Moving Experiences 3

We’ve been in our new house just over a month now, and it feels like home, but there’s still a lot to do.

We reached a major milestone today, one that feels very satisfying and accomplished, even though it doesn’t make a real obvious difference in our situation — all our stuff is in the house.

Y’see, back when we were just getting started on this whole moving thing, we knew we had to reduce the clutter in our old house by a lot if we ever wanted to sell it. After twenty-two years there, we had a huge amount of stuff — kids’ old toys, extra copies of my books, odd bits of furniture, unused wedding gifts, thousands of comic books, etc. So we started sorting and stashing and tossing. We threw out or donated or sold several carloads of stuff, I sorted and filed my comic books for the first time in fifteen years, and we rented a 10’x10’x10′ storage unit at Public Storage where we started stashing stuff away.

We rented it January 6. It was completely full by the time we put the house on the market, the last week of February — oh, not every single cubic inch, but full enough that when you opened the door you were faced with a solid wall of boxes and furniture extending well above my head.

We moved into the new house on May 21. I took the rear seats out of the mini-van shortly thereafter, and on May 27 I filled the van with the first load of stuff from the storage unit and drove it down here.

Yesterday, June 25, I cleared the last boxes out of storage, took the lock, and informed Public Storage that we were out and wouldn’t be back.

Today I finished unloading the mini-van and put the seats back in for the first time since May. All our stuff is in one place again, here in this house.

That’s amazingly satisfying.

Mind you, there’s still lots to be done — there are stacks of boxes all over the place, we’re eating our meals off a folding card table, our bedroom fan is in a box on my mother’s hope chest rather than mounted on the ceiling, and so on — but everything’s here, it’s not scattered across multiple ZIP codes.

Well, “everything” meaning “everything we have,” not “everything we need” or “everything we want.”

Also, Kiri’s going to be visiting this weekend — for the first time someone besides Julie and myself will sleep here. Another milestone. And she can maybe unpack and sort through some of her stuff.

Speaking of which, I should unpack some of these boxes…

Moving Experiences 2

We did it.

We are now living in our new home, and discovering how much remains to be done. The two living rooms, the kitchen, and the master bedroom are more or less in order, but the rest of the house is still a jumble of misplaced furniture and unopened boxes. We need to buy furniture and fittings — towel bars, draperies, etc.

And my much-larger office needs shelving. We left behind a lot of built-in shelving, and we need to install something here to replace it. IKEA looms large in my future.

But we’re here, and functioning.

Moving Experiences 1

Now that we are finally (I hope) nearing the end of the process, I’m looking back and boggling a little.

We’re about to move. Not across country or anything, only about twenty miles, to a house with better amenities that’s closer to my wife’s place of employment.

This has turned out to be a truly massive undertaking, easily more work than writing a novel or two. I hadn’t realized, when we started, just how massive. It’s brought home to me just how complicated modern life is, and how much stuff we have.

I’m sure some readers are asking themselves, “What’s the big deal? I moved not that long ago.” Well, it’s a big deal because we’ve lived here for more than twenty-two years, we’re moving from an expensive area to an even more expensive one, and we don’t have any corporate assistance the way we did last time. We’ve accumulated incredible quantities of material goods in that twenty-two years, and the process involves some large sums of money. We have to worry about utilities that didn’t exist in 1986, such as our broadband internet connection. The regulations and paperwork required are much more extensive than they were in 1986. And we need to sell this house before we can buy the new one because that’s where most of the money is coming from, where in our previous moves we wound up owning two houses for awhile; this turns the whole thing into something of a balancing act, where the entire project depends on someone else’s ability to get a mortgage.

I don’t recall ever before living in a house that was being shown to prospective buyers; I honestly don’t remember how we managed that part before. I know in 1986 IBM was relocating us, so they handled the sale of our farm in Kentucky; did they simply not show the house until after we moved out? I don’t recall. And in 1983, when we put our first house on the market… well, the house must have been shown, I suppose, but I don’t remember it.

