Sometime in 1989, Kurt Busiek, who had up until recently been my agent, called me from his new position at Marvel Comics. They were planning on taking another crack at a Science Fiction comic book, and they were going to put two twists on the genre. First, it was going to be written by real, professional, established Science Fiction writers. Second, it was going to be a shared universe – where all of the writers got to basically play in the same sandbox.
And he wanted me to write the opening story for the series.
Why me?“Because you’re extraordinarily good at near futures,” he told me. And the near future is where Open Space, as the comic would come to be known, began.
By that point in my career I had published A Death of Honor and The Company Man, both of which posited rather gloomy near futures and skated near the thin ice that could plunge one into cyberpunk (although I never considered them that, many readers did – after I thought about it, I suppose they were pre-cyberpunk in a way).
So over the ensuing years, you might wonder how some of my near-future predictions came out, seeing as how we just passed the 25th anniversary of the publication of Honor. Answer is, there were some things here and there in both books that kind of hit near some marks if you stretched it a bit.
But nothing like what has been happening in the past few months with the Pembroke Hall novels.
It all started in December, when an article appeared in Forbes online, accompanied by a couple of remarkable videos. The title was “Nanotechnology May Lead To The End Of Laundry“, and I’m certain that a lot of people thought it was gosh-wow — except for the people who had read Ferman’s Devils and/or Boddekker’s Demons during the fifteen minutes they were in print.
One of the conceits in those novels was a laundry soap that used nanotechnology to not just ultra-clean clothing, but actually repaired it as well. It seems that by the time the author was writing those novels in the mid-1990s, he had seen a lot of preachifying about how nanotech was going to save the world by disassembling toxic chemicals at the molecular level and save lives by repairing heart valves without surgery, and so on. He realized these things were noble indeed, but that somebody was going to figure out how to make big bucks with the technology by making it do something mundane. And here we are:
Now I had a friend who really needed a new heart valve a couple of years ago, and when local hospitals gave him the kiss off because he was self-insured, he went to India to have the retread work done. And I was left wondering, where was his nano-laced pill that would take care of that? Hmmm, seems the nano folks got to the making a buck part of the program before nobility could rear its head.
But I digress.
Back to the point. That was pretty strange, to see something like that happen, nearly a dozen years after the book came out. But then something else caught my eye yesterday – a story from the London Telegraph saying that Paul McCartney’s son James is mulling over putting a band together with the sons of the other Beatles. Hey, I can’t make this stuff up.Except that I did. It was kind of a running joke in the Pembroke Hall novels, a band constantly referred to as “The SOB’s” – and then you find out halfway through that it stands for “Sons of Beatles”, and that the band is made up of… yeah, you got it.
Was I trying to wishfully think when I wrote that into the novel? No. I was making fun of our popular culture. It was, after all, the beginning of an era when artists began keeping their moribund careers alive by releasing sequels to hit albums of the past (the latest? Ian Anderson’s Thick as a Brick 2. Seriously.). Maybe in retrospect I shouldn’t have done it. Pop culture is just too easy of a target. I don’t know.
Whether Beatles 2.0 comes off or not remains to be seen, but these things have made for a weird couple of months for me. Before you go calling me Nostradamus or anything like that, remember that there’s lots of other stuff in those two novels that hasn’t happened, like thugs becoming media stars. Everyone knows that commercial actors aren’t thugs. Those are all found in the NFL and NBA.
Seriously again, I don’t know what to make of this. They say things happen in threes, so maybe I will ignore this trend until one more thing like this pops up – when and if. So I guess I’ll try not to be too unnerved until the other other shoe drops.
Meantime, if you want to catch up on this tale, I’m scheduled to have the Author’s Intended Version of Ferman’s Devils – ready for release just over a year from now. Maybe sooner if I can get those pesky Angel’s Luck books out of the way. If you want to check them out sooner, check the used section of Amazon or on eBay.
And for you few who read the book, here’s something that may keep you up at night: According to my calculations, Boddekker is now an eight year-old.
I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.
It’s a really good book.
Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.
Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.
Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?
Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.
The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.
The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.
Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.
Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.
There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.
Need more proof?
Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly…
People love ‘em.
Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.
I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.
I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.
But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.
Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.
- Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
- That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
- And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.
Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).
If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.
One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.
This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.
Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”
Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.
My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).
While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.
Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).
Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.
For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.
Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.
And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.
Having recently scanned and coded the forthcoming ebook issue of A Death of Honor, I can see the genius of this move. Why bother scanning when there’s someone out there who may have already done it? Or somebody who can be bribed with autographed books, a mention in the appropriate ebook edition, or perhaps even small amounts of cash to produce a new scan?1
So if any of you ace searchers out there can point me to a torrent where any of my titles (except A Death of Honor – done already) can be downloaded, let me know. Or if anyone out there is willing to do an OCR scan of one or more of my titles (preferably into html format), get in touch also.2
As I said, bribes are definitely in order. Although baked goods might be a bit hard to ship.
- Hey, we are in a recession, folks. If I were Stephen King, I’d be more generous. But then, if I were King, I wouldn’t have this issue.
- To answer an obvious question – I do have electronic copies of all my novels except Honor (which was written and edited entirely on an old device called a typewriter). The problem with these is twofold – one, they are all stored on 5 1/4″ floppies. Two, they are not the edited version as produced by the publishers.
Okay, it’s finally time to say something because it’s all getting close.
I’m in for a writing career reboot here, and it’ll likely all start happening by the end of the month. The retooling of this web site some months ago was the first step, but now there are others. I’ve slowly been putting things into motion, but it looks like they’re all going to converge at once.
So I have not one, but two major announcements — and a minor one.
First, my new novel, …and that’s the end of the news, is almost done. I mean it for sure this time. After 10 years, a long hiatus to take care of my mother (during which time I tried to re-imagine myself as a songwriter and learned that I hated performing live) and four drafts, I’ve gotten the book where I want it, where it should be. So it’s soon to be going out in search of an agent and/or publisher.
This book has been with me for so long that it’s hard for me to look at it as “the new book”, but it’ll be new to the 99.99% of you who haven’t had some kind of preview or were pressed into service as an early reader. Anyway, once and/news goes out into the marketplace, it will be time to start what really will feel like a new novel. This will likely be the project that I have discreetly code-named “The UFO Novel.”
Which brings me to the minor announcement. Just for grins, I thought I would post very short excerpts from The UFO Novel as status updates on my Facebook Fan Page. There’ll be one excerpt from each chapter as I finish writing it, and there will be lots of chapters. It should be fun. Or not. Tantalizing, perhaps? That’s the idea. So become a fan now and get miniscule glimpses of a book in progress (or be tormented by them – your choice).
So now it’s time for Major Announcement number two. If you’re one of the lot who has been to my Facebook Fan Page, you may have seen the fanciful logo for an outfit called Thief Media (you can see it now in the upper right hand section of this page). That’s the imprint that I have started to release my old, out-of-print novels for the Amazon Kindle and in epub format for all the others. This will begin with my first published novel, A Death of Honor – which I hope to have out by early March – to include all 7 novels over the course of the next year or so.
(Actually, they will appear as only 6 novels – Ferman’s Devils and Boddekker’s Demons will be issued as one novel, which was my original intent.)All of the novels will have new cover art, and all except for the Angel’s Luck trilogy will have some kind of bonus material included. A Death of Honor will feature the original epilog that I cut from the book before publication. The Company Man and Ferman’s Devils will feature short stories that overlap into the respective book’s universe.
In addition to my out-of-print titles, Thief Media will also be releasing two previously unpublished JCF novels. The Mushroom Shift is a profane and darkly funny novel about police work that was written between Honor and Company and will be released between them. Trust is a political thriller written in hopes of being published in time for the 1996 election. It will be released before Ferman’s Devils.
To celebrate this in a small way, I have changed the graphic in the banner above to a section of corrected page from the third draft of …and that’s the end of the news. There may or may not be other surprises and releases, but I’m going to leave things at this for the time being. After all, I have a lot of work to do right now.
So… as I said recently, the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world get advances in the tens of millions of dollars, and their publishers don’t make their money back on the deal. But they have a star to hang in their firmament.
And the mid-listers – the ones you see on the bestseller lists and don’t recognize, or the ones you don’t see, but who have enough of a following to hit sell-through on their novels – they are the publishers’ bread and butter.
But for everyone who is making it as a writer of novels, there are thousands like you and me at the bottom of the pyramid, still writing, still striving. Why do we do it? Some of us are still reaching for the brass ring, some because we can’t help ourselves. And for some of us… both.
