Tom Becker

The fellow you see in the picture above is Tom Becker. In 1991, I got my first full-time professional writing gig, as a movie critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper. Tom was the Assistant Features Editor there, which is to say he was my boss.

There are many things that are important for a young writer, but the one I want to focus on at the moment is this one: That it helps to have the right editor at the right time. When I started at the Bee, I was 22, young enough that I got carded at the first “R”-rated movie I was sent to review, and madly, truly, deeply full of myself, because, hey, I was 22 years old and I spent my time watching movies and interviewing movie stars, so obviously I was doing something right, you know? Basically, I was a bit of an ass. Had I been matched with the wrong editor, bad things would have happened.

Tom was, very simply, the right editor for me. I think Tom very quickly sized me up for what I was — a young guy who had the potential to let his ego get in the way of his development as a writer — and also quickly figured out what it was I needed from him, and then set to providing it to me. Tom’s method was to be calm and sensible, to give me enough of a lead to try things and then reel me in during the editing process and show me where things needed to fixed and why. I can’t say I always agreed with him — I was a bit of an ass, remember — but how he worked with me did the job just as much as what he did when he edited. It’s a long way of saying that he did his job in a way that didn’t set off my ego and insecurities. Over the time I worked with him, I did indeed become a better writer.

That being said, I truly learned to appreciate what Tom did for me not when I was at the Bee, but when I left it and took a job at America Online. One of my tasks was to be an editor, and I spent a not-inconsiderable time with writers, finding ways to make their writing better, and also finding ways to do it in a way that didn’t collapse those writers into tight little balls of neurosis. Once I did my stint as an editor, I went back to look at some of my raw writing from my Bee years and was horrified at how unfinished it was, and how much it really had needed an editor — how much, in point of fact, it needed Tom Becker.

Shortly thereafter I had reason to visit Fresno again, and on a visit to the Bee I went over to Tom’s desk, to thank him for the help he’d given me, and to apologize to him for being, as previously mentioned, a bit of an ass while I worked with him. Tom was amused, and very gracious, and also, I think, happy to know that his work and patience had been recognized and valued, even if that recognition had been a bit late in coming.

I do recognize it and I do value it. What Tom Becker did for me and for my writing helped make it possible for me to go on to do everything else I have been able to do. He’s also responsible for me recognizing that as famously solitary as writers are alleged to be, we really don’t work alone. Our words — and our skills as writers — very often do need help, which we get from editors, copy editors, proofers and all the other people between the writer and the audience for our words. Writers are fortunate to have people who strengthen our skills and our work, and it doesn’t hurt for us to recognize that fact. I may or may not still be a bit of an ass, but I know how much more of an ass I would look like without the help I get from editors and others. I owe that sense of realism, and humility, to Tom.

Tom passed away on Wednesday, at peace and with family and friends by his side, in his home. Tom had known for some time that this was coming and from what friends tell me handled it in the gentle and orderly manner I remember him having. I was fortunate to have been able to say goodbye to him before he left us, and to thank him again for everything he’d done for me. He wrote something to me then which I don’t think he would mind me sharing with you:

It makes me happy to know the influence I had on you. I was never sure at the time. You always seemed like a wild horse running free on the plains. All I tried to do was get you to look in the right direction every now and then. Sounds like I did just that. Thanks so much for remembering and absorbing my teachings and editing. I consider my life as a journalist and editor successful and full with the positive influence I had on you and others. And that makes me happy. I always was trying to teach as I went along. I think I did with you. Now you are spreading the word to others, so maybe there will be fewer hurt feelings and more working together between writers and editors in the world thanks to your stories about me. I am honored.

In fact, it is I who am honored, to have worked with Tom and to have been taught by him. And I am honored to be able to tell all of you this little bit about him and about how he was important to me.

If you are a writer, in Tom’s honor I would ask you to think about the editors and others who have helped to you to become the writers you wanted to become. Everyone else, think on your teachers and mentors who with patience and humor and possibly even a bit of love looked past your unformed nature, saw what you could be, and helped you be just that.

Your appreciation of their work would be a fine memorial to my friend, teacher and editor Tom Becker. You might not have known him, but I bet you know someone like him. Let that person know that you know what they did for you. You won’t regret it.

44 Comments on “Tom Becker”

  1. That was so beautiful and awesome. Thank you for sharing that. What’s great is that even though he acknowledged the impact he had on you and others, he still seemed so humble about it. He sounds like a great guy, and it seems like you were lucky to have him.

