Newsletter #53

Dear People,

WHAT DISTANT DEEPS, the next RCN (Leary/Mundy) space opera, isn’t quite finished. It’s coming along fine and I’ve got well over 100K words in draft–but it just flat isn’t done. I’ll be a lot happier when it’s finished. Or–realistically; this is me we’re talking about–I’ll be a lot less miserable. 

Each of my books is different in structure and in the process of creation. (This may not be obvious to anybody who isn’t in my head while it’s all going on.) Each one therefore feels as though it’s going badly wrong as I write it, because it isn’t exactly the same as the ones before it. Certainly that’s how I’m feeling about this one.

Much of life is like riding a motorcycle: you learn what the limits of cornering traction are by exceeding them and going down. I’m a very placid biker, so almost all my serious problems have been the result of somebody else doing something that I couldn’t avoid.

As a writer, however, I’m not placid. One of these days, and maybe this very day, I may skid completely off the road. Whereupon I’ll pick myself up, limp home on the current book, and do it a different way the next time.

I tend to think that What Distant Deeps is going slowly. In fact it’s not: my average daily rate (a little over a thousand words of rough draft) is right where it usually is on normal days. There’ve been a lot of non-normal days during the past two months, particularly a neat family vacation to the Four Corners Region, but the book is really moving right along.

The thing is, the progress is hard even if it isn’t slow. The first climax of this one is a complex naval battle for which my plot outline is very sketchy. Every morning I had to choreograph the action as well as writing it, rather than just checking what I planned four months ago and proceeding.

Furthermore, as I got into the writing I realized that I needed an additional scene for artistic reasons, wrapping up a sequence earlier in the book. (This is very unusual for me. Usually I would have caught the problem in the outline stage.) So I’m in the process of mortising in new material, which is harder than it would have been to do the job right the first time. When I screw up, I _should_ be punished; nonetheless, the situation hasn’t helped my mood.

The mass market of THE GODS RETURN, the final volume in the Crown of the Isles trilogy and the Isles series more generally, is due out from Tor in December, 2009. I’m proud of the series for what it says, for how it says it, and not least for the fact that it really is a connected series which goes from point A to point B through nine volumes, all of which are basically self-standing. (Though if you read 7, The Fortress of Glass, I _really_ hope you’ll read 9, The Gods Return. The final trilogy has a number of strands which run through all three books and which will be disconcerting until followed to their conclusion.)

And the first omnitrade volume of THE COMPLETE HAMMER’S SLAMMERS is out from Baen Books this month (October, 2009. They reprint the contents (including John Treadaway’s interior art) of the Night Shade hardcover volumes (which are still available from Night Shade).

Omnitrades are somewhat bigger than traditional mass markets but are smaller than traditional trade paperbacks. Nobody’s sent me cover flats–I should ask–so I can’t tell you more than that. Kurt Miller’s striking art for all three volumes, however, is on my website.

Karen, my webmaster, is planning a major revision to the website for its tenth anniversary in April, 2010. Apparently the problem for people trying to navigate the site is that there’s really a lot of material there. This is a Good Thing, but it makes information retrieval difficult. I don’t know that the problem is solvable, but it’s being worked on. Currently, though, there’ve been only minor additions, which I’ll detail below.

Besides writing (and life generally) I’ve been going through the considerable number of photographs which I’ve taken over the years. This is an interesting process, because it takes me thirty and forty years into the past. That’s not always a good thing, but there are good aspects to it.

I’m really struck by the fact that I didn’t take enough pictures of people. There are more or less interesting buildings (the Dubuque Country Courthouse appears repeatedly over a period of thirty-odd years; it doesn’t change a heck of a lot in that time), and many, many pictures of (largely Roman) ruins, some of which I can identify.

None of these particularly matters to me now. For example, when I wanted a picture of the so-called Tomb of the Christian Woman built by Juba II in the First Century AD, it was easier to have Karen find it on line than to dig out the photos I took with my Minox in Algeria in 1980.

The pictures of friends (some of them writers) and family, many of whom are now dead–those I wish I’d taken more of. Still, there were some pleasant surprises: I’d shot a roll of slide film of Lee Brown Coye during a visit to his house in 1975. At some point these (or a selection of them) may appear on my website. For the future, though, I’m going to take more people pictures.