What of our bread and butter?
For those of us who haven’t made it yet, we have two choices. We can either spend our time writing under the largesse of some kind of money stockpile – something we’ve saved, a government grant we managed to cadge, a working spouse, or a little nest egg from a rich relative.
Those of us who can do one of these things are the lucky ones (although not quite as lucky as the ones who can live off of their novel earnings). I know a writer who tried to make it while living on an inherited nest egg. Unfortunately, his growth as a writer didn’t move fast enough and the money didn’t hold out. In spite of a couple of journeyman novels published by a small press, he ended up having to resort to other means, – although later he was picked up by a major publisher, but he didn’t hit the midlist heights.
I got to do the thing with the working spouse for a time, and I blessed her every day for it. I didn’t hit the midlist during that time, either, although according to my agent, I was “a solid midlist author” – but that may have been typical agent hyperbole. Anyway, my wife’s gestational capability kicked in, and I voluntarily said I would resort to other means.
And those other means? A day job, of course.
It’s a time-honored thing. Somehow we think less of those folks who wrote brilliantly from high school on and wrote their breakout novel in college. Or the pampered wife of the moneyed husband, who turned to writing to ease the boredom of her soul, and mirabile dictu! She turned out a bestseller!
No, the stories we like are Stephen King, finishing Carrie in the closet of a mobile home after his wife fished the manuscript out of the garbage. John Grisham, tied to a soul-crushing law firm, writing A Time To Kill on legal pads in stolen moments. J.K. Rowling, taking her last few pounds and pence to buy time at a coffee shop where, for the price of a tea, had a table available to scribble out the adventures of a boy wizard.
When I started shooting for a day job, I aimed at advertising. Why? Because first, it was something interesting to me. Second, I always planned to make my living as a writer, and this seemed a good place to start – even if my plans were to make my living writing novels. Third, I had done a lot of research on advertising in high school, and I saw a lot of interviews with copywriters who said they had basically taken that job so they could make a living until their novel was done.
Those poor, poor fools. And what about me, the poor lad they led astray?
One day when I was working on the college paper, the editor and I were talking about our futures. The editor, a wise sage and good friend, made the suggestion that I should get a day job that did not involve any writing or creativity at all. His theory was that, after a day of being creative on demand, I would be drained and too emptied out to work on a novel. I thought that was a great theory, although I didn’t particularly relish the thought of being a plumber.
That might be the case for others – certainly, it’s something you want to think about – but it never did seem to effect me that way. It’s like there was a two-way switch in the Writing Box in my brain, and it allowed me to easily toggle from DAY JOB to MY NOVEL. And, during the time I worked at The Place Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, I found a third setting – MY NOVEL (OVERDRIVE) – because I was determined to write my way out of that place.1 Maybe you’re that way, too. There’s only one way to find out.
I have actually had more interference from everyday life than the stringent requirements of a job. My writing life looks more like Mr. Holland’s Opus than any of the other movies I’ve seen about writers. And I’ve always defaulted to family in matters of time, because it just wouldn’t be worth becoming a Fabulous, Bestselling Author (TM) if my mother, my wife, and my kids all ended up writing books about what a creep I was in real life.
So if you have to have a day job to support your writing jones, take heart. For one, look at it as a rich source of material. When I worked at a Sheriff’s Office, I was occasionally asked by Deputies when I would write my Big Novel about life in Law Enforcement. “Never,” I would joke. “When I leave here to become a bestselling author, I am going to forget all of you.” Of course, the first novel I wrote after I left was The Mushroom Shift.
There’s one other benefit, too. Haven’t you ever looked at the author’s biography and seen stuff like, Dirk Manly has been a salmon fisherman, a Disney tour guide, a Manhattan taxi driver, a hotel detective, and sailed around the world on a tramp steamer. This is his 150th novel. Didn’t you feel a little twinge, like you should be doing all of that to build up your writer’s cred?
Guess what, my friend? You are. You are.
Remember that next time you’re forced to say, “Would you like fries with that?”
- And it worked. My agent sold Ferman’s Devils which got me a contract to write the other half (which became Boddekker’s Demons), and my boss used that sale as one of many bogus charges to get me fired because she thought all writers made Stephen King’s money.
