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The Write Box

The Deadly Question

Along with the Man in Black, there are other dangerous pitfalls for the Unwary Author. Pitfalls like...the dreaded question whose answer will turn A) my short story into a novel, B) my simple space opera into lit-ra-chur, or C) my single novel into a series.

So far in my great three short story experience I've managed to control the Deadly Question pretty well. With Knights of the Westibule, I think I might have begun to get a handle on it for novels. In both the Groundties series and the Ring series, however, the MIBs and DQs were definite factors in turning them ... large. Not padded...each scene in each book does at least three unique things...just long and complex. Though in my own defense, DAW did want a large book series, and has definitely supported the Ring books as a series.

One of the problems is, in order to write a novel with substance, you've got to have mindset and in solutions to a given problem. The more experience you have, the more open you are to alternative thought processes, the more options your characters have. The more options they have, the more interconnected and causal the most simple observations can become.

If you write your first novel when you're...oh...ten or even twenty, the available twists and turns are by the very nature of the process, limited.Good or bad, when I began my first novel, I was thirty-six...and my characters had lots of options.

My first encounter with the DQ came very early on. A couple of months after I began writing Groundties I asked CJ Cherryh to take a look at what I'd written thus far...about 150 see if it was just making sense. She read it (being obligated, having talked me into this writing thing in the first place), we talked about the premises, and she said, with this oh-so-innocent look on her face, "You know, if you really want to screw Stephen up, make him half-recon." it was an observation, not a question, but...My bigotted spacer kid...half Ethnic Reconstructionist, the receiving end of the bigotry-bat in the ComNet Alliance...Oh...dear...

The ramifications, given what I'd already written, were indeed tangled. And fascinating. Once suggested, I could no more release the story that blossomed than I could (by that time) quit writing. It rang so true, a part of me is certain it was where my subconscious was heading with the story all along.

The end result was a story that spans three books rather than one, and in fact weaves threads throughout my planned future history. It delves into matters psychological and philosophical, political and personal.

It was anything but the easy first novel I'd hoped to tackle while learning little tricks like...writing dialogue.

While I understand in retrospect what happened; I was clueless on that January day when CJ made the comment. Later, when the series was complete and I began post-production analysis of the experience, I asked CJ why she didn't warn me. Basically, she said she knew I could handle it and wanted to see where the story went.

And I suppose I did handle it. Certainly I'm very proud of what I accomplished in that series, and the universe, which I've only just begun to explore, draws me constantly, the characters have become so alive to me and my readers that Wesley gets about as much email as I do. I also learned more about the craft of writing and the mutability of plot elements than I ever would have in a simpler story, but the question of whether or not I should have followed that particular muse at that particular time remains.

Certainly a long, psychologically challenging series was not the best for a first novel---at least from a 1990's marketing perspective. I was savvy enough regarding the marketing problems that had I known from the start that Warner never had any intention of marketing it as a series, I wouldn't have signed the contract. If other publishers had proven similarly reluctant, I might have rethought the entire project.

However, I didn't know. A year and a couple of months after I began writing and based on the first draft of the first novel, Warner offered me a three book contract for the series, and I was off and running...

...And terrified as I began to realize the scope of the project I'd undertaken. I was terrified not because I didn't think I could write something that was "publishable"...I'd sort of proven that to myself with the contract...but because I wanted to do the subject matter justice and treat my characters' real-world counterparts with the respect they deserved. To this day, the most rewarding (and reassuring) contact I have is with professionals in the fields of psychology and computers and those real-world counterparts of the characters, whose enthusistic input assures me I accomplished that primary goal.

I had certain personal elements going for me in the mindless pursuit of this first novel. As afore mentioned, I was thirty-six with a substantial amount of life experience to draw on; I had one of the best in the SF field for my alpha reader and advisor, (even though pride kept me from drawing too heavily on that association), and I had already developed, through my art, the ability to create from the gut and analyze/edit through the brain. I'd also worked with authors for years; I'd just never written my own stories.

I don't think the end product suffered from my early pursuit of that highly complex muse.

Would I recommend someone else follow that course? As with most other things creative, that would depend on the creator. For me, I think it was the right course creatively speaking. To have done less would have been bucking my natural tendencies, would have turned to process too analytical too fast and starved the creative muse. Now, having learned to recognize all the subtle joys of writing, I can take what I learned from that process and begin to analyze as I go, begin to look for hazardous questions and learn how not to raise the issues, or at least to determine how important they are to the story I want to tell.

Should I have sold Groundties as my first novel? Probably not: establishing your name in the minds of the readers is far too important to risk to the idiosyncrasies of shelf space. A stand-alone, highly accessible and entertaining first novel would have done far more to establish my presence on the shelves.

And run the risk of being just like a dozen other first novels on the shelves.

Hmmm...that's a hard one. I think, maybe, I like my MIBs and DQs.