Tag Archives: memoir

532. A Writer Lives for Libraries (1)

A bit of this was published in very early posts, but it has been completely rewritten.

A writer lives for libraries.

If you want to be a surgeon, there are a hundred textbooks you will have to read. If you want to be a lawyer, the reading list is even longer. If you want to be a novelist, however, you don’t read textbooks, or how-to books. Oh, you can, but beyond the basics, they are worthless.

If you want to be a writer, you have to read whole libraries.

Of course, for a minimal amount of money, you can live on e-books, and know everything about what people think in 2018. If you want a broader education — if you want to know what people were talking about in 1988, or 1908, or 1758, you need libraries.

(The primary exception to this rule is Project Gutenberg, which I recommend without reservations. Check out this, and this, and especially this.)

I didn’t have access to libraries when I grew up. I was born on a faraway planet called Oklahoma in the fifties, on a farm three miles outside the nearest town, and that town was tiny. We had no plumbing at first and the wind blew through the walls in the winter. Don’t get me wrong; I loved life on the farm, and it wasn’t poverty. This was normal life at the edge of the world on the edge of the modern era.

I learned to read from Little Golden Books. They were cheap, available at the local dry goods store (local means twenty miles away), and Dr Seuss wasn’t writing yet. When I was about ten, my grandfather sent me a copy of Tom Swift Jr. and his Outpost in  Space for my birthday. I was instantly hooked.

We lived midway between three towns, which we visited frequently. If you farmed in the fifties, you spent half your time farming and half your time fixing broken machinery. That takes replacement parts, and that means a trip to the John Deere dealer.

Every time we went to town, my great-grandfather would give me a quarter. Tom Swift Jr., the Hardy Boys mysteries, and Rick Brant adventure books all cost a dollar each. I bought a book every fourth trip. Looking back, most of these books were terrible, but a few were gems.

When I was about twelve my mother dropped my father off to buy parts, then drove to the other end of town and took me into the county library. I had never seen a library and was barely aware that they existed. I almost fell out of my work boots. It was a big room with tables down one side, and ten double shelves of books down the other.

“Library, where have you been all my life?”

The nice lady librarian typed up a temporary library card and told me I could only have one book the first time. She would be a big part of my life until I left for college and I still remember her face, but I never knew her name.

My mother was waiting, so I quickly picked up a book. It was Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son, and my fate was sealed. more on Wednesday

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531. I Knew!

I suppose there are writers who finish a first draft and move on to the next book. Louis L’amour was like that; you can tell from his goofs. There will be a statement in chapter three that is flatly contradicted by another statement a few chapters later. It’s the kind of thing that even a cursory second reading would have caught.

For the rest of us, there are always bits left on the cutting room floor. In my case, whole novels worth, but I’m probably extreme.

One thing I like about computers is that when inspiration strikes, you can write down an unrelated paragraph or two right in the middle of the chapter you are working on, and then go back to what you were doing before. Maybe put it in bold to catch the eye. Later, at leisure, you can retrieve it. I do that all the time, and with every rereading the bit catches my eye and reminds me to make room for it.

Sometimes, no matter how good a bit is, it never gets used. That offends the little voice in my head that says waste not, but there is no help for it.

I was revising Like Clockwork today when one of those bits shamed me that I couldn’t find a place to use it. For context, one of my characters, called Balfour, is a kind of ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson. In the bit that will never be used, someone says to Balfour . . .

“You wrote a boy’s book about pirates. Who knew that there was anything more than that in you?”

. . .  and Balfour replies . . .

“I knew.”

Anyone who writes genre fiction will understand Balfour’s pique at the assumption that he was only a writer of books for children.

528. Repeat, with Variations

You hear it said — author Joe Doakes has written the same book thirty times. The phrase is sometimes supercilious and often has more than a touch of envy hidden in it. The implication is, “Hell, I could do that.”

True confession: I couldn’t. Sometimes I feel good about that, and sometimes I wish I could do that, because repetition is one of the main paths to $ucce$$. I keep telling myself it is not the only path.

If you are, or want to be, a writer, you should examine this notion from the viewpoint of a reader, standing in front of a shelf of books, with only enough money and time to buy and read one of them.

The one with the naked woman catches your eye (male viewpoint assumed; for alternate gender, insert your own preference) but you’ve been burned by that advertising gimmick before. One looks likely, but you’ve never read anything by that author before, so you hesitate. If you could find a book by a favorite author, you would be reassured. If you could find a book by your favorite author, featuring a favorite character, your satisfaction would be almost certain.

It’s that simple. In addition, the author has the advantage of not having to invent a new main character for each book. It might be that finding something new for an old character to do would become tedious, but I can’t report on that from personal experience. No wonder publishers want books that can become the first of a new series.

We are talking about comfort food books here; true escapist reading for the times when you want to think, but only just a little. Television substitutes. Something for the long-haul trucker to read at night to take his mind off the fact that his wife is two thousand miles away, and what he would really like to be doing is . . .; you get the picture.