Before going on to chronicle the editing process, I want to mention that, to someone who reads this blog, it would appear that like Mark Twain, I write in spurts. This is not quite the case. Twain would abandon manuscripts for months before coming back to them. I might leave something for days or weeks, but it’s out of necessity. After all, I’m working a full time job and raising a family. I don’t want my kids to grow up and write spiteful biographies saying that I was talented but had no time for them.
Besides, when I’ve had the chance to write full time, I charged through projects in record time. The Boddekker’s Demons half of Ferman’s Devils was written in five months. So was Trust, but I was working full time then – my agent lit a fire under me to get the manuscript out because we thought it would be great marketing to have an election year thriller out in time for an actual election year (my wife was truly a Novel Widow during that period).
Once the first draft is done, I try to let it sit for a month without looking at it. During this time I do nothing, or I might actually start the next novel, writing a first chapter that might sit for weeks or sometimes years before I decided to write the rest. As a further inducement to leave the book alone, I sometimes find First Readers to take a look at it, hopefully to offer brutally frank opinions on what I’ve done.
When the month is over, it’s time to edit the manuscript for a second time.
That’s right. I said second. Over the years, I’ve developed a process that I call “pre-editing.” I’ve learned to identify things in my outline or in my head that can be deleted simply by not writing them. It might be something I might need to know, but the reader doesn’t.* It could be something that would slow down the flow of the book, something that no longer fits given the book’s current direction, or something that merely seemed like a good idea at the time, but no longer is.
“Pre-editing” also entails going back and making changes to the manuscript when a later plot point requires it. In Deadline I keep changing the age of Jill’s daughter to facilitate a paternal relationship with Max, the protagonist. So I go back in the manuscript and insert/delete where necessary (or, in Deadline’s case, get a red pen and scribble around what I’ve already written).
Last night’s work on And/News is a textbook case of pre-editing. I mentioned in yesterday’s scorecard entry that I went back and filled in some details throughout the chapter that I realized it needed. But that’s not the entire story.
I was working on a section where Richard and K confront a reluctant witness. Part of my notes – a good two paragraphs worth – called for a revelation about the relationship the witness had with his live-in girlfriend. The Weasel Effect was supposed to come into play as we found out that the witness successfully courted and bedded the girl under false circumstances, and by the time she realized he wasn’t all he claimed to be, it was too late for her to get out. She had no support system in place and could not easily leave him.
The notes on this could have easily taken a day’s worth of writing to get down. Fortunately, as I neared that part of the chapter, I saw that 1) this little bit of exposition wasn’t necessary for a character who was only going to appear in the book for one chapter, and 2) the direction I was writing in skewed away from that kind of a relationship with his live-in; it was more important that he be attached to her (albeit with a wandering eye). So I ignored my earlier directive and as a result, And/News is eight pages shorter.
(Again, Ferman’s Devils provides an interesting counterpoint to this process. One of the things I had put into the outline was the chapter where Bainbridge insinuates herself into Boddekker’s life and follows him to the Nursing Home where his 1960′s burnout grandmother lives. In the early writing stages, I was trying to keep the length down because my agent has a chronic phobia of manuscripts over 100,000 words in length. So I decided that, while the chapter was fun, I wasn’t going to write it. I made the transition that the chapter provided in a different way. When Bantam bought the book and split it in half, my editor encouraged me to add the chapter. It worked out well – readers got something really close to a director’s cut of the book, and the addition of the chapter made both books approximately the same length.)
Once the manuscript has sat for a month, it is time for a physical edit. I sit in my big La-Z-Boy recliner (dubbed “The Editing Chair”) with the binder in my lap and a red pen in my hand, and I proceed to go through the manuscript and bloody it up.
Since my first drafts are nothing more than a race to get everything onto paper before I forget it, there’s a lot of sloppiness present. And I also have comments from my wife in the manuscript. She’s got great editorial instincts, and she reads the book chapter-by-chapter as I finish each one and print it out. She’s my first First Reader, and it must be agonizing to her to wait months to get to the end of a book (she’s one of these three or four books a week types).
I look for clunky writing. I whack out things that don’t 1) move the story ahead or 2) develop someone’s character, or 3) – something new I’ve added to And/News – provide insight into one of the book’s themes.
