Thursday, January 30, 2014

Path to Publication, Part IV: Further Flailing And False Starts

All right, so, NaNo 2003 proved one thing: I can finish a novel, right?  So I'm all set and can just charge forth with this novel-writing thing.  Right?

Yeah, not so much.  The next few years were dire.

I attempted to throw a lot of stuff at the wall, and have a handful of failed manuscript beginnings based on that. A big manuscript graveyard. There was, for example, Long Night of the Pieman, a non-genre attempt to turn my experiences as a late-night pizza delivery guy into a kind of shaggy-dog novel.  Because, I mean, I have stories from those nights, and that would totally work as a novel.  Right?

Never quite came together. Attempting that as a NaNo was a failure as well.

So I also decided to really move forward with the fantasy stuff.  I had Fifty Year War after all, right?  So I kept editing that, and then reworked that diplomatic-outpost idea to a traveling ship.   Some of the same characters, but I was so pleased with myself because I was making them active, having them go places instead of having stuff happen in their orbit.  This was the real start of Crown of Druthal

But yet it wasn't coming together.

So I tried to force myself, this time with my Space Opera idea.  I set up a website (that doesn't exist anymore, and was so off-road in terms of traffic, I doubt it was even archived), with the idea that every week I would post up 3,000-5,000 words worth of a serialized USS Banshee.  After all, if I'm doing that, and there's an audience expecting it, I can't let them down, can I?

Of course, the audience never came, and that was a hot mess of a story.  Those two things are likely connected.

Then in 2005 I went to the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop, using the first chapter of Crown as my submission.

Friends, I was so damn cocky about that first chapter.  I honestly felt I would go in and get solid notes, but essentially praise, thumbs up, and pats on the back.  That is not what happened.  AT ALL.

And it totally deserved that.  Because it was a mess.  My writing was a mess, flat out.  I needed to get it together.

IF I HAD SELF-PUBLISHED AT THIS POINT:  Well, in a way, I kind of did try with the USS Banshee project.  I mean, I just put it out there, no gatekeepers, and let the people find it, with word of mouth and stuff?  Right?  Yeah, except it was a mess.  No one found it, or if they did, they certainly didn't talk about it.  And why would they?  The most charitable thing you could say about it was that it was a charming hang-out story with a handful of lower-deck characters on a starship, and the only thing that separate it from being mediocre Star Trek fanfiction was that it wasn't actually set in the Trek universe.  So there you have it: mediocre fanfiction of a setting no one else knew but me.  Yeah. 

BUT DID I LEARN ANYTHING BY NOW?:  Yes.  Characters at the center.  For better or worse, with both Banshee and Crown, I had gotten the core idea of coming up with having characters to anchor the story, and writing unique voices for those characters.  I still hadn't come up with things for them to do, or refrained from pointless worldbuilding or historical tangents.  For real, that first chapter I brought to the workshop?  In less than 5,000 words, I not only had extraneous paragraphs about wine or mustard, there is a nearly 2,000 word side-story about how and why the main character's uncle was elected to Parliament.  An Uncle who, I should point out, wasn't going to appear in the story beyond that first chapter of putting the main character on the ship.  So, with the workshop, I was starting to get the idea that not every bit of backstory needed to be told.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Path to Publication, Part III: The Terrible Dread of NaNoWriMo

OK, so, I've knocked on NaNoWriMo before.  I honestly think it's a good exercise, a way to learn your writing habits, figure out how to write a novel, and understand the way you work.

I don't think it's a good way to get great work.

This, of course, took first-hand learning.

The three years after the failed project fell apart involved several false starts for novels, most of which were connected to the worldbuilding work I had done in the fantasy setting.  I had done tons of detail work and history work-- work that still stands, as it is the world that Thorn and Mages is set in.  And I think a big part of the challenge I had to get over was understanding that just because I had done all that worldbuilding work, it didn't mean I had to share it all.

What I had kind of settled on was the idea of writing a series that was the proto-Crown of Druthal, though it was set in an embassy instead of a ship.  But the "Explain All The Things" part of my brain felt I had to properly set things up.  That readers would need to know the WHOLE STORY to make sense of things. 

I think this is a trap fantasy writers often fall into. 

Anyhow, this became the central idea behind what I would make my 2003 NaNoWriMo project: The Fifty Year War.  A novel which would flesh out the history of the war between Druthal and Poasia.  You know, the stuff that readers would be dying to know.

