Go With God

(This post was originally on the site as a stand-alone page…)

The following was written by John Ringo in memory of the passing of Jim Baen, SF publisher. I’m keeping the text up for a while.


I’ve been out of town since Jim passed. This is all I could come up with. I’m still working in a comfortable state of denial and happy to be there, thank you.Dear Jim:Hey man. Hope you can read this. Miriam says she got a big burst of surprise and delight when you died. If you’re up there, you’re probably laughing your ass off. First of all that there’s a “there” to go to and second that you made it.I’m just gonna run over a few things. Sort of reminisce if you will.When did you start to affect my life? Well, I seem to remember a book called “Hammer’s Slammers” that I read back in (mumbledy, mumbledy.) I’m not going to say how old I was since Dave might read this and it’ll make him feel all ancient and stuff. Oh, hell, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is a fourteen year-old male.” You told me that. And it’s true. You’ve been affecting me since my golden age. Dave, Beam Piper, all those great ACE books.They probably saved my life. You see, I was a geek. A seriously socially inept geek. And when I got back from living overseas, my mom moved us into a tony neighborhood in Atlanta where most of the kids had been going to school together since they were in diapers. I was the outsider. For three years, I had not one friend. Not one person I could hang out with. Nada. Nothing.

Books were my only friends and those ACE books are what I remember. I wanted to be Johnny Rico or Joachim Steuben. I wanted to hunt the forests with the Fuzzies. I wanted to go hunting Merlin on Poictesme. Anything but go to another day at Christ the King.

Then when I got a little older and they started getting dumb and dumber. I didn’t know why at the time, I was chasing girls and playing D&D and reading less since I had moved and finally found some friends.

Hell, for a while there it was nearly impossible to find a book worth reading. I kept going back to those old favorites, wishing somebody would come along to rival Drake or Heinlein or Piper. Something had gone out of the whole book industry. It was a disturbance in the force, like a million voices crying out “where are all the good books?”

I was grown up, out of the Army, married, kids and then I found a new treasure trove. Stirling, Moon, Bujold, Weber and more great stuff from Drake. Where in the hell did this all come from? What’s that symbol? Something red and blue. It was distinctive. I started looking for it whenever I went in a book store. This is good shit, man. This is the stuff.

Things were good, things were bad, good, bad, good, bad, goodbadgoodbad”¦ Then I was in a reasonably paying job, but it was boring as hell. I’d sit in a plant for weeks, 12 on, 12 off, seven days a week, mostly at night. There wasn’t much to do except read and I started raking them off the shelves. Occasionally I’d hit somebody else’s books, but they were all “oh, the agony of the world that is going to hell in a handbasket and cannot ever be helped we are all pawns to greater forces who are malignant”¦”

Hell, I could read Lovecraft for that. He could at least write. But then there were the books with the blue and red”¦whatever the hell that was. Baen? How do you pronounce that? Bine? Bean? Who cares. That’s the shit, man.

About the same time, my writer jones started hitting. Basically, I’d read so much Drake and Bujold and Weber that the stories were morphing and coming out my ears. Hey, I’d always had this story sitting in the back-file, waiting to be released. So, one night sitting at my desk with nothing else to do I started writing. Long hand. On a legal pad.

That one teetotally sucked. Did I ever show it to you later? You’d laugh. Some good stuff, some flashes, but”¦ Oh. My. God.

Later, I started on a new story. That one rocked. I could tell. I’d learned from the first. This was good. It was”¦Bean, Bine”¦ However you pronounce it, it was what this company published. If I could just finish it”¦

I didn’t. I got stuck. I showed it to my dad and he made some suggestions and I filed them away.

Then dad got sick. And he got sicker. Then he left us.

I can’t say I started again because dad died. I can say I started again soon after. And I finished it. And I tried to fix the stuff I knew was wrong. But finally I just printed it out and put it in a box and sent it off. To that Baen place. Writer’s Marketplace said that the editor was “Toni Weisskopf.” Well, I was pretty sure that was a girl, but not positive, so I avoided he/she in the cover letter. And”¦well”¦

It was probably a girl in the publishing industry. That meant liberal. So I punched up the whole “wouldn’t it be nice if all the strip-malls went away? This is what will happen in my book! You should publish it because it’s, like, green and stuff! Because, like, all the strip malls go away.”

Heh. Heh, heh. HAH! HAH! HAH! HAH! HAH! HAH! (Giggle) Strip malls go away.

I really worried about the title. Like the rock band said “It doesn’t matter what we sound like, what should we call ourselves?” I wanted just the right title.

Finally, I found it in a Kipling poem. And I used that to touch it up. Then I screwed up and wrote it WRONG!

