The Numbered Dead

Our local weekly newspaper, the Gazette, ran a list last week that I find oddly fascinating — a list of all the homicides in Montgomery County, Maryland in 2010.

There were seventeen, which isn’t bad for a county of just under a million people — neighboring Prince George’s County had more than five times as many, and as for Washington and Baltimore, well…

Of the seventeen victims, fourteen were men, three were women, and none, thank heavens, were children. Ages ranged from 18 to 52, but the distribution wasn’t remotely even — twelve of them were under thirty.

Nine of them were shot. Four were stabbed. The other four, including two of the women, died of “bodily trauma,” apparently meaning they were beaten to death. (The third woman was stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.)

Of the seventeen, one shooting was ruled self-defense, one was deemed an accident (the killer apparently called the cops himself), and the other deaths all appear to be murder, though in some cases that’s not definite. In seven of the fifteen apparent murders, the killers are in custody; in two, the police have a suspect but have not yet put together a strong enough case for a murder charge. In one, the killer is known but at large, and that one’s a bit weird — it was one of the bodily trauma cases, and the 28-year-old suspect is described as 3’11” and 85 pounds. Gotta be a story there.

One thing I find interesting is that in the seven (or eight, if you count the midget) solved murders, at least four involved multiple killers — twelve people have been charged in those four cases.

And most of them were really stupid.

I don’t have any brilliant conclusions, I’m afraid, except to say that looking over these cases, most of them don’t look much like the murders that Hollywood depicts every week on TV. One of them, a 19-year-old girl found in a shallow grave in the woods, might fit reasonably well on “Bones,” but it’s unsolved.

Which is too bad.

A Trope

They strike without warning, without mercy, appearing out of nowhere and leaving no one alive…

For Christmas, one of my sisters gave me a DVD of the short-lived SF series “Space Rangers.” I hadn’t seen the show since its brief original run in 1993, and I didn’t remember a lot of details — mostly I remembered Marjorie Monaghan as Jo Jo and Linda Hunt as Chennault, and that the show had a pleasantly scruffy feel. The last couple of nights I’ve been watching it while I do my nightly exercises, and I was struck by one story element I had completely forgotten — the banshees. These are mysterious hostile aliens who are attacking helpless transports.

And what struck me about them was a strong feeling of deja vu. I’ve seen this scenario before. What’s more, I’ve seen it as an important story element used to add excitement and intrigue to the first few episodes of a new spacefaring SF TV series.

Twice.

On “Firefly” they were called Reavers. On “Babylon 5” they were called raiders. All in all, though, they’re pretty similar in methodology — they appear out of nowhere, viciously attack lightly-armed transports, wipe out opposition with blood-curdling thoroughness, then vanish again before the more-heavily-armed good guys can get there to help.

Now I find myself wondering why these three series all used such similar devices.

I suppose it’s a cheap way to suck viewers in by showing Our Heroes fighting bloodthirsty monsters, and on “Firefly” they eventually turned out to have an important role in the series overall story arc. On “Babylon 5,” though, they were little more than a minor nuisance, contributing almost nothing to the five-year whole, and I would have thought the Narn-Centauri conflict would have been enough of a hook to draw people in without the raiders.

On “Space Rangers,” of course, the series didn’t last long enough to see how important they were. “Space Rangers” was also so clumsily written that it’s hard to be sure why anything was there. I mean, the first episode involves a whole bunch of backstory stuff (the hero’s old mentor, the alien’s mysterious culture) that viewers don’t yet know or care about — not good writing.

Anyway, I find it curious that all three series used such a similar device, and I wonder why it happened. Are space pirates that essential an element of space opera?

Paying It Forward

Warning: This will be a long post veering back and forth over multiple subjects that I see as related, but you may not.

