Category Archives: Angels Luck Series

Unwritten Sequels

I don’t know where you come down on the idea of sequels. Cinematically, I’m really tired of them… it’s like proof once again that Hollywood is officially out of ideas.

Not that I haven’t been tempted. With every novel I’ve published (or, as in the case of The Mushroom Shift, am about to publish), I have had a notion to do a sequel at some point in the future. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because I liked living in that world while I wrote the book and need an excuse to return. Or maybe it’s for another reason. I don’t know.

Just to give an idea of how the process works, here’s a look at the unwritten sequels that have crossed my mind that you won’t see for reasons of time, apathy, or considerations more practical…

Caution… Spoilers abound!

A Death of Honor. Payne and Trinina’s story was pretty much told at the end of the book. But for a while I entertained the notion of an untitled sequel that would show what the rest of the U.S. looked like in that universe. The story would follow Bailey as he escaped from the raid on Payne’s apartment building, hooked up with Karol, and then set off on a cross-country odyssey in a search for a new place to call home.

The Company Man. Two different ideas. First, I wanted to play more with dogbrain technology and PATER. I had done that some with a story called Pins that was picked up by Amazing Stories, but I thought there was still more potential there. And I thought Andy Birch was just the guy to do the exploring. The novel The Inside Man would have been the playground for that. And no, Jade would not have returned. But Lucy would be around.

Also, writing The Company Man was the period when I was learning that not everything in my head about the universe had to go in the book. For example, Howard Kessler and Jack Lime were once partners until the former did the latter dirty, as happened to Birch in his novel. The Company Men would have told that backstory.

The Angel’s Luck Trilogy. The trilogy? The one I famously had to step away from during the writing of the third book and take a month off because I was getting sick and tired of the characters and wanted to kill them off a la Stephen King in The Stand? Yup. I had an idea for a fourth book that reunited the characters twenty years later, when May was about to retire and Duke had become a hotshot pilot in is own right, thanks to Reckless Eric Dickson. Never got any farther than that.

Trust. An unpublished political thriller that I intend to release before the Pembroke Hall reissue. This might have been spun into a whole series of novels about tabloid reporter Annie Graham. The second would have been called Truth, in which Ms. Graham had to match wits with a rather unusual serial kidnapper. Hmm, but when the first book doesn’t find a publisher? Perhaps just as well. The world is only so full of five-letter words that start with “T”, which is what all the titles would have been.

The Pembroke Hall Novels. Was almost a trilogy. Toward the end of writing the second book, it occurred to me that there was one more thing to cover – the aftermath of the reign of the Devals. Hollywood, Arizona would find Boddekker happily working for a non-profit when he was approached by Pembroke Hall to oversee the movie being made about the life of Ferman’s Devils. Life, meet the distorting effects of art. Each chapter would have been preceded by pages from the screenplay that was being produced. Shelved when it became apparent that the published books were a bust.

The Mushroom Shift. You’ll get to read this quite soon. Mushroom was to be the first book in the Badlands County Trilogy, with each title following Monmouth during a different shift. Mushroom was the midnight shift; The Horizontal Tango followed him onto swings; and the final volume, The Sierra Hotel found him on the day shift. Those plans went into the bin when the book didn’t find a publisher. And I don’t think I could write them now.

However, I never throw anything away. The theme of Tango was to write about sexual attraction between two characters in an adult manner while conspiring to keep them apart at every opportunity. That’s now part of Drawing Down the Moon. And Monmouth ages in real time – 25 years – to become older, wiser and the central character of the UFO Novel I’m now working on. Incidentally, Annie Graham is a central character also. As is Robert Grinwald, a refugee from Rachel’s Children, a cycle of novels about an alien invasion that I proposed to Del Rey right before I was dropped.

Part of the allure of my writing the UFO Novel was that it was going to be a place where characters from all of my unpublished novels would get to see the light of day. But now, with these books being published by yours truly, it is going to make for a very interesting collision of universes. Are all these books tied together? I’m not saying. Or maybe I just haven’t figured it out myself.