For me, during my first twenty years of writing, my go-to escape was Louis L’amour. I was writing science fiction and fantasy; he was writing westerns. He didn’t exactly write the same book fifty times. If he had, I couldn’t tell his good ones from his bad ones, and he had both. (Read Flint or Conagher, but avoid The Haunted Mesa.)

After beating my head against the typewriter (this was pre-computer) for a few hours, I would pick up a Louis L’amour western and ride off across the plains. Thoughts of interstellar travel were banished until the imagination well refilled itself. It was good stuff, but I don’t read him much any more. I have them all memorized.

I also have Heinlein in the photo at the top, which is a little unfair. He was not guilty of writing the same novel over and over (people who have only read from the second half of his career may disagree), but he only had one character. Male, female, both alternating, old, young — it didn’t matter. Every one was the Heinlein character, so if you liked one of his books, you were likely to like the rest. And if not, not.

The Travis McGee books are a clinic in how to do a series character who can continue to repeat with variations. No one ever did branding as well as John D. MacDonald. Every book contained a color in the title. He wrote The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, the Quick Red Fox, and seventeen more shades. You could recognize a McGee book from across the bookstore. MacDonald’s biography was titled The Red Hot Typewriter. In it, he explained that before he committed to the series, he wrote the first two novels to see if he could stand to be married to McGee for decades. For more, see 49. The Green Ripper.

The Spencer novels belong here as well. I read with pleasure through the first ten or so; each one was reasonably unique and expanded his character. The next thirty were increasingly dreary repetitions; they provided a quick escape and as quickly faded from memory. I still occasionally re-read one of the early novels, but the rest were all one-and-done.

Today, when the writing stalls, I rinse my mind out with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I can’t say I really like them, but I always know what to expect.

524. The Other Side of Dying

Atheism is not a satisfactory solution to life. It may be the truth — I’ve thought so for fifty-five years — but it isn’t satisfactory on many levels.

Religion, and it doesn’t much matter which one, is quite satisfactory, as long as belief holds out. The problem of death is solved by not dying, not really, just moving on to the next step in an ongoing life. I really miss the comforts of that belief. The question “why are we here?” is not really solved, but it gets kicked upstairs to the fellah at the higher pay grade, so we can stop worrying about it. Good enough; now we can get on with life.

Cyan, which is out now, is one of those novels that never gets into religion. There are thousands of them out there. However I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, then changed my mind. That means religion plays a big role in my thinking and, therefore, in most of my writing.

My first science fiction book, Jandrax, concerns a group of fundamentalists stranded on an unexplored world. The hero is an ex-fundamentalist. Sound familiar?

My next SF novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying, concerned an ex-fundamentalist who had invented a mechanical form of immortality. Wish fulfillment, maybe? FFTD was designed to present a completely mechanistic world view, but about half way through the writing, unexplained things started happening in the manuscript. Events occurred that the hero’s version of immortality could not explain. Don’t blame me; they weren’t my (conscious) ideas, but clearly something in the back of my head was yelling “this isn’t enough.”

I left all the oddities in place. It is unwise to ignore the gods, or fates, or subconscious, but all my characters ended the book more or less happy with the result of their eternal lives.

My latest novel, Like Clockwork, takes place in a world where everybody lives forever, and nobody is satisfied. These are a group of people who were self-chosen for their disbelief, and given an alternative to death. They accepted, but have ended up with a massive case of buyer’s remorse.

I can’t tell you more, without giving away the plot, but their version of immortality is pretty screwy. I’m consciously bringing things full circle, with a work that is a deliberate flip side to A Fond Farewell to Dying.

There are two — or more — sides to every story. Fortunately, as writers we don’t have to know the philosophical truth of the universe. We just have to tell a plausible tale that resembles reality enough to please our readers. And if we get to exorcise a few personal demons at the same time, it’s a nice bonus.

Short note, bad joke

I am working on a story which includes a person whose father was protestant and whose mother was catholic. As a result, the character is ambivalent about religion. He says at one point, “I prayed to a Protestant God when my father was listening, and to a Catholic God when my mother was listening. It was all the same to me.”

In another place, this sentence occurs —


His bi-sect-ual childhood had made him immune to religious enthusiasm.

I took the offending adjective out today. It was just too jarring to leave in place in a serious work. But oh how the smart-ass in me hated to see it go — so much that I had to write this mini-post before it faded into the ether.

It won’t be in the final manuscript, but at least you heard it here.

516. 15 Best Stories

I’ve been reading people’s lists of favorites just about as long as I can remember. It’s a great game — pitting their best list against my best list. They always lose.

So I decided to make my own best 100 list, but it didn’t work. I stalled at sixteen. Then I looked again at some of those favorites that I hadn’t read for a while, and the number dropped to fourteen. Then I remembered another long un-read classic and the number went up to fifteen.

The small number is partly because I am picky, and partly because I can’t remember every book I’ve ever read. Nevertheless, the ones I remember deserve a shout-out, and I guarantee they are an eclectic group. They do have one unifying characteristic — they all sing.

That they sing is the only real criterion for greatness in my universe. This means finding the precise balance between workaday language and the kind of overblown language that is too precious to live. That point of balance depends in part on the story being told. Hemingway, Roberts, and Le Guin, three authors from the list, are quite different from one another but each strikes the precisely right note for the story he or she is telling.

