Newsletter #83

NEWSLETTER 83: November 3, 2014
Dear People,

I’m between projects now, so I’m spinning my wheels wildly. This is the same thing each time so I’m not complaining…. Well, heck, maybe I am complaining. Nobody drafted me into this job.

When I say I’m between projects, I don’t mean I have nothing to do. I still have eight (or possibly nine or ten) unfilled contracts for Baen Books and could probably get more with a phone call. (No Toni, this is not a request.)

I did finish the current project for Tor, however, and I’ve got notions toward something completely different for a publisher other than Baen after I’ve written the next RCN space opera. That’s not because I’m afraid Toni is going to nut (it was always at the back of my mind that Jim might nut); but having two publishers doing different things has been a good idea in the past.

I don’t want to change now, though I’ve certainly considered discussing with Toni the possibility of filling some of those open contracts with books very different from the RCN series. My hesitation there is recalling that Piers Anthony combined his SF and fantasy at a single publisher instead of having two or more publishers as he had always done in the past. His books (in my opinion and that of the marketplace) became increasingly less good. That doesn’t prove causation, but I don’t think having a single publisher helped the situation.

We’ll see. As I said, I’m spinning my mental wheels.

Since my most recent newsletter I’ve written the two stories with which I was tasked for the David Drake tribute anthology which my friend Mark is doing for Baen Books. These were a humorous fantasy of 8700 words, and a Hammer story of 12K which isn’t by any stretch of the imagination humorous. I’m pleased with both, but this isn’t a business in which you ought to take the author’s opinion. The main thing from my standpoint is that they’re done–and I’m spinning my wheels.

I expect to begin plotting an RCN space opera before too long. I sincerely hope it’s before too long.

Since the immediately previous newsletter, my friend and agent Kirby McCauley died. There’s no business problem for me: Kirby’s sister Kay has been doing (as Kirby put it) the heavy lifting of agenting for quite some years. Kirby crashed in the late ’80s in a spectacular fashion, then put himself back together (it really was him all by himself), resumed agenting superbly (this was when he sold Game of Thrones for George Martin), and then (in my opinion) basically stepped away from the business because he found that the stresses would send him back into the pit out of which he had just crawled.

I therefore don’t miss the agent. I very much miss the friend since 1972, the guy who took me on as a client when he was an Allstate insurance agent with a garage apartment in Minneapolis and I had just started my new job as Assistant Town Attorney for the Town of Chapel Hill.

The ’70s were a tough time for me and Kirby both. He took off like a skyrocket and lifted the SF/Fantasy field along with him.

Kirby started World Fantasy Con (he booked the hotel and then told the other people who’d been talking about something of the sort that it was real now). He raised advances to stunning levels, not just for King and Straub and Frank Herbert (all of whom were his clients) but for literary writers like Joe Haldeman and George Martin; and, well down the line, for writers like me.

There’s lots more about Kirby, but others (including George Martin, very eloquently in his blog) can say it. I’ll just repeat that Kirby was my friend.

When Picasso, at the height of his fame, happened to go past the drafty rooming house in which he had lived before 1910, he is reported to have said that he was never happier than he had been in those days. In a funny way, I could say the same about myself in the ’70s. Kirby was a big part of that, and now he’s gone.

There’s a podcast up in which I talk to Tony Daniel about Dinosaurs and a Dirigible. We recorded another one the same afternoon about The Savior, which Tony wrote from my outline. My webmaster, Karen, informs me that this one is up also.

I burble in both, as usual; and I tell bits of truth that you may not hear anywhere else. And Toni Weisskopf lets me do it, which sometimes amazes me.

My next project is going to be an RCN space opera. I’ve got an opening which I like, but I don’t have a plot direction yet. I picked up Diodorus Siculus (which just means Diodorus the Sicilian) as I often get plot germs from classical historians, but Diodorus is more of a geographer/ethnographer than a historian.