(Incidentally, I have in my files an unpublished short story called Miss February that features a prominent technology from the Pembroke Hall novels, along with a police lieutenant named Monmouth. Got a migraine yet?)

And what about Drawing Down the Moon? It seems to be the noteworthy exception. I have had it done for a while now, but I have no desire to go and play in Ricky and Kada’s world again. Personally, I think that has to do with the quality of this particular project – along with my actually managing to say everything I wanted to say on the subject during the course of the novel. Well, maybe someday soon you’ll get to read it and see what your opinion is. Meantime, perhaps these unwritten sequels will find a little new life in your imaginations – as they once had in mine.

To Thine Own Writing Be True

It’s been an interesting experience getting The Mushroom Shift ready for publication.

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.

  1. Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
  2. That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
  3. 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.

Piracy on the High E’s!

I’m not sure where you come down on the issue of piracy. Not the Somalis in a speedboat with some vintage Soviet RPG type. The new-fangled method of copying intellectual property that has been the bane of folks from the members of Metallica to J.K. Rowling.

And to show that nobody is safe, even I have been pirated. That’s right. No sooner were the Angel’s Luck novels in print over in Russia than somebody with a scanner and some OCR software gutted copies and converted them into files for the RocketBook – a late 1990’s eReader that is so vintage that there’s almost no information on them out in Internet land… not even on Wikipedia. All I could find is this rather odd video.1 Apparently it never took off here, but was popular in Europe, judging from the accents on the video (and the Russian piracy).

It’s probably also worth mentioning that if you’re Russian, you can also read the Pembroke Hall series online – here and here. More wonders from scannerland. I suppose if you’re a dab hand with cut and paste, you could bring up the pages and put them piecemeal into one of the many online translation apps out there and read yourself the books for free. Sorry, I can’t guarantee it’ll be an effective use of your time, but the many quirks of online translation are guaranteed to make the story more amusing than it already is.

So where do I come down on the side of such hijinks?

It doesn’t bother me. Maybe if I were an impoverished musician like the members of Metallica, I’d have a different attitude toward it – after all, what do you do when your “loyal” audience is cheating you out of the money you desperately need to feed your family? But in the case of a writer, the objective is to be read – and judging from the glowing reviews Ferman/Boddekker have gotten, Russians are reading the books.

Plus, to be honest, if I complain about this, shouldn’t I be complaining about that grandaddy of file sharing schemes, the public library system?2

Also, I have a day job that helps me feed my family. Maybe those tapped-out souls in Metallica should look into getting one themselves. Hey, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.

The Russian Cover for Harry Harrison's "Galaxy Hero Returns"


What’s particularly fascinating about piracy of intellectual property is how it seems so boundless. For example, here’s the cover of a Harry Harrison novel that was recently brought to my attention. It’s a version put out by a Russian publisher. Looks pretty exciting – but then notice the odd resemblance between Harry’s Russian cover and this American one by yours truly.

What’s interesting is that we’re getting into a whole different field of piracy here. I’m not sure it was out of laziness (although the artist did take the time to replace the green hologram on my cover with what looks like a full color holo of what might be a pole dancer – although that image might be nicked from somewhere, too.

While I find this amusing, I feel bad for David Mattingly, the artist who did the work on my original cover. Unfortunately, like the online version of Ferman’s Devils, there’s not a lot I can do about it were I so inclined. It’s what comes from dealing with countries with a more relaxed attitude towards intellectual property than ours.

Meantime, I guess we can take consolation in the fact that it ain’t just me and it ain’t just Russia. Witness this cover spotted by my son in a bookstore in Hangzhou, China:

Photo courtesy of my globe-hopping son.

It’s for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I suspect Harriet Beecher Stowe would be amused and even flattered by this whole thing, but no guesses where Mr. Freeman or Ms. Judd would come down on this whole thing.

