Newsletter #43

Dear People,

For a moment I thought was going to start somewhere else, but no: the big news this time is still that I’ve finished the plot for the next RCN (Leary/Mundy) space opera and expect to begin writing very soon. My working title is IN THE STORMY RED SKY, but that may change. Possibly to CRUISER CAPTAIN. I’ll run options by my demon support staff soon. 

The plot comes to a hair over 7K words, by the way–a middling length and I hope the Golden Mean for my purposes. I’m continually tinkering with a balance between time spent plotting and the actual writing. There isn’t really a correct answer–or an incorrect one, if you want to put it that way. I’ve always succeeded, after all. But it’s something to worry about, which I seem to require.

I created this plot from three incidents which took place in the period 215-210 BC. I took all of them from the same few books of Polybius, but they were unconnected and geographically separated. I’d never built a plot in quite that fashion before. Though I don’t think anybody could tell from the outside, there’s always variation in the way I work even on superficially similar books. I don’t do that consciously, but an awful lot of my writing goes on at a subconscious level. Maybe it helps to keep my stories fresh.

The other major thing that occurred recently is that my wife Jo and I had dinner with son Jonathan (whose birthday it was), daughter-in-law April, and grandson Tristan (whose birthday was the next day). When were returning home, a drunk in a 1979 Ford F-150 pickup crossed the centerline and hit us.

We’re fine, and Jo will have a new Ford Fusion soon (we’d bought this one in October, 2007). Problems that go away when you throw money at them aren’t real problems (if you have the money). And by the way, I can’t speak too highly of the way the Fusion behaves in a collision with a much bigger vehicle.

The driver blew .25 on the Breathalyzer. This at 6:30 PM on a Thursday evening. White Trash isn’t just a term of abuse in rural North Carolina.

Jonathan picked us up and brought us home, commenting that if we’d been killed it would’ve made his birthday really memorable. He’s his father’s son.

Speaking of which, there’s a new picture of three Drake generations up. Tristan continues to be cute. Jonathan continues to be big. I continue to be old.

I also finished my translation of the Calydonian Boar episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’ve been talking about doing this for several years, so it’s about time. (Well, actually, I was talking about the Erymanthian Boar, which doesn’t appear in Ovid. For a full explanation, see Newsletter 42.)

I do these translations because I take pleasure in them, but I gain a great deal from the necessarily close readings of the work of a master craftsman. Ovid had several problems here which may not be obvious to a modern reader. Because the episode was one of the best-known Greek myths, many communities claimed that a local hero was a member of the hunting party. (The crew of the Argo is a similar instance.)

Thus Ovid had important heroes like Theseus and Jason to deal with, but they couldn’t be allowed to kill the giant boar or to be killed/seriously injured themselves. It’s very hard to write interestingly about things that the reader knows aren’t important.

Furthermore, Ovid has to deal with over a dozen named characters, all doing more or less the same thing in a brief compass. This is enormously difficult to do well. For examples of it being done badly, read the Walterius, a Dark Age epic, or great deal of what passes for modern adventure fiction. (The Walterius has one good scene. Unfortunately, it’s repeated twelve times.)

Ovid succeeds, here and elsewhere in the Metamorphoses. He’s a wonderful model for a writer who may (for example) have to describe six combat cars overrunning an enemy camp.

There are two new FAQ answers up on the website, discussing cover art and writing. Mentioning the FAQs reminds me that sometimes a question will spark musings which wind up as a little essay for David Hartwell’s NY Review of SF. (The cover art question did.) It might be worth putting those essays somewhere on my site also.

The paperback of BALEFIRES, my fantasy/horror collection, will be out from Night Shade this Spring. (They say March, but they said November for HS3–volume three of THE COMPLETE HAMMER’S SLAMMERS.) The cover painting by David Palumbo is up on the news page. Jim Baen always emphasized to me that a cover should have a strong central image–but read my answer to the FAQ on cover art.

By the way, HS3 is out now. It’s another lovely book. I was a small press publisher myself (a partner in Carcosa) and we missed our first release date by a year. I know what it’s like.

THE GODS RETURN, the ninth and final book of the Isles fantasy series, will be a Tor hardcover in November, 2008. Donato is doing the cover again. (He told me at World Fantasy Con that he thought he owed me another with lots of figures. Given the amazing quality of all the covers he’s done for me, he doesn’t owe me a darned thing.) I’ll put it up when I have it.

The pb of SOME GOLDEN HARBOR, the fifth RCN space opera, is out now with the same Steve Hickman cover as the hc. I’m amazingly fortunate in my covers.

Hmm. I’m amazingly fortunate in life. I’ll get back to that.

When BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS by my friend Barry Malzberg came out as a Baen trade paperback, I mentioned that it was a unique and excellent blend of history, biography (including autobiography) and opinion by a man who lives (as I do) in the world of science fiction. That continues to be true.

The book is eligible for a Hugo. If you have a voting membership to the World SF Con, please nominate BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS. You will not find a better, or better written, book on the cultures of SF and of professional writing.

Sometimes good fortune doesn’t look like that at the time. Being drafted out of law school screwed up both me and my life beyond anything I could imagine before it happened. The decent kid I was before my tour in Viet Nam and Cambodia was gone, just as dead as if he’d stepped in front of a truck.

I’d started writing as a hobby in the ’60s when I was an undergraduate. If the army hadn’t sent me the places it did–and I don’t mean just the physical places, here–I’d probably have sold a few more stories in the ’70s. They’d have been competent and more intelligent than most, but they wouldn’t be any better remembered today than the stories of (say) Wyman Guin are.

Nam forced me to write to keep myself between the ditches. (As I’ve said before, I wasn’t consciously aware of what I was doing at the time. That’s another debt I owe to my subconscious.) More to the point, I had to write things that were more than just clever stories, even though for a year and a half nobody was willing to buy what I wrote.

Thus today I’m a writer instead of being a lawyer. There’s nothing intrinsically good about the one or bad about the other, so in itself that doesn’t matter.

There are lawyers who make the world a better place, who save innocent people from death row and suchlike; but I won’t have been one of them. I’m not a crusader now and I certainly wasn’t one before I was drafted. I’d just have been an ordinary citizen doing a necessary job which many thousands of other people could do as well.

Because of Nam, I’ve written fiction which has helped other people out of places as bad as the places my head’s been in. I didn’t do it out of generous impulse, I did it to recover part of myself. In fact, the most surprising thing I learned from the exercise was that I’m not alone in being screwed up in the ways I am. My stories told other people that they weren’t alone, and their response showed me that I’m not alone either.

One of these days I’m going to die. (It could easily have happened last Thursday night.) But even after I’m dead, there’ll be something I’ve created that’ll help other poor, screwed-up bastards for a time to come. I like to think that helping other people matters.

Hang in, folks; and please–don’t drink and drive. Nobody’s son needs a birthday quite as memorable as Jonathan’s almost was.

–Dave Drake

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