Newsletter #56

Dear People,

I’m in the middle of the third chapter of MONSTERS OF THE SEAS, the second (of four) novels in my new fantasy series for Tor. It’s moving along at the usual comfortable rate… which as usual isn’t nearly as fast as I wish were the case.

The problem that’s particularly concerning me at the moment is that I’m writing the second book in a new series. I want to open with sufficient background for a reader who hasn’t read the first novel (THE LEGIONS OF FIRE) but without boring the reader who _has_ read LEGIONS.

Now, I’ve faced this general problem many times in the past–since July, 1971, in fact, when I started writing a second Roman-period fantasy story involving Vettius and Dama, the heroes of the final story I sold to August Derleth. This is the first time I’ve had to address the situation with _this_ series, however. I’m still getting a feel for how much to tell and what to pass over.

If I get the pacing wrong, well, I’ll be repeatedly editing my text. Eventually I’ll come to what I think is the correct balance.

I’ve learned to live with the fact that the writing never goes as quickly as I’d like it to. I just keep plodding forward. Plodding forward isn’t a bad philosophy of life; for me, at any rate.

I mentioned THE LEGIONS OF FIRE, due out from Tor in May. As I write this I haven’t even seen dust jackets, but the cover treatment (with art by Donato) is stunning. I don’t view these newsletters as sell-copy, but I do suggest that in a month or so you go down to your local bookstore and look at a copy. If it’s as pretty as the jpg leads me to expect, you’ll get a visual treat.

I’m worried that nobody will like LEGIONS because it’s genuinely different. I’m using a setting very like that of Early Imperial Rome, and the characters behave like men and women of their time and place. That means they–my heroes–don’t always behave in fashions that modern Americans would approve.

I’m an American and proud of it… but I’m not telling any secrets if I say that we Americans tend to be parochial. It often crosses my mind that I’d sell more books if my characters had the attitudes and sensibilities of the largest possible number of potential readers.

The thing is, I couldn’t write that sort of thing if I tried, and there’s no reason I _should_ try. If money were my primary goal, I’d still be a practicing attorney. LEGIONS is the book that appealed to me to write, and I’m hoping it will appeal to a considerable number of readers. That’s what I’ve done ever since I started writing for publication. Sometimes things work out better commercially than they do on other times.

If a writer isn’t willing to take a chance, he’ll never grow, never improve. The downside of taking chances is that sometimes you fall on your face; I’ve certainly fallen on my face in the past. Wish me luck, people.

The paperback of IN THE STORMY RED SKY, an RCN (Leary/Mundy) space opera, is due out from Baen in August, with the hardcover of its sequel, WHAT DISTANT DEEPS, to follow in September. The lovely Steve Hickman covers for both are up on the news page.

I’ve had questions about availability on SERVANT OF THE DRAGON, the third volume in the Isles fantasy series which I did for Tor (recently completed with THE GODS RETURN, the ninth book in the series). You should be able to read any of my books without even knowing that it’s part of a series, but general readers may not expect that to be true. Furthermore, SERVANT appeared to be out of print, not just out of stock. I therefore checked with Tor as to whether it would be reprinted.

After discussion with Tom Doherty, the Publisher, a reprint of SERVANT has been slotted for December, 2010. This is good, but it sort of bemuses me.

You see, I’m old enough to remember the days before Corporate Publishing, when a publisher would reprint 5K copies of a successful book for stock without thinking anything about it. That’s no longer the case at any house I know of, except for Baen Books.

A couple years ago, Tom and I were chatting. He asked if he should reprint my Tom Kelly thrillers (which he really likes). I told him SKYRIPPER was pretty dated, but that FORTRESS had technically been an alternate universe novel and had some good stuff in it. He said he’d reprint FORTRESS.

The Tor legal department got in a tizzy: they couldn’t find the contracts from 1983 and were sure they didn’t have the rights after 25 years. Well, I couldn’t either–they’re with some very old tax records, I suspect–but I told them just to go ahead and pay me on the standard royalty schedule. They weren’t willing to do anything so simple, and the business obviously wasn’t worth the rigmarole of a complete new contract.

So despite both the author and the publisher wanting the book to be reprinted, the corporate bureaucracy was unwilling to do so–and the book wasn’t reprinted. I understand this–I’m an attorney, after all–but I miss the old days when Tom and I would verbally shake hands and the thing would happen.

And as I said, Baen Books is still that way. I’m sure this makes lots of bookkeeping problems, but you know–the business of a publishing house is to publish books. Everything else should be subordinate to that purpose.