Oh, and three words of advice for the malnourished members of Metallica: monster dot com.

  1. Although, admittedly, I only spent about five minutes looking.
  2. Which I once attempted to satirize here… but nobody got the joke.

The Cliff’s Notes Version of How to Be a Writer

A lot of my posts come from questions I get from aspiring writers struggling with some part of the writing process or another. The other day I got an email peppered with questions I had mostly already answered. However, it occurred to me that there might be others out there who, like this particular reader, who haven’t had the chance to wade through the 700+ posts here to find what they want.

So instead of cutting and pasting a whole bunch of links to essays in this side, I went for the short answer, knowing I would post the results in a kind of Cliff’s Notes version of this blog.

So here’s the short answer version of many popular writer’s questions. For more detail, see the rest of the blog.

(Note: questions in parenthesis are paraphrased by yours truly for the sake of brevity)

(Reader mentions different jobs he has had, including a recent stint in the military)

Thank you for serving in the military. I can’t thank you enough for doing that.

It sounds you have a lot of different experiences, which is a good thing. A writer doesn’t have to have experience in a lot of different jobs and rely solely on imagination, but I think experience helps. Your resume sounds a lot like my early one before I settled down.

(Reader asks about how one should go about tackling a writing project)

If you’re reading my blog, you’ve probably found tons of information about writing from my particular point of view. You should hunt up some blogs from other writers to see how they’re handling things. I’m a big proponent of finding out what works for you as a writer, because what works for me or another writer might not be your cup of tea. Plus, the way I write has evolved over the years.

I’m 39 and I’ve wanted to write my entire life but have yet to finish a book. I have multitudes of ideas streaming in my head with good ideas.

Yup, you’ve got it bad. Welcome to the club. Most writers have tons of ideas (I even do a writer’s seminar called “The Idea Is The Easy Part” to show how easy it is to come up with a concept for a novel). Our big issue is time to do something with those ideas.

I have a friend who is a brilliant idea man. He’s always coming up with a new idea for a book. His problem is, he gets these new ideas when he’s supposed to be working on another book, and he gets so taken with the new idea that he abandons his in-progress for the new idea. Those writers who are published learned to discipline themselves and pick one idea, working on it until it’s done. If the new idea is really good, it won’t go away.

I go out and buy notebooks and pens and write short spurts here and there.

I do that too. I have notebooks with notes and starts of books all over the place. It’s like buying a new notebook and/or pen validates the new idea. But again, that discipline is the key.

But I make excuses and think that I can’t make money doing that.

It’s hard. And it’s hard for outsiders to understand that, for every Tom Clancy or Stephen King, there are 1,000 writers like me who do it for the love of writing, and of course, for a shot at that brass ring.

Fortunately, with the advent of the Amazon Kindle and other e-readers, it’s become easier to make money on one’s work by self-publishing. Good money. One woman just signed a $2 million contract with a major publisher based on the Twilight knockoff novels she was self-publishing. But it needs to be good. Or shamelessly commerical.

Do I need an agent?

There’s a joke in the industry that you can’t get a book sale without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you have sold a book. If you want to get published by the Big Six, you need an agent. If you’re willing to go the self-published route, no. If your self-pubbed stuff catches on, the agents will find you.

The story of how I got my agent is on my blog. It helped that I went in through the Science Fiction/Fantasy Door. That genre is more open to new writers and unsolicited submissions than the more mainstream stuff.

How do I get a book contract?

By writing a darn good book. And you do that by writing and writing and writing and writing. Every time you write you get better at it. No anabolic steroids necessary.

How can I get a publisher to pay me while I write?

1) Write a darn good book

2) Sell it to a publisher

3) While you are marketing the first book, start on the next one. This way you can tell your publisher you’re working on a new book and they will understand that you’re serious about writing.

4) If your book gets buzz, or hits it big, or perhaps even breaks even, your publisher will want to tie you down with a multi-book contract. When that happens, congratulations!

