A writers group to which I belong recently got into a discussion of common “mistakes” that lead readers to bail from a work. I pointed out that it may be a mistake for those in the business even to attempt self-guidance in this reguard, as the things that drive writers and editors batty may not be the same things at all that typical readers care about.
For example, did you notice that I put even in the grammatically preferable position in the previous sentence? I rest my case.
Lists like this are invaluable, but it’s probably counterproductive to think of anything in writing very prescriptively. Novices (at anything) are apt to take such lists too much to heart, and the result can be crippling.
Dave Wolverton talks about “writing with authority,” writing in which the author’s intelligence, command of the language, and intent are immediately clear. I think I know what he means, and if you read very much, you probably do to–or you will now that you’re looking for it. It’s that intangible something so often missing from otherwise fine stories up for critique, invariably present in the Hugo and Nebula winners, and which is often enough to justify my patience with whatever pet peeves a particular work may violate.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy night” is universally derided in the business today, yet it pleased enough readers that we’ve all heard it. Dachiell Hammet founded an entire genre on static character description and copious repetition. Games of Thrones has a prologue.
Whether you are a writer or not, in the end, you must choose what kind of artist you are and what kind of work you are aiming for. The best advice I can give is, learn from the very best.
I just got back from ApolloCon where I made some friends, learned a few things, and surprised local Writer’s of the Future finalist DL Young with some swag.
This nice barbarian let me take his picture, but the mean evil Star Fleet officers beamed up from the other end of the conference center before I could catch up to them.
One of the highlights was a talk by David Gerrold, one of the original Star Trek writers who gave us “The Trouble With Tribbles” and more recently, The Martian Child.
Gerrold says he loved and respected Gene Roddenberry, a man “loved by everyone who never worked for him.” He said Gene had a knack for assembling just the right team of just the right talent–and then not listening to any of them. He “could always take a crappy story and make it into a good script, but could also take a great story and turn it into a good script.”
He said the fans probably shouldn’t have blamed the network for the show’s cancellation. “They knew Star Trek was bringing in a demographic they wanted to reach, they were just sick of dealing with Gene.” It didn’t help that by the third season, Gene was working on other projects and brought in Fred Freiberger to produce the show. Gerrold said the first words Freiberger ever said to him were “I screened Trouble with Tribbles this morning. I didn’t like it. Star Trek is not a comedy.” It’s worth noting that others have stated that Freiberger did everything possible to boost the show but that, as Nichelle Nichols puts it, “Star Trek was in a disintegrating orbit before Fred came aboard.” Still, he was wrong about the tribbles. The through-line of humor, respect, and idealism, is what made the show (TWT missed winning the Hugo that year by three votes, it lost to Harlan Ellison’s script for the Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”).
For Star Trek, Gerrold said, he bigger problem was Gene’s lawyer, “an evil man who enjoyed hurting people,” and he said the man (Leonard Malzish) had said as much in his presence. I won’t repeat some of what Gerrold asserted about Malzish, but he said it’s funny that even when Gene and Majel were having financial troubles “the lawyer never was”. It’s a fact that, near the end of Gene’s life, Malzish was banned from the Paramount studio where Star Trek TNG was being filmed.
By that time, Gene’s health was in decline and Gerrold had quit the show. Malzish, he said, “was afraid others were trying to take control away from Gene, so what he was doing was undermining everybody that might be a threat. But I wasn’t trying to take anything away from Gene,” Gerrold told us, “I was trying to win him that Emmy he so deserved (and never got).”
It’s all a bit sad. Ironic too, because Gene had supposedly brought in William Shatner to captain the Enterprise because Jeff Hunter (who played Pike in the original, un-aired pilot) had an overbearing wife who annoyed people on the set. The meek may inherit the earth, but it apparently takes ego to get things done. On the bright side, it was fan uproar over Star Trek’s cancellation that helped give rise to the modern era of cons and fandom and the ready market for the franchise and it’s extended legacy, so you just never know how things will turn out.
Gerrold didn’t just talk about Star Trek. He said that as writers, our jobs are to shake things up. “I realize that some of you here may be offended by some of my remarks,” he said, “and if that’s the case, let me say, good!” He also said the caliber of scifi being written today is astounding, that “scifi is becoming not just a genre but literature.” For that alone, I went up and shook his hand. As a new writer and current Writers of the Future winner, I told him that if that’s true, its because the bar has been set very high.