I called it “A Hymn Before Battle” instead of “A Hymn Before Action.” Yeah, the strip malls go away. Along with five sixth of the human race.

Did I ever tell you that, buddy? That the title was all screwed up. That I’d sent an “I’m so Green” letter to Toni, who is slightly to the Right of Attila the Hun? God, I’m a screw-up. But you helped me unscrew a lot of stuff.

Anyway, I knew it would be months, maybe a year, before I heard anything. So I poked around on your website (Damned good one, as we both know) and I found this place called Baen’s Bar. That was back when it was a dirty little secret, when you’d take the ladies for walks on the garden path. You remember those days, buddy? Do you remember the Cherry Tort and Wendy? Are you there?

Good days. Days of wine and song as they say. Heady concepts thrown around in the wind of the internet and left to drift where they wist. Novas and black hole theory and aquatic apes. Finally, people I could talk with who questioned and argued without anger or jealousy or “it has to be this way because”¦”

Do you have all the answers, now? Or just finally the tools to find them? I know which you would prefer.

And you were there, buddy. Holding court electronically in a way you never could in public. You were the guiding star and everyone else followed.

But, boy. Aquatic Ape theory? I remember that one. So Lucy had (they thought) long feet? So she was aquatic? Do you remember my theories? The Cursorial Hunter Theory and the Sexual Mutation Through Preference for High-Heeled Shoes? Hah.

And then I said: “I’d call you crazy but I’ve got a book on your slush pile and I’ve got to be nice to you.”

And you responded: “Marla, find me this manuscript!”

I took it to mean, jokingly as the entire vein had been, that you were going to shred it. I never thought that you would read it.

Then, a week later, I got my rejection notice. In a woman’s hand. I knew, by then, that you were stand-up guy. That if you’d rejected it, I would have gotten something more than “I’m sorry but it does not fit our needs at this time”¦”

So I went back to work on it. I knew it needed work so I stuck my nose back in and worked.

Then, another week later, I got my first e-mail from you. I wish I’d kept it, but I don’t really need to. Some things cause an editic memory.

“Dear John:

Nobody can find your manuscript. Could you send me an electronic copy? I prefer rtf or word documents.”

Could I? Could I? (Very close to an old joke, you know.) Hell, yes!

I sent it to you along with a very abject letter. I pointed out that your first reader had rejected it and allowed that if you didn’t want
to step on her toes, I could understand. That I was in the midst of editing it and if you wanted I could resubmit sometime in the future. Here is that book and as much as I had finished of the sequel (since you had commented that publishers want more than “one hit wonders.”) Sincerely yours, John Ringo.

A day passed on pins and needles. I had a steady job at that point, working on databases at a textile company. I was well respected by my superiors and pretty much hated by everyone else. But I got by. I had a good life. Two cute kids, a decent trailer in the country, my marriage was”¦ rocky but we were making it. We could take the occasional vacation. If I got something published, that would be nice. I liked my stories, I thought other people might like them, too.

Another day. Hey, he’s a busy”¦

And then it started. One email. Another email. They started pretty negative. They got pretty positive. Nine God Damned emails in 24 hours. Some in the middle of the night. Then the last one.

“Dear John:

Hah. I always find that funny. This is a decent novel that needs work. It is a very good story. You have excellent plotting. There’s one major problem with the plotting and two things you need to improve as a writer. If you change it the way that I’ve outlined, I’ll buy it.”

Oh. Dear. GOD! WHOOOT! Change it? Oh, hell, yeah! Why? Because this guy I’d never met had pointed out to me the things I couldn’t. He had seen, clearly as if looking through desert air, my two great weaknesses and he gave me simple, clear, instructions on how to fix them.

Thanks, man. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Not thank you for publishing me, I’ve thanked you before. (Besides, we’ve both thrilled readers and made money in order of importance.) But for making me a better writer. For giving me those two little things.

(For those who are snooping in this personal letter, they are: Give each character a mannerism so that readers can distinguish between them and include one sensory word on every page. The major plot issue in Hymn is too complicated to explain.)

So I worked it and you worked it and you accepted it and sent me a check.

Man. A check. For writing. That was”¦ just so cool. It was like fairy gold. I had a party for my family and it was great. And I kept writing on that sequel since you’d hinted you wanted it.

Then a few months later”¦ Hah! Do you remember that one?

Eight o’clock at night. I’m sitting in front of my computer, probably tooling around the Bar (don’t really recall.) And I get an email.

Ding! “You Have Mail.”

“Jim Baen. Hmmm”¦ Wonder what he wants?” I, of course, open it right away.

“Your novel stops in media res. You have ten minutes.”

Fortunately, I’d finished it by that time. But I wondered why the short tone. So I opened up the version I’d sent to you.

Heh. It ended in the middle of a battle in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a prepositional phrase.

