Pittsboro author David Drake has had a long and prolific writing career, and when I saw his recent newsletter mention the word count of new introductions for his new collection Night & Demons (Baen, October 2), I thought I knew what I would get when I asked him what the hardest part of putting together the new collection was: “The story introductions total around 12,000 words and are as much autobiography as you’re likely to get from me.” However, it turns out it wasn’t the words themselves or their number, it was the trip there and back again to get them that made for the toughest sledding.
“A Hard Look Back” by David Drake
ON A PANEL AT The Escapist Expo in September, my friend Mark asked for a show of hands from people who hadn’t been born in 1966 when I sold my first story. He got at least half the room. Folks there and generally nowadays see me as a successful writer who is respected by his colleagues and whose books have been selling well for over 30 years.The stories in Night & Demons weren’t written by that person. Here are a few examples of the things that were happening to the person who wrote Night & Demons:
1) My first sale in 1966 brought such a brutal acceptance letter with the $35 payment that I didn’t look at the story again for decades. During that period I repeatedly described it as a bad story.
When I finally reread the story (because I was booked for a reading at a World Fantasy Con), I realized it was quite good of its sort; ‘the sort’ being a filler for Weird Tales in 1938. I had modeled it on the filler stories which the editor had been writing for Weird Tales in 1938.
2) When I was typing up my third story at Blackhorse Base Camp in Di An, Republic of Viet Nam, the ammo dump blew up behind me. This was by no means the worst thing that happened to me while I was In Country.
Nowadays I realize that immersion in really bad parts of reality in 1970 gave my fiction an edge which I couldn’t have gotten any other way. The ability to transfer savage reality to the page sets my work apart from that of most people writing on similar subjects.
3) In 1974 my agent, Kirby, edited an original horror anthology titled Frights. He offered me 2-cents/word for a story. I met Kirby for the first time in at the Worldcon that year, where he was trying to convince Joe Haldeman to accept payment of only 4-cents/word for his story in Frights.
I turned my story in. Kirby thought I’d overestimated the wordage (I hadn’t; I counted every word and sent him the page by page totals). Kirby also thought that the ending (a climax/conclusion) was too abrupt.
More recently, Kirby has told me that on rereading, he saw that my ending was exactly right for the story. At the time, he wasn’t used to anything so harsh.
4) Kirby then edited another original horror anthology, Dark Forces. It was to be the no-holds-barred equivalent of what Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions was for SF.
Kirby didn’t ask me for a story this time, because I’d recently written a horror story for a British anthology. My story had really disturbed Kirby, and it was at least partially responsible for getting the anthology seized by the police.
When a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Dark Forces came out, Kirby phoned me to apologize for not asking me for a story–or simply taking the one which had been banned in Britain (since the whole edition of the British anthology had been pulped).
Those four examples (the stories are included here) show you the stature in the field of the person who wrote Night & Demons. The follow-ups to these anecdotes happened to the present me, the successful writer whom people think they meet at conventions.
But writing these intros and proofreading the stories rubbed my nose in the person I was in the ’70s. I wasn’t an innovative writer who was laying the groundwork for what has been for more than 30 years a successful career: I was a failure, a traumatized Nam vet whose friends and agent were part of the chorus telling him he was doing the wrong thing.
And in my head when I look back, as I had to look back to prepare Night & Demons, I’m still that person.
THE NEGATIVE ZONE #002: THE DROWNED CITIES by PAOLO BACIGALUPI
by Andrew Neal
When I was younger, I never would have thought I’d get tired of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, but the rest of the world caught up with my tastes and now it’s all over the place. Turn over a rock and out comes a zombie. Roll over a log and discover a plucky, heroic young girl surviving the harsh future against all odds. Dredge the flooded streets of an ancient ruined American city and find an almost indestructible man-animal hybrid named Tool.
Actually, wait. That last one sounds pretty cool. Count me back in on the post-apocalyptic thing.
Tool is one of the characters in Paolo Bacigalupi’s latest book, The Drowned Cities. He’s a half-man, or a dog-face, depending on which character is talking about him. Tool is one of several important characters in this book. Some of the others include Mahlia, a not-really-very-plucky, heroic young girl surviving the harsh future against all odds, Mouse, Mahlia’s dear friend who is in fact rather plucky, and Ocho, a sergeant in a squad of warboys who serve a warlord based in the ruins of Washington DC. None of the characters struck me as unique on their own, but by weaving the characters’ story threads together and apart, Bacigalupi created tension, character growth, and an exciting story.