That’s approximately the way to do it. Fortunately for us all, publishers want to make sure an author can go the distance and produce something both readable and salable before committing to their writing careers.

I’m sure some people have gotten contracts without going through some version of this, but they were either celebrities who could be hooked up with ghostwriters, or had established themselves as writers in another area (short fiction, journalism, etc.)

When you were writing the Angel’s Luck series what was your writing process?

It depends. The first book, Desperate Measures, was the first novel I ever wrote. During its writing I was going to college, getting married, and looking for a job. It was written piecemeal over the course of 4 1/2 years, and the original version was twice as long as what was published. While it was at market, I wrote A Death Of Honor, then The Mushroom Shift (about police work – I worked for a few years as a sheriff’s dispatcher), then The Company Man. By then I was a better writer and was able to hack the mess that was DM into shape.

The other two books in the trilogy I was under contract to write. I had said I was never going to write a trilogy, but the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. So I pitched DM to my editor as the first book, said a few words about what the other two books would be like, and Del Rey bit. I wrote those two as a full-time writer, and I treated it like a full-time job.

How many hours a day did you write?

Again, it depends. When I’m writing a novel, I tell myself my daily goal is 5 pages, and I take however long it takes to get there. Many days I’d get on a roll and write more in just a couple of hours. If I was having a bad day, I told myself I had to get through at least one page. More often than not, getting through the first page made it possible to write four more. But sometimes one was all I could struggle through.

WARNING: Telling friends and family that you are writing full time will often lead them to think that, since you are home, you are “not doing anything”, and are therefore eligible to do things like help them move pianos.

How did you find a decent Editor to read your work?

I was marketing A Death of Honor, and since it was Science Fiction, I was going the Slush Pile route (SF is institutionally more friendly to unsolicited submissions than any other genre – although romances may be this way also… I wouldn’t know). A bunch of smaller houses turned it down. A big house wanted it, but they wanted changes that I felt would have damaged the integrity of the story. My wife kept telling me to send it to Del Rey, and I kept saying no because they published Heinlein and Clarke – what would they want with me? She persisted. I gave in. And I can’t count over the years how many times I have been grateful for my wife’s encouragement.

I do want to write and I feel that is my talent.

If you really, really want to write, nobody can stop you. Not even yourself. All sorts of people have told me they wanted to write, but when it came down to it, no encouragement I gave could make them actually sit down and write. A few did and succeeded, but if they didn’t have that spark inside driving them, they never would have made the commitment. Many others tried and gave up, or ended up not trying.

I said that it took me 4 1/2 years to write Desperate Measures. That’s because I wanted to be a writer more than anything else. And I wrote whenever I could steal the time to do it. A lot of times it was a half-page, page, two pages here and there. It added up. When I finally finished, I learned that I could write a novel. I started to get an idea of how I worked as a writer. I learned that, every time I wrote, I got better at it. And I learned that, having done it once, I wanted to do it again.

And I’m still trying. I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer, either. But I haven’t given up because I know how much writing means to me, and I know I’d rather be writing novels than anything else.

So steal what time you can to pile up those pages and see what happens.


And that is Volume One of the Cliff’s Notes. Feel free to question or append in the comments.

Something is Happening

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.)

A Death of Honor's new look for the e-book market.

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.

The Chapter Chapter

Yesterday an e-mail came from a friend who is making her way through writing her first novel. She told me that while checking up on her chapter lengths, she found the following numbers:

Chapter 1 – 5200
Chapter 2 – 3600
Chapter 3 – 3600
Chapter 4 – 1870
Chapter 5 – 2200

She said she was torn between splitting chapter one in half or combining chapters 4 and 5. The former is what she chose to do, putting in the change at a natural scene break in the first chapter, giving her chapters of 2600, 2600, 3600, 3600, 1870, and 2200 words.

Then she asked me how I determine where to break chapters.

