Newsletter #75

NEWSLETTER 75: July 8, 2013

Dear People,

I’m exhausted. In the past two months I’ve finished the rough of The Sea Without a Shore, the next RCN space opera, at 123,020 words; and I’ve spent two weeks in Italy. (I’ll take those in turn below.)

I didn’t fully appreciate how tired I was until I fell asleep while I was reading (Carl Sandburg’s life of Abraham Lincoln) aloud to my wife as she fixed dinner last night. (It was an interesting passage, too: Lincoln’s appointment of his political rival, Salmon P Chase, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

But the rough draft is done! Editing remains and is work, but it’s work that an outsider could do. (Not as well as I’ll do with my own text, but the result even then would be better than most of what gets published.) The cover is another exceptional piece by Steve Hickman.

The Sea Without a Shore is different from the others in the series, and at this moment I’m afraid that it’s boring crap. When I start editing, I’ll probably feel better about what I’ve written; at least I always have in the past, because I’ve generally felt miserable about books immediately after I finish them. Of course, I’ve been utterly exhausted after I finished earlier books also.

My goodness, who wouldn’t want to be a writer? It’s just a cup of joy at every step of the way!

I really do have fun, though some of it–much of it, certainly including the Italy trip–is pretty stressful also. Because I’m nuts, I have to have something which I treat as a job at all times. Otherwise I tend to think about the meaning of life, which doesn’t go in good directions when I do it.

I’ve written novels during foreign travel a number of times in the past, but that probably isn’t ideal for the novel or for me. This time I worked on my trip report itself, typing up my notes at night and the following morning.

This was a much better way to create an account that hints at the richness of what we did on the trip than it would have been had I typed up the notes after we got back. Even so, it’s just a hint.

A number of people who’ve read the report have commented that I describe everything. No, I don’t. It’s a tiny fraction of what we saw and did, the way I describe bits of a fictional scene instead of giving the full layout of the room and the appearance of everyone in it.

Another reader commented that she was exhausted just to read about the trip. Those two weeks were certainly part of the reason that I’ve collapsed after finishing the rough draft of the novel, but I couldn’t let up until I had the novel on paper. That took another month and a half.

I took over a thousand pictures on the trip, and my wife and Glenn took many hundreds each. The report on line is profusely illustrated, though that too is a fraction of what’s available.

I found that I didn’t have pictures of many of the things that I mention in the report because they struck me. Fortunately, Jo got many of those. Generally I seemed to take pictures of things which I feared I might forget the details of–but people simply reading the report didn’t have the original to be reminded of.

In the course of the trip, I did have another homepage picture taken as my webmaster directed. Actually, I tried a number of times. She picked the one in which I least looked like I wanted to tear out the throat of the photographer. (Which is a problem which would probably keep me from being a professional model.)

It was a wonderful trip. Truly wonderful. I hope at least some of that comes through in what I’ve written.

In the course of my trip report you will find me musing about a fantasy series for Tor to follow the fourth Book of the Elements (which I have yet to write). The third of the series, Monsters of the Earth, will be a Tor HC in September (with a lovely cover by Donato).

Incidentally, I credit the extremely high average quality of my cover art to the twin facts that I’m lucky and that I don’t interfere with the artists and art directors in a field of which I know less than they do. You can argue that my splendid covers are entirely a result of my good luck; but if so, it’s continued for thirty-odd years. It seems to me that my keeping out of the way has something to do with it.

I’m expecting to do a couple local promotional things for Earth: a signing (and reading or whatever the store wants) on September 3 at the Cary Barnes and Noble. The store pushes SF and has hosted quite a number of panels I’ve been on. And I’ve also asked the producer to put me on The State of Things, the noon show on WUNC-FM, which is the 100KW flagship station of NC Public Radio.

The radio appearance hasn’t been confirmed, but its a normal activity for writers in this area. (In fact I took up the producer’s long-standing invitation.) I’ve never pushed myself forward before, but I’m trying to get out more. (I’ve been on The State of Things, but that was to speak at their request on the relationship of SF to the real space program.)

I’m not, as my friends know, somebody who’s looking for his 15 minutes of fame. Oddly enough, though, part of the reason I decided to do some promotion this time was because I saw a striking piece of art in Rome which turned out to be by Andy Warhol. That showed me that determined self-promotion does not prove that you’re a bad artist.

Harlan Ellison is an example of that in the SF field. He’s written some excellent stories, but his hype makes you think that he’s trying to sell you the literary equivalent of a used car whose transmission is filled with oatmeal.

The State of Things will be–if it comes off, whenever it comes off–live radio. I’ve also done a number of podcasts for Baen Books in the past couple months. Two of them were sort of general–I know about a lot of stuff and I happily talked about whatever a round-table of Baen editors asked me, including about my friend Manly Wade Wellman. A third podcast was focused on AE Van Vogt, because Eric Flint and I had edited Transgalactic, a Van Vogt collection which has just come out in paperback.

The other podcast was something else again. Tony Daniel, the Baen editor who runs these things, has the writers he’s interviewing do a writing tip for wannabes. I prepared one on plotting with full notes.

But while I was chatting with the Baen staff during a break, I mentioned having written a fake page and a half which I sent in on top of a novella to freak the editor of the project. The fake was Screwing Bloody Dead Bodies, and it worked extremely well for the purpose. Tony had the recorder on while we were chatting, and that’s what he wound up using for a writing tip.