This book is aimed at young adult readers, but it had a good amount in common with Bacigalupi’s adult novel, The Windup Girl. Both are set in a world (possibly the same world) in which the planet’s oil is used up, both feature genetically modified plant and animal hybrids, and both deal with the concept of beings created by man who struggle against genetically-induced loyalty to their masters.
Most of the differences between the novels are matters of degrees: for example, both books include instances of violent, dehumanizing sex. In The Windup Girl, it’s explicit. In The Drowned Cities, the reader sees the before and after, but not the act itself. Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of war in his book for young readers, but he doesn’t go into all the details. I appreciate this. I think it’s important for an author not to lie when he’s writing. This is Bacigalupi’s book, and he could have written it any way he chose, but he embedded the elements of war so strongly in his fantastic setting that it added a level of truthfulness that may otherwise have been missing. He convinced me.
I don’t mean that he made me believe that dog-men are real or that Washington DC had been flooded; I mean he convinced me that the world he created was consistent and real, and that the characters within acted and reacted in as truthful a manner as possible considering their fictional surroundings. This is the highest praise I can give to a book. I highly recommend The Drowned Cities.
And hey: I haven’t even mentioned yet that The Drowned Cities is described on the dust jacket as a companion piece to Bacigalupi’s previous young adult novel, Ship Breaker. I haven’t read Ship Breaker yet; I decided to read The Drowned Cities first so that I could find out if it works on its own. This is something I am obsessed with in genre literature: the tendency toward publishing “books” that are actually just really long chapters. If you’ve read the previous six paragraphs you know I think The Drowned Cities is a fantastic book, and not just a chapter or addendum. I intend to read Ship Breaker very soon; hopefully I’ll get to recommend it just as highly as The Drowned Cities.
The Negative Zone #003 (Friday October 5) will be about the comic series Prophet by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonnogiannis.
[Editor's note: this debuts a new weekly Wednesday feature, "The Hardest Part", where creators talk about the hardest part of putting together their most recent book or other work.]
Nick Mamatas is the Hugo-nominated editor of Haikasoru, an imprint of VIZ Media which brings Japanese science fiction and fantasy to “America and beyond”. He’s also the co-editor with Masumi Washington of the May-released anthology The Future is Japanese, the co-editor with Ellen Datlow of the 2010-released, Bram Stoker Award winning anthology Haunted Legends, and co-edited Clarkesworld Magazine from 2006-2008. He’s also a prolific writer of short fiction, including “O, Harvard Square!” in Bull Spec #4, non-fiction, including several reviews now for Bull Spec and his 2011 book Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life, and novel-length fiction, with four published novels since his well-received debut Move Under Ground in 2004 including Sensation (2011) and The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham (2011, co-written with Brian Keene). He writes with apparent disregard for genre categorization or market, and here talks about the hardest part of writing Bullettime, his August-released novel from ChiZine Publications.
THE HARDEST PART OF writing Bullettime was finishing it. That doesn’t mean that I struggled with the ending, or was experiencing writer’s block or anything like that; I was simply doing other things. For six years. Also, rampage killings.
After a writer publishes a novel, like say my 2004 debut Move Under Ground, there’s no real need to finish subsequent novels before selling them. That’s why we have agents, and write synopses, and when someone asks, “So, what are you working on now?” you often find yourself shrugging and stammering, and finally answer, “Uhm…things? Short stories. I dunno…” But there’s a problem with selling a novel based on a partial manuscript when the novel is about a touchy subject—say, school shootings—and has an unusual structure—for example, a first-person narrative from three alternative perspectives of the same character, one of which is trapped in the Ylem, a realm beyond space/time, from which he can observe all his possible existences. And maybe there’s also a third-person present-tense narrative threaded through the material, following the same character. Just like Bullettime. So it takes a while, and your agent can’t get any traction. And you move across the country, and start striking up conversations with independent publishers on your own. And one editor, from an outfit called M Press, is interested.
And then perhaps there are some school shootings, like the Amish school shooting in 2006. And then you don’t hear from M Press anymore, which is just as well as it folds soon after.
So you work on another book, instead. A simpler one, about a family that builds a nuclear device–the first chapter features step-by-step instructions using household items, and some mail-order uranium. And the structure is simpler too: just a memoir of the son, who also happens to be a powerful telepath who can read minds regardless of their distance from him. Call it first-person omniscient point of view. And this book sells! And is released! And ruined by a botched production job because the publisher has no money and has an underfed, overbearded intern lay out the book! Because its distributor goes bankrupt a few days before its release! That’s my book, Under My Roof, which at least found audiences in its German and Italian translations. Now we’re in 2007. And you decide to go back to school, so you can teach creative writing instead of just doing it. And you have to write a book to graduate.