There is a tradition among science fiction writers of “paying it forward.” The idea is that you can’t pay back the people who helped you, so you pay it forward instead, by helping others. I’ve heard it said that the phrase was popularized by Jerry Pournelle after he asked Robert Heinlein how he and Larry Niven could pay Heinlein back for the extremely helpful letter he wrote them critiquing The Mote in God’s Eye (at least, I think it was Mote). Supposedly Heinlein told him, “You can’t pay me back; pay it forward instead.”

This is trotted out, then, as why established SF/F writers should help beginners — to “”pay forward” the help they received when they were beginners. It’s supposed to be something special about the SF/fantasy field.

I have a few problems with this concept.

First off, SF fandom claiming this idea as uniquely its own is, shall we say, not firmly grounded in reality. Older writers helping younger writers along is a tradition much older than science fiction, and it crops up in every genre. It’s absolutely normal practice for writers in every field to teach writing, since actually making a living writing is rare, and it’s commonplace for those teachers to recognize and mentor the most promising students.

I talk to writers in other genres — I used to be a member of Novelists Inc., which is mostly romance writers, and I was briefly a member of Mystery Writers of America — and there’s plenty of mentoring going on in all of them. Romance Writers of America seems to exist almost entirely to mentor beginners. So this attitude that SF has something special in “paying it forward” is, to me, self-congratulatory puffery.

Another issue I have with the concept is that many beginning writers seem to feel it’s necessary, that it just isn’t possible to become a writer without mentoring. You need contacts in the industry, they say. If you don’t have writers to vouch for you, or personal contacts with editors or agents, you can’t break in. If you aren’t involved in fandom, if you don’t have editors providing detailed feedback, you’re screwed. You need to have supportive elders paying it forward. They feel that they are owed support by the established writers in the field, because after all, they were helped by the previous generation, right?

And that brings me to the long, ranting part of the post. The very short version is that I don’t feel I have anything to repay.

I sold my first novel, The Overman and the Basilisk, to Lester del Rey at Del Rey Books in May of 1979. He retitled it The Lure of the Basilisk, and retitled me Lawrence Watt-Evans. I didn’t actually meet Lester until 1982.

I didn’t meet my first self-proclaimed, non-gafiated SF fan until March, 1980, when the recently-formed Blue Grass Science Fiction Association (BGSFA, pronounced Bugs-Fah; later renamed LexFA, the
Lexington Fantasy Association) saw a “local boy makes good” piece about me in the Lexington Herald-Leader and invited me to a meeting.

The first published fiction writer I ever met was Harry Stubbs, a.k.a. Hal Clement. I think I was eight. He came to the house to talk to my father about NEACT business. NEACT was the New England Association of Chemistry Teachers; Harry and my dad were both active members.

So was Isaac Asimov, and that connection allowed my parents to contact him to talk at our church when I was a teenager. At the time I was actively avoiding all church activities — at the age of eight I had rebelled against the staggeringly boring sermons of Rev. Holmes and refused to attend any services. (I wasn’t the only one; the parish committee fired Holmes not long after, replacing him with David Weissbard.) Even Asimov wasn’t enough to lure me back to church, but I did wander over to the Common afterwards and got a look at him as he was preparing to leave. I’ll count that as the second.

The third published fiction writer I ever met was me. If you don’t want to count that, then it was Stephen Leigh, at Rivercon V, my first convention, in July 1980, five months after my first novel was published. Phyllis Ann Karr was next, then Roger Zelazny, and after that I lose track; that convention had a pretty good guest list.

So much for writers nurturing the next generation in my case.

As for help from editors, the first editor I ever met was probably Carol Amick, who worked for the town weekly, the Bedford Minuteman, and went on to become its editor. We never spoke; when I say “met,” I mean she was pointed out to me when we were in the same room.

The second was a man whose name I’ve forgotten, the editor of the Bedford Patriot, the short-lived right-wing rival to the Minuteman. When I was seventeen I decided that their writing was so bad they
might even consider hiring a high-school kid; I was right, and they bought three or four feature articles from me.