Tony asked if the fake still existed. I said that I’d done that back in 1987 and that I didn’t think I’d kept a copy. (I’m confident that the editor didn’t preserve it.)

Last week, however, I was looking for an old contract (which I didn’t find) and stumbled over Screwing Bloody Dead Bodies.

Mike Barker made a transcript of the tape in which I explain the situation. I’ve put that here. If, after you’ve read the explanation, you still want to see the fake story opening, it’s here. I warn you, though, I don’t pull punches generally, and Screwing Bloody Dead Bodies was intended to stun an editor. (It did. Boy, did it ever.)

I answered a short interview while I was in Naples. All interviews are different, and this was more different than most (though nothing about zombies).

One of the interview questions was on what I was reading. I’d loaded my Kindle with books by Arthur Conan Doyle (non-Holmes short stories) and E. Philips Oppenheim. Both were Turn-of-the-Century writers whose work I first encountered in bulk in the State University of Iowa Library when I was an undergraduate. They’re not well-known now (how many of you can name a book of Doyle’s that isn’t Sherlock Holmes?), but they were extremely popular in their day.

Further, both men are exemplary storytellers. Doyle’s short stories are models of adventure fiction, and Oppenheim invented the modern spy thriller. (John Buchan and Ian Fleming followed his lead.) I correctly figured that they would provide light reading for me after full days of tramping over portions of Italy.

Doyle and Oppenheim were also comforting because I had last read them as a freshman. That wasn’t exactly my childhood, but it’s far enough back for me to feel a bit nostalgic toward it. (The person I was in 1968 didn’t come back from Nam. The earlier me was no great shakes, but he had hope where since 1970 I’ve had only bleak despair.)

I now know more about writing than I did at 18, so I can appreciate the technical skill which both men demonstrate. In 1963 I knew I was reading great stories. Today I have a better appreciation of how they became great stories.

But I also notice that along with stories written to entertain readers, both men wrote pieces with the main purpose of influencing readers (they might have said “educating readers”): propaganda. The odd thing is that a story like Doyle’s The Last Galley or a novel like Oppenheim’s Nobody’s Man aren’t boring work. The writers are so skilled that the incident and detail kept me reading happily.

But the result is unsatisfactory. A story (as I understand it) has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning of The Last Galley shows citizens of Carthage waiting tensely to learn the result of the great battle between their fleet and that of Rome. The middle is a fight between a Carthaginian ship and a pair of Roman vessels.

But the end is a clear warning that the same thing will happen to Britain if Parliament doesn’t increase funding for the Royal Navy. This is a fable, not a proper story. It’s no more historical fiction than The Fox and the Grapes is nature writing.

Nobody’s Man is a different sort of failure. The hero returns to his home on Dartmoor after losing his seat in Parliament. He tells his wealthy wife to leave: they are permanently separating. He adds that he has dismissed his male confidential secretary and that he doesn’t have any idea where the young man is.

The wife believes that the hero knows more about the secretary’s disappearance than he’s letting on; the police believe the same thing; and after a few chapters, it becomes clear to the reader that the hero does know more. Along with the secretary has vanished (from a locked safe) a paper which will destroy the hero’s political career if it becomes public.

This is a hell of a good opening to a novel! I could live with the political maneuvering that fills the middle of the book, because the mystery was still alive though generally off-stage. But at the end, the mystery is burked–smothered, as in Burke and Hare–but not explained. The secretary is somehow still alive and has married the estranged wife, freeing the hero to marry his soulmate.

I would be angry about what Oppenheim did to his story even if he hadn’t turned the book into a wish-fulfillment dream which can be understood only if you know a great deal about British politics in the 1918-22 period. (The conclusion may not have seemed as silly in 1921, when Nobody’s Man was published, as it does now. In fact it can’t have seemed as silly as it does now. But it was still pretty silly.)

This is wrong. The writer is cheating his book and he’s cheating his readers.

Now, I understand why a writer might consider some social cause to be more important than his craft, but there’s a better reason than craftsmanship not to write propaganda. You don’t need to propagandize for a cause you believe in. Just tell the story honestly and as forcefully as you can.

Human beings excel at pattern recognition–even where the pattern isn’t real, as with most conspiracy theories. If you tell your story, you don’t have to hit people with a hammer. They’ll get your point.

Here I can speak from experience. I came back from Nam completely shattered by dehumanizing horrors. I started to put myself together, into a different man than the one who’d gone over but nonetheless a socially acceptable man.

I used writing as my primary tool for keeping myself between the ditches. I described things which are the norm in a war zone but which most civilians can’t believe really go on.

Nobody read the Hammer stories and came away thinking that war is a good thing–but quite a few of them (judging from reviews) believed that I thought war is a good thing. The stories had done their job, even if the Locus crowd and Analog magazine hated me because I showed, rather than telling as a propagandist would have done.

I don’t regret my decision (and even the most viciously bad reviews didn’t make the situation in my head significantly worse). I wish Doyle and Oppenheim had decided to tell it straight also, because the worst sin a writer can commit is to sin against his craft.

Now, back to doing my job the best way I can. Go thou and do likewise!

–Dave Drake

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