Monthly Archives: March 2009

Day Is Night

You would think that being a natural night owl would help someone who finds himself in a time zone where his night is suddenly day.

This turns out not to be the case. My sleep pattern is totally screwed up.

Oddly, I find the pictures I’m taking here in Helsinki are as distorted as I feel. I figured out why it’s happening, but still, it’s odd.

Selling The First Novel

Ever wonder what it feels like to sell a novel? I wrote this article in 2001 right after I sold Travels to Time-Warner, and I don’t think I ever did anything with it. Digging through my archives this afternoon I stumbled upon it and thought, hey, this should be up on my blog. And so…

I was sitting at my desk, plodding though another work day – and jotting down an occasional story idea – when I got the phone call I’ve been waiting for all my life. It was the science fiction editor at a Time-Warner publishing house. He introduced himself, said he’d read the novel I’d submitted, and said he loved it and wanted to publish it. He went on to explain that my novel hadn’t gone through the final approval process just yet, but he was giving it his strongest recommendation.

I was stunned.

You ever get that feeling that you must be dreaming? That this can’t be real – and I mean, in a good way? That’s what was happening to me. It reduced my vocabulary to about a dozen words. I could barely respond with a coherent sentence. All I could say was, “Thanks!” and “That’s great!” I remember thinking that I was under reacting. I should have been doing the victory dance around the office, shouting out incoherent words of glee.

I mean, after all these years of rejection, it seemed like there should have been this huge release. Instead, I felt cautious. I didn’t want to believe it. I felt sure that if I got excited, I would be let down.

I got a call a few years back about this same novel. I’d sent it off to a friendly sounding publisher that I’d found in the Writer’s Market. It had these key words: “Likes working with new/unpublished writers.” What it didn’t mention in the listings was the fact that it was a vanity press. So this guy pumped me up about how much he loved the novel, then shifted gears, and explained that in the modern publishing model, the publisher offset costs of printing unknown authors by asking for them to pay part of the printing costs… It was like soaring with eagles and then smashing into a wall. I felt this slow burn anger deep in my chest, and I started asking what exactly he liked about my novel – which parts in particular sold him on it. He couldn’t name any, because – as I suspected – he hadn’t actually read it.

So this negative experience sat in the back of my mind while I was talking to the Time-Warner editor. I held back my excitement, waiting for the catch. The sales pitch. But it never came – this was a major publishing house, after all. It was not a fly-by-night vanity press somewhere in Utah. This was the real deal, the Big Break.

Ah, I thought. That’s the catch, though. He didn’t say it was accepted, he said it’s “being considered.” Not quite the same. Paul, the editor, was being up front with me, but I was sure fate was not. Something would happen. It would fall through.

I’m normally an optimistic person. I’m optimistic by choice – because I got tired of being so damn pessimistic. Here, however, my old pessimism broke out, took control. If I hoped too much, I knew, I would end up hurting a whole lot more.

Paul, however, was very optimistic. He talked about contract terms. I voiced a few concerns, which he assured me would be addressed (and they were). Then he started testing the waters with me about possible revisions. He would be happy publishing it as it stood, he said, but he’d noticed a few things that could be improved. I told him that I would consider anything that would improve the story. He liked what he heard, and told me he would get back to me with suggestions.

I could barely think for about three days. It was like being in some weird limbo, where all things were suspended, put on hold. I could barely do my job.

It was when I was on vacation out in California that I got the final word. The novel was a go! They had officially accepted it for publication. We hashed out the contract details and he sent me his suggestions for changes. They were slight, really, and made a lot of sense. So on and off during my vacation I was banging away on the laptop, making revisions. I finished them up just before Disneyland.

Back before this happened, I had always wondered what it was like to have a novel published. I’d imagined I’d get a registered letter with a check in it. I’d throw a big party, and then a few months later the book would be down at the local bookstore. And from then on, anything I submitted would be accepted for publication.

That’s not quite how it works, I found. The revision I did was not last time I would be working on the manuscript. You see, after the publishing editor goes through the book, then a professional copyeditor gets a go at it.

Where my editor helped improve my story, the copyeditor helped improve my writing. This time instead of emailing it to me, it arrived as an overnight package in printed form. Also, there were all sorts of forms and questionnaires to fill out, and they wanted my input on the cover, and I needed to come up with an author’s photo.