One thing I do – in fact, I usually do this on the computer – is go on a hunt for the word “just.” It’s a rotten little rodent of a word that slips in when I’m not looking, and it can just ruin a sentence by qualifying it (that is, taking the air out of a turn of words by distancing the reader from the action).** This is a search and destroy mission, and very few survive. A few others are transformed into another word.
Once the book is carved up, I enter the changes into the manuscript document. These can range from deleting or changing one word on a page to reworking entire sections (which I have either handwritten, or else put down notes on what to do). I know it would be easier to edit onscreen, but I learned to edit physically, and it serves me well. Besides, there’s a “half-edit” when I put the changes into the computer. This is where I notice things I missed in the physical edit, or else I second-guess myself and either edit the edit or change it back to the way it was.
Then I print the new version of the book out, the Intermediate Draft, let my wife have a whack at it (all at once this time), and then I read it. By this point most of the large changes and alterations have already been made, so I’m checking to make sure everything flows. I still make changes and occasionally second- (or third-) guess myself at this stage. Then it’s back to the computer with this set of changes.
When it rolls out of the printer, it’s the Final Draft. The manuscript is ready to go.
I felt guilty about this process for a long time, especially after hearing how some authors produce draft after draft after draft until they have a perfect manuscript. I quit feeling that way once I had a revelation: I can’t do that because to me, the manuscript will never be perfect. Every time I pick up one of my published novels – even if it’s the first time I’m looking into an author’s copy – I see mistakes or things on every page that I would change if I could. So I have to force myself to a point where I let it go. If I didn’t, I would revise the thing forever and never send it out (I also have problems with my blog entries, which, while they’re more spontaneous, are also quite sloppy by my standards – it’s a real temptation to go in and use that REVISIONIST HISTORY button that most blog hosts feature). There comes a time when I must, as Sir Winston says, kill the monster and fling him before the public.
So that’s the process. I don’t know if it works for anyone outside of me, but work for me it does. I remember being at a Science Fiction convention with the lovely and gracious Lois McMaster Bujold. We were talking about how we wrote, and when I described how I did it (in much less detail than these last two days), poor Lois looked at me, aghast. “I could never work that way,” she said. I got the impression that she was the type who worked on a sentence or paragraph until it was perfect and then moved on. But I could be wrong.
Everyone is different. The best way to find out how you write novels is to start writing them. Pretty soon you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then you can spout of ad infinitum about how you work in your blog.
After all, getting there is half the fun.
(Hope this answered your questions.)
*For example, in The Company Man, I knew but never revealed that Howard Kessler and Jack Lime were once partners, starting their career in Astradyne together. And Kessler sold Lime out to advance in the company. Cool detail, but it would have slowed things down to tell it; the book, after all, was about Andy Birch.
**Yes, I know I used the word “just” in that sentence. Pun intended.
I suppose you could call it a competition of sorts. My daughter in one room, plugging in dead matter from Ferman’s Devils into the new version of Handling It, me in the next room gearing up to work on And/News again. As I mentioned, I should work on the bonus material, but the short story should be about ready to do with one more pass through (hmmm, excuse me while I make a hard copy so I can make sure), and I’ve been making notes for the essay since I started reformatting work. I’ll need to go through the manuscript one final time when all the changes are in, so my plans are to do the essay as the last thing.
Since I was too busy for much else Saturday, part of tonight was used in catching up on my Saturday routine of answering e-mail. Didn’t get it all done, but at least some of it is out of the way. And I’m behind on bagging up books to mail out as well. Well, a few more days for those.
Then into the manuscript. I wasn’t quite where I thought I was – I thought I had left Richard and K on the road to Phoenix, but I see today that they have actually made it there, and are now in the process of arguing about their accommodations. I am seeing an interesting dynamic develop between the two of them with the addition of Vic and Ray to the party. I thought the couple from Indiana would bring my two protagonists closer together, but instead they seem to be tearing them apart.
But that’s good.
I have oft repeated, perhaps even in these pages, that the job of a novelist is to make things difficult for his protagonist. Great care must be taken to beat them up (literally and/or figuratively) and frustrate them at every possible turn. A great example of this is the last chapter of A Death of Honor. I had reached a point in the book where everything was tied up and more or less resolved, and all that remained was for Payne and Trinina to get on the ship to Australia with their son, Nathan.
After writing the final confrontation scene with the villain and putting one final twist into the plot, I stopped writing and said to myself, “Okay, time for everyone to get on the boat.”
