Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Manuscript Launched

I've just sent back the manuscript for The Seer, after reviewing all 695 pages of edits and questions.


I've had my works edited for publication before, but that experience was nothing like this - not this large a work, nor reviewed in this level of detail. It arrived bristling with post-its, issues I needed to resolve with minimal changes. I had never seen anything like it, and it turned out I had no idea what I was in for.

Sure, going over every word and note was hard. At times wrenching. I laughed. I ranted. (No, not at my editors. If there was any target, it was me). Sometimes the process was really unpleasant. Sometimes it was exhilarating.

And yes, I'm very glad to be done. But here's the thing I didn't expected to be telling you now:

It was an amazing experience. I'm a better writer now than I was three weeks ago.

Why? Line by line, I got to see my work through my editors' eyes. I saw my mistakes highlighted. Some issues that I thought were settled I had to readdress, like why some people's titles are capitalized where others aren't. I spent a lot of time with the Chicago Manual of Style, re-reading other fantasy authors, discussing the nuances of language with others similarly obsessed. I found answers. I learned.

It was a crash course in what's good and what's weak in my writing, applied by the deft (and merciless) hands of two professional editors, both of whom want the same thing I do, for the novel to be the best it can possibly be. No one was concerned about my feelings at this point, nor should they have been; this was where all our non-trivial efforts came together to produce one final thing:

The story.

Prior to this, I would have thought this part of the process would at best teach me about narrative and flow. Commas maybe. Continuity, perhaps. But no - it was far more than that. This process gave me a view onto my novel that I had never had before. It underscored for me the point of all those words: to build a captivating world, characters who come alive, action that's vivid and meaningful.

Of course the work remains imperfect. I managed to accept that no matter how many times I went through it, mistakes were going to slip by. There is no absolute control over a work of this size.

Nor, perhaps, does there need to be. Because the important thing, again, is the story.

When I shipped the book back to the publisher, I felt the sorrow and elation of something ending and another thing beginning. It's out of my hands, now. I've done everything I know how to do to make the story ring like a bell.

Not quite mine any more, this world. Soon it will belong to my readers.

That's going to be a fine day.


Chapter one is here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lucky to be Alive

An acquaintance of mine was driving on the freeway. His lady friend sat in the passenger seat. She was doing something with her phone. It wasn't working. He glanced over to see if he could help.

Then he looked back at the road.

To avoid rear-ending the car in front of him, he braked and swerved. His car flipped onto its back. On the freeway.

The car was totaled, but he and his passenger -- lucky as heck, I'm sure you'll agree -- walked away, with only minor bruises.

"It changed the way I drive," he told me. "I will never, ever do that again." Astonishment came over his face. "I only looked away for a split second."

A split second.

He got lucky. But you might not. If you haven't already, please: make up your mind, right now, not to look at a phone while you're driving a car. Not ever.

Not even a little.

Not even once.

It's not worth dying over.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Not Long Enough to Forget How You Swung from the Crystals Above

I took a number of runs at this post. I fell back again and again. A steep incline, this is. Slippery underfoot.

Damn it, what do I want to say?

Jay Lake was my friend. I miss him. A lot.

Recently I was telling someone who had never met Jay a bit about him. He responded that he hoped that when he died someone idolized him so much.

Oh, hardly that. I loved Jay, yes, blind spots, foibles, and all. But he would never have claimed to be a flawless creature. Like most of us, he was a mix of keen self-awareness and fuzzy-sighted clumsiness.

Send 1st class
How human he was. How grand.

Art. Jay Lake was art.

Art? Do I mean I can't describe him but I know him when I see him?

Yes, I think I might indeed mean that. But I also mean this: few of those who knew him didn't have a reaction - positive, negative, or both at once. Like art, he inspired people to feel things, to do things. To write, to engage. To talk.

Across the years the two of us discussed all sorts of things. Consciousness and transformation. Science and language. Sex and lust. Cancer and death. Courage and fear.


That last year, many of my emails to him were titled: "Things I will have wished I'd said..." I didn't want to leave anything unsaid. Mostly it was, simply: "I love you."
Riding Genre as far as it will go

He inspired me, Jay did. He was unapologetic for who and what he was. He was happy to talk about it, sure, even listen if you had something to say, but he had worked hard to get where he was, and I don't mean his writing - which yes he also worked hard at - but the person-hood he inhabited. He wasn't at all sorry for his opinions, his volume, his language, his brightly colored shirts and socks.

