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It’s a funny feeling. The book is drafted–not finished, it’s never “finished”–but the vast bulk of the creative work is done. Now I’m editing, trimming excess words, polishing rough phrasings, bringing old ideas into line with what the book finally turned out to be, and ruthlessly excising all of those odd sentences that I wrote three months ago and now exclaim, “What was I thinking?”

The answer, of course, is that I wasn’t thinking, I was creating, which is an entirely different process. If you think while you’re supposed to be creating, you slow yourself down a lot. If I’d been thinking less and creating more, this book could have been out the door six months ago.

Or maybe not. I started it in January 2020, and by March it was still taking shape–and we know what happened then. Is it coincidence that the book started right before lockdown and ended just about the same time I got vaccinated? Probably. But life is a lot different now than when I started, and the book process has changed, too.

As I said, thinking has taken over for creativity. The editor has stepped into the writer’s shoes. And it’s an odd place to be, because the writer keeps wanting to come back and reassert himself, which is okay so long as it’s a collaborative process, but it’s still not pure creativity, and that makes the writer uncomfortable. He doesn’t like rules, and the editor is all about rules and limitations and making things a bit neater.

So I’m in an in-between space, and the world’s in an in-between space (at least where I live). We’re about to go all-out open again, and that’s going to be weird. It already feels weird just to walk into a grocery store again. Eating in a restaurant? That’s going to be fun.

The book, too, is getting ready to go out into the world. It will get its feet wet by flirting with beta readers, but then things get real: submissions. Agents and editors and publishers, oh my.

In some ways that in-between space is comforting–all of the protections of staying home without any of the worries about getting the job done. But “comfortable” doesn’t get the job done. It doesn’t give you a chance to see the world again, or the book a chance to find it place on a reader’s shelf. So that in-between space can only be that: an interval. And all intervals have to end.

Our stay-at-home interval is ending. It’s time to go out and greet the day, walk in a meadow, lie on a beach. And if you want something to read while you’re lying on the beach, I have a book to recommend…

Which I will do as soon as I come up with a title.

#SFWApro

And Now to Rest

It’s finished. The latest book. I’d always planned to bring it in at 90,000 words, but I failed in that: The first draft is 90,369 words. Well, maybe I can shave 369 words in editing.

How do we do that? How do we predict the length of a book before we write it? I know that this time I really wanted to get to about that word count, but in the end it’s the story that dictates length, not my vague concepts of marketability. So while I had that number in mind all along, I never did anything simply to lengthen or shorten the novel to keep it on track. In fact, I wouldn’t have made it to 90,000 words if I hadn’t found a new character who required an entire additional section, and if the ending hadn’t gone a little longer than I anticipated. (On the other hand, I finished two weeks before my deadline.)

But I got to within 0.41% of my goal, so I guess that’s close enough. When I market it, I’ll round it down to 90,000 words anyway… Book marketing is one area where size really does matter.

Still, it’s not the most important aspect of the book. (The cover is.) It matters whether the reader enjoys it (although not as much as the cover). I’m still working on my elevator pitch. It’s a picaresque planet-hopping space opera inspired by the novels of the late, legendary SFWA Grandmaster Jack Vance. Loosely inspired by. Trying to emulate his style left me exhausted after half a page.

This was a different book for me, different subjects, different style, different structure. I think it worked out okay, although the ending does seem a bit problematic. But that’s what edits are for. The point, as it always is, was to get the first draft done. And I did.

The count now stands at 13 novels and one non-fiction book written. A total of 14. I think I’m due for a vacation.

#SFWApro

“A journey of a thousand Hugos begins with a single fan.”

When you’re sitting in your chair for years on end, sweating out story after story, trying to bear up under the weight of repeated rejections, wondering–and sometimes despondent–about your chances of ever becoming a published author, you dream of that (far-off?) day when you will open your email and find that Golden Ticket, a magical missive from an editor that says, “Thank you for sending us ‘My Fantastic Story.’ We would very much like to publish it.” And when you’re not having that dream, you’re having the other one, the one where you are a successful author with a bookshelf full of published work, a trophy or two on the mantel, a full-time writer making his living lying to people.