In neither case, I’m quite sure, did we have the place in showplace condition for six weeks. It’s exhausting, keeping a house clean and tidy enough to show on ten minutes’ notice for a month and a half. When we finally found a buyer the biggest immediate relief wasn’t that we were going to get a good price and be able to move, but that we could leave a dirty plate in the sink or papers on the kitchen table again.

At any rate, I don’t really have a point to make here; I just thought it was time to say something about the process that’s taken up most of my time since Christmas.

I expect to say more in further posts, after I’ve had time to organize my thoughts a bit — hence the number in the title — but for now I just wanted to get something up. So here it is. More to come.

The Evolution of a Text

Huh. It’s mid-April, and this is my first post of the year. Other things have been keeping me much too busy. In fact, the only reason I’m posting this now is that I’m sufficiently stressed out over other affairs that I wanted to do something unimportant, so it won’t matter if I screw it up.

Warning: This is a long post.

Back in February I was invited to write a guest blog entry for a blog devoted to writing advice, which I did, with this result.

However, it took me several tries to get there, and I thought it might be amusing to look at just how it developed. I knew I wanted to write about how would-be writers tend to forget that writing professionally is first and foremost a business, rather than a purely artistic endeavor, so I started out with this:

Why We Write:
Art vs. Commerce

I had never met another writer before I sold my first novel. I had never attended a workshop or taken a creative writing class. I didn’t subscribe to any writers’ magazines or read any books about writing, and back then there weren’t any websites or blogs or newsgroups. I’d never been to a convention of any sort. Everything I knew about the writing business came from reading submission guidelines and Writer’s Market – I believe it was the 1974 edition – or from implications in various story introductions and essays. Oh, or from personal rejections from editors.

(For those of you too young to know about Writer’s Market, it was just what it sounds like, a fat annual hardcover volume listing markets that would consider submissions from freelancers. By the time each volume saw print, many of the listings were out of date. By the time the next edition came out, it seemed as if most of the listings were out of date.)

Perhaps as a result of this isolation, I never had any doubt about what I was doing, or what I wanted out of my writing – I wanted to sell stories that people would enjoy reading.

In May it will be thirty years since my first novel sale, and in that thirty years I’ve met hundreds of writers, attended dozens of workshops, taught writing classes in many forms, and while I still know why I write, I honestly don’t know about a lot of you other folks.

Then I stopped. This wasn’t so much advice as autobiography, which was not what I had been asked for. So I started over, trying to compress the stuff about my own background. I got further this time…

Why We Write:
Art vs. Commerce

I’ve been a professional writer for thirty years, and in that time I’ve met hundreds of would-be writers, in person and online, at conventions and workshops, in classes and contests. Many of them, probably most of them, seem to me to have wrong ideas about the business of writing. A lot of these seem to derive, at some remove, from not being clear about their own reasons for writing.

So let me ask all you would-be writers out there – why do you write? Do you write for love, or for money? Is it art, or commerce?

Do you know?

It does matter.

I sometimes do novel critiques for money, and there’s an assumption built into those that the author whose work I’m assessing is looking to publish it professionally through a regular commercial publisher. When I write up my reports, what I’m doing is giving my best estimate of what needs to be done in order to meet that goal. (Often, this boils down to, “Write a different novel and do a better job of it.”)

I’ve also taught writing classes, and again, there’s an assumption that I’m teaching my students how to produce stories they can sell to commercial publishers. After all, that’s what I do. It’s my known area of expertise, and the reason people are willing to pay me for this stuff.

Every so often, though, I get a critique client or a writing student who has some other goal entirely. I always find this disconcerting. It usually isn’t apparent until I say something like, “No one’s ever going to buy this the way you’ve done it,” only to be answered with, “I’m not trying to sell it.”

Honestly, I don’t understand this. If you aren’t trying to sell it, what do you expect me to teach you?

In one case, many years ago, I was teaching a workshop and had a student bring in a story that was, in my professional opinion, ready to be published. Not only that, but it fit the theme of an open anthology that a friend of mine was editing. I said as much. I said I couldn’t critique it because there wasn’t anything wrong with it. I gave the author the name and address of the anthology editor and told her to send it in, and get ready for her first sale. I did everything but address the envelope for her.