My first contact with a fiction editor was a rejection slip from Ed Ferman at F&SF in 1972. It was the standard form letter, no note. I went on to collect an assortment of rejections — seventy-one before I sold anything — from a variety of editors. All of those rejections were form letters except for a handful from Moshe Feder, who was then an editorial assistant to Ted White at Fantastic and Amazing, and a couple from Hank Davis, who was Ed Ferman’s assistant at F&SF. Those came along in 1974 and 1975; Hank was sending them because Moshe had urged him to. They were short typed notes, never more than two paragraphs, explaining why my stories were being rejected and offering encouragement to try again. In one case it was because the story was deemed too much like Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser; at that time I had never heard of Fafhrd and the Mouser, so that one turned out to be very useful, because I went out and found the relevant books and read them. I love those stories, but I don’t really see the resemblance other than it being sword & sorcery about a pair of adventurers.

I sold a short-short to The American Atheist in August, 1975. The entirety of my contact with them after submission was a note in May of 1975 telling me they were buying it, and a packet in August containing my contributor’s copy and my check.

The third editor to ever send me something other than a form rejection or a form acceptance and a check was Lester del Rey, when he bought my first novel with a three-page, single-spaced revision letter.

So much for detailed editorial feedback being necessary to a writer’s development, or editors only buying from people they know.

Another standard way to break in is supposed to be through writing workshops. I first heard of writing workshops in 1980, after my first novel was published. I signed up for one anyway, thinking it might be educational, and was severely disappointed — I had more professional publishing credentials than anyone else there, including the instructor. The only ones I’ve attended since then, it was as an instructor.

As far as other formal training goes, I have never taken any sort of course in creative writing, or fiction writing, or whatever. The only English courses I ever took were required ones.

Family support? My parents actively tried to discourage me from writing from 1962 until 1971. Late in 1971 my father seems to have decided that if I hadn’t given up yet, maybe I could pick up a little extra money writing articles; it was his idea to try the local papers. That was the full extent of his support. When The Lure of the Basilisk was published, a couple of months before he died, he read it and informed me that it wasn’t really very good. My mother liked it better.

I never heard what two of my sisters thought of it. Jody considered it too bloody, and stopped reading my work midway through my second novel, The Seven Altars of Dûsarra (originally The City of Seven Temples; Lester changed it), when my hero lopped off an enemy’s head. She never read anything else I wrote after that, up until she died in 1986.

My sister Ruth said that for the first couple of chapters she kept thinking, “I could have written this. This sounds just like any Evans.” Then somewhere around Chapter Three it took off, and since then she’s been a fan.

I don’t believe my brother’s ever read any of my work. If he has, he’s never mentioned it.

My wife Julie was supportive of my writing up to a point; she thought it was a cool thing to do, she did read and enjoy it, and she had no idea how difficult it was to succeed as a writer. However, she also made it clear that she didn’t intend to support me forever if it didn’t work out, and in fact by March of 1979 she was clearly fed up. I quit writing and started a mail-order collectibles business. When Lester bought the novel, though, I went back to writing with Julie’s blessing.

Right up until that first novel was published, my in-laws kept asking when I was going to get a real job.

So much for writing education or an enthusiastically supportive family being necessary.

Oh, yes — agents, another supposed necessity. I knew nothing about agents when I sold my first novel. When Judy-Lynn del Rey rejected The Chromosomal Code three years and four novels later, saying it was publishable but not right for Del Rey, that was the first time I gave any thought to getting an agent. I asked Lester for advice, since he was a writer himself and had dealt with scads of agents.

He didn’t offer any advice; instead I got a letter from a guy named Russell Galen who told me that he was Lester’s agent, Lester had suggested he contact me, and that he’d like to see a sample of my work because he might be interested in representing me.

He was interested, and sold The Chromosomal Code to Avon.