What you don’t realize then, as you’re thrilling to that first hypothetical sale and then basking in future glories, is the vast gulf that lies between the two extremes. It is true, of course, that for a select and fortunate few, that gulf does not exist, but this essay is not about them (and they have other problems anyway. So there, you “overnight successes” whose decades-long struggles nobody saw.)

Not being what you’d call bestseller material, most of my writer friends are swimming through that same gulf that I am. Quite a few are further ahead, some have novels out with major publishers, some are even award-winners. But nobody I’m personally acquainted with is so high in the pantheon not to remember what it was like to be dreaming of the least crumb of success that is the first step on the ladder–or the riches of bestsellerdom.

When you taste that crumb, that’s when you begin to appreciate the size of that gulf. It doesn’t help that you can’t see the other side (even if it’s at your feet). But there are signposts. For example, I have managed to wangle my way onto a few panels at a local convention, and when the World Fantasy Convention was local to me a while back, I used that experience to get on a panel. At the World Fantasy Convention. We’re talking big-time! And after one of my panels, a couple of fans approached and asked me for autographs.

At WFC, part of being panelist is that they have a mass autograph session, and you can plunk yourself behind a placard holding a pen, and await the eager hordes of fans desperate to score your autograph. So, emboldened, I threw my hat into the WFC ring, found my name at my table, and sat my butt down like I do most nights except this time instead of writing long passages of soon-to-be-edited fiction, I’d be scribbling my name and a few choice salutary bits, smiling a lot, and doing it all over again for the next happy fan.

Well, yeah, that’s the idea. And I was absolutely correct when I foresaw my role, except for the “fans” part. There were none. Didn’t sign a single book. I still enjoyed myself; the con brought refreshments to the authors, and I was treated just like everyone else, so that was cool. But no autographs.

I was reminded of that today by a fellow writer who had an author meet-and-greet at a con, and no one came. Kind of surprising, because that author’s a lot better known than I am. But there you have it. That’s some gulf.

I’m not a best-seller. I may never be one. The gulf stretches ahead of me and I still can’t see a thing. But I’m trying my best not to be discouraged. After all, a few people have asked for my autograph, I’m still selling stories, and most of all, I can remember what it was like when I didn’t know how wide that gulf was, or the doubts and fears that go with being a small-time author instead of a “pending” one. I remember dreaming those dreams.

And I’ve already seen one come true.

#SFWApro

This is the weirdest book! Now I’m writing word count updates, yet another thing I’ve never done before. A couple of weeks ago I was at 70,000 words and wondering how the last 20% of the book was going to go. Now I’m at 80,000 words, and I’m still wondering.

(Note: Yes, I’ve only written 10,000 words in the past two weeks. Progress has been uneven. When you consider that one day I wrote 1200 words, you can see just how uneven it’s been. On the other hand, there’s no law that says how quickly you must write.)

Specifically, I have pretty much everything–except you know the moment when the villain stands revealed, lecturing the subdued hero in a nasty snarl, detailing his plans to subjugate the galaxy, and suddenly the hero bursts his bonds, dips into his shoe for the blaster he nonchalantly dropped there three chapters ago, and saves the day? That’s the part I don’t have.

So if anyone is interested in buying a book with no climax, I have just the story for you. Otherwise, I need to stop counting words and start dropping fortuitous blasters into boots. Three chapters ago.

#SFWApro

For two days, April 23 and 24, 2021, the first book in my Stolen Future trilogy, The Invisible City, will be available on Amazon for free.

Weighing in at a comfortable 120,000 words, The Invisible City is the story of Charles Clee, a 20th century soldier who is accidentally transported over 800,000 years into the future, a time when millennia of scientific experiments have littered the planet with resurrected dinosaurs, mutated laboratory specimens, and abandoned cities haunted by bloodthirsty nightmares. Meanwhile, the Earth has been conquered by one of its former interstellar colonies, reducing humanity to a state of hopeless servitude.

Already hunted by the eon-spanning Time Police, Clee discovers he has few allies in this world of the future where his very existence as a time traveler makes him a fugitive, and possession of his ancient Army weapon marks him for death. Hoping only for a way home, he is forced to choose sides in a war that is not his own when the woman who has befriended him is kidnapped by one of the alien overseers. To save her, he will cross the world.

In the spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels, The Stolen Future is an adventure spanning strange cultures, stranger people, and an unknown world offering danger at every step.