Even before cancer, Jay was busy living his life as if he didn't have a moment to waste, grabbing at every ring he could see, swinging from any chandeliers that would have him.

I remember being an early reader on LAST PLANE TO HEAVEN and SUNSPIN, sitting on his couch one afternoon while nearby Jay's fingers danced across the keyboard of his laptop. Now and then I'd make an amused sound and he'd stop and look at me questioningly. I'd point out something I found interesting in his narrative. A word I didn't know. Structural choices he'd made.

Aha! I have you now!
Somewhere it hit me, just how good a writer he had become. I said as much, adding that I couldn't imagine ever writing as well as he did.

His response was abrupt and adamant: "Don't try to write like me. Write like you."

It was a point he made again and again, to me, to others. While he loved being in the spotlight and giving voice to his views, always, always, when it came to specifics, to me and my dreams, he pushed me to reach for whatever it was that called to me, rather than to follow someone else.

To lurch for the rings. To swing from the chandeliers. To wear bright shirts and socks.

Remember, the best way to learn is through failure. Success is a much less effective teacher. But if you’re going to fail, fail big. Petty failures teach petty lessons. Write the Big Idea stories, the grand, sweeping novels. Open your mouth and shout. Be great. Pretty damned good is the failure condition of greatness. -- Jay Lake, on Motivation

Jay moved me.

Jay was art.

I miss him.

Remember the caption contests?

Speaking of the Art of Jay Lake, here's another view onto the man I want you to know about:

"The Jay Wake Book: A Celebration of Jay Lake", absolutely free and in full color:

PDF Low Resolution (small file size 7MB)

PDF High Resolution (72MB)

HARDCOPY: This POD book is splendid, with quality full-color prints. (The cost of $28.22 covers only the production costs of the book, courtesy of editors and contributors, myself included.)

I love you
(My gratitude to editor Sandra Tayler​ and all contributors to the book.)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What is Story?

Lately I've become obsessed with a question. It is, more or less, this: What is story?

I know some stuff about story. My stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, I have a YA fantasy book that many readers like, and my new fantasy novel is coming out next spring from Baen Books. I know a good story when I've read it. Or written it.

But what is it, at essence? There's something there that I can almost taste, but can't quite get my hands around. Something at the fundament of the concept of story, that crosses all forms, from flash to epic, from song to movie, from Saturday morning cartoons to Shakespeare's sonnets.

What is story? What would I see if I held its beating heart in my hand?

I re-read my writing books, sucking marrow from the words of those who ought to know. I put the question to the internet. I ask everyone who will stand still long enough.

Story, a number of writerly friends inform me, is when a character, with a challenge, after struggling and failing, finally solves (or fails to solve) said challenge. Stuff happens, see. People change. Situations get resolved. Beginning, middle, end. Tension. Resolution. Resonance.

Well, yes. That's plot structure - or some kinds of plot structures, anyway. But I could write a story that fits all that just fine and still brings you to yawns. (Yes, I'm that good.) If it's boring, it's not a story for you. So what makes a story come alive?

It's about character, someone tells me. Intriguing characters who draw you into a greater meaning.

Yes, again. None of this is untrue, but in a sense these are only tools. What about Story with a capital "S"? I'm still hunting for the essence of the beast itself. I'll know it when I hold it in my hand, gooey and throbbing.

"Story..." says Ursula K. Le Guin, in one of her essays, "is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."

That all societies use story seems an important clue to my hunt. That it's a tool to understanding -- another clue. I can sense the answer out there.

In another article she says:

"The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate."

I can feel myself inching closer.

Casting about for answers on the net, this quote catches my eye:

"What is a story? A structured way of looking at reality. A way that works for us because it matches the way our brains work. Reality, in its raw, unfiltered, and ugly state, is chaotic. But we are not very good at dealing with chaos. Hence, we impose structures on our experiences of reality in order to make sense of it. We impose stories."

Making sense of reality. I hear a distant bell. I'm closer.

Some friends question the intensity of my obsession. "Why do you need to know how the sausage is made? Isn't it enough that you can make it?"