Russ has been my agent ever since, pretty much. (There was a brief interruption when he left Scott Meredith and I didn’t immediately follow.)

This is why I don’t have much useful advice for people looking for agents; my experience really doesn’t serve as a model for anyone else.

To sum up: My experience doesn’t fit any of the standard advice. I had no contacts, no training, no support; I just wrote, and sent what I wrote to editors. That worked well enough to sell my first articles when I was seventeen, my first story when I was twenty-one, and my first novel when I was twenty-four.

I didn’t talk about writing. I didn’t read about writing. I didn’t workshop my writing. I didn’t know any writers, editors, or agents.

I just wrote.

That worked for me.

And I didn’t receive any help that I felt I should repay.

If I sometimes seem impatient with needy beginners, well, that’s why.

On the other hand, I do try to help out promising beginners. I have advice pages on the web; I’ve read stories for friends (and if you have to ask, you aren’t a good enough friend); I’ve taught workshops without pay. (I’ve also taught and critiqued for money, though that’s not relevant here.)

But I’m not paying anything forward. And you don’t need help.

Goodbye to the Gallery

When I sold my first novel back in 1979, I didn’t know much of anything about how publishing worked. I’d never met another published writer, unless you count being introduced to Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement as a kid, when they were talking with my father about teaching chemistry. I’d never heard of cover proofs. When I got a cover proof for The Lure of the Basilisk in the mail it was a complete surprise. I didn’t know what to make of it. It was a vaguely surreal experience, seeing my name on something resembling a book cover, and a representation of my character — neat, very neat, but very strange. That silly armor Darrell Sweet had given him didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t decide whether I liked the cover or not.

I studied that cover proof intently, and showed it to everyone I could, and then wondered, "Now what am I supposed to do with it?"

I didn’t know any other writers to ask. I didn’t have an agent. I suppose I could have asked my editor, Lester del Rey, but he was Lester del Rey, not a mere mortal I could pester with trivia.

So I did what seemed to me the obvious and logical thing to do — I framed it and hung it in my office. (Or maybe back then I called it my study; I don’t remember.)

To this day, that still seems like the obvious and logical thing to do, but I have never yet seen another writer’s home where cover proofs were framed and hung on the wall.

In September of 1980 the house was struck by lightning and my study was burned out, destroying that cover proof, but in November I got a cover proof for The Seven Altars of Dûsarra and framed that and hung it on the office wall. The cover proof for The Cyborg and the Sorcerers followed suit, and then The Sword of Bheleu, and so on.

We moved to Gaithersburg in 1986, and the cover gallery went with us and was hung on the wall of my new office. It got moved around a couple of times as I rearranged furniture, added new bookcases, and added more cover proofs, so that it didn’t fit where I’d had it before. Eventually I gave up on keeping it in my office, and moved it to the basement den, where the proofs were hung along the top of the walls — they started above the row of IKEA bookcases along the south wall, then turned a corner onto the soffit covering the main air conditioning duct, and ran the length of that. As I kept publishing, they rounded the corner onto the north wall, above the antique secretary and across the top of the door to the storeroom where I kept my comic books. They reached the corner and continued onto the east wall in the late 1990s — by this time it had become something of a ritual, framing each proof in an identical cheap metal frame (black with gold trim), backed with black construction paper. They ran over the top of the window, and were approaching the sliding door to the patio, where there wasn’t room for them to continue — I estimated there was room for one more, two if I squeezed a bit. I’d taken to buying the matching frames in bulk, and had half a dozen left, but I didn’t know where I’d be putting them.

This was just mass-market paperbacks; when I started I didn’t think I’d ever be published in any other format, and when hardcovers and trade paperback editions did come along I didn’t include those proofs in the gallery. Some dustjacket proofs did get framed and hung in the stairwell, some other proofs got hung behind the big TV, but the main gallery was just the mass-market editions.