In a normal book, the last 10% would be the easiest part to write, because the way my brain works, almost invariably I will have had a clear idea of the climactic scene in my head from the beginning, or close to it. This will be the scene that I have been writing toward for however-many-thousands of words, and my excitement at finally getting there often takes me through 7000 – 10,000 words in a rush that sees me doubling or even tripling my usual daily output. As I near the end, I know I can rely on beating my estimated completion date because of the frenzy of that final week.

Notice I said “a normal book.”

This one has not been a normal book. For one thing, I took time off of it to write another book. That’s never happened before. And then I worked on two other books (neither of which I have finished). But that’s only relevant because it means that while I know when I started drafting this one, I have no real idea how long it’s taken me to write it. I suppose after all these books (and I honestly can’t recall how many I’ve written; it’s around 14), it doesn’t matter even to me. How long does it take to write a book? How long is a piece of string?

More importantly, this book is not normal because I do not have an ending scene in mind. I know what I’m writing toward (more or less) because over the course of the book I have come to understand who the protagonist is, and how his journey will continue after (regardless of whether I write a sequel). I know how the supporting characters relate to him and to each other, and pretty much what happens to them, and critically, I know why they are acting as they are. But a big climax that’s been echoing through my brain for the past year? Not this time.

I don’t see how it could. You know how life is what happens while you’re making other plans? This book has been writing itself while I wrote it. I don’t know that I have ever had so many characters tell me what was going on while I thought I was telling their story. There are so many plot twists and revelations in this book that I did not know until they appeared on the page in front of me that I wonder what I thought I was doing when I started, since I plainly had no clue. Even the actions underlying some of the characters’ primary motivations were a mystery to me until half-way through (or more). When I say I didn’t know that the murder was committed by Mrs. White in the library with the wrench almost up until the moment when Nick Charles gathered all of the suspects in one room, I am not exaggerating. Heck, even I didn’t know what the mcguffin was until I was well into the story; I thought I knew, but I was wrong.

Not to mention that I planned for the book to be split into four roughly equal sections, and now it’s five, with an entire planet and plot line that I had no idea were going to be there. (Did I mention it was science fiction?) And there’s a major supporting character whose presence I had not anticipated until he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “What ho, old bean. Where do you want me?” I then had to wrestle with the question of whether I wanted him at all, leaning first one way and then the other before deciding where and how he fit in. Now I can’t imagine the book without him. He’s the impetus for the added section, without which this book would be way too short.

So instead of the last 10% being the easiest part of the book, the last 20% (comprising the final section) will likely be the hardest. It’s not just that I have to make the whole thing up (that applies to everything I do), but I have to make it make sense, and I don’t yet have a handle on how to do that. (Suggestions would be appreciated.)

Meanwhile, my characters, who have spent the last 70,000 words making my life miserable by whispering helpful (and unexpected) hints in my ear, are sitting on their hands and saying nothing at all. I think they’re laughing at me behind my back.

#SFWApro

Writing is like your body because:

You think the longer you live with it, the easier it will be to understand.

A thousand and one things can go wrong with it and no two people will ever agree why.

You can work and sweat and sculpt and rework but it will never reach the perfection you crave.

If you’re skillful enough, people will pay for the privilege of sharing it.

If you don’t show it off, people will tell you to flaunt it; if you flaunt it, people will criticize you for seeking attention.

No matter what’s inside, people will judge you by your cover.

Pain is a teacher.

The brain and the heart are both important.

And the number one reason why writing is like your body…

The best way to improve it is to exercise it regularly.

#SFWApro

It is with great humility and corresponding vanity that I accept the universal proposal that the Hugo Award be renamed the Brian Award. I would like to express similar appreciation for all of those who have supported the movement to have the Sturgeon Award rechristened the Lowe Award, and the Nebula Award as the Wormhole, in my honor.

If anyone has any further accolades to heap upon Your Humble Servant, please do not delay, as after today the opportunity will not recur for a year.