Now, I did succeed as a NaNoWriMo, writing around 53,000 words in November.  And the "finished" first draft was around 60K. 

But it was horrible.

It was a novel in which I had clearly absorbed all the wrong lessons from Isaac Asimov and David Weber.   It was a novel by the way of interconnected novellas, like Foundation, but unlike Foundation, there was no central theme or core to carry it through.  And certainly no core characters.  The closest thing to a central character wasn't a character, but a series of descendents in the same family who serve in the war.     It was a novel in which, like Weber's Honor Harrington books there are several meetings, in which people you never met before and won't meet again tell each other things that you don't care about. 

Fifty Year War was a book with no heart, no soul, and certainly nothing resembling a proper plot.   It comes across as a bad prequel to a thing that didn't exist yet, hitting the notes to set things up in a perfunctory way, without any sense that those set-ups existed for any organic reason beyond "set things where they needed to be".

IF I HAD SELF-PUBLISHED AT THIS POINT:  At the time I really believed in Fifty Year War, though for the life of me I don't know why I thought that.  It isn't an interesting work, but if the means had been a bit more convenient at the time, I might have convinced myself it should be self-published.  And I would have been wrong, because it is awful.  Further revisions made it less awful, but it is such a mess at its core, no amount of editing could save the patient.  So, if I had put it out there, it would have failed, and it would have felt like a toxic albatross on my name and the world I had built. 

BUT DID I LEARN ANYTHING BY NOW?: At this point, the main thing I had learned was-- roughly-- the discipline behind writing a novel, the level of planning that needed to go into getting it done.  But even then, I was still untempered.  I needed to figure out what a novel was beyond "a whole lot of writing".  But reaching the point of sitting down and writing a novel-like-object to completion was something of a milestone.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Path to Publication, Part II: Early Days Of Writing Garbage

So, way back in 2000, I was talking a certain amount of talk about the idea of writing novels, and had a number of little snippets of stories.  Fits and starts.  I also had the starts of worldbuilding-- more broad brushstrokes stuff than real details.  A world with a handful of nations that could mostly be described with a couple of sentences.  But I certainly didn't have anything concrete that I could consider real writing work, or even anything that was properly on its way to being real something acceptably novel-like.

And then came the strange offer.

Through a friend-of-a-friend, I was brought into a project involving a fledgling gaming company.  They were gearing up to release a new RPG system, and a series of rulebooks to go along with it.  The game was supposed to be a sort of universal-system, usable in any fantasy setting, but they wanted there to be a "house setting" that they could present, and the worldbuilding I had done was the setting they wanted.  And they wanted some tie-in novels to support the setting.

I really was not ready for this.

For one, I needed to get the worldbuilding to a level that was sufficiently organized and comprehensible to someone who wasn't me.  For another, I needed to have something that could at least be a start to these tie-in novels that they wanted.

Except, of course, part of the problem was they weren't really sure what they wanted.  I'm not in any way going to say that I was writing great stuff that they ought to have run with... but they were never able to articulate what it was they were looking for.  I never even quite got a straight answer of whether they really wanted novels or something else. 

What I did know is that they had 100 ISBNs.  I'm not sure if anything ever came about.  The project didn't so much fall apart as peter out.  I don't even know what happened to the people behind it.   Communication just stopped after a certain point, and nothing more came of it.

As part of the process of this, I ended up with the beginning of something, a beginning that was for all intents a travelogue-in-discussion.  Really.  While things happened, what happened was more or less a thing excuse for the main characters to be able to discuss each nation in the world in broad brushstrokes.  While it was very rough, a lot of what was in this bit were the beginning seeds of what would eventually become the (deservedly trunked) Crown of Druthal.  But that was a long way off.

The only other thing I had done of substance was about six chapters of a thing I was calling A Convergence of Angels on the I-35, which was more or less a sort-of-urban-fantasy-by-way-of-Tom-Robbins. 

IF I HAD SELF-PUBLISHED AT THIS POINT:  The big question behind that would have been what, exactly?  Now, it wasn't so much an option in the way it is now... but if it had been, I might have convinced myself that the travelogueish start was the first entry in something to be serialized.  But really it was an amateurish mess with snippets of amusing dialogue.  It would have, deservedly, gone nowhere.