Okay, this isn’t a real blog post. I just copied this from Levar Burton, because it’s just THAT AWESOME. Seth McFarlane is kicking in a cool mill in matching money to help Reading Rainbow. I manned up with my (mumbled into sleeve) dollars. Have you done your part yet? You have? Yeah? Well I donated BLOOD yesterday, so…yeah.
LeVar again. It’s Friday, June 27, and we’ve now got just four days left in this campaign. But the response to Seth’s $1,000,000 matching offer has been incredible.
Hundreds of you have written and commented to tell us that you’re increasing — even doubling — your pledges to take advantage of the matching. That means everything to us, and I hope you’ll be proud of what we accomplish together.
And guess what: this afternoon, I’ve got even more amazing news.
With the renewed momentum, we are now one of the TOP 5 Kickstarter Projects of All Time:
That alone would have been incredible news, but the real news is even better.
This afternoon, the teams behind every other Kickstarter in the Top 5 – Pebble, OUYA, Pono and Veronica Mars – are all stepping up to help us go even farther. Every single one of them.
I had posted him a note, so he posted me back, just a little line of encouragement.
Deep down inside, I must be a Lutheran. You know, the deep-in-the-pores, Lake Wobegon sort who knows the world is nothing but other shoes just waiting to fall. I can’t tell you why I write – you probably wouldn’t want to know – but it isn’t for money or fame. I’m not that naïve. And so for the first part of my journey, I could tell myself it was just a hobby, like sight-reading chords in Chopin’s preludes or puttering around with the house’s plumbing. Then I win Writers of the Future. I meet all these souls who have dreams a lot like mine, some of whom are just starting out, some of whom have trudged the trenches and written the guidebooks.
And that’s what it’s all about, really. When Tim Powers tells you you can do it, that he’s pulling for you, that he looks forward to being able to brag on having taught you, what can you say?
Yes sir, Mr. Powers…Tim…I’m on it.
My daddy was a professional killer. Oh, he never actually did the deed, at least not on purpose. As a navigator-bombardier on a B-52, he may have killed a few soldiers hidden in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos, but that’s about as impersonal as killing gets. War may be hell, but for the most part, hellfire was a distant backdrop to the daily business of husbanding a complex aircraft through the gauntlet of checklists and maneuvers that made up each day-long mission. Often, the closest he got to combat was watching a string of overlapping shock waves, eerie and beautiful, as they rippled across the misty landscape far below.
He wore zippered nylon in jungle green, but his was basically a desk job, even if it was at 30,000 feet. He snacked on crackers and cheese provided by the women’s auxiliary, drank good coffee from a thermos, and cooked foil-wrapped TV dinners in an electric oven bolted next to the cockpit steps. When his work was done, he’d tinker with his navigational slide rules, start on the mission reports, or nap in the companionway–snug in his long johns till the fuel transfer started and the nose pitched down and the blood ran to his head.
Occasionally, a cluster bomb would get hung up on its shackle. Then he’d climb out onto the bomb bay doors and tie it off with bailing wire, hoping to hell the guys up in the cockpit didn’t hit the wrong switch while he worked. Sometimes, he heard approaching missiles through the radar set and could only pray the electronic warfare guy was on top of his game. Eventually, the Vietcong got their act together and missions had to drop beneath the radar. Then they flew through bone-shaking thermals above the treetops—within reach of hostile ground fire. Colleagues, then friends, started to die.
This was all a sideline, though–what the Strategic Air Command called “temporary duty.” Daddy’s real job was to deliver Mark-28 and Mark-36 thermonuclear bombs to targets within the Soviet Union, there to rip from the cold war machinery a few hundred thousand of its cogs — people with jobs and pets and children whose schools and dreams were little different from mine.
This was what he trained and drilled for. When he wasn’t overseas bombing the jungle, he served regular week-long tours in a half-buried bunker studying war plans and playing cards and waiting for the klaxons that would send his squadron running out onto the runway and charging off to ignite Armageddon.
He brought home a bulky appliance of chrome and gray, a forerunner of the text pagers that came a decade later. We were never to touch it, but if it ever squawked, he said, he would have to leave without explanation, and we were to pack at once and head for Grandmom’s farm.
This was our world. Daddy made wooden toys in the basement, and when he drove onto base, rifle bearing soldiers snapped out crisp salutes. When my sister and I played camp between the living room chairs, it was under a big rubber training map showing bombing corridors through the San Bernandino Valley. Sesame Street was sometimes preempted by congressional hearings or the latest news from Vietnam or Palestine. The world was gray suits and horned rim glassed, but we were Air Force blue. Everyone in our family hailed from a different hometown, but when the national anthem played, we all turned in unison — our hands raised together over stiff, proud chests.