I could feel my brow furrow. The next thing I said was, “but if they do that, it’ll be boring.”
I thought about it for a few minutes and it came to me what to do. Payne’s paper that was to get him on the ship was invalidated for some reason (hey, I finished that book in ’84 and it was published in ’87… you’ll forgive me if I can’t recall the exact details), so he made the sacrifice of putting Trinina and the boy on with the idea of staying behind. What followed next was what I affectionately call Payne’s leap – he watches the boat pull away, and he suddenly runs down the boarding platform and jumps for it. But he doesn’t quite make it, and ends up hanging outside of the boat by the rail. And then a guy with a club shows up and starts in on his hand and… well, you get the idea.
Keeping the audience hooked means constantly raising the stakes, and that’s what I did at the end of ADoH. A cinematic example of this is the work of director James Cameron, whose films are never over when you think they’re over. There’s always one more surprise waiting at the end of the reel. Most of the time this works – think Aliens and True Lies. Once in a while it backfires, as in The Abyss, which I felt had about three surprises too many.
Anyway, the routine is back and it feels good to be falling back into it – even if it was interrupted by puppy patrol.
NP – iTSP (Evita Motion Picture Soundtrack – “Rainbow Tour”)
Today I had occasion to go to one of the most thrilling and suspenseful events I have ever seen. Sporting events never did much for me, and they certainly couldn’t hold a candle to the excitement of what I saw today. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time… a real white-knuckler. And in the end, there was only one winner.
I was at a spelling bee.
Fifty-two kids from four counties participated in a regional spelling bee this afternoon to determine who would go to the national bee in Washington DC later this year. My daughter was one of them. What I didn’t expect was to find myself rooting for every one of these kids. I wanted them all to win. Every time one of them got up to wrestle with their word it was a new moment of suspense. You could tell from the looks on their faces whether or not they knew the word, and you could see the wheels turning as they tried to get clues (definition of the word, language of origin).
I’m not sure why I connected so much with watching a bunch of junior high students spelling words. It might have been the connection with my tool of trade, the English language. Or maybe it was just watching 52 kids who were the best spellers in the school. The fact that my daughter was one of them this year no doubt was an influence. All I know for sure is that I had a great time, and that I’m thinking about going again next year.
Tonight I got about halfway through the Ferman’s Devils manuscript with multi-step formatting. This consisted of:
1) Turning all special fonts and font sizes into one twelve point font. Palm Digital’s reader for PDA’s doesn’t support special fonts, and there’s a lot of them in the PH books.
2) Reformatting the video scripts to be PDA friendly. I don’t think the PDA reader supports parallel columns of text, another trick I used in PH when formatting TV commercial scripts.
3) Redoing all of the chapter headings and titles so they were consistent with the layout as Bantam did it. It looks better than the way I had it in the manuscript, all lower case and flush right.
4) Turning all of the underlined text into italics. In the old days, an author underlined text that s/he wanted to appear in italics. That convention carried through to today, or had at least was still in place in 1995 or so, when the first manuscript was turned in. This was simply making the conversion easy for the reader (which does support italics).
5) Whatever miscellaneous things I spotted that needed to be done, along with making notes for some of the bonus material to appear in the e-edition.
It’s kind of interesting going through the book at high speed like this. I’m not doing a word-for-word read – instead I’m scanning pages – and I’m so familiar with the story, it’s like the whole thing is being freshened up in my brain. I’m not the type of person to laugh at my own jokes, but I did catch myself snickering at some things that I’d forgotten writing. I tend to discount my books once they’re in print because I see the all the flaws in my wordsmithing. This is making me think that perhaps the Pembroke Hall books weren’t so bad after all.
I also surprised myself by finding a reference in Ferman’s Devils to the Mihaljevic Act. Sometime after I first moved to Ohio, a girl in Cleveland named Amy Mihaljevic was abducted and later found murdered. As far as I know, her murderer was never found. This was before it was an everyday headline like it is now, and it really haunted me. So I wrote a short story called “Going To Texas (Extradition Version)” that involved, in part, a draconian law enforcement measure called the Mihaljevic Act that was designed to protect children. It was my way of lighting a candle for poor Amy.