BUT DID I LEARN ANYTHING BY NOW?: I might argue that I was starting to get an idea of dialogue, and differentiating characters with that.  I was starting to get an idea of what the scope of writing a novel might entail, much like a guy who ran a little track in high school would start to understand there was more to running a marathon than "keep running until it's 26 miles". 

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Path To Publication

I've been asked, especially recently, why I chose the path of traditional publishing over trying one of the avenues of self-publication.  Frequently in the past, I was more or less told I was making the wrong choice. 

Once I was even told, "You just want to see your book in bookstores." 

I found this a fascinating rebuke.  Of course I want to see my books in bookstores.  That's where people buy books.  I mean, yes, the digital models have made the methods of distribution more diverse, but they haven't eradicated the old ones.  The old ones are still pretty vibrant.  The old ones are still how quite a few readers acquire their books.  Why would I want to deliberately exclude those readers?

Now, I won't say that self-publishing is wrong in a vacuum, in that every person's situation is unique. There can be really good reasons to do it.  However, I think there are also very wrong reasons to do it.  This is the sorts of argument I see:

"Unfortunately there are thousands of us out there who can't even get a publisher to look at our work so it's self-publish or nothing!"

I find this either/or look at it interesting.  "Self-publish or nothing!"  Why is "Try to write better" not a consideration?   I wonder how many of these people declared defeat before really trying.  They bought into the myth that it can't be done, so they didn't bother.

It isn't easy.  John Scalzi just recently compared it to playing in major league baseball, and I think that's pretty apt.  It's long, hard work, and it takes patience and perseverance.  

So over the next few entries, I'm going to talk about my path to this point.  As part of that, I'm going to include "If I had self-published at this point" along each step of the journey.  Because, as I said, I don't think self-publishing is definitively the wrong path to take... but it would have been the wrong path for me.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

And now... breathe

So, that happened.  There's pretty much nothing I can post today that wouldn't be a come-down after that enormous news. 

That's all right, because that news is big enough for a few days.

But the question is, now what? Right now, I'm kind of in the eye of the storm.  Things are about to gear up, but they haven't yet.  Things on the horizon: final edits, cover art, galley proofs, release, etc., etc.  I'm really looking forward to the whole process, and I'll make an effort to be transparent enough so that people who are coming up the road behind me can learn a thing or two from my process.

So, for the time being, I just get my bearings. 

And read over my outlined plans for sequels for Thorn and Murder of Mages.  Because now I've got a very good reason to start working on those.

All right, if I'm being honest, I've already started work on Thorn II.

Because let's face it... this process of waiting, wondering when this was going to happen, even if it was going to happen... that's been a huge weight on my shoulders.  Now I can put that burden down.  But it's not time to rest.  It's time to run.  It's time to fly.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Big news.

That's really the only way to say it.

Big, huge, life-changing news.

I've sold Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages (which, if you've been reading this blog for a while, I had been calling Maradaine Constabulary) to DAW Books, who are distributed by Penguin.  As you can imagine, this is a huge deal for me.

If you've been following this blog for a while, then you probably know that I've been sticking to my guns about going the route of traditional publishing.  People kept trying to sell me on the idea that you can't get an agent, that you can't break through and be signed by a major publisher, unless you already know someone or have an in.  That it was impossible and in this day and age you should just forget it.  Don't bother, it can't happen.

Yes it can.

If all goes according to plan, Thorn should be out before the end of 2014, and Mages by mid-2015.  

I am beyond overjoyed.  It's been a long path to reach this point, where the journey can truly begin.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Worldbuilding: Neighborhood Map

I've got a lot on my plate this week, so today's post is a quick one.

Namely, it's a map of the neighborhoods of Maradaine where Thorn of Dentonhill takes place: Aventil, Dentonhill and the University of Maradaine.

This map also shows the territories of the seven street gangs that dominate the Aventil neighborhood.  I don't do the same for Dentonhill because that neighborhood really doesn't have the same divisions.  Mister Fenmere controls everything up to Waterpath.

But Aventil is a far more fractured neighborhood, as the map clearly shows. 

All right, into the word mines I go.  Later.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Award Eligibility for 2013

It's that time of year where award nominations are starting to be made.  Amazingly, I've actually been asked if I'm eligible for anything.  I'm not big on blatantly campaigning for such things, but for the sake of accuracy:

My story "Jump the Black" in Rayguns Over Texas would be eligible for any sort of short story award, such as the Hugo for Best Short Story.  But I would be negligent if I didn't mention that there's a lot of good stuff in Rayguns that would also be eligible, like Nicky Drayden's "The Atmosphere Man" or Stina Leicht's "Texas Died for Somebody's Sins But Not Mine", just to name two.  There are fourteen* more in there also worth checking out.