And then perhaps there are some more school shootings, like say the horrifying Virginia Tech massacre, and the Bullettime partial is pulled from circulation entirely. So you don’t finish that book, you write another one, and it’s about the Internet, and anarchism, and told from the point of view of a collective of hyperintelligent spiders. Call that first-person plural omniscient point of view. And your agent is excited. And you are excited. And the book is called Sensation because that’s what you hope it will be. And then capitalism collapses and everyone in publishing is fired, so your agent doesn’t even get rejection letters, she gets “This editor is no longer employed here” letters (but he was fine yesterday!) and “This imprint no longer exists” letters.
So you move across the country again, back to California, and get a day job—a day job in publishing. You are the only person in the latter half of 2008 to actually get a decent job in publishing. And then, amazingly, there’s another stroke of good luck! You can sell a book on a partial—though it takes nearly a year to hammer out the details. And it’s a collaboration with Brian Keene, who is already famous, which certainly helps, and you only have to write half a book, and amusingly it sells to Dark Horse Books, the daughter program to the late M Press. And thanks to the blizzards of 2010 nobody can fly from California to the East Coast, least of all you, you get to sit home on the week between Christmas and New Years and finish the book. And it’s The Damned Highway, and it features a Hunter S. Thompsonesque character dealing with Lovecraftian Old Ones during the 1972 Presidential election. And the advance pays off the debts accrued from running around the country for the prior five years.
And Bullettime is still there, on your hard drive, and you don’t even look at it. Then the editors of a magazine in which you’ve had two stories appear start putting out books. And they’re in Canada, where school shootings are rare, but sadly not unknown (e.g., École Polytechnique, 1989). And in 2009, they had opened to submissions, and so you sent in your fifty pages and promptly forgot about it. And so did they. Until late 2010, when at the World Fantasy Convention you meet them in person, and perform a feat of strength—lifting John Langan off the ground—for them and they are impressed. Then one of them remembers your submission, and reads it, and wants it, and in mid-2011 you finally sell the book.
Now you finally have to finish it. But day jobs are busy, as it turns out, and you were working on all those short stories … and stuff, but the deadline is far far away, it seems. And Sensation comes out via PM Press, an anarchist press that is oddly immune to the vagaries of capitalism it was born to critique, and the novel is pilloried in the trade journals as an instantly obsolete collection of in-jokes about Internet activism. And then Occupy happens, almost exactly as you describe your political movement in the book, and you get involved in that and it’s like living in the book. And The Damned Highway comes out, and people like it, and its vision of the 1972 election seems eerily predictive of the current Presidential election cycle. And you have to run around promoting that too, on top of the day job in publishing, on top of the short stories and whatnot. But the news is finally on your side! And the Bullettime deadline, January 2012, just sneaks up on you. And so, you spend Christmas alone again, because it worked so well last year, and you finish the book. And then two weeks before Bullettime is due to come out, there’s another mass shooting in Colorado, not far from the one that initially inspired the idea…
Bullettime was published August 14 in print and ebook by ChiZine Publications. An audiobook edition is forthcoming from Audible.
Two events today (Sunday, September 9):
- 4 pm — Screening of the short local horror film “Foodie” as part of the Carrboro Arts Center’s Second Sunday film series along with three other short films. Ticketed event: $5. More info: https://www.facebook.com/events/247295845391580/
- 6:30 pm to 9 pm — NerdMusik! at Tir Na Nog with Greenville’s Danny Birt among those performing. More info: https://www.facebook.com/events/255087191277612/
And this kicks off in earnest a pretty crowded mid and late September (see the recent newsletter for all the goodies), with events Wednesday and Thursday, and The Escapist Expo on Friday through Sunday, leading into next week’s craziness with both Neil Gaiman and Junot Diaz coming to the area on the same day. One update: online sails for The Unchained Tour (including Gaiman) show Chapel Hill’s show as sold out; a limited amount of tickets may still be available at Flyleaf Books directly.