#SFWApro

Recently, I saw in my Facebook feed one of those memes that people insist on putting up that they assert describes the world, this one contending that if you are not where you want to be in life, it’s solely and completely your own fault for making bad choices. Although I usually ignore such things on the basis that it’s not worth fighting over someone else’s unsubstantiated opinion, this time I had to make a comment to the effect that “only people who’ve actually managed to succeed ever make pronouncements about how everyone else’s failure is his own fault.” Your typical working stiff would never say something so dismissive. Why was I so moved, you ask? Because I’m a writer, and writers have a nearly unique point of view on this question.

The truth is, the “you made your choices” argument is garbage. You are not defined solely by your choices; there are 7 billion other human beings on this planet and their choices affect you every minute, not to mention the sheer randomness of nature and the entropy of the universe. People can and do work all of their lives, make the best choices they are capable of making, and still get nowhere. It’s sad, but it’s true. Read a modern novel some time.

“A novel?” you ask. Yes, because as I said, writers have a POV that most people don’t, for two reasons:

First, writers spend most of their lives absolutely at the mercy of others. From the time we submit our manuscripts to the day our books are declared out of print (or we are), we don’t control our own fates. Editors accept or reject, and on their own schedule. Publishers pick marketing plans, covers, blurbs, prices… The public decides to buy or not to buy. Will your book become a movie? Don’t ask me, it isn’t my call to make. We don’t even choose to write; we have to. The only thing we control is whether to submit our work for publication.

Second, because we write, we understand power. No one will argue that power doesn’t run the world, and in a writer’s world, he is the only power. Characters are born, live, and die by our whim. (I still recall the first time I decided to resurrect a character in a subsequent draft.) Every book is a universe and we are its creator, imbued with absolute authority. If you think that doesn’t give you an understanding of power, try it sometime and see.

And yet, even we are subject to higher powers; in the end, it is the public (assuming the story gets that far) that decides if we have made the right choices. (Ironically, there is never a consensus.) The characters can’t make choices; if they did, I assume they would choose to be published, to be read. So if I, who have absolute control over my characters’ thoughts, emotions, actions, and lives, cannot control their destiny, how do I control my own?

This is not to say I’m a fan of nihilism and nothing you do makes any difference. That’s known as “giving up.” We’ve all been at that point, but usually we find a way to continue. And things, in the general sense, do get better. What I’m trying to say is that dismissing everyone else’s struggles as their own shortcoming is just a way of saying, “Nyahh, nyahh, I made it and you didn’t and I’m better than you.”

And you know what, if that’s your idea of success, then you’ve missed the whole point. And I don’t care how good your book is, I don’t want to read it.

#SFWApro

I knew March was going to be a month. For me, submissions tend to return in waves. It doesn’t matter when I send them out (although for some reason I do seem to send them out in bunches), they always come back in a deluge of (mostly) bad news. And between the things that should have come back in February and those that were simply coming due,I knew that March was going to be a trial.

It had gotten to the point where I was willing to welcome a rejection, since I had not gotten word on any of my submissions in a while. And I got my wish, since I’ve had six in the last five days–including three today. This is evidence of two things: One, just because you’ve had some sales doesn’t mean you’ll never get more rejections; ironically, it may mean you get more, because you’ve built up a catalog that you can send out as reprints.* Two, if you want to be a writer, you need a thick skin. Rejections are not personal (except for personal rejections), but they do hurt. You need to be able to weather that. It’s just part of the job.

Waking up to three rejections at once, though? That’s not a trial, that’s… well, it’s Thursday.

Honestly, though, today’s rejections didn’t hurt so much. For one thing, they were all reprints, and that “I’m never going to sell this thing” feeling is gone. And some of them were the kind of thing you just throw at a market to see what sticks. Your mantra should always be, “Don’t self-reject,” but you know when something is a long shot.

It also helps to get that story out again as soon as possible. I try to plan ahead so I know if a story comes back, I have another market in mind. (Saves time, too.)

And sometimes you just need to know that something is happening. When your fate is being decided maybe three thousand miles away by people you’ve never met using arcane methods you can’t begin to fathom, well… okay, that’s Congress. But also the publishing business.

So feel free to send a little sympathy in the direction of your favorite author (whoever that is), but don’t worry. The pendulum swings both ways, and the joy of success wipes out the pain of failure.

For a little while, anyway. As long as it’s not a Thursday.

*Seriously, as soon as you sell a story, start checking out its reprint possibilities. It’s found money.

#SFWApro