She never sent it. I checked with the anthology editor later, and no such story had ever arrived, nor had the author’s name shown up on any submissions. I even checked with some magazine editors, just in case she’d decided to go that route, rather than the anthology. Nothing.

Eventually I ran into one of her former classmates from the workshop and asked if he knew anything about it. He said that he’d seen her at various workshops over a period of years, and about half her stories were deemed ready to submit to pro markets, but as far as anyone knew she had never actually submitted one, and had no intention of ever submitting one. She liked writing them and hearing people praise them, but wasn’t interested in actually getting anything published.

Now, I have nothing against writing for fun, and sharing your stories with friends. There’s plenty of that on the web, and before we had the web there were fanzines. It’s what most fanfic is all about, too. No, the part I don’t understand is paying hundreds of dollars to attend writing workshops when you aren’t interested in what the workshops are designed to teach, i.e., how to get professionally published. What did she get out of it that was worth the cost?

And I stopped again. I’d gone off on a tangent that might be interesting, but once again, it wasn’t really the advice I wanted to give. I backed up to where I thought I went off the rails and tried again:

Why We Write:
Art vs. Commerce

I’ve been a professional writer for thirty years, and in that time I’ve met hundreds of would-be writers, in person and online, at conventions and workshops, in classes and contests. Many of them, probably most of them, seem to me to have wrong ideas about the business of writing. A lot of these seem to derive, at some remove, from not being clear about their own reasons for writing.

So let me ask all you would-be writers out there – why do you write? Do you write for love, or for money? Is it art, or commerce?

Do you know?

It does matter.

If you’re writing for love, and trying to create art, that’s fine – but then don’t be surprised if you can’t sell it. Publishers are not in business to promote the arts; they’re in business to make money. Yes, they’re happy if they can do both, but money comes first. Money lets them stay in business.

Writers (and many readers) often gripe about seeing “crap” get published and make money – I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the works of Dan Brown or Clive Cussler or Terry Goodkind. They’ll also bemoan how neglected more talented authors are. The fact is, though, that Brown and Cussler and Goodkind sell hundreds of thousands of books and bring in big piles of money, and publishers are in business to make money.

There are those who claim that they sell zillions of books because the publishers put huge amounts of promotion behind them, but that’s reversing cause and effect. Publishers put most of that money into these books and authors only after they’d demonstrated that they’ll sell. Once you know you have a product customers want, it’s worth advertising it; if you have something where you don’t know whether there’s a market, putting money into it is a gamble. It’s much easier to get a snowball effect when the snowball’s already rolling. If publishers really knew how to turn any piece of crap into a bestseller, they’d do it all the time.

Okay, that was better, but still not going quite where I wanted. I tried again.

Why We Write:
Art vs. Commerce

I’ve been a professional writer for thirty years, and in that time I’ve met hundreds of would-be writers, in person and online, at conventions and workshops, in classes and contests. Many of them, probably most of them, seem to me to have wrong ideas about the business of writing. A lot of these seem to derive, at some remove, from not being clear about their own reasons for writing.
So let me ask all you would-be writers out there – why do you write? Do you write for love, or for money? Is it art, or commerce?

Do you know?

It does matter.

If you’re writing for love, and trying to create art, that’s fine – but then don’t be surprised if you can’t sell it. Publishers are not in business to promote the arts; they’re in business to make money. Yes, they’re happy if they can do both, but money comes first. Money lets them stay in business.
This often leads to a basic disconnect between writer and publisher. The writer assumes that his job is to write the absolute best story he can, but what the publisher wants is a story that he can
sell.

These aren’t necessarily the same thing. Pretty much every writer can point to bestsellers that he thinks are crap, but which sell just fine, and then there are those wonderful, brilliant writers whose work doesn’t sell. In fact, the term “a writer’s writer” is often code for “a good writer whose work doesn’t sell worth a damn.”

The fact is, the reading public doesn’t make their buying decisions based on what writers consider quality. Readers buy stuff they expect to find entertaining, and superb writing is fairly low on the list of elements that entertain your typical book-buyer. If the truth be told, there are several features that writers, especially beginning writers, worry about that most readers don’t care about, especially in genre fiction.