    I’m sending this to my informal writing workshop. They’re not professional editors, but these people are doing great things for me and my writing that I’d never do if I was just toughing it out on my own.

  2. Well, he did a great job. I love your writing.

    And it’s much more fun to only be an ass intentionally.

    Also, your Google-fu is epic. Less than 24 hours, and it’s the first post on my blog.

  3. I aspire every day to be more like the kind of editor that Tom seems to have been. Thank you for sharing this, John, and my condolences on the loss of your friend.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, John. Well said.

    I know some people in my life who fit his profile and I am moved to be less of a selfish ass, if only for a moment, and fess up some well deserved thank you’s.

  5. R.I.P. Tom Becker.

    The first editor who made a difference in my life–and it was a HUGE difference–was actually my third editor.

    I was also young at the time. I sold my first book, a short romance novel, at 25. I got an edit from the acquiring editor (whose name I don’t remember) that didn’t seem unreasonable to me, but I didn’t really understand why I was being asked to make those changes, and I didn’t learn anything. She resigned before my book even went into production, and I got reassigned. My second editor was a not-uncommon sort of nightmare-editor in such circumstances: She told me I was unwanted work that had been dumped on her desk without anyone asking her if she minded, and I shouldn’t expect to sell any more books to that house. She spent the next five months living up to that introduction until, with absolutely nothing to lose, I went to her boss and asked (politely and calmly) to be reassigned. The boss was no dummy and agreed immediately. (And you won’t run into that nightmare editor. A few weeks later, she left the publishing biz.)

    I was reassigned to a young but experience editor named Lucia Macro. She’s still in the biz and is currently at Avon, where she’s been for at least a decade now and is oft-promoted and very successively, which she deserves.

    Lucia rejected four of my next six MSs, and she had me rewrite 50%-100% of the two that she bought. But in doing so, she wrote me long, conceptual, constructive editorial letters explaining in educational and informative detail WHY she was rejecting those four books, and WHY she was asking for the extensive rewrites in the other two. She identified my craft weaknesses (as well as my areas of completely craft ignorance), and she also identified my -strengths-. Since she also made a point of noting what I was good at and what worked in my MSs, I could understand why she was investing this effort in me, and I felt that we were at the start of a big adventure, rather than feeling belittled, denigrated, or embarrassed.

    As we worked together on more books, I think she also taught me how to teach myself as a writer, how to continue the craft learning/development/improvement process without need as MUCH direct and detailed help from her as I had initially needed.

    I’ve worked with some other excellent editors since then (and the main reason I’m not naming them is I don’t want to realize tomorrow that I FORGOT and left someone OUT of my list), but if I had NOT worked with Lucia Macro so early in my career, I don’t know how I would have learned the things I learned–and learning those things has made all of the difference.

  6. Tom Becker & all of your editors appear to have worked with true talent in you, sir. My grown son brought over to me all of your “old man’s war” universe novels. In two days I have read through the first two titles. I cannot remember the last time I was so captivated with the subcreation of a world (as Tolkien termed it) that I have covered this much narrative ground in 48 hours. Your editors have worked miracles with you. I surmise you must have been a fertile ground of raw talent.

    Of course, I read all the afterwords in all the titles before reading the first novel. A habit of mine. No point in wasting your time reading something you might not care for at the end of the last page, spoilers notwithstanding.

  7. That’s a beautiful eulogy.

    When you teach young and green SF writers the ropes on the Vineyard, a bit of Mr. Becker’s wisdom gets passed down the ranks, so it influences more people than he knew. (Or maybe he did.)

  8. That was beautiful John. I am truly sorry for the loss of your friend and I send my heartfelt condolences to his family.

  9. Beautiful peace, John. As usual.

    The editor who had the most influence on me was my Father, who recently passed away. As I was preparing his eulogy, all I could think about were the marks his red pen left on the drafts of my HS English papers. He taught me how to enjoy the editing process and that each rewrite is a chance to “make the diamond sharper.” He also taught me patience and discipline, “Never let a sentence go unfinished! Never pass up a chance to tighten up a paragraph!”

    Like Tom Becker, he looked at his editing job as a chance to teach and inspire. I’ll never forget his retirement party from the Department of Commerce where more than one person thanked him for helping them become better writers. I beamed with pride that day. Like I did when I memorialized him a few weeks ago.

    I miss him terribly, but I feel him next to me every time I take up a pen or sit down at a keyboard to write. I suspect that will always be the case.