- September 12 (Wednesday) at 7:30 pm — Andy Duncan at North Carolina State University for a reading event at Thompson Hall. More info: https://www.facebook.com/events/348951148523173/
- 13 (Thursday) at 7:30 pm — Local authors Clay and Susan Griffith at Quail Ridge Books on Thursday September 13 for the conclusion of their Vampire Empire trilogy, The Kingmakers. Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/421192207926333
- 13-16 (Thursday to Sunday) — SparkCon in Raleigh, with poetry, art, music, and other programming tracks “filling downtown Raleigh with a 4-day creative explosion”. More info: http://www.sparkcon.com
- 14 (Friday) 9 pm — Amanda Palmer at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. More info: http://www.amandapalmer.net/shows/
- 14-16 (Friday to Sunday) – The Escapist Magazine presents the first Escapist Expo at the newly renovated Durham Convention Center, with game designers, writers, comics, music, and more. Bull Spec will have a table, so stop buy and say hello, pick up a back issue you’re missing, etc.! More info: http://www.escapistexpo.com/
- 15 (Saturday) 2 pm — James Maxey, John Hartness, and Stuart Jaffe will be signing books and giving some panel-type chats at Market City Comics in High Point on September 15th.
- 15-16 (Saturday and Sunday) — Durham’s CenterFest Arts Festival in downtown Durham, with a large variety of local artists, photographers, makers, and performance art. More info: http://centerfest.durhamarts.org/
THE NEGATIVE ZONE #001: SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU by CHARLES YU
Hey there. My name is Andrew. I sell comic books and graphic novels for a living. I also draw and write. The Negative Zone is my new review column for Bull Spec. My friend Carr D’Angelo suggested the title, and I thought it was funny. My qualifications for writing this column are that I read a lot, and I suffer the delusion that everyone is interested in my opinion. It’s nice to meet you! Here’s my first column:
Last year I read and enjoyed Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It took a while to pull me in, but once it got me, I didn’t stop reading until I finished the book. If you want to be really literal, I guess you could say it’s a book about a time machine repairman, but I’d say it’s a book about all the overwhelming emotions one faces in life. It’s full of some of the most overt and literal metaphors I’ve ever encountered in science fiction, but that’s very purposeful, and well done; it never struck me as either thoughtless or too cute. It’s a lovely and funny book. You should read it.
I just read a new book of Yu’s short stories, Sorry Please Thank You: Stories. The elements present in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe which worked so well for me are here, too, but I didn’t respond as positively this time around. There is a sameness to the stories which is apparent when you read them all at once. I suspect that if I had read them in bits and pieces, I’d have enjoyed them more.
My favorite story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” involved a worker whose job was to experience other people’s emotions for them, to make it easier for them to cope with tough situations. I enjoyed the basic concept, as well as the interplay between the character’s own emotions and those he felt for others. Plus, it was the first story in the book, so I wasn’t yet burned out on thoughtfully humorous self-aware metatextual-slash-metaphorical science fiction stories about emotion, love, and loss.
All the stories in the book were well written, but a few of them struck me as a little too cute. There’s one which is basically a clever Star Trek deconstruction, and another narrated by a self-aware character in a computer game. They were both well executed, but the concepts overpowered the writing. I think a lot of folks will like them better than I did, though. If you’re the type of person who would consider ordering one of the tons of Star Trek “redshirt” tees floating around out there, you’ll love “Yeomans.”
Yu is a good writer, it just seems like he’s writing the same story over and over again. I recommend the stories in Sorry Please Thank You, but not necessarily as a book. Read a story, then put the book down for a while before you read another one. Make sure to leave a bookmark in there, because the stories are similar enough that when you revisit the book, you might think you’re caught in a time loop. And make sure to leave a bookmark in there, because the stories are similar enough that when you revisit the book, you might think you’re caught in a time loop.
Editor’s note: The Negative Zone is set to appear every first and third Friday. Stay tuned for #002 and Andrew’s review of The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.
UPDATE: This event has been re-scheduled to February, though the final date has not yet been determined.
The long-awaited conclusion to The Wheel of Time series, A Memory of Light, is set to be published in January 2013. And, as he did in September 2010, author Brandon Sanderson will be coming to Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books. The event will be Sunday, January 13, at 3 PM — note the afternoon start time!
Facebook event link to invite friends: https://www.facebook.com/events/117403835073651/
And one thing which immediately comes to mind is that this is the Sunday of illogiCon weekend; so after a Friday through Sunday of sf convention fun (with guest of honor Tim Powers and toastmaster Mark L. Van Name, among others) close out the weekend with Brandon Sanderson at Quail Ridge. Not too bad a start to 2013.