did.

I don’t have any problem with Baen Books now, but my plan is to bring out my backlist on ebooks myself, and then not have to split the money with anyone else. More profit! More work! More on that topic shortly.

DensityDuck April 25, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Not a boss, really, but someone with his own role-playing-game publishing firm. And another someone, later. And then a third.

Yes, I know, “what’s the common factor here”, but I did find that as a class these gentlemen ran remarkably true to type; to the point that in the third instance I predicted, almost to the day, when it would be suggested that I no longer be associated with that particular business.


I think that what Baen recognized was that his business had become a self-eating hamburger; the readers felt enough connection to the authors that they’d buy anything and everything, so long as an acceptable level of quality (and production rate) were maintained. I don’t know whether Baen encouraged that his authors develop these relationships or whether he simply took advantage of this happy accident. This sort of thing is going to be the only realistic way to prevent losses to piracy.


Glad to hear that you’re doing your own ebook backlist. It seems to me that this is a lot more responsive–and lucrative–than paying someone else to do it, and then wishing and hoping that they do it right (if at all).

S.M. Stirling April 26, 2011 at 8:33 am

Walter, you’re -lucky- Jim didn’t read your books.

He -did- read my books, and that’s why we ended up having a monumental blow-up, preceeded by a series of increasingly acerbic quarrels.

Oddly enough, the cause of the final break was basically political; a black gay character in American uniform. To say that Jim had problems with this… is true, but a bit of an understatement.

He swore that the readers just wouldn’t swallow it. (His actual words were more scatalogical). The book is now in its 24th printing…

Even more oddly, Jim (as you mention) published Eric Flint, who’s an actual -Commie- (Trotskyite Marxist), whereas I’m a High Tory.

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