Also, with the publication of "Jump the Black", I'm eligible for the Campbell Award.  And if you are in the position to nominate for the Campbell, then... well, you should nominate Wesley Chu.  Really.  But after you do that, and you still have a nominating slot that you can't bear to leave empty, I certainly wouldn't complain if you put me in there. 

Strictly speaking, this blog itself, with 104 entries in 2013, is probably eligible for something like "Best Fanzine" or "Best Related Work", or something along those lines.

And that's it.  

*- Two stories are reprints, and thus not eligible for awards, I would think.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Worldbuilding: Aliens and Daily Rhythms of Life

So: get up in the morning, shower, dress, breakfast.  Commute to work, work throughout the morning, take some time for lunch, back to work until the end of the evening.  Commute home, have dinner, attend to duties of household and family, engage in some sort of minor recreation activity before settling down for (preferably) eight hours of sleep to repeat the following morning.

An average day for the average person in modern day North America.

But if you expand it to all the humans on Earth, then it's a different story.  Different rhythms, different daily rituals.  Although most humans prefer to operate in the daytime and sleep at night, even that is hardly universal. 

So, of course, for alien species, the "daily" rhythm is going to be something quite different.  Even what might be considered a "day" to them could be very different, depending on their biological needs and the rotation of their homeworld. 

I started thinking about this more and more with Banshee.  As with many things in that work, I thought about something that was sort of taken for granted on Star Trek, and inverted it.  Namely, the way the time schedules work.  Sure, they use "star dates", so it isn't just exclusively using the Gregorian Calendar, but the day-to-day is still very human.  Life on the Enterprise or Voyager is still a 24-hour day*, and the duty roster is split into three eight-hour shifts.  There's still a "night" shift**, which is incredibly arbitrary in space.   It's not like things are quieter or less active because of when you decided to schedule your sleeptime.

But what's fascinating is, at least on Trek, there isn't even much lip-service to the idea that Klingons, Vulcans, Trill or any other species might be on a different life-cycle.  One exception: Phlox on Enterprise, whose need for sleep is essentially a six-day hibernation every year. 

Now, part of the fun I've had on Banshee involved taking that to an extreme: you have a ship with eleven different species, and each species is on a different rhythm.  To the point that the higher-ups don't even bother setting a schedule or "ship's time".  You need to sleep, eat, or deal with other biological functions?  Go ahead.  That's your priority, and you deal with it as you need.  It's not for anyone else to say you can't do that.

For a human officer, used to a strict regiment and set duty roster... that's very disconcerting.  But that's part of what she needs to learn to deal with.

*- On Deep Space Nine, they at least had a 26-hour day, which was based on Bajor, but even still: hours.  And the rest still applies.
**- "Night" shift might be on some universal-ship time throughout Starfleet, but it seems to be more, "When the Captain is sleeping, that's the night shift". 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A New Year and a New Horizon

At this point I usually like to talk about What's To Come in my intended year.  But first, let's look at what my goals were last year at this time:

1. Book deals for Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew, and Maradaine Constabulary. Well, I did not get book deals for all three.  So the highest goal I set did not come to pass.  But who knows what tomorrow will bring?

2. Finish Rough Draft of Way of the Shield.  Done.

3. Finish Rough Draft of Banshee.  About 2/3 to 3/4 done.  Not too shabby.

4. Attend my first Worldcon.   Which I did, and in being part of the presentation for Rayguns, I had a good reason to be there.  So: Done.

5. Have a good reason to start second books of Thorn, Holver Alley or Constabulary.  See point 1, as before. I do have them well planned, should that good reason arise in the near future.

6. Hash out some of these random ideas into usable outlines.   I actually have done this.  I've parsed out characters, worldbuilding, and structure for a piece-- as well as knocking out a few thousand words to start it out-- of a potential future project. 

7. Never give upYup. 

So for 2014?  Everything about that isn't done, keep doing.

Also: I'll be running the Writer's Workshop for ArmadilloCon this year.  Expect me to be talking more about that in the coming days.

Happy New Year!  Good luck in the word mines!