It turned out to be one of my rare published short stories, appearing in Amazing Science Fiction. I found out later… years later… that the story made the list of recommended stories for the Hugo award (the science fiction equivalent of the People’s Choice awards) that year. It didn’t make the final cut of final nominees, but apparently was on the reading list for the year. I’ve been thinking of posting that story in the Library section of the main site.
Spelling bees, folks. You just can’t beat the suspense…
NP – iTunes Shuffle Play (Vangelis, “Tears in the Rain”)
Tech week continues for “Annie Get Your Gun.” The costumes were in tonight (Monday), so I got into Sitting Bull regalia. The costume came with two headdresses; the traditional long chief’s bonnet, and then a more “casual” one (I suppose) that I think is absolutely hideous. It would look great if we were doing Shaka Zulu, but not something involving a Lakota warrior.
Fortunately I’ve been reading a biography of Sitting Bull, and I used something I learned as an excuse to trade the casual bonnet down for a headband with two feathers; Sitting Bull was a very modest person and usually only wore one or two feathers. He only wore a large headdress for special occasions.
Of course, I have come to the conclusion that historical accuracy in this show is a moot point. So far as I have been able to discover, there are only two things about the character of Sitting Bull that are accurate in AGYG:
1) He did tour with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.
2) He did adopt Annie Oakley as his daughter.
But I haven’t finished reading the biography yet.
Now let me try and get some writing content in, albeit in a left-handed way.
My second CD compilation assembled using iTunes is 17 of my favorite songs by Stan Ridgway.* This was a really hard thing to do; originally I pulled all of my favorite Stan songs and saw that they would have taken up two CD’s. I decided to see if I could get it down to one.
So I’ve been listening to it in the car and marveling at his work all over again, even more so since these songs were culled from six albums. He’s the type of songwriter who doesn’t tell you everything. Rather, he gives you bits here and there and lets you put together the pieces. Like this bit from Walkin’ Home Alone:
And ain’t it funny how one afternoon
Can make two people stop and say
That all the time they spent together
Didn’t really mean that much anyway… no, not much.
Just a sinkful of dirty dishes
And a picture in a drawer
And a hairbrush on the table
And a hole punched in a door
And if she were here right now
I’d tell her things I never told her before
And then later in the same song:
So now I hear a clock and I get up fast
Draw the curtain on a brand new day
I can’t wait to get this cast off
The telephone’s dead – I guess they turned it off today
See? All the pieces are there. The guy lost his girlfriend and he punched a hole in his door as she left. Now weeks have gone by and he’s still alone. How do we know? Well, the cast on his arm is going to be removed. How did he break his arm? Hmm… remember the hole in the door?
I really appreciate this because I try to write this way. Instead of spoon feeding the reader, I try to treat them with intelligence and let them put the pieces together for themselves. My insistence on doing this cost me a book contract early on in my pre-published days. A publisher looking at ADOH sent me a two page letter suggesting changes to make to the book. Mostly what they wanted was for me to explain everything about the book’s universe in the first chapter or two instead of dropping hints throughout like I did. I wrote back and politely explained why I wrote the book the way I did. In the end, we agreed to disagree, and a while later the book was bought by Del Rey without all the changes. The best part was that I once received a letter from a reader thanking me for telling the story the way that I did. Sometimes it’s worth it to stick to your artistic principles.
And by the way, this hint dropping thing us something I still do. Like the how in Ferman’s Devils I hint about a band called the SOB’s, but you don’t find out until almost the end of the first book (or the beginning of the second, I can’t recall) just who they are and why the name is significant. Or in And/News when, after 13 chapters and 90,000 words, I finally reveal that Richard is… ah, but that would spoil the surprise.
*(For those of you scratching your heads going “Stan who?“: Mr. Ridgway was one of the founding members of Wall of Voodoo, best known for their 80′s novelty hit Mexican Radio from the album Call of the West. Anyone who listened past that song discovered wonderfully atmospheric short stories like Lost Weekend, about nothing more than a couple driving home to California after losing everything in Vegas. He continued the tradition with his first solo album The Big Heat; his songs play like things Raymond Chandler might have written if someone had given him a guitar or a bluesy Hammond B3. His songs are picturesque tales of loners and losers , broken hearted men, conniving women and guys named Pete; the only thing these folks have in common is that their lives didn’t turn out quite the way they planned. Highly recommended.)
NP – “The Best of Stan”