Originality, for example. Would-be writers are often obsessed with finding a story idea that no one’s used before. This is especially acute in the science fiction field, but it turns up in mysteries and fantasy and probably other genres I don’t know as well. I’ve been asked hundreds of times, “Has anyone ever used this idea?”

The answer is pretty much always “Yes, but it doesn’t matter.” Brilliant new ideas just aren’t that important. A favorite old story retold well is likely to be received with more enthusiasm than something completely new. How many versions of the Arthurian cycle have been successful? How many reworkings of the Iliad, or the story of Belisarius, or the Orpheus story, have there been? Oh, it’s nice if you come up with some stunning new approach, but it’s not necessary.

Accuracy is another one – but it’s a tricky one. There are things that you absolutely must get right, but what they are depends on your particular audience. If you’re writing a hardboiled detective story and your hero pulls out a gun, you better know what kind of a gun it is, how many rounds it holds, and just what a bullet from it will do. If you say it’s a .38 Police Positive, you better know that that’s a revolver, not an automatic, that it has no safety, that it holds six bullets, and so on.

But you don’t need to know the law, or real police procedures, or what the requirements for a P.I. license are, because readers generally don’t know that stuff.

If you’re writing romance, you don’t need to get the guns right.

If you’re writing science fiction, you don’t need to know much science. What’s important to the story is what your gadgets do, not how they work. Over-explaining will just slow down the story. Unless it’s important to the plot, you don’t need to explain how your starships can travel faster than light; they just do, by authorial fiat.

The only things you need to get right are the ones that will throw the reader out of the story if you get them wrong.

And style – I’ve seen beginning writers rework sentences over and over, trying to make every one into a perfect little gem. Readers don’t care; they just want the story.

That’s the essential thing – the story. Readers want characters they care about, going through experiences that matter. You can have the most brilliantly original idea ever, and if it isn’t part of a good story no one will care. You can have every detail of your setting 100% accurate, and if nothing interesting happens there no one will care. You can have elegant, perfectly-phrased sentences, but if they don’t tell the reader something he wants to know, no one will care.

Those bestselling authors who write “crap” are telling stories that readers care about.

Originality? Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon retells a story that’s been around for centuries.

Accuracy? Dan Brown’s history and theology are nonsense, but The Da Vinci Code sold a zillion copies.

Style? Pick your own example; there are plenty.

But these people are telling stories that catch readers’ interest, that touch something below the conscious level. On a technical level their work may be lousy, but it doesn’t matter.

And then on the other side, I’ve seen unpublished work that was beautifully executed but that’s never going to sell for one reason or another. I’ve argued with writers who won’t compromise their artistic vision.

That was almost right, but it wasn’t really “Art vs. Commerce” anymore. Also, I wasn’t happy with the tone — it seemed too negative. And I wasn’t coming up to a tidy ending. So I retitled and revised it, and here’s what I actually sent in:

Worrying About the Wrong Things

I’ve been a professional writer for thirty years, and in that time I’ve met hundreds of would-be writers, in person and online, at conventions and workshops, in classes and contests. Many of them, probably most of them, seem to me to have misguided notions of what matters in the business of writing. They think that if they can just master all the techniques, and turn out a good enough story, they can sell it.

It doesn’t work like that. It’s not technique that matters.

If you’re writing for love, and trying to create art, that’s fine, go ahead and focus on technique – but then don’t be surprised if you can’t sell it. Publishers are not in business to promote the arts; they’re in business to make money. Yes, they’re happy if they can do both, but money comes first. Money lets them stay in business.

This often leads to a basic disconnect between writer and publisher. The writer assumes that his job is to write the absolute best story he can, but what the publisher wants is a story that he can sell.

These aren’t necessarily the same thing. Pretty much every writer can point to bestsellers that he thinks are crap, but which sell just fine, and then there are those wonderful, brilliant writers whose work doesn’t sell. The term “a writer’s writer” is often code for “a good writer whose work doesn’t sell worth a damn.”