It sure isn't. I need to understand not just sausage, but Sausage.

Finding another analogy wouldn't hurt, either.

Ever played with a kitten and a string? Even better -- tie a ball of crinkly paper to the end. You tug and the kitten follows, utterly fascinated. Maybe it pounces, making adorable mock-killing motions. After a while, kitten might tire just a bit, and sit back on its haunches, and look around to see if there's another crinkly ball lurking in the neighborhood.

Want kitten's rapt attention back? Draw the crinkly ball behind a corner, just out of sight. Somewhere not visible but clearly in reach. Kitten is unable to resist following. Perhaps it's genetic wiring for the mouse that has just slipped into a shallow hole. Kitten will follow. Kitten has no choice.

As I see it, this is Story. Kitten Story.

What is the human equivalent? When we are deeply intrigued by a tale, what makes us so? When we are moved to tears, what has done this? How does a story become irresistible? What makes us care so much, makes us so happy when it's completed well?

I know the answer varies from person to person, from culture to culture, and across genres. But I believe there's something at the heart of all stories that draws our attention relentlessly forward, that leads our ravenously curious minds around. As if we were kittens chasing crinkly paper balls. That thing we are genetically unable to resist.

Another writer friend says this: "Stories are ways to live without living. To experience significant things without all the troubles of actually being there. Living takes time and resources; If you can live a dozen years around a campfire in one night, there's value there. Useful experience on the cheap."

Stories can teach us how to live, so we don't have to try to live all those lives ourselves.

I can smell it now, the answer. It's pungent. I'm so close.

I score a chance to talk about plot with an award-winning story author, and at one point in the conversation he's on about characters who face challenges that keep getting worse, about how they slam up against a dilemma with obvious resolutions, but the ideal story solves the dilemma in a non-obvious way, and then...

...and then...

The bell rings. I have it. My answer.

I'm bouncing up and down, saying "that's it! that's it!" and my friend is gently trying to tell me that while it might be a profound insight for me, it's not necessarily going to seem like a big deal to everyone else. But I don't care -- I have my answer -- I have the beating heart of Story, right in my hand.

It's not complicated. In fact, it's deliciously simple.

Oh, you want it, too? Here it is.

Our minds are built for making sense out of the world, and making sense is, at its core, about solving puzzles. So when someone starts solving puzzles and unwinding mysteries in front of us, we notice fast. If the puzzle or mystery happens to be similar to something we've tried to solve ourselves, successfully or not, we become intrigued. Stories that work for us intrigue us because they solve mysteries we care about.

Now, I use the words "puzzle" and "mystery" loosely here. A social challenge. How power is wielded. Dealing with death. Exploring new lands. Surviving hardship. Finding love. Making community. Having children. Living in peace. The nature of consciousness. What we want. What we fear. All this and more.

Story is puzzle solving, done well.

I start to see how the canonical rules of storytelling fall naturally out of this principle. Why is it so important we identify with the character? Because if the character isn't enough like us, we can't follow the pattern to the solution. Why the escalating challenges? To show that the character is dealing with a non-trivial problem, one worth solving. Why must the character transform? Because they can't solve the problem at the story's start and at the conclusion they can, so the problem changed, the character changed, or it's a lousy story. To see how we might follow in their path, the change must be evident. Why an unexpected solution? Because we already know the expected and obvious ones. I could go on.

As humans, we are keenly aware when anyone tells us they've untangled a knot. It intrigues us at a very deep level. When Story draws us forward irresistibly, it is offering to solve a mystery for us.

When it delivers, it gives us great satisfaction, because that's how we and our clever minds are put together.

So I've solved my mystery. The crinkly ball is mine.

Friday, May 1, 2015

May Day, Map Day

Return the map! It will bring you great danger.

The map is not the story, but if your characters leave the house and wander around at all, you'll need a map. You can have it before you begin, or you can draw it as you go, but you need a sense of location or you'll get lost, and no one likes it when the author -- the tour guide, after all -- can't find their way around.

My maps are minimal. High Fantasy has a history of being extravagant with unnecessary details, and I resist that -- I tend to follow the maxim "Cut out all the parts that aren't interesting" (Ray Vukcevich, to Jay Lake, as related here)

So, yes, I have my maps. Right by my computer so I can see where the action is happening and where my people are going. Check that it all makes sense.