There are really neat bits in him. For example, in the 6th century BC Phaleris, a tyrant of Akragas (Agrigento nowadays) in Sicily, cooked criminals alive in a bronze bull. It was constructed so that when the victim groaned in agony, the amplified sounds came from the bull’s mouth so that it sounded as though the statue was lowing.

I’d heard of that before. It’s one of those things (like the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg) which are widely known and make you shake your head about human behavior. (Well, it makes me shake my head.) What I didn’t know until I read Diodorus himself, however, is that in his day (five hundred years after the reign of Phaleris) merchants were selling little silver models of the bull to tourists passing through Akragas. Rather like the little cannon which I bought as a boy at the San Jacinto battlefield.

That too makes me think about human behavior.

It’s no darned help with a space opera plot, though. I switched to Quintus Smyrneus (Quintus, a first name, who lived in Smyrna, a city on the coast of Asia Minor; modern Izmir), who in the 4th century AD wrote a continuation of the Iliad which is usually translated into English as The War at Troy or The Fall of Troy.

I wouldn’t ordinarily expect to find much artistic merit in a sequel written a thousand years after the original (Toni referred to it as fan fic, which is as apt as it is witty), but Quintus does very good scenes and similes. I’ve been perked up a lot by reading him, and I’ve got some notions for the new series which I will work on after I finish the RCN novel. I do not, unfortunately, have any bright ideas about said RCN novel, but those will come.

I’ve finally polished the Ovid lyric I’ve been working on for months. It’s up on the website.

There is also a picture of me with one of my birthday presents, from Jo. I half thought of suggesting it for my home page, but it might make people question my reputation as a serious, scholarly writer.

I mentioned above that I’d just finished a Hammer story for Mark’s anthology. A number of friends asked before I started writing whether I’d be to get back into the mindset of the Hammer stories after improvements in my psyche since 2006 when I last wrote one. I suspect the question isn’t limited to folks close enough to ask me directly, so I’ll answer it here.

There was no problem. I didn’t stop writing Hammer stories because I couldn’t write them any more, but rather because I no longer needed to write them. Military SF and the Hammer series in particular kept me under control for some 25 years after I got back to the World. After I wrote Redliners, however, I no longer needed Military SF to channel my anger.

I wrote Paying the Piper because Jim Baen mistakenly thought it would sell better than the RCN space operas I’d started doing by then. When he actually looked at the numbers, he found that the space operas outsold Military SF by a ratio of about 4 to 3 (as I’d told him). I then wrote three additional Hammer stories to bind in with the Collected Hammer’s Slammers volumes which Night Shade brought out (and which Baen now publishes).

I might never have written another Hammer story after those three had not Mark specifically asked for one for his anthology… but writing that story wasn’t difficult. The things I learned in Viet Nam and Cambodia are still there, the bedrock of my personality. There’s a deeper layer of normal emotion over that mindset than there was in 1973, but I don’t have to dig all that far.

The recent story, Save What You Can, is very similar in structure to the first story which I wrote in the series, The Butcher’s Bill. Save is less shrill.

I used a civilian in Bill to make obvious to the reader what was happening. Looking back, I’m now amazed that I thought commentary was necessary, and even more amazed that my critics at the time didn’t understand the point even though I had underlined it.

There’s a lot more action in the new story than there was in the original (and even in 1973, I wasn’t short of action). And the craftsmanship of Save is of a very high order; I’ve learned to get information out to the reader in a smoother and more realistic form than I could when I was starting out. You learn by doing–and in my case at least, by doing things wrong the first time.

I can’t say whether Save What You Can in 2015 will have the same impact on the reader that The Butcher’s Bill did in 1974. If it doesn’t, I think that’s because the earlier story and the rest of the Hammer series have changed the world, the face of Military SF, in the past 40 years. I can say that the mindset is the same in the new story as in the old one; and I think it’s the same as the mindset of every soldier in every combat zone for the past five or six millennia of recorded history.

Hang in, people. That’s what I’m trying to do.

–Dave Drake
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