Since I work primarily in plot-driven works, I use what I guess could be called the dramatic arc method of determining the chapter break. That is, the break comes at a high point in the story, perhaps right before a climax of some kind. This has the happy effect of making readers want to continue reading, to start the next chapter even though in purely physical terms they have come to a good place to stop.

And it works. I have had people tell me that they stayed up all night finishing one of my books, or that they were late to work because they wanted to read just one more chapter, and that led to another chapter, then another, and another…

(Hint: if you want to stop reading one of my books, you’d better slide the bookmark in at the middle of a chapter. If you wait for the break, odds are long that I’m not going to give you the chance to put it down.)

Now my friend is writing a mystery, more of a procedural novel, so the idea of trying to end each chapter on some kind of a cliffhanger obviously isn’t going to work (it also wouldn’t settle well for, say, a romance, where the body count is substantially lower than a typical JCF novel). That still doesn’t mean she can’t stop her chapters at some kind of dramatic turning point in the story, whether it’s somebody getting off of a bus in a strange town or the end of a day that has been wearying and brutal. Not every chapter has to end on something momentous, but it should serve in some way as the lead-in to what is to come next.

This brings up a couple of other questions about chapters. Like, How long is a proper chapter? Should they all be the same length? What kind of order should you impose on a chapter?

The answer to the first is, a chapter is long enough to accomplish what you need to accomplish in that chapter. The way I write, which is longwinded, I frequently end up with more chapters than I originally planned.

Since I write so much by the seat of my pants, if I have a note like Ch. 9 – Walter goes to the convenience store to buy some beer and cheese, I may decide, while describing Walter’s walk, that something interesting happens to him on the walk. This stretches the chapter out to the point where he gets to the convenience store at what turns out to be the end of Chapter 9, meaning that 10 deals with his purchase.

Now I could just make chapter 9 one long chapter and take Walter all the way through the trip to the store, but if the chapter turns out to be really long, it might throw a monkey wrench into the pacing of the book. And if the mission to buy cheese is not the climax of the book, it probably shouldn’t be dragged out in an extraordinarily long chapter.

Being creatures of order, we tend to want to parcel our lives up into uniform pieces. This comes in handy when you’re writing chapters because making them a consistent length (mine tend to run 3-5000 words each) keeps control of the pacing of the book and puts a dramatic order on things, such as not over emphasizing the whole beer and cheese thing.

So that’s an argument for keeping chapters the same length. Only I didn’t follow that when I wrote the Angel’s Luck trilogy. I had mostly medium-sized and short chapters in those three books, and I can still quote a chapter from Precious Cargo from memory: In stasis, Peter Chiba slept without dreams.

So what’s the deal with having a one sentence long chapter?

It’s a trick I learned from Kurt Busiek when writing for the ill-fated Open Space project from Marvel Comics. KB taught me that the bigger the comics panel, the more it slowed time down, with time speeding up proportionately as the panels became smaller and smaller (Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns takes this to a masterful extreme by using what seems like dozens of panels on a page to represent TV screens, rocketing the reader at an awful pace toward an act of terrorism).

So… wouldn’t it stand to reason that a shorter chapter might move the pace of the book faster as well? It certainly worked for the trilogy, where I was jump cutting between groups of people doing their thing inside of extended action sequences. Now, I suppose I could have made the chapters long and just used scene breaks to pace the action – Tom Clancy is a master at doing just that – but it seemed to work better for me to break them as chapters while slamming the reader back and forth between teams of hard-boiled mercenaries. Which method was right? Either one.

Are there other ways of imposing order on chapters? Certainly. And these imposers might just help you in timing your dramatic arcs if you’re having a problem fitting them where they need to be.

For example, as I got deeper into writing A Death of Honor, an interesting order imposed itself on the chapters. I didn’t realize it at first, but after 5 or 6 chapters, it occurred to me that the book would work incredibly well if each one was half a day in the protagonist’s life. So I gave you chapters titled “Friday Night,” “Saturday Morning,” “Saturday Night,” and so on.