I believe I said in a previous newsletter that the third volume of THE COMPLETE HAMMER’S SLAMMERS would come out from Baen as an omnitrade pb in July, 2010. It’s really going to be November, 2010. The fine Kurt Miller art is up on the news page, and copies of the Night Shade hardcover are still available.

Speaking of me being wrong, I had told people I expected to be at NASFiC. It now looks as though I will be in England on or about that time, so I will _not_ be at NASFiC. I’m not at my best at large, general cons, so I don’t regard missing this one as much of a burden.

We’re approaching ten years since my website went live. My webmaster, Karen Zimmerman (who has hired her daughter Ali for some specialized matters) is at work on a complete rebuild using modern software. We aren’t sure of the timing, but it ought to happen within the next two months.

The main purpose of the changes is to make site navigation easier. The sheer bulk–I’ve really got a lot of content–means that’s still going to be a challenge, but by now we have a better idea of what people will want to learn from the site.

And possibly within the next two months, I’ll finish my translation of the Hercules Cycle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s a long section, and I’m doing it in chunks of twenty or so lines at a time.

I find translating settles me usefully on mornings when I just don’t feel like working because I think what I’ve been doing is crap. The Roman(ish) setting of the book I’m working on (and indeed, the fact that the action opens with scenes from the life of Hercules) make these passages particularly appropriate, but there’s more to it than that.

Ovid raised craftsmanship to the level of art. His work is a constant reminder of how good somebody can be if he simply buckles down and does his job to the best of his ability.

I recently attended CoastCon in Biloxi. People couldn’t have been nicer, and I had a pleasant time. (There are a couple pictures up, though none of the con itself.)

Perhaps because of the large gaming presence, there was a lot of emphasis on my Military SF. The subject of one panel was “Why is Military SF So Popular Today?”

The truth is, Military SF isn’t and never has been terribly popular. In a place like Biloxi, with many military bases in the immediate vicinity, one can imagine that it is, but in truth my fantasies and my space operas outsell my Military SF by a considerable margin.

Now–there are battles of various sorts in my RCN space operas, just as there are in Dave Weber’s Honor Harrington space operas, Eric Flint’s 1632 Alternate Universe novels, and John Ringo’s near-future techno-thrillers. None of these series are Military SF in my opinion.

John’s Posleen series _is_ Military SF and sells very well, but that’s the exception in the Baen list. My Hammer’s Slammers series is Military SF and has a consistent, respectable sale for over 30 years, but not an enormous sale in any single year.

I have just listed the major players in the Baen list, a group that Lois Bujold will (re)join when her new Miles Vorkosigan space opera is published. Baen is the house most identified with Military SF–and even at Baen, it isn’t a critical factor.

But it’s instructive to note the consistency of sales of the modern Military SF category (starting basically in the mid-’70s with Jerry Pournelle’s Falkenberg series, Joe Haldeman’s Forever War series, and my Hammer’s Slammers). While I was writing the early Hammer stories, I also wrote quite a lot of horror. I stopped writing horror in about 1980, shortly before Category Horror took off.

My agent quite reasonably pushed me to write horror novels in the ’80s. I refused because I didn’t want to put my head back into that place, but I assumed I was giving up a chance to write more commercially successful books.

In the ’90s Category Horror crashed, taking with it some careers. Military SF continued to trundle along, and I patted myself on the back for my decision.

But recently I’ve come to realize that I couldn’t possibly have written a commercially successful horror novel even if I’d been willing to try. My mindset–the mindset I brought back from Nam–was far too harsh for a genre intended to sell to an educated but not literary female readership.

The problem isn’t that I wasn’t good at writing horror, it was that my version of real horror simply horrified people. (_Smokie Joe_ is capable of doing that still today.) I pushed the wrong buttons, and I pushed them very hard.

My mindset was commercially acceptable in Military SF, however, which sold largely to soldiers and veterans. These were people who’d been the places I had been, many of them. Some, like me, were still there. They understood and accepted the truth of a story like _The Interrogation Team_, whereas even my agent admits that he’d been unwilling to publish _Smokie Joe_ when he was editing what he claimed was a no-holds-barred horror anthology.

I’m a nicer, better balanced person now than I was 40 years ago. I write novels that relatively larger numbers of people can appreciate.

But I owe a lot to Military SF. It was, and I think it remains, the only genre which allows a writer to explore the truly darkest corners of his heart without a serious commercial penalty.

Now back to my current life as a happy-go-lucky Pollyanna, as all my friends will testify.

–Dave Drake

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