Newsletter #79

NEWSLETTER 79: March 4, 2014

Dear People,

I’m beavering away at Air and Darkness, the final Book of the Elements for Tor. I’m in the middle of chapter four. Things are falling into place bit by bit, as they do. Even though I use extensive plots, there’s a lot of stuff that comes out of the interactions.

I do not mean that my characters have minds of their own: they have my mind. I do mean that the way I see a situation from the character’s own close-up focus will sometimes suggest an interaction that I wasn’t thinking of when I plotted the scene.

I had an example of that in the previous section: I needed the viewpoint character (Hedia, for those of you who’ve been reading the series) to go to a place and get information about the next place she was going. I call these sections place-holders: they’re necessary, but they’re not very exciting to write. If I screw up, they’re going to be boring to read also, which adds stress to what was already drudgery.

I was in the middle of one of those sections. It was a lovely day (these have been in short supply this winter) and there were lots of things I would rather have been doing than writing, but I just buckled down and did it. I got into the characters, and by the time my wife came home I not only had finished the section, I liked the section.

This honestly was the triumph of professionalism over human nature. If there’s any advice I can give a newbie writer, it’s to be professional. Be courteous, be on time, and do the damned work. Just do it.

Anyway, the book is coming along. Forward!

The reissues of the General (AKA Raj Whitehall) series continue from Baen. This is actually the third format in which the books have come out, so I guess they’re re-reissues. Karen, my webmaster, has organized the page for the series, so maybe it’ll be easier to figure things out.

Jim Baen’s whimsical notion in 1990 of basing a series on the life of Belisarius (and the fact that I’d read the primary source, Procopius, back in 1978 as background for my first novel) has become a cottage industry for me and for Baen Books. The series was a springboard for the careers of Steve Stirling and Eric Flint, both of whom have become major authors, and it continues to bring new readers to Baen and to the SF field generally.

Nobody expected this, but it didn’t ‘just happen.’ I thought a great deal before doing the plots. You can’t just take a 6th century AD situation, drop later technology into it, and expect the result to work. (Jerry Pournelle did this in the climax of The Mercenary. I don’t think the action works, though the politics of what’s going on is excellent.)

Steve and Eric stretched themselves on my plots, learning to do things they hadn’t done before and demonstrating the talents that make them bestsellers today. And Jim Baen pushed the series and kept it in print: a five-book series has often been a bad idea simply because earlier volumes go out of print. Twenty-four years later, Raj and Company are chugging along in new wrappers.

Speaking of which… I was responsible for the titles of the current omnitrade editions (and all the previous editions, but it’s the omnitrades I’m discussing now). I gave them a common name (Hope) to indicate the series format and rang changes on the second word of the title for the individual volumes.

This was stupid and confusing, to me as well as for everybody else. I apologize. As with many things in life, the proper response is not to do that again. I won’t.

The second omnitrade volume, Hope Rearmed, is out now. These reissues have covers by Kurt Miller. All of them are good art if rather busy, but the art for Rearmed is not a good cover: the printed version is muddy (the problem isn’t obvious in the .jpg), and there’s no good place to put the title and author names.

Artists tend to focus on art, which is proper, but they need to remember the purpose for which the art is intended. Covers and gallery paintings have different requirements, and artists aren’t always the best choice of a good cover image. (Writers are almost always the worst choice. A very few of us know that and refuse to get involved.)

Continuing the discussion of the General Series, Tony Daniel has turned in (and I have read and approved) The Savior, the sequel to The Heretic. It’s actually the last half of the outline with scenes moved around some because it’s now a book rather than half a book.

Tony says that he added very little, but I deliberately didn’t reread my outline (written fifteen years ago!). It doesn’t matter whether the writer follows my outline slavishly so long as he turns in a good book; this really isn’t about my ego.

That said, the one time a writer departed wildly from my outline (on The War Machine many, many years ago), he turned in a piece of crap. The published novel is pretty decent, due to massive revising by the Baen editorial assistant who is currently Publisher of Baen Books: Toni Weisskopf.

You know, it amazes me to realize just how long I’ve been in this business. I guess you could read these newsletters for the history.

The Savior is a good book, complete in itself. It’s a satisfying completion of The Heretic and a solid entry in the General Series.

It makes me miss Jim Baen yet again. I remember us chatting on the phone about this (part of the General Follow-on Series in my notation) with me standing at right about the place I’m typing now–but Jo and I were barely moved into the new house at the time. In many ways Toni is a better publisher than Jim was (especially during Jim’s final few years), but Jim was Jim.

Finally, if you’ve read a couple years of these newsletters, you may have noticed that I didn’t say I was depressed now. I have found a literary path to a better life!

Kinda. I’ve been reading Tennyson’s poetry for the past year, thinking about the fantasy series to follow the Elements. In the course of doing this, I reread Mariana. The theme of the poem is simple: a woman lives alone in her house. Her lover is absent and may never return. She is in despair, moaning about her loneliness and letting the housework pile up.

Tennyson at his peak is an extremely good poet, and Mariana is widely accepted as one of his best works. The impact my present rereading had on me was horror, though, because I saw my complaints about my depression to be very like Mariana’s. The reasons don’t matter: she misses her lover, while I learned in the army that life is crap and by extension that I was crap for as long as I continued to live.

But the cause of the feeling and its validity (or not) don’t matter. What matters is how it affects your (my) behavior. I’m not great on housework and this isn’t likely to change in my lifetime, but I do work hard. Still, I needn’t moan about how I feel. I’ve therefore stopped doing that.

I don’t require myself not to be depressed, just to keep my mouth shut about it, and it’s working pretty well. The funny thing is, I don’t think I am as depressed as this bleak winter would justify.

Perhaps I have made a breakthrough in the treatment of chronic depression! If so, I wish I could’ve managed it forty years ago, but I’ll take what I can get.

Now, back to work. Hang in, people.

–Dave Drake

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