The fact is, the reading public doesn’t make their buying decisions based on what writers consider quality. Readers buy stuff they expect to find entertaining, and superb writing is fairly low on the list of elements that entertain your typical book-buyer. If the truth be told, there are several features that writers, especially beginning writers, worry about that most readers don’t care about, especially in genre fiction.

Sometimes would-be writers worry about stuff because it’s what they learned in English class.

Sometimes they worry about stuff because it’s what workshops focus on.

Sometimes they worry about stuff because it’s cited in “how to” books.

Sometimes they worry about stuff because it’s what they care about.

It’s fine to care about all these things, and to do your best to get it right, but technical quality is not what will make your story sell. There are several things that writing workshops and rabid fans focus on that just aren’t that important in the real world.

Originality, for example. Would-be writers are often obsessed with finding a story idea that no one’s used before. This is especially acute in the science fiction field, but it turns up in mysteries and fantasy and probably other genres I don’t know as well. I’ve been asked hundreds of times, “Has anyone ever used this idea?”

The answer is pretty much always “Yes, but it doesn’t matter.” Brilliant new ideas just aren’t that important. A favorite old story retold well is likely to be received with more enthusiasm than something completely new. How many versions of the Arthurian cycle have been successful? How many reworkings of the Iliad, or the story of Belisarius, or the Orpheus story, have there been? Oh, it’s nice if you come up with some stunning new approach, but it’s not necessary. Your story may be as old as humanity itself; what matters is how well you tell it.

Related to this is the notion that one must avoid any sort of cliché. Writing workshops will often convince beginners to avoid phrases like “white as snow” because they’re clichés.

It doesn’t matter whether they’re clichés What matters is whether they communicate with the reader. “White as snow” works because most people have seen snow, and they know just how purely white it is. It still conjures up a definite image.

“Black as pitch,” on the other hand – how many modern Americans have ever seen pitch? How many even know what pitch is?

It’s not whether it’s a cliché that matters; it’s whether it still conveys what the writer wants to convey.

Accuracy is another issue that writers get hung up on – but it’s a tricky one. There are things that you absolutely must get right, but what they are depends on your particular audience. If you’re writing a hardboiled detective story and your hero pulls out a gun, you better know what kind of a gun it is, how many rounds it holds, and just what a bullet from it will do. If you say it’s a .38 Police Positive, you better know that that’s a revolver, not an automatic, that it has no safety, that it holds six bullets, and so on. Get that wrong, and you’ll knock a lot of readers right out of the story.

But you don’t need to know the law, or real police procedures, or what the requirements for a P.I. license are, because readers generally don’t know that stuff.

If you’re writing romance, rather than mystery, you don’t need to get the guns right. Romance readers generally don’t care.

If you’re writing science fiction, you don’t need to know much science. What’s important to the story is what your gadgets do, not how they work. Over-explaining will just slow down the story. Unless it’s important to the plot, you don’t need to explain how your starships can travel faster than light; they just do, by authorial fiat.

The only things you need to get right are the ones that will throw the reader out of the story if you get them wrong.

And then there’s style – I’ve seen beginning writers rework sentences over and over, trying to make every one into a perfect little gem. Readers don’t care; they just want the story.

That’s the essential thing – the story. Readers want characters they care about, going through experiences that matter. You can have the most brilliantly original idea ever, and if it isn’t part of a good story no one will care. You can have every detail of your setting 100% accurate, and if nothing interesting happens there no one will care. You can have elegant, perfectly-phrased sentences, but if they don’t tell the reader something he wants to know, no one will care.

Those bestselling authors who write “crap” are telling stories that readers care about.

Originality? Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon retells a story that’s been around for centuries.

Accuracy? Dan Brown’s history and theology are nonsense, but The Da Vinci Code sold a zillion copies.

Style? Pick your own example; there are plenty.

But these people are telling stories that catch readers’ interest, that touch something below the conscious level. On a technical level their work may be lousy, but it doesn’t matter. They connect with the reader.

That’s what matters, and that’s what will sell a story, where originality, accuracy, and brilliant prose won’t. You can be hackneyed and inaccurate and sloppy, and it won’t matter, so long as you don’t commit the one unpardonable error, the one thing that really counts.