My first wife, Becky, took the photo of me while we were at Disneyland. I’m sitting in one of the rides, and it looks like I’m in a cage. I’ve got my normal goofy smile and I’m sitting like someone welded a stick to my spine. The pages of questionnaires were to help my publicist (did you catch that? “My Publicist?”) write up promotional blurbs about me. The copyedited text, which I went over very carefully, was chock full of improvements and let me know how little I really understand English grammar. I had the power to cancel any of the changes, but I only did it to a few. For the most part, I was humbled.

A little later I got a glimpse of the cover art. They’d used some of my suggestions, but not all. There’s a character in the novel, named Sheila, who is naked through a large part of the story, so it was my idea to have her sprawled tastefully au natural in front of a huge television screen depicting the “Travels” sphere, which is this multicolored ball that bounces through landscapes in a future TV program. I don’t know why, but they didn’t go with the nude Sheila. They did go with the multicolored sphere.

Then again, they didn’t get Boris Vallejo to do the art, either.

So I filled out all the questionnaires, submitted the photo, approved the changes, and signed the contract. Then came months of waiting.

I was told to expect a publicity blitz. As it turned out, this “blitz” consisted solely of a telephone interview with a New York Times reporter. We talked for about 45 minutes, and when I finally saw the article, he barely even mentioned my name. He didn’t say a thing about my book – they didn’t even mention the title. So much for fame and glory.

But, I now have a novel I can tout. I get invited as a guest at Sci-Fi conventions and I occasionally get to sign autographs. When I finally finish a second novel and start sending it out, the fact that I’ve been published before will get my manuscript a more serious reading.

And, I can say, “Yes, I’m a published author.”

For all you aspiring fiction writers out there, take my story to heart. The one thing I can accredit this small success to is persistence. As Tim Allen said in Galaxy Quest: “Never give up! Never surrender!”

It will happen. Take those rejection slips in stride. They pave your path to publication.

Plotting for Timelessness

You are a science fiction writer. Your finger is on the pulse of technology and society’s trends. Closing your eyes, you can see the world of tomorrow, and with your talent you craft a great work of fiction set in this world you envision.

It takes time to craft a novel. Even after you’ve finished the first draft, there are successive rewrites, and publication woes, and printing and distributions lag times. When your readers finally get a hold of it, there’s a problem. The acceleration of technological advancement has overtaken your vision of the future. A good portion of the science fiction in your story has become reality, or worse, invalidated.

How do you avoid it? Plan for it. Deliberately.

Many of the classics have a timeless quality about them. There’s something about these works which sets them out of time’s reach, so that they’re as fresh now as when they were first printed. While there’s no sure way to write something that will become a “classic,” there is a way to make sure your writing is timeless.

One way is to write your story as a period piece. This works with SF stories where the events don’t change history as we know it. Think “thwarted hidden agenda.” (Author Tim Powers is especially good at this.) Choose a setting either right now or some date in the past. State the date, the place, and incorporate real historic events – this helps build solid suspension of disbelief, and adds an air of authenticity. By it’s very nature this type of story can’t become outdated. It exists in time, as history.

Another method is to use a break in reality. Create a future event, without a date, that resets expectations of what comes afterwards. It could be nuclear war, or plague, or maybe an alien invasion. It could also reset the year counter, so that even the date is removed from reality. So if your story takes place a hundred years after this event, instead of being year 2101, it could be year 100. That puts your story completely outside of time.

Of course, you could also set your story in a place entirely removed from our reality. This could be another world, or an alternate reality, or so far in the future or past that there’s not even a remote connection to the here and now. Remember the phrase: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

There are always stories that, by their very nature, need to be set in a specific point in the future. Even if time passes them by, the strength of the story itself pulls the reader past the fact that it’s outdated. Look at “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Personally, I don’t care that time has caught up to this classic. So don’t feel you have to try for timelessness in everything you write, but keep it in mind when you feel you’ve come up with your magnum opus.

Not many things suck as much as finishing that big, wonderful, complex story only to have something happen in reality to make what you’ve written completely implausible.

Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way.