    Thanks, Dad!

  10. I’m sorry for your loss. I think it’s great that you were able to let him know what an impression he made on you. It’s always a comfort to know that one has made a positive and lasting impact in the world.

  11. One day I hope to have an editor who affects my work as positively as Mr. Becker has yours.

    Condolences to all he leaves behind.

  12. This is the legacy we leave in the world, how we have touched and helped others. You do justice to his efforts and his memory, and I thank you for sharing this. My condolences to his family, and to all his friends, of which I know you are one.

  13. My condolences, John, and this a wonderful tribute.

    You know, I’d read you even if all you wrote was, well, everything else you wrote. But when you touch on the serious emotional topics like you do here, I am really blown away.


  14. A fine tribute. I suspect most writers have editors that have been like pivot points in their careers, that raised them up or sent them off in new and interesting directions. Certainly my writing career has been marked by a handful of editors who have either made my work significantly better or who took a chance on me to do something I hadn’t done before and who sent my careers off on wonderful trajectories I never would have considered. I refer to them as my “angels.”

  15. Thank you for giving us another peek into your life, John, and what made you who you are today.

    I’m grateful for the time you spend teaching too, through events like Viable Paradise and even your blog. I don’t know if Tom’s influence pointed you in that direction or if you already had the desire to try to educate people, but I’m glad you do.

  16. I think the best I could aspire to in my profession is to have a writer say about me what you said about Mr. Becker. His story is inspiring.

  17. It’s suitable that you pass on the foundations of what he taught you to eager Viable Paradise students each year.

    I have already let Mr. Carper, the teacher I riffed off of the very first day, know what a profound influence he had on me, both as a student and a teacher. You’re right. They need to know and they appreciate knowing.


  18. A very nice tribute, John. As you say, most people who just read the books and whatnot, have no idea how important the editor’s job is. And thankless for the most part.

  19. My condolences, John. A eulogy well-done and well deserved, leaving me feeling that there was a person who I’d have liked to have known.

  20. Moron Who Has Been Attempting to Pass Himself Off as John Scalzi in This Comment and in Previous Comments Removed From Public View

    [Deleted because said moron doesn’t seem to understand that trying to pass himself off as me on my own site is pretty dumb, and that then, as me, trying to suggest this post was an April Fool’s joke puts him squarely in the realm of people who should be worked over with a wrench. There was a reason this entry was posted at midnight on April 2.

    I would go off more on the subject but this particular thread is not the right place for it. That said, I’ll be having a chat with this fellow’s ISP next week; it’ll be a relatively trivial thing to learn who was assigned the IP address in this particular timeframe, and we’ll see if his ISP’s terms of service have to say about fraudulently representing himself on my site as me. Should be fun.

    In the meantime, don’t respond to this particular post; I’d rather have the comment thread here stay focused on the correct subject — JS]

  21. Condolences and positive thoughts to you and to Mr. Becker’s loved ones.

    Also, dammit Scalzi, you made me cry. Bastard (and I say that in only the most respectful way). :-)

  22. As an editor, there is nothing more precious to me than the appreciation of the writer…nothing save bettering The Story. To find someone you can work with like that is a gift and joy, especially when the The Story and the writer benefits.

    What a lovely post about an important man.

  23. John, Thank you for your remembrances of Tom. Even though I was in the photo dept of the Bee I worked with him nearly everyday. Tom was a wonderful coworker and very easy to get along with. I hope I made his job a little easier as he made my job quite easy.

  24. Hi John –
    I grew up reading the Bee. Never saw your byline though, as I got my degree in journalism at CSU Fresno, and moved to SF in 1989.

    My editor at my first job, Infoworld, was Ed Foster.
    Prompted by your post, I just looked him up to write a note of thanks as you proposed —
    — And saw that he died two years ago.
    But I now recall that we actually talked just before that: He’d called me for a quote! [I’m now an analyst.] And we did catch up a bit…
    It was ten years before I had another boss who I learned from, or liked as much.

  25. I’m sorry you’ve lost a friend and mentor. It’s wonderful to be able to pay tribute to the people that shape our lives before they have to go, and I’m glad you got the chance to do that. Hugs from afar.

  26. My condolences to you and Mr. Becker’s family, John.

    To honor your friend, I give thanks to my first teacher/editor in creative writing, Dr. Daniel Keyes (Flowers of Algernon), who was so very patient with that silly 18 year-old in his class who could barely speak English and dared to write pages and pages of it for his reading. He was a very positive influence to me and his teachings still guided me years and years later. He made me love to write for an audience.