The one thing you must never be is boring.

If you care to do a side-by-side comparison, you’ll see that Victoria then edited it a little – with permission, and with me approving all the changes – to produce the final version.

Which still isn’t exactly what I’d wanted to say in the first place, but it was close enough, and I wasn’t willing to put in any more work on something I wasn’t getting paid for. So there it is.

Many Revisions

I’ve been revising things lately.

My new editor at Tor got back to me about A Young Man Without Magic a couple of weeks ago, with suggestions for revisions he wanted. I’ve now completed those, and the book’s accepted and tentatively scheduled for November 2009.

With that done, I’m working on the sequel, Above His Proper Station. The first draft is finished, so I’ve been revising. I’m up to Chapter Five in the second draft.

FoxAcre Press is going to be reprinting two old science fiction novels I wrote for Avon back in the 1980s, and you wouldn’t think I’d be doing any revisions on reprints, but in fact the publisher suggested a few changes, so I’ve revised Among the Powers (formerly entitled Denner’s Wreck), and just today I revised Shining Steel.

I’m serializing Realms of Light (the sequel to Nightside City), and readers have caught a couple of mistakes in the first two chapters, so I corrected those. I don’t suppose that really counts as “revisions,” though.

While waiting to hear back about A Young Man Without Magic I finished the first draft of an unsold (and probably unsellable) science-fantasy novel called Vika’s Avenger, and I started revising that before deciding it was a waste of time.

So — lots of revising. Not a lot of writing from scratch.

Waiting for the Other Shoe…

No, I don’t mean the election, despite the date — if I decide I need to say something about that I’ll probably put it in my LiveJournal. This is about what I’m doing while I wait for word from my editor.

I delivered A Young Man Without Magic to Brian Thomsen, my editor at Tor, in September. Then I worked on the sequel for awhile; I was pretty confident that Brian would be pleased with it, since he’d recommended I write the series in the first place (as opposed to the more traditional fantasy, The Dragon’s Price, which I’d come up with at roughly the same time). Brian was the guy who talked Tor into a two-book deal for the series. He’d read the proposal, which included a hundred pages of the novel. He knew what he was getting. So I was working on the sequel.

Then on September 22, Brian dropped dead of a heart attack. Which sucked in many, many ways, as Brian was a very good guy, but one of the minor results was that it meant I got a new editor.

And the new editor, while by all accounts a nice guy and a good editor, had not read the proposal. He had not read the books that were my inspiration. He had never discussed anything with me. I have no idea at all what he’s going to think of the novel. My agent assumes it’ll all be fine, because after all I’m an established professional with a thirty-year track record, but my agent hasn’t read the novel yet and hasn’t really worked with the new editor much.

I’m not so sure. A Young Man Without Magic is not my usual stuff.

So I found myself unable to concentrate on the sequel. What if he wants major revisions on the first book that would affect the plot of the second?

So I’ve put aside Above His Proper Station until such time as I hear back from Ye Editor. Which I had hoped would be by now, but so far, not a word.

Instead I’m working on other stuff. Of which I have a surfeit; I have literally hundreds of unfinished stories lying around. I added a few pages to The Dragon’s Price. I finished a chapter of Realms of Light, the sequel to Nightside City that I plan to write as an online serial in the not-too-distant future.

Mostly, though, I decided I should finish Vika’s Avenger, a science-fantasy story I’ve had lying around for a couple of years. It was the closest to being complete of anything handy. Wrapping it up will decrease the backlog a little. It’s a sort of detective story. Sort of. But it’s set in a half-deserted city on another planet, thousands of years in the future.

So I’ve been working on that lately, and it’s been coming along, until a couple of nights ago when I ran into massive plot problems because my planned ending isn’t turning out the way I wanted it to. The characters have refused to cooperate, and they’re right to do so — my original plan really didn’t make as much sense as I thought.

Drat.

But once I get past this next scene, it’s all just wrap-up, and I’ll have a complete first draft, probably 75,000-80,000 words. Now, if I can just figure out how to make it happen…

A Farewell to Helix

The tenth and final issue of Helix is now open to the public; check it out. Half a dozen of our usual fine stories, along with valedictory columns by the usual folks, and an assortment of poetry.