A benefit of this kind of imposed order is that it can help you build suspense (if you’re writing a suspense kind of novel) by reminding your readers of an impending deadline.

For example, let’s say your book opens with a woman getting a phone call from kidnappers saying that she has 36 hours to fork over ransom money or her beloved poodle will be horribly killed. Instead of paying money she can’t raise, she draws on her experience as a telephone solicitor to track the scum down and get her dog back. Why not structure it so each chapter takes place in the space of one hour as the woman frantically works her way closer to the villains? Further, if each of your chapters comes in at 3,000 words and you throw in a chapter-length 37th hour for winding down, that gives you a manuscript that will run 111,000 words – not a bad length for a thriller of that sort.

So that’s the bird’s eye lowdown on chapters. Like everything else in writing, the rules are steadfastly XYZ unless those rules don’t serve your book. While each novel we write is essentially a first novel since we haven’t written it yet (H/T: Lawrence Block), what makes a first first novel so grueling is that these are the things you need to work out for the first time. Chances are, if you act in the best interests of moving the story ahead, you’ll be fine.

It’s a scary thought. But the rewards can be so worth it.

Listening:
Just a simple storyteller
Troubadour on call whenever
The gods moved his heart to speech
He was something of a hero
To the conscience of the people
To the children on the beach

(via iTunes shuffle play)

The Old Gray Genre Ain’t What She Used To Be

I just received an e-mail from a reader who tells me he has read through the Angel’s Luck trilogy about ten times (!). I don’t think I’ve been through those books that many times counting writing, rewriting, editing, proofreading, and correcting the galleys (I never read the books after they come out). In his letter, he asks me, “Do you have anything on the horizon?”

This put me in the position of telling him that, with the exception of one SF novel that I really want to finish, I’m not really writing Science Fiction anymore.

Part of this is by choice – I realized a couple of years ago that there were other genres where I could do quite well that have larger audiences than SF, and my agent agrees.

But there are also some factors at work that I don’t have much control over. For one, I think a Joe Clifford Faust SF novel would be a tough sell right now. I was dropped by Del Rey for disappointing sales – never mind that there was zero advertising or promotion, other than the fact that they were fired up over the book and pushed a copy into the hands of anyone who came into their office (this is how I ended up getting my first agent, which is a lengthy story for another post – if I haven’t already told it). When I asked about advertising before A Death of Honor came out, I was told “Our novels sell themselves.” Guess what, folks?

A few years later the Pembroke Hall novels landed at Bantam. They did advertise them, in Locus, the magazine of the SF trade. When I told them I had an idea for a promotion involving putting copies in the hands of the people most likely to appreciate the book – ad folk – I was given another line about how they knew how to sell their own books. Guess what, folks?

The month that Boddekker’s Demons came out was the same month that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print. I got a call from Bantam asking, “Do you still have that marketing plan of yours?” I did a mental debate about the wisdom of marketing a book that was the second half of a duology, especially when the first one had been taken off of the shelves, but shrugged and sent it to them anyway. I don’t know if they did anything with it. Likely not. The two books were my two worst sellers of all time – the two books combined sold fewer copies than my previous underachiever, The Essence of Evil.

It’s not a cry in my beer kind of story, and I’m not looking for sympathy. It happens a lot to authors. Musicians, too. Ask Stan Ridgway why he didn’t stay with Geffen Records. The bright side is that, because of the movie deal that went nowhere, the Pembroke Hall novels were also my biggest moneymakers, making more for me than what I made on the other five novels combined.

However, editors don’t look at what books make for authors. If a new Faust SF novel lands on an editor’s desk, he’s going to look at what previous titles did for Bantam and Del Rey. And that sales record sticks to authors like a bad credit rating. Thus, that one SF novel I really want to finish will be a hard sell if and when it gets to that point.

Another factor is that SF just ain’t what it used to be. It’s been beaten back into a corner by Fantasy, and what’s left of the genre has been co-opted by franchises, the largest offenders being the Star Trek/Star Wars axis.

