BRIDGEHEAD was my first attempt to write what I think of as mainstream SF: a novel about a scientific experiment without any tanks or legions or swordsmen or spies. The genesis of the plot was a friend telling me about a non-sanctioned Psi experiment that was once run in the basement of the Engineering Building at Duke University. It went badly wrong, leading to the retirement of the department head.
The novel was part of my first three-book contract, back in 1982. I’d written The Dragon Lord on spec, and I’d done the additional wordage for Hammer’s Slammers for Jim Baen at Ace. I’d then done Time Safari, an expansion of a novella, for Jim after he’d followed Ace publisher Tom Doherty to Tor, the new company he founded; and when I turned that in, Jim asked for and I wrote a technothriller (Skyripper).
At that point, I guess you’d say I became a Made Man: Jim called me, offering a two-book contract; and called back the next night, expanding the contract to three books–subject to be determined later by agreement of the parties. (Actually, I missed his first follow-up call. When I learned that, I ran out and bought my first answering machine… a $400 investment at the time.)
I had over a year’s guaranteed employment laid out in front of me, more than I’d ever had with the Town of Chapel Hill where my job was a line item on the annual budget. I was a writer.
That left the question of what the books would be. I wanted to do the historical SF novel that I’d been attempting for a decade; that became Birds of Prey and was the first of the three. I’d been thinking of turning the Odyssey into SF; I did, as Cross the Stars. And there was the mainstream SF novel that I was doing because I was sure that was what Tor really wanted. (It turned out that what Tor–Jim and Tom–really wanted was me to write books that I was excited about writing, but I was full of naive cynicism at the time.)
By the time I wrote Bridgehead in 1985, Jim had left to found Baen Books and supply SF under contract to Simon and Schuster. His immediate replacement was the wonderful Harriet McDougal, but Harriet really isn’t an SF person (though she did a fine job on Cross the Stars and The Jungle). Tor had just hired Beth Meacham from Ace to become SF editor, and Bridgehead landed on her desk.
I wasn’t concerned about the change. I’d had pleasant dealings with Ms Meacham at Ace, though she hadn’t been my editor there.
The edited mss and a four-page editorial letter came back very promptly. I opened the package and within a matter of seconds was as angry as I’ve ever been in my life. I was later told (by an informant who might or might not have had inside information) that Ms Meacham was having personal problems and that my editorial letter was similar in tone to three others that she wrote at the same time. I don’t know about that; all I can swear to is what was in mine.
First, the mss had been edited at least in part in purple indelible pencil, with marginal notations including, Oh come now! and This isn’t English! The letter included a number of flat statements about my factual errors, including Dinosaurs are reptiles and reptiles don’t nurture their young; change this scene, and There is no such thing as an Ambassador in Residence at a university. Change the character to a political science professor.
Those are sufficient to give you the flavor of the edit; they were also sufficient to make me dizzy with anger. My fingers were trembling so badly that I had difficulty dialing Tom Doherty, and I stuttered as I offered to pay back the advance and take Bridgehead to a publisher who wanted it. (Tom later told Harriet that he hadn’t realized I was capable of getting that angry; to be honest, neither had I.)
Harriet returned as my editor (until she finally turned me over to Dave Hartwell so that she could concentrate on the work of her husband, Robert Jordan, and on lowering her stress levels). All was well. But the night after the business resolved, I had an attack of hives for the first and only time in my life.
Most of you are probably aware that dinosaurs weren’t reptiles and that a number of reptiles do nurture their young (as dinosaurs certainly did). You may not know, however, that the State Department has an Ambassador in Residence program as a temporary placement for senior staff who’re waiting for a foreign posting. The State Department pays their salaries; they teach a few courses and steer likely prospects to careers in the Foreign Service. I’d met the guy who was in charge of the program.
I’m darned if I know what happened. Ms Meacham later apologized, and folks who’ve worked with her since speak very highly of her editorial ability. It’s one of the very few unpleasant editorial experiences I’ve had; but believe me, it was very unpleasant.
Quite apart from the editorial adventures, the book was badly flawed. I used a large number of characters and switched between them in very short segments. That was deliberate, but it made the story jerky and harder to follow than it needed to have been.
Both for artistic reasons and because of the mental baggage I carry around from Ms Meacham’s editorial letter I don’t have much affection for Bridgehead, but I learned a lot from the project. The next time I wrote a complex novel (and I’ve written far more complex novels in the years since) I knew to pare down the number of characters and to develop each scene fully enough that the reader has a story rather than a kaleidoscope.
The other valuable lesson I learned was that money isn’t nearly as important to me as working with friends. As a result I’ve never been tempted to auction a book to whoever offers the most money; it just isn’t worth the strain.
I never want to be that angry again.
Bridgehead. 1986, New York, NY: Tor. 279 p. 0812536169 (pb). $3.50.
————– 1990, New York, NY: Tor. 279 p. 0812511689 (pb). $3.95.
————– 2006, New York, NY: Tor. 288 p. 0765356473 (pb). $6.99.