I have a story of my own in this issue, entitled “Jim Tuckerman’s Angel.”

And please remember, even though this is the final issue, we still want to pay the authors as much as possible, so please donate if you can.

A Story for Another Time

So what am I working on these days, and why?

Return with me now on the wings of memory to those dim, forgotten days of the 1990s, when I had but recently left my original home in the ferocious world of publishing, Del Rey Books, to take refuge at Tor. (The previous post explains much of why I made that move.)

When I first arrived at Tor it was with a Big Fat Fantasy novel called Touched By the Gods, which I had planned out originally with the idea of selling it to Del Rey, and which Del Rey had summarily rejected, not because there was anything wrong with the idea, but because I wanted a larger advance than they were willing to pay. To the best of my knowledge the people who decided against buying it hadn’t even read the proposal; they were focused entirely on the money.

The fine folks at Tor had no such qualms — at least, not immediately, though they have, since then, whittled down my advances, little by little. Which is annoying but not unforgivable, since in fact I’ve never yet earned out an advance the size of the one I got for Touched By the Gods. They bought the book, and published it, and that was good, but it left me (and them) with the obvious question, “Okay, now what?”

My intention at Del Rey had been to write another Ethshar novel next, and while bringing the series to Tor was definitely in my plans, and obviously we later managed it briefly, it was too soon. I needed another novel to establish myself first.

I had this idea I’d been mulling over, compiled from several sources, that I thought would do, so I wrote that. The title was Dragon Weather.

That worked just fine. I thought it was a very successful novel, both artistically and financially. It was not, however, especially original as far as the plot went — as many people (including me) pointed out, I’d swiped a lot of the story from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

I was hardly the first to swipe from Dumas. Alfred Bester had swiped a lot of the exact same stuff I did for The Stars My Destination, and Steven Brust lifted much of the plot of The Three Musketeers and its sequels for his series that began with The Phoenix Guards. Hey, why not? These are great stories, long since out of copyright and become part of the general culture; some stories (King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.) get recycled over and over and over.

Anyway, I wrote Dragon Weather and its two sequels, alternating with two Ethshar novels, and when those were done I wrote the Annals of the Chosen, which was a sort of deconstruction of the whole “plucky band of heroes defeats the Dark Lord” idea.

Usually I like to have at least two projects going at once, to keep myself fresh; that was why I alternated SF and fantasy back in the 1980s, and why I alternated Ethshar and the Obsidian Chronicles at Tor. The Annals of the Chosen didn’t alternate with anything, though, because Tor balked — they prefer, for sound marketing reasons, to have each series appear without interruption. I came up with side-projects, such as online serials and The Turtle Moves!, to break up the workload on the Annals of the Chosen, but it was a slog.

For one thing, I’d discovered that the Annals weren’t fun to write. The setting turned out to not be a congenial one for me to work in. I don’t really know why; it just wasn’t. When I’d thought it up it sounded like fun, but it wasn’t. That meant the whole series took much longer to write than it should have, because I faced each day’s work with dread rather than anticipation, and was all too eager to knock off rather than writing just one more page.

So when I finished The Summer Palace, and once again was faced with the “What next?” question, I was determined to write something that was fun to write. Ethshar is fun, but Tor wouldn’t take any more Ethshar stories. So, I asked myself, what else had been fun to write?

Dragon Weather. Dragon Weather had been a joy to write. I loved working on it.

I wasn’t about to go back and extend the series, though; as far as I was concerned, that story was finished. Yeah, I’ve had readers ask for a sequel, but I believe in the adage “Always leave ’em wanting more.” I’d plotted a prequel, Lord Dragon, about how Enziet became what we see in Dragon Weather, but prequels are very tricky, as you need to be extremely careful not to contradict anything in the already-written stories, and it would be a pretty downbeat story, so I didn’t think it was the fun I was looking for. No, I wanted something new.

So what had made Dragon Weather fun?