For one thing, I didn’t always get proofs of other editions. Small presses like Wildside and FoxAcre didn’t always produce proofs, let alone send any of them to me. Even Tor didn’t always send proofs, at least not without nudging. Proofs had always been primarily a marketing tool, and by the 21st century more and more of that was being done electronically, with JPEGs, rather than actual paper or cardstock proofs.

Still, I’d maintained a complete (except for that destroyed first one) set of framed mass-market proofs in that basement gallery.

Then we moved to Takoma Park.

Here my office is in the basement — the study on the first floor is Julie’s, as it’s too small for my purposes. I have lots of room, and have been gradually getting it arranged to my liking. I put in seventeen IKEA bookcases and a big new desk, a map cabinet, and so on. Much of the stuff from the old den is also here in the basement — the elliptical trainer, the projection TV, etc.

Obviously, this is where the cover gallery would go. The idea of putting it on the soffits around the ductwork, like the west side of the old gallery, also seemed pretty obvious, as there are many such surfaces to work with here — the basement ceiling is divided into five separate sections by these things. There must be at least a hundred feet of soffit.

Julie thought it might look a little tacky, though I’m not sure why she thought so or why that would be a real concern, but she declared it to be my business, not hers — the basement, and the gallery, were both mine to do with as I pleased.

So a couple of weeks back, when I’d gotten more urgent stuff (like getting books sorted and onto shelves) done, I decided it was time to put the cover proofs up. I picked up the first one on the stack, which happened to be the Avon edition of Denner’s Wreck, and held it up to the soffit above the elliptical to see how it would look there.

It didn’t fit.

That possibility had never occurred to me, but sure enough, all these soffits are 7.5" high, and the frames are 8".

So that wasn’t going to work. I’d need to find somewhere else.

Well, most of the walls here are covered with bookcases, and there wasn’t enough space above them for the proofs. I didn’t have a lot of options, not with forty or more of these things to fit. Really, the only place that made sense was the wall right at the foot of the stairs, where I hadn’t put any bookcases because it would have been too crowded.

That wall had gotten a bit scuffed up, what with movers and workmen and so forth going through there to get up or down the stairs, or in or out of the utility room, so I didn’t tackle hanging the cover gallery immediately; I wanted to clean the wall, first.

Then we got snowbound for several days, and Julie got bored and cleaned the wall — not at my suggestion, but just because she was tired of seeing the smudges whenever she came down the stairs.

So yesterday I got out the framed proofs, and a tape measure and spirit level and hammer and picture-hook nails. I figured out how they’d be arranged, what the spacing would need to be — I could fit fifty-six, and I don’t have that many yet. I used a pencil to mark where two of them, the two at the top corners, would go. Then I stepped back, and imagined what the finished gallery would look like.

I didn’t like it.

In fact, I realized that no matter where I put it, it wouldn’t look good. There are simply too many of the damned things, and they’re too varied, to look good in a collection like that. The last time they’d been on a single wall, rather than a long line on several walls, there were only maybe a dozen and they’d mostly been Darrell Sweet covers from Del Rey; now they’re everything from Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin to the pseudo-Celtic Ethshar reprints Wildside did. They’d just look like clutter.

Fewer and fewer publishers bother to send out cover proofs now, anyway.

So I decided that it’s time to say goodbye to the cover gallery. I won’t be putting them back up, on that wall or anywhere else. Instead I’m taking them out of their frames, and filing them away — I may put together an album, rather than hanging them in a gallery.

And Kiri wants the frames for her drawings, which means they may well be turning up at SF convention art shows. That’s probably a better use for them than hanging them here in the basement.

But there’s a certain wistfulness at the end of a thirty-year tradition.

Skating Away

Last night Julie and I had one of our rarer-than-I’d-like nights out, and went to dinner and a show.

Due to time constraints dinner was just burgers at Fuddruckers — we’d planned to do something classier, but things at the Bureau ran late and the show started at 7:00, so we made do.