Still, somehow, it didn't occur to me that the reader might also like to know where the action was happening and where the characters were going. So I was surprised when my editor said, "we'll need your map, of course."

Need my map? But... but... I'm not a map person. I just have these sketches...

No problem, my editor says, we have a guy for that.

I do a little research on their guy and I'm suitably impressed; he's discussed with reverence and awe. His job is to take my map and make it look good. I provide the raw materials and he makes it sparkle and shine.

I slowly exhale. I don't have to worry about the map after all.

Well, wait -- I have to give him something, and it has to be correct. I take a closer look at the sketch I'm planning to send him, and I realize some of the details are, ahem, not quite right.

Oh, not the book -- the narrative itself is flawless, as to places and directions. Ahem. But primarily it's my map that needs fixing. Provinces where they should be. Villages and cities moved to the right -- if general -- location. Major rivers inserted. Show the Great Road. Things that if you're going to bother with a map at all, need to be present and correct enough to elucidate rather than befuddle.

Here we go into the warm part of the year. The well-lit part of the year. Good light by which to draw.

Map Day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Seer: Signed, Sealed, Delivered

I've been waiting until today to tell you what happened two weeks ago. Before I do that, let's back up a bit.

Early last year Baen Books told me that, yes, they were interested in my novel, The Seer, but that they wanted changes. Big changes. In a long conversation, they outlined the revisions they wanted. Totally understand, they said, if you'd rather not.

Thing was, they were right. The editors had, essentially, called me out on all my short-cuts, weak characterizations, arcs that needed to go farther, an ending that needed more closure.

Yeah, I said: count me in. I'm in. All in.

Then I went to work. The revisions they wanted were huge -- plot-changing, character wrenching -- and in many cases they did not play nicely with each other. I realized that I needed to find new ways to tell a story that was fast becoming more complicated than anything I had laid hands on before. Bluntly, this story was going to require a better writer than I was to finish it. Somehow, I had to become that better writer.

I wish I could tell you it all blossomed in magic born of necessity, and there were some rare times when the words just flowed and it felt like some kind of magic, but most of the time it was me just reviewing plot-lines, checking maps, consulting my experts, and putting one finger in front of the other to write what too often felt like the clumsiest prose I'd ever fashioned.

I took out a lot of words. All the way through and in the final rewrites. My outtakes file is about half the size of the final manuscript, and that isn't short. (Though, I hasten to add, shorter than Game of Thrones. Ha!)

But most of the time what got me through the current scene or chapter was something akin to terror: I had signed a contract -- I had taken real money -- I had a deadline. Sure, I could quit, but then I'd have to flee the country and live in shame under an assumed name for the rest of my life.

There were moments where that seemed the better option.

I lined up some powerful allies. First readers. Friends. Experts. Advisers. My Muse. My Reader Advocate. (I'll explain later.) I warned them all that there would be times when I would loose faith in my ability, and that their job was to get me to the finish line. And they did. Wow, did they. More on that in another post.

As a writer I took a lot of risks with this book, with the story-line, characters, tensions, symbol choices, and so on -- things I hope my reader never notices consciously. I had no idea if the publisher would like what I'd done.

Sometimes I would lie there trying to sleep and think about all the risky things I'd done that they could object to, all the strange twists and turns I'd made, all the ways in which I'd incorporated the changes they wanted, but gone a fair bit beyond what might have been enough, all in order to tell the story that needed to be told.

In the last two months before the deadline, it came to me -- in my gut, not intellectually -- that I had to write the story the best I possibly could -- so that, if the publisher did not like it after all, I would know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that it wasn't because I'd held back.

I didn't hold back.

Then, the last day of March -- two weeks ago -- I shipped it. That's what I wanted to tell you.

I was surprisingly calm about it. I had, after all, given it everything I had. If it wasn't good enough, well, so be it; I knew I hadn't taken any shortcuts.

Today my editor at Baen wrote me back. He said he'd finished the book. The fixes he wants are minor.

He called it wonderful. He called it excellent. He said I'd made all the changes he'd hoped for and more. He said he was proud to be publishing it.

Me, too. Very much so. The Seer is scheduled to hit ink in spring of 2016.