Well, the slightly old-fashioned style was a kick to write. Having stolen a tried-and-true plot had eliminated a lot of my usual worries, even if I did eventually diverge drastically from Dumas’ original storyline. It was a swashbuckler, and I like swashbucklers.

So maybe I should write another swashbuckler. Maybe I could even swipe a plot from some other classic swashbuckler.

I was mulling that over, but hadn’t really settled on anything, when someone gave me a DVD of the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

There was a plot worth swiping!

But the thing is, there’s so much implied background to the story. You need to know the basics of the French Revolution to understand what’s going on, because the narrative never bothers to explain them.

And speaking of the French Revolution, that was background for The Count of Monte Cristo, too, though much less so. And it’s also the background for Sabatini’s Scaramouche, and for the Horatio Hornblower stories (another oft-imitated series I was tempted to swipe). In fact, most of the classic swashbucklers, unsurprisingly, draw on major events in European history.

I don’t want to write historicals. Too much research. Besides, I’m a fantasy writer; I want to use wizards and dragons and magic. But maybe, I thought, I could come up with a setting where I could fit all these classic plots and make them my own. I could put them all into a single series, that could run forever without running out of material. In fact, I could take some of the other plots and projects I had lying around unfinished, and tie them in, too.

What were key events in European history that I wanted to use, and what could I dump? Well, you need the fall of Rome, and the French Revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire, and the Age of Exploration, but you don’t need all that medieval stuff — that’s already been done to death in fantasy. You don’t need Scandinavia at all, or Greece, or Christianity. Oh, sure, they’re hugely important in European history, but I don’t need them for the stories I want to tell.

And I came up with the Good Parts Version of Europe and European history, which, when I was done, really didn’t look much like Europe at all. My Old Empire had its capital in Paris (now called Lume), not in Rome, and was ruled by wizards; it fell in six months, rather than over a period of centuries. The Iberian peninsula is gone entirely; if I need Spain or Portugal later I’ll improvise something. The English Channel became a stony desert inhabited by dragons. The moon is gone. No religious wars as such; the near-universal religion involves a god and goddess and ancestor worship, though there are lots of odd cults kicking around.

The French Revolution is now the Fall of the Sorcerers, when the magicians who rule the Walasian Empire are overthrown.

And I have dozens of stories I want to tell set in the Bound Lands, as my Western Europe analogue is called. I’m not going to follow chronological order for the entire thing, but I’m starting with the Fall of the Sorcerers, and I do want to keep that in chronological order, which means I can’t start with The Scarlet Pimpernel, since that begins with the Terror in full swing. Before I get to that I need to cover the Fall of the Bastille (now the destruction of the Pensioners’ Quarter), and a lot of other stuff. In fact, even the destruction of the Pensioners’ Quarter wound up in the second volume, Above His Proper Station.

Where did I start? Well, A Young Man Without Magic is dedicated to Rafael Sabatini; that’s a clue.

I’m not slavishly following any of the plots I’m swiping; they all twist and mutate as I play with them, and Walasia is very definitely not France. (And if you’ve read Scaramouche, you know there’s a really central plot point that, if I used it, would have people saying I was swiping Star Wars. So I dropped that entirely, and that changes the whole story.)

The feel of the series, though, is still modeled on swashbucklers — Dumas, Sabatini, Orczy, and a thousand obscure pulp authors.

So that’s what I’m doing. I hope readers will have as much fun reading these as I’m having writing them.

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.

This ‘n’ that

Yes, I know I’ve shamefully neglected this blog.

Although it’s very unlikely, it’s possible someone may notice I no longer allow comments to be added on certain old entries.  That’s because these entries seem to be particularly prone to getting spam; not allowing comments on them at all saves me the trouble of clicking the “spam” button on the moderation page every day or two.  Entries where I think actual further discussion might someday occur, or that have never been hit with comment spam, still allow comments and probably always will.

If you’ve never commented here before, your comment will be moderated.  If it’s not spam or obvious trollage it’ll be approved, usually within twenty-four hours.

I have a novel due on September 15.  I might actually make the deadline.  I’m hoping that once it’s turned in I’ll have more time to devote to stuff like blogs.

Is there anything anyone would particularly like me to post about?