Newsletter #66

NEWSLETTER 66: January 5, 2012

Dear People,

Jeepers, a new year yet again. I hope you all–and all of us–have a good one.

I’m at work on the plot for my next Tor fantasy, which at the moment I’m calling Demons from the Earth. By ‘working’ I mean that I have detailed (though not polished) scene-by-scene descriptions of the first five chapters (I hope more by the time you read this) as well as a pile of more or less organized material sufficient to fill the remaining two-thirds of the plot. I’ve got some 3K words at the moment.

I’ll polish the plot after I complete it; then I’ll write the book. Nothing is certain (after all, Elijah on good authority was translated directly to heaven without passing through death), but at this point I’d say that completing the novel is just a matter of time. (And a lot of work, of course, but I’ve never minded work.)

Getting to this stage is a considerable relief. Gathering material for a plot takes time. I go over old notes, make new ones, doodle possibilities (mostly in the form of letters to friends). At some point (and this is the magic) it starts to go together. After that the process is similar to working on a jigsaw puzzle: stuff has to fit properly, but there’s a form into which I’m fitting it.

But until the plot starts to gel, there’s the lurking fear in the back of my mind that maybe things aren’t going to start fitting this time. Since I don’t know (not really) how the process works, I’ll have no warning that it isn’t going to work for this book–for the rest of my life.

There was another factor on Demons: the immediately previous project wasn’t a novel but rather the plot for a novel, Into the Maelstrom. I’m good at plotting and I rather like to do it, but plotting a complex novel (all of mine for at least the past twenty years have been complex) takes ten-tenths mental effort. Writing, even at its most demanding, doesn’t take that much concentration.

So: this plot seemed like unusually hard work and it may have taken me longer than some have (I’m not sure that’s objectively true), but that didn’t mean that my brain had turned to sludge. Which of course was what I was afraid of before the parts started fitting together.

While plotting I’ve written two essays of which I’m rather proud. One will be an afterword to the new Baen edition of Heinlein’s Assignment in Eternity (I assume it’s due out in 2012). The task caused me to think of Heinlein as a working professional writer rather than the exalted figure he’s been to me ever since I began reading SF seriously.

I compared the book versions (which I assume are the author’s preferred texts) with the original magazine appearances of the stories. Heinlein in the ’40s was edited with the same callous contempt as I was thirty years later, which isn’t a conclusion I expected to reach.

The second essay was… well, odd. Barnes and Noble are doing a Military SF week some time in January (for all I know it’s happening now), and the blog is echoing B&N. (specifically Irene Gallo, Tor’s art director) asked me to do an essay for them. She said any connected subject was fine, but they thought I could do a history of the subgenre.

Well, I could do a history. The problem is that I work in the subgenre myself, and that could lead to all sorts of recriminations. My essay on Golden Age SF was controversial (among people who didn’t realize how ignorant they were), but nobody claimed that I was banging my own drum. Anything I said about Military SF as a whole would lay me open to that charge; and because I’m human, accusations of the author’s self-interest might have an uncomfortable amount of truth to them.

I flirted for a bit with discussing the EC war comics of my childhood (Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales) and reread a block of them, but then I got a better idea. I wrote my essay on The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears, a 1949 story by Keith Bennett, a one-shot author. I first read it when I was thirteen. I’ve reread it repeatedly, and it simply gets better each time.

I did my essay on that story, illustrating its implications with anecdotes from the 1970 US invasion of Cambodia. The result turned out to my satisfaction, but I was pretty sure that Tor wouldn’t print it. (Or whatever it is when something is published electronically. Published, I guess.)

To my surprise, Irene accepted it immediately without hesitation or cavil. Her actions throughout the process were decisive, intelligent, and–because I didn’t write pablum–showed courage.

The essay should be up at some point within the month. I’m proud of it.

Voyage across the Stars is probably out: at any rate, I’ve had my author’s copies for a couple weeks now. It’s an attractive package combining Cross the Stars and The Voyage, space operas set in the Hammer universe and based on Greek epics (The Odyssey and The Argonautica respectively).

The turn of the year makes me thoughtful if not precisely sad. I wrote Cross the Stars in the early ’80s: Jim Baen acquired it for Tor before he left to found Baen Books. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it was thirty years–and Jim’s been dead for more than five.

Well, Jim isn’t dead in my heart or in my memories. And I have vivid memories of writing both the novels collected here, so maybe they weren’t so distant either.

I’ve read the proofs of The Road of Danger, the next RCN space opera. They were extremely clean, having been set from the electronic files over which I made multiple edit passes. I know that this level of polish doesn’t make my books sell noticeably better. In a strictly economic sense, I’ve wasted four days on proofs which I could have spent writing fresh material for which I would be paid.

But if I were thinking in strictly economic terms, I wouldn’t be a writer. My prose is important to me for reasons which have nothing to do with money: it’s something I can control, and it gives me the illusion that my life is to some degree under control.

So I do multiple drafts, and I read proofs… and I become irrationally angry when a copyeditor introduces error into something which I’ve done correctly. Mind, people should not be paid to make the world a worse place than it would be without them; and some copyeditors do just that.

I’ve added to the website (my webmaster has added) a short discussion of Manly Wade Wellman and the song Vandy, Vandy. Manly, like Jim, is still with me, thank goodness.

Bull Spec is a quarterly focusing on speculative fiction in the Research Triangle region of NC. The next issue (due out momentarily) has a review of Into the Hinterlands; an interview with me and John Lambshead about writing the book; and tributes to me by Mark, John, and Toni.

All I will say about those last is that I wish I were the man my friends think I am.

I get frequent queries as to why my books aren’t available in Kindle editions or more generally why they aren’t available electronically. They are, particularly from Baen Books. Yes, Kindle editions also.

Mentioning the fact here probably won’t help (I suspect splashing it in big red letters across my home page wouldn’t prevent people from peevishly asking the same question), but my webmaster suggests I note that the sale site for Ebooks has recently become a lot easier to use.  It’s being handled now by a thoroughly professional outfit, Principled Technologies, which not-coincidentally is run by my friend (and Baen author) Mark Van Name.

Speaking of Baen, as I regularly do here and elsewhere, I just did a five-book extension with Toni to give me nine books under contract with Baen. The company is doing well by putting its first emphasis on storytelling, and I am doing very well for the same reason.

A couple things have occurred recently to make me think about the importance of appearance, to me and to humans more generally. I focus almost entirely on what I think is reality: how can I become a better writer? How can I become a better person? I’m not claiming that I’m particularly successful on those matters or similar ones, but I’m trying.

I was invited to participate in an Army War College Conference. The idea made me cringe: the two years I spent in close association with military officers were the worst in my life. While that wasn’t entirely because of those military officers, they had more to do with my misery than the NVA did.

For a while I considered going anyway, because… well, because I owed it to my country. Then I thought about that proposition and realized that I didn’t believe that any real good comes out of these conferences nor that I have anything useful to say to a gathering of colonels and the like. My country would get along fine without me at the Army War College, just as my country would have gotten along fine without me in Viet Nam. (Indeed, the US would have gotten along much better if there’d been 529,000 fewer of her citizens with me there in 1970.)

The only thing my attendance would have brought me was the ability to claim that I was important. That doesn’t matter to me: it wouldn’t make me more or less important (and neither a better writer nor a better man), it would just give me that appearance. It’s better that I save the government a modest sum of money by staying home and working. Just possibly I’ll manage to become incrementally better in reality. That would be important.

Happy New Year, everybody. May the future become a little brighter for all of us.

–Dave Drake

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