The years moved on. The marriage didn’t survive the Carter administration. We’d all seen it coming — as much a part of Air Force life as water rationing and jet noise. While I was in high school in Shreveport, Daddy transferred to Great Falls and retired. Soon, tobacco did what the Vietcong could not. I went to college and made my way into a world newly freed from the threat of nuclear attack. The last time I saw my cold warrior daddy, he was in a metal box — air-force blue — and boys younger than I was were firing a last salute.
Then one day, I was ordered to Little Rock to assist with a corporate re-engineering effort. I stopped in one of the lush, green valleys between the mountains north of the river and bought new shoes and a sport coat, a uniform appropriate for a few weeks in close quarters with the company president and his directors. I joined them in a company-owned house in a middle-class neighborhood north of downtown. The living room was furnished with metal folding chairs. Yellow Post-It notes plastered the walls. The kitchen was stacked with pizza boxes and catering trays and equipped for popcorn and coffee.
A director led me to a back room to discuss a computer program he needed my help with. Outside was a neatly-mowed yard, sunny and calm and filled with birdsong. We’d just set to work when the birds fell silent and I heard through the window a familiar sound from decades past, and the hairs stood up on my neck.
On base, when I was little, there had been a community garden. One evening close to sunset, while we were planting peas, the sirens went off. All the fathers looked up at a yellow metal tower I had never noticed before, and at its flashing crimson light. Hushed, urgent voices passed along the rows. Hoes and shovels banged together and into the trunks of cars. Footsteps quickened. Children were swept up into hurried arms.
This all came flooding back as I sat in that window, listening to the familiar wail. My director explained about the weekly tornado drills. I explained about the garden. We laughed and continued our analysis, one small job in the great American drive for efficiency. I paused, though, while sweat still dampened my forehead, to remember the very different job that had been my daddy’s.
A decent, rather ordinary man, he had been given the lunatic task of saving the world by wielding the power to destroy it. He never talked about that power — never told me of the computer fault that once sent his squadron to within minutes of its failsafe point — the point beyond which keys would have been turned and envelopes opened and the flight could no longer have been recalled. Had it come to that, I believe he would have done his job. He would have flung his bolts into the heart of civilization, just as he was trained to do. He knew, far better than most people at that time, what that would have meant.
The sirens through the window recalled that time in the garden and the somber, purposeful reaction of airmen whose paternal instincts had been co-opted to drive them from their families and running to carry hellfire off into the night. It might have been a drill, it might have been the end of the world, but no one hugged or exclaimed or swore. The wives knew their duties as well as the men, and fell to established procedure.
In that moment, the war that could not be won had come home, in the battle for forced calm and delayed tears and in a hundred conflicting duties tearing through a generation. I knew nothing of war or duty. I could only look up at the purple sky and see my big, tall daddy and what no little boy should ever see written in his father’s eyes: the stoic resolve of a front line soldier, beyond the reach of hope or fear.
When I moved to Houston, I was fortunate to have a number of colleagues whom I could call on for advice. They all told me the same thing, that the cost of living here is about the same as the town I was leaving, but that you have to be careful because there are a lot more things to spend money on.
True. So true. In spades.
So now I’m a writer, and my time is much the same. I have the same amount as I had before I started but now I have this whole other life to shoehorn in. It’s a challenge. Just ask any writer.
And now I’m getting to some small level of success. I have book signings coming up. I have some likely opportunities for readings and/or talks. Eventually, I’ll need to be able to sell a few books on my own, mostly for signings when I don’t have a cooperative merchant to work with.
So now I take credit cards. Pretty simple. You sign up with a vendor like PayPal or Square.com, wait to be verified, and get a little scanner to plug into your phone. To expedite things and satisfy a fe points of curiosity, I opted to buy a reader locally and get the purchase price refunded through an on-line rebate. Why not? It all works as advertised and is all very tidy. I can now take credit card payments for a few percent of sales, with no other commitments or fees. No horror story. No cautionary tale. Sorry.
Except I had to drive to the store, and while I was out, I needed a new pair of shoes (I write at a walking desk) and then I had to register and read up on the scanner. And now, uneventfully enough, that’s three hours I don’t have to write.
And so it goes.
And I don’t count the time walking around the lake with my wife because, well, she’s awesome.