The show was at the Verizon Center, and was “Kaleidoscope: Skating, Song, and Survivorship,” a cancer benefit put together by Scott Hamilton and friends. At least in theory it’s going to be a TV event, shown on Fox on Thanksgiving Day after the football game, though I didn’t see it on the schedule here. The main sponsor was Sanofi-Aventis, and there were ten cancer support organizations involved, but we mostly went because hey, it was a good show.

Our seats were nine rows back, near the stage end of the ice. Very good view.

They featured three famous cancer survivors: Hamilton, Dorothy Hamill, and Olivia Newton-John. This was Hamilton’s first skating performance in six years, but he was still good, and still did his trademark flips.

Really, everyone was good.

Newton-John only sang one song, and that was backed up with a children’s chorus (flown in from Santa Barbara), but it was nice. The other two singers on the program were Katherine McPhee and David Archuleta, who both have new albums coming out that they want to publicize, but Archuleta’s is a Christmas album, so his three songs were all traditional stuff, not his own compositions.

Archuleta has an absolutely beautiful voice; I hadn’t realized, watching him on TV, just how beautiful, as our TV’s speakers aren’t good enough to do it justice. He also looked genuinely happy to be there, and connected with the crowd more than McPhee or Newton-John; he’s very endearing in person.

As for the skating, Hamill doesn’t do a lot of jumping or other really difficult stuff these days, since she hasn’t competed in years, but she’s still performing, and still very good at it. She looked like she was having fun.

Nancy Kerrigan did a couple of performances, and while she hasn’t competed in years either, she did include difficult jumps — one of which she missed, but after the show they did a re-take for TV, so you won’t get to see her fall; the audience was invited to hang around to provide background, which we did.

Ashley Wagner and Rachael Flatt represented the younger generation of skaters, and gave splendid performances.

Ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis were beautiful. Davis is a tiny little thing, and beautiful quite aside from her skating, but on the ice they’re stunning.

Johnny Weir was supposed to skate, but cancelled at the last minute, we don’t know why, and was replaced by Viktor Petrenko, who did two numbers, both of which were very slick and lots of fun — a cowboy number and a mambo. The guy’s a great showman.

I’m probably forgetting someone; it was quite a show.

Oh, David Foster (fifteen-time Grammy winner — as a producer, if you’re wondering why you don’t know the name) was the host, and played piano for a couple of the songs.

Because it was being done as a TV show there were several delays while technical stuff got squared away, and some of the introductions got repeated — in one case a skater was introduced, did her stuff, and then got announced again when they realized the first take wasn’t good. She did not skate again, though. The audience was also asked for random applause every so often, to be plugged in after pre-recorded stuff we didn’t see, and we obliged — the crowd was very enthusiastic. Not as big as we expected, actually, but loud.

All in all, we were there from 7:00 until 10:30 for a show that I believe will be ninety minutes on TV. (I don’t think the actual skating began until 8:00, but stuff was going on before that.)

It was fun.

Twenty Years After

I recently completed the first draft of Realms of Light, a sequel to Nightside City, which was originally published by Del Rey Books in 1989.

I’d started Realms of Light shortly after Nightside City was accepted; I was very enthusiastic about Nightside City, which I thought was the best thing I’d written up to that time. Unfortunately, the market was significantly less enthusiastic. I was already typecast as a fantasy author at that point, and my science fiction novels had not sold well. Del Rey was not at all interested in a sequel to a novel that hadn’t done all that well, so I shelved Realms of Light.

Except I kept pulling it back out every couple of years and looking it over and adding a paragraph here, a few pages there. And finally, in 2008, having established that it was possible to make a modest amount of money by serializing novels on the web, I decided to go ahead and write it as a serial, to be published by a small press, FoxAcre Press, which had picked up the reprint rights to Nightside City a few years back. And now it’s complete, though it still needs to be revised and edited.

So it took me twenty years to write it.