  27. “Now you are spreading the word to others, so maybe there will be fewer hurt feelings and more working together between writers and editors in the world thanks to your stories about me.”

    A good philosophy no matter one’s line of work. Sounds like a great man to work for.


  28. What a beautiful memorial. My condolences to Mr. Becker’s friends and family: he sounds like an amazing person, a truly gifted editor and mensch of a human being. What a wonderful thing, to have such a meaningful positive impact on the world as he did.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  29. When Scalzi was a tyro columnist, I was the broadcast columnist under Tom Becker’s rule. Being much more experienced and 10 years Tom’s senior, Tom had a different challenge with me and he was more than equal to it. He showed respect for me and my talents, but he also didn’t accept a lot of BS and tried to help me grow. We forged a partnership in which he kept abreast of my area of coverage so we were on the same wavelength and I trusted his instincts, minimizing conflicts. He could anticipate well what I needed to do, which helped me make better use of my time. He also helped prop me up when my job went out of favor with top management. Somehow, he was able to take the long-term, big-picture view and make me believe in it. Tom’s example as a manager of reporters served me when I was promoted to the same level as him and sat across the partition from him. He showed me that the one-size-fits-all that I’d tried 15 years earlier on the news side was at least that outdated. I, too, had the opportunity to thank him, and for that I’m grateful. John, thank you for your great memories of Tom at his very best.

  30. John, you were a brat but an entertaining one. And you speak the truth about our friend Becker, who treated his writers with respect and dignity. He was a gentle person in a business that has its share of big egos (not you, of course.). Thanks for that remembrance.

  31. John, we’ve never met, but I followed Lanny Larson as an assistant features editor at the Bee; I had the privilege of sitting next to Tom from the day I was hired in March 2004 until the day we were laid off together in March ’09.

    Tom was one of the kindest, gentlest souls I ever knew, and if there were two words that encapsulated him, they were quiet dignity. He showed a great deal of patience and grace under what you know were stressful circumstances long before newspapers started circling the toilet. I never saw him once blow up at anyone, nor did I ever hear him treat anyone with anything but respect. And he was a calming influence on me as well, teaching me how not to sweat the small stuff.

    And in dying, he taught me a few things about living as well. I learned at least as much about the man in his final nine months as I did sitting in an adjoining cubicle for five years. I’m glad that he stuck around long enough to know how highly he was regarded and how much the people around him cared about him.

    Fran Fried, Fresno

  32. A wonderful telling of Tom’s talents and human understanding. Multiply it by the many people Tom worked with –both journalists and in the community– he was a remarkable guy! Thanks John for expressing it so well.

  33. I worked with Tom and found him to be the nicest, most patient editor. He juggled deadlines with writers, artists and photographers — it amazes me that he had time to work with everyone. He was such an all around good guy that even when he was busy (like always), he would swing by my desk later to chat and make sure all was well. I left The Bee months earlier and did not know about his illness. May he rest in peace knowing he touched so many with his talents.

  34. This was a lovely post. I’m sorry that he is gone, but it sounds like he was a great person who made a great impact on the lives of the people around him. There’s not much more one can ask for in their lives than that. Not meaningfully, anyway. My condolences to his friends and family.

  35. Given the tone of this piece, it is ironic that I have long resisted “help” from the few editors I’ve known. For example, when I had several columns published in a local alternative newspaper a few years ago, it really irked me if the editor (the owner’s husband) wanted to “tweek” my copy. After putting in about twenty hours a week fine-tuning a fairly short column, it didn’t really need improvement, but in his youthful arrogance and his position on the paper, he thought his own judgement should carry more weight even when he was wrong. I didn’t mind altering my sentence structure to accomodate his input but I had to go over it again myself because all he’d do is muck it up and stick my name on it. I fully realize that if you have produced a book and you want to see it printed and marketed by a traditional publisher, you are going to have to tolerate some meddling. A problem arises when an editor attempts to mold your creation into something that reflects their own values, philosophy, ideas, and sense of style. Publishing houses these days seem to be all about a collaborative approach, where writers are actually encouraged to turn in glorified rough drafts so that editors and others on the team can “finish” the work to better suit the needs of the company. Sure, it makes for a more commercial product but the process is hell on art as well as on the writer’s soul. No offense to the deceased editor but I thought another perspective might lend some balance to this discussion. PS: I’ve had the same name as him for the last 59 years.

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