There are still SF authors publishing SF novels, but try to find them. Just try. Without going to a specialty store. If you go into a drugstore or grocery store and find any speculative fiction at all, you’ll find a couple of classic novels by old masters (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke), a couple of StarWarsTrek novels, and the rest are fantasy. Go into a Waldenbooks or other mall store, and you’ll get the same mix, only more of them. If you’re lucky you might find an old William Gibson (whose current works are now considered mainstream) or, if the planets are aligned just right, a Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s even getting tougher to find new and proper SF at Borders. But maybe that’s because the titles sell out because it’s the only place where they can be found.

Why has all of this occurred? A couple of reasons. As far as the dominance of franchises goes, it’s because, heaven help us all, they sell. Slap “Wars” or “Trek” on the cover of a book and you’re guaranteed that your carefully calculated print run will more or less fly out the door. Publishers, not being stupid, put before the public what sells, and it’s not necessarily what is good for them.

(This brings to mind the notion of another unwanted government agency coming up with an ever-changing, increasingly incomprehensible chart of Daily Intellectual Nutrition Requirements – “Sorry, you’ve had enough Piers Anthony – time for some Phillip K. Dick!”)

The rise of fantasy is something else altogether. Around the time the Lord of the Rings film frenzy was in full swing, one of the Mainstream Media newsmags ran a sidebar article on why SF had been supplanted by Fantasy as the escapist literature of choice. Their theory – and to be honest, I can’t disagree with their thinking – is that science has let us down.

I love to look at magazines like Popular Science from the ’50’s and’60’s. You get visions of personal flying automobiles, undersea highways – that whole sense of optimism captured by Donald Fagen in his song I.G.Y.: On that train all graphite and glitter / Undersea by rail / Ninety minutes from New York to Paris / Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K.

Well, we might have the equivalent of Dick Tracy’s two way wrist radio now, but I still don’t have my own personal Gyrocopter. The underseaways and zeppelin routes never materialized. We did get longer life spans, but the antibiotics that did it for us are now creating superbugs that eat them (and us) for lunch. We used to go around in a peaceful oblivion, not knowing that a well-placed asteroid could End It All for us – now we’re setting up telescopes and satellite networks to warn us of things that we won’t have a chance to save ourselves from. We avoided the nuclear war bullet, but the waste management is another thing. We’re close to all being wired, and what does it bring us? Ads for Teen Slut web sites and prescription drugs without a prescription.

Sheesh. Compared to that, facing down a Balrog in a deep, dank mine, armed with nothing but a little mithril and a sword that glows when orcs are around is a picnic. A picnic, I tell you!

If SF is no longer the escapist literature it once was, it’s because science, in all actuality, is in the business of raising more questions than it answers. And, as I have alluded to before when writing about how to craft the genre, one thing you have to look out for is that An Answer science gives us always has some kind of unforeseen side effect. Nuclear power, si! Nuclear waste, nuclear weapons, hmmm…

There’s one last factor I suppose I should mention. I started out wanting to write mainstream thrillers to begin with. My big influence at the time was Michael Crichton, who had just blown me (and everyone else) away with The Andromeda Strain. Those were the kind of books I wanted to write. Adventures with cutting edge science. That I ended up in SF can, as well-chronicled elsewhere in these pages, be attributed to the fact that I got mononucleosis at an inopportune time in my college career and ended up writing what would become Desperate Measures just to prove a point.

So that’s where SF is, and where I’m not, and why. It makes me a little wistful thinking about it – it’s like leaving your small hometown and coming back to find they’ve built an Applebees. I will always like and respect the genre, but I don’t know that it’s home anymore.

Not to worry. My love of science is going with me. There are some science moments in and that’s the end of the news…, albeit in a more Crichtonesque vein. If you look at it that way, then perhaps I’m not so much leaving home as coming home.

Listening: Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless” (via iPod Shuffle)