Here is the list. Six of the entries have been covered already in previous posts. I have keyed most of them with a link at the bottom of this post so you can check them out. The remaining nine will show up as individual posts over the next couple of months.

These are a mixture of novels, novellas, compilations of linked short stories, and series of novels. Some are the best or most accessible books that stand for a writers whole body of work. One represents a brilliant writer whose career was cut short before he wrote a single SF or fantasy novel.

Works that hit the sweet spot.

Nine I haven’t yet written about.

The Old Man and the Sea               Ernest Hemingway
Pavane                                               Keith Roberts
A Wizard of Earthsea                       Ursula LeGuin
The Road to Corlay                          Richard Cowper
Lensman Series                                E. E. Smith
Jack of Shadows                               Roger Zelazny
Davy and
The Trial of Calista Blake               Edgar Pangborn
The Traveler in Black                      John Brunner
Highland Laddie Gone                   Sharyn McCrumb

Six I have written about

Hunter, Come Home                     Richard McKenna
Richard McKenna had one novel in his short career, The Sand Pebbles, a best seller but not science fiction. He also wrote a number of short science fiction pieces including this one.

A Prince of the Captivity               John Buchan
John Buchan is most famous for his novel The 39 Steps. My selection is a less well known work.

The Riddle of the Sands               Erskine Childers
Erskine Childers wrote this, the first modern spy novel.

Kidnapped/Catriona                    Robert Louis Stevenson
There are two posts on this, 508 and 509, both just last month.

A Christmas Carol, et al              Charles Dickens
Altogether, Charles Dickens wrote five Christmas novels.

The Three Stages of …                Robert A. Heinlein
No link here. Check Wednesday’s post.

511. Novel or Novella

If you don’t know about <tor.com>, it is a high quality on-line magazine of science fiction. For years they were one of the few places which would take unagented submissions for short stories, although they have recently changed that policy. They have been mostly closed to novellas as well, but they still have occasional open periods, and one has just begun.

Since most submissions end in, “Try again elsewhere,” I have not previously mentioned any of my own submissions in this blog. However this opening for novellas has brought up some things I want to talk about. Again (see also 146. Novella 1).

Before we begin, here is a piece of information. SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), the professional organization which awards the Nebulas, breaks stories into these categories:

short story    under 7,500 words
novelette       7,500 – 17,500 words
novella         17,500 – 40,000 words
novel            40,000 words and up

In the last few years, most people would add very short, or flash fiction, to this list.

I have been working since January on a novel called Like Clockwork, but it has been fighting back. It wants to be 65,000 words long. That would be just right for a submission in the 1970s or ’80s, but is too short to sell in today’s market, unless you are self-publishing.

I’m not. I have considered it seriously, but it calls for a skill set that I don’t have, and don’t want. So I continued soldiering on, hoping for inspiration. Then I became aware of the novella opening at Tor (dot) com, which left me with a choice — try to make Like Clockwork longer than it wanted to be, self-publish it at its natural length, or cut it drastically to create a novella.

My own first publication was a novella, To Go Not Gently in Galaxy in 1978. It was roughly the first third of the novel A Fond Farewell to Dying which I was then in the process of writing.

Cutting TGNG out of FFTD was easy. There was a natural break in the action that allowed me to end the story without leaving the reader feeling cheated.

Cutting Like Clockwork down to size would be another matter; I would have to remove about a third of the book. That would be painful, but would not be a new situation. The floor under my computer is already metaphorically knee deep with good writing that didn’t fit into various novels.

First I had to cut out a long section that took place before the main story. That was easy enough, except that it meant dribbling the necessary backstory into the rest of the book a sentence here and a paragraph there. Smoothly, you understand, and without letting the seams show.

There were four main characters and four lesser characters in Like Clockwork, all paired off. One pair had to be dropped. Some of the things that they did for the plot had to be shoehorned into the lives of the remaining pairs. Smoothly; without letting the seams show.

Much was lost. The Great Babbage, companion to the Great Clock, simply went away. It was reduced to a couple of off-hand references, and that really hurt.  Altogether, it took me a month to chew 65,000 words down to 39,000 words. I submitted it earlier this week, retitled The Clock That Ate Time.

Will you be reading it soon? The writer’s psychotic optimism says yes, but I didn’t destroy any of the files that I cut, and everything that was removed can always be restored if necessary.

That’s my recent history, but it is only worth telling because it points out a larger problem.

Only certain lengths of story can find a market in today’s world. There are homes for flash fiction and for short stories, and novellas can occasionally find their place, but the lengths between 40,000 words and about 90,000 words reside in a wasteland. That is really unfortunate, since most of the best novels in the history of science fiction were in that range.

It’s all a matter of fashion. The best of today’s science fiction would have been rejected unread as too long to publish just a few decades ago.

To put it bluntly, then and now both stink if you have a good story that is the wrong length.

All this is somewhat malleable but there are stories that need to be a certain length. If you are a young writer, this profiling by story length is one more reason self publishing may be your future.