“Three of the troops tumbled into the midst of the Posleen were from Alpha weapons: Grim Reaper suits. Realizing that they might need close-range support on the way, the platoon leader had switched out all four weapons points for flechette cannons.
Twelve-barreled light flechette guns, each flechette cannon could spew forty thousand lethal steel slivers a minute. Of course, like all Grim Reaper systems, they could also run through the onboard munitions in less than six minutes of combat. Grim Reapers always preferred to be close to their ammo sources.
Two of the weapons troops, through a combination of luck and gymnastics, ended up on their feet and practically side by side in the midst of”

“Of.” I can see you now.

“OF WHAT, DAMNIT!”

So you bought that one. Oh, yeah. Gust Front. Horrible grammar and all. Lord, that thing needed no end of work. One of these days I need to sit down and line edit the damned thing for a new edition. But you saw through that to the shining core. That was your great strength in this industry, man. You could see the core. Dave, Lois, Elizabeth, Eric”¦ me, you could see that shining core where others had gone “Oh, hell no.” “Where’s the hook?” “This is far too violent for our market.” “This does not meet our needs at this time”¦” People who had walked away from HOW many Hugos? HOW much sell through? HOW many copies sold? Dumbasses. Losers all.

That was when you started hinting. You had that Baen thing. Team a new writer with a more experienced one. Did you know how strong an idea that was by then? We don’t just get a better market. We don’t just learn more about the mechanics of writing, about plotting and characters and prose. Those “higher” authors act as mentors on everything from dealing with fans to”¦ well, okay, dealing with you on a bad hair day. You know how you were.

So you started hinting. There was a “high mid-list writer” who was considering teaming with me. Hmmm”¦

Lois Bujold? Not in a million years. She didn’t do teams. Dave Drake? Strong possibility. He did the team thing a lot. Eric Flint? Maybe. I could probably learn some stuff but I wouldn’t get much market, he was nearly as newbie as me. David Weber? No way. He hadn’t been doing the team thing and there was no way that the author of Honor Harrington was EVER gonna stoop to do books with me.

I mean, I was a major league David Weber fan. Huge. Not just Honor Harrington but all his stuff. The Armageddon Inheritance (how stoned was he to come up with the moon being a giant space ship?). Starfire. Path of the Fury. This guy was one of the best writers in the WORLD. And he never teamed.

Then I was on my way back from a dive trip. It had been a very bad trip. I was diving for the first time in years and the first time since I nearly died caving. And it wasn’t good. I had constant panic attacks. Diving, which had been one my few great pleasures in life, might just have become a thing of the past. Not a good weekend.

We were driving back in the middle of nowhere in Alabama and by very circuitous ways found out that you’d called. You wanted to talk to me. We stopped at a payphone. I called the number.

Now, to that point, I’d never spoken to you. Remember? It had all been emails and the occasional contract or check. There I was, talking with Jim Baen.

“Johnny! It’s good to talk to you!”

“Thank you, Mr. Baen.” Normally, I hated people calling me Johnny. I had an instinctive desire to ask you not to. But I didn’t for two reasons. One, you were going to publish my books. Two”¦ with you, for the first time in my life, I didn’t mind. I respected you and if you wanted to call me Johnny I had no issues with it.

“Johnny, I wanted to talk to you about maybe doing a collaboration. There’s a more senior writer who has said he’d be interested in writing with you. Are you still interested?”

“Of course, Mr. Baen.” God, you loved dragging it out, didn’t you? Sadist.

“So, would you be willing to do a book with David Weber?”

DAVID WEBER?????

“Uh”¦urk”¦uh”¦it would be an honor”¦ uh”¦”

“I’ve learned in this industry to ask for a very clear yes or no.”

“In that case, YES!”

Heady days of wine and song indeed. Memories, so many memories. The first time we met, WorldCon 2000. Images burned on my brain. Sitting on the deck in North Carolina talking of cabbages and kings.

I miss you, man. You didn’t believe in all this heaven and hell stuff. You said that when a person was gone they were just gone.

But who is it that says:

“A man is not dead until the last bottle of wine he made is drunk, until the last person who remembers him is gone”¦”

Even if you’re not able to read this, you won’t be truly dead until t
he last reader reads the last of the many people, including me, that you found and got started in this industry.

You will never die as long as you are in my heart.

I love you, Jim, and Miriam and I miss you terribly. I just want to pick up the phone one more time and ask Marla: “Is Jimbo in?” and have her say “Let me see if he’s up.”

Take care, man. Say hello to Robert for all of us and if you happen across my dad tell him “Thanks” for figuring out how to get the ACS out from under the building.

Goodbye. Goodbye my replacement father, my publisher, my mentor and my friend.

Go with God.