Twenty. Years.

A lot of things changed in those twenty years. Jumping back into a setting I’d created in 1986 and hadn’t seriously worked in since 1989 was a challenge.

It was not, though, that I didn’t remember it; I did. It’s that the real world had changed in ways that make some of my 24th-century setting look curiously dated.

That paragraph suggests two separate topics – did I really remember it as well as I thought? And how was it outdated?

How well I remembered it – well, let me put it this way: I didn’t bother to actually re-read Nightside City, nor the notes I used when I wrote the first novel. I remembered Epimetheus about as well as I remember, say, Boston. I did check a few details here and there, such as making sure I had the full name of the New York right, but mostly I worked from memory. Did I get it all right? I don’t really know; that’s one of the things I’ll be looking at when I write the second draft. I thought I remembered it all. I know the floor plan of Carlisle Hsing’s old office on Juarez Street, I know what the Trap looks like, I know the geophysical structure of Epimetheus.

I did catch a couple of errors when I checked myself against the original novel; I’d misremembered part of the Nakada family tree, for example. Mostly, though, it was still in my head. After all, I’d lived on Epimetheus, in Nightside City, for a few months back in 1987. (I finished writing Nightside City in November, 1987.) It was as familiar to me as other places I’d lived in, such as Pittsburgh.

I probably got some stuff wrong, but then, I’d probably make a few wrong turns trying to get around Pittsburgh after all this time. And some stuff may not be so much wrong as just different; anything that wasn’t in the first novel I was free to change, so if the version I remember isn’t exactly what I’d thought up back in the ‘80s, who cares? Who’ll ever know? I mean, a lot of it was never written down in the first place.

But then we get to the outdated stuff.

Nightside City was inspired by the cyberpunk movement. The actual style owes more to Ross Macdonald, but there are a lot of cyberpunk elements, and cyberpunk reflected the 1980s.

It’s set in a society dominated by Asians – or rather, people descended from Asians. The wealthiest families all have Japanese names, while the managerial class is a mix of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian; the white people in the novel are generally working class or worse. The cyberpunks often extrapolated a Japanese-dominated future, because in the 1980s that looked plausible – we didn’t know the economic bubble was going to burst. If I were writing it now the future would probably still be dominated by Asians, but the Japanese would be much less prominent, and I might mix in some other ethnicities. I couldn’t really change that for the sequel, though; the Nakada clan is central to the story.

Some of the computer stuff hasn’t aged all that well. In 1987 the invention of the World Wide Web was still a few years in the future, and my guesses about the future shape of the networked world – well, I did better than some authors, but some of it looks slightly quaint now. All that jacking in, and using hardwired connections rather than wireless, feels a bit off, too.

I did correctly anticipate a few things, though, even if I got the names wrong. The word “malware” didn’t exist in 1987, so far as I know, but I could see that there was going to be a need for a word like that, and coined “gritware.”

Mostly, I think it still works. I’ve had to abandon stories because the real world made them obsolete, and I never considered abandoning Realms of Light; the flaws were pretty minor, and could be explained away as the result of stuff happening in the next three centuries that we don’t expect now.

And picking it up again after twenty years should have been hard, but it wasn’t. This story’s been in my head all along. It’s changed over time – the present version is not what I’d have written in 1989 if Del Rey had asked for a sequel – but most of the changes are plot-related; it’s basically the same setting, basically the same characters.

But you know one thing I did forget? If you’re a donor and got to read the first draft, you may have noticed the dedication to Ed Bryant, who I credit with giving me the clue I needed to make the plot work.

He did. I remember that. But I don’t remember what it was. I remember him talking about a movie I haven’t seen, and that up until then I hadn’t had a viable plot for a sequel, and after listening to him it fell into place and I had a set-up and an ending. (The middle came later.)

But I don’t remember what it was he said that made it all work.

Sometimes writing fiction is a very weird business.

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.