And I’ve had some recent opportunities to do so. As I mentioned above, my wife Jo and I spent nine days with the Knights, old friends, in the Four Corners Region. We saw many pueblos, cliff dwellings and rock formations, which I duly photographed [example at]; but I made sure I was getting pictures of my companions also. Their presence was more important to me that the scenery even at the time, and I know that if I live another ten or twenty years, the memory of them will have grown out of all proportion to that of Spider Rock. (Which I’m glad to have seen, however.)

There’s an odd, short interview with me for WritingRaw.  I answer whatever questions I’m asked, but sometimes my personal mindset is enough different from that of the interviewer that I’m not sure of the context.

And I had my birthday, which tends to depress me. Not because I’m 64–I’m in good physical and mental shape for a man of my age, and my emotional condition hasn’t gotten worse over the past 40 years or so. I tend around my birthday to take stock of the things in general, though, and even a bouncier person than I am would agree that the present world has its share of problems.

Nonetheless, my birthday has been an excuse for a pigpicking every year since the early ’70s. This year’s was great–perfect weather, perfect pig, and some of the best friends any man ever had. Cleverly (remember, I’d just gone through a lot of photographs) I gave my camera to a couple friends and told them to use it, so there are even pictures of me this time. Two of them are up on the web site.

I went to Constellation in Huntsville. The con was fun, though (as happened the previous time I’d gone there) the airline (different airlines) cancelled one leg of the flight. This time a NASA engineer drove me from Memphis to the door of the hotel, bless his heart.

In Huntsville, Lance Larka (who runs the David Drake Fan site on Facebook) gave me a tour of the gene lab he manages. It was amazing to see cutting-edge science at industrial scale. (The building is striking also, but I don’t suppose you need a picture of Eric Flint providing scale for a pair of fig trees in the atrium. I’ll go with a picture of Lance, Eric and me in the lab.)

I don’t have any new Ovid translations up at the moment, but I’ve read through the Hercules Cycle of the Metamorphoses and expect to do something serious with it as soon as I’ve finished the current space opera. I’m getting back into a Roman frame of mind. (The next project will be a Roman-based fantasy in series with The Legions of Fire, coming out from Tor in July, 2010.)

There have been a number of mentions of photos in this newsletter; here’s one more. I sent the essay I did as a forward for the Hammer’s Slammers role-playing game to the quarterly of my veterans’ group to reprint. When they ran it, I got notes from a couple buddies from 1970. One of them (Roger Brownell; he also took the picture of me at the top of the Nam section of my website,) sent an additional picture which is now included there.

As background, Viet Nam has a very high water table. My unit, the Blackhorse (and this may have been true of the US Army generally), disposed of human feces by burning it. You pull the tub (a cut-down 54-gallon drum) from under the hole of the latrine, pour in diesel fuel, and light it. After it burns down somewhat, you stir the remnants with an engineer stake to ensure adequate combustion.

I say “you.” In the rear base at Di An, we hired locals to do the job. In the field, it was the duty of the enlisted men–like me. Roger sent a picture of me on shit-burning detail in the field with First Squadron in July, 1970.

There are a number of things to note about the picture. It shows what I mean when I say I used to be thin. I’m not especially heavy now, but I’m a lot heavier than I used to be. And you can also see in the background the jungle in which we operated.

But the main thing is simply the job. I must’ve just lighted the tubs and was ducking out of the smoke until it was time to start stirring. Most people don’t have a notion of what it’s like to live in the expectation that in the next instant a bullet will zip by or a mine will go off under your vehicle, but if you’ve ever cleaned a catbox or stepped in the wrong place in the dark, you’ve got some feeling for this.

And this wasn’t the bad part. The permanent expectation of sudden death or maiming was the bad part.

1970 had a number effects on me. Many writers get remarkably full of themselves if they’ve had a little success (and in some cases when they haven’t). One of the reasons that didn’t happen to me was that I knew very well what the measure of my worth was in the world’s terms: a person suitable for burning human feces in the hot sun while occasionally getting shot at.

Another aspect is that the experience made me very hard to bully when I got back to the World. No matter what this editor or that reviewer might do, I would remain in a better place at the end of their abuse than I had been in the past.

Those are both valuable things, and they’ve contributed considerably to my success as a writer.

The downside is that I pretty well gave myself up for dead in 1970. That has affected me in a number of ways, generally bad ways. It presumably has a good deal to do with my ongoing depression.

But I’m functional, and I’m intellectually aware of how very good my life really is. And you know? I’ve come a really long way from July, 1970.

–Dave Drake

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