Archive for January, 2011

Advice From Agatha

January 26, 2011

The other day, my friend Sally told me a joke that reminded me of one of the stranger occurrences in my life.

Years ago, when Jim and I were still courting (and this means sometime over fourteen years ago, since we just celebrated our fourteenth wedding anniversary), I was becoming aware that one of these days the question of marriage would arise.

Now, having had a first marriage that went sour and still relatively fresh from having lost Roger, I really wasn’t certain I wanted to get married again. Drifting along as we were doing was pretty comfortable, but I could tell that, despite having been a bachelor for forty-some years, Jim was a marrying sort of man.

While we were at a local bookstore, Jim remembered he needed a card for someone. In addition to a nice selection of cards, this store had an array of little gift books. You know the sort, quotations for occasions, illustrations, whatever.

My magpie’s eye was caught by a selection ornamented with bright “birth stones” on the cover. Of course, I wandered over and of course the book I picked up was the one for my birth month. I flipped it open to my birthday and the following words (or some semblance thereof, I paraphrase) leapt out at me.

“Marry an archeologist. The older you get, the more interested he’ll become.”

I stared at it: “Marry an archeologist.” It was like a direct command. I looked to see who was talking to me and noted the quote was credited to Agatha Christie. At that time, I didn’t know her second husband had been an archeologist, Max Mallowan. All I knew was that a writer whose many books I had enjoyed was giving me what seemed like very personal advice.

Quickly – not wanting Jim to see this of all things – I slipped the book back onto the counter and hurried away. He probably wondered why I had suddenly become so interested in what card he had picked up. I didn’t tell him that story for quite a while after.

That’s not the only time Agatha Christie has given me unsolicited advice. Some time later, our friend Patricia Rogers loaned us a copy of Agatha Christie’s excellent non-fiction work Come Tell Me How You Live, an account of several field seasons she spent with Max at archeological digs in the Middle East.

This book was so good, that I hunted out her autobiography. Surprisingly, especially for someone who had written so many books, she talks very little about writing. That makes what happened next so strange.

I was between books, against a deadline, and having a lot of trouble getting started. Therefore, I was sprawled on the sofa, sulking mildly, reading my current book: An Autobiography: Agatha Christie. I turned a page and read the following:

“There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling like you want to cry your head off. Then you go out and interrupt someone who is busy – Max usually, because he is so good-natured – and you say:

“‘It’s awful, Max, do you know, I have quite forgotten how to write – I simply can’t do it any more! I shall never write another book.’”

“‘Oh yes you will,’” Max would say consolingly. He used to say it with some anxiety at first: now his eyes stray back again to his work while he talks soothingly.

“‘But I know I won’t. I can’t think of an idea. I had an idea, but now it seems no good.’”

“‘You’ll just have to get through this phase. You’ve had all this before. You said it last year. You said it the year before.’”

“‘It’s different this time,’” I say, with positive assurance.

“But it wasn’t different, of course, it was just the same. You forget every time what you felt before when it comes again: such misery and despair, such inability to do anything that seems the least creative. And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through. It is rather like putting the ferrets in to bring out what you want at the end of the rabbit burrow. Until there has been a lot of subterranean disturbance, until you have spent long hours of utter boredom, you can never feel normal. You can’t think of what you want to write, and if you pick up a book you find you are not reading it properly. If you try to do a crossword your mind isn’t on the clues; you are possessed by a feeling of paralyzed hopelessness.

“Then, for some unknown reason, an inner ‘starter’ gets you off at the post. You begin to function, you know then that ‘it’ is coming, the mist is clearing up. You know suddenly, with absolute certitude, just what A wants to say to B. You can walk out of the house, down the road, talking to yourself violently, repeating the conversation that Maud, say, is going to have with Aylwin, and exactly where they will be, just where the other man will be watching through the trees, and how the little dead pheasant on the ground makes Maud think of something she had forgotten, and so on and so on. And you come home bursting with pleasure; you haven’t done anything at all yet, but you are – triumphantly – there.” (Quoted from pages 571-572)

Well, about half-way through the above, I started laughing. I interrupted Jim, who was doing some research reading across the room.

“Listen to this,” I said, and started reading. Jim listened, getting this funny look on his face as he heard Max saying just about what he’d been saying to me a few hours before.

Since then, we’ve adopted Agatha and Max as sort of our own personal patrons. I mean, just how many couples are there that consist of an archeologist and a genre fiction writer? Not too many, I bet.

Oh… And the joke Sally told me? It was a version of that quote about marrying an archeologist. A pithy bit of advice, that I’ve since read Agatha claimed she never said… But having read a lot of her writings, I can believe she did, grinning at Max even as she disclaimed it.

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What Do You Want?

January 19, 2011

Here’s a serious question for you.

A Publisher Sample

What do you – as a reader – want from a publisher?

Do you even notice who has published your favorite books? Here I’m talking about the original publisher, not reprints of classics.

This is becoming a serious question in my field as publishers are forced to face that whereas once upon a time they were the sole way for readers to get books, this is no longer the case. With self-publishing losing its stigma, with writers racing to put their backlist up as electronic downloads, the role of the publisher may be becoming less central.

(Backlist is industry slang for books an author has written but are no longer new. Often a “backlist” book is also out of print and therefore unavailable except from the author or used book sellers).

As someone who has worked as a writer within the publishing industry for over fifteen years (my first novel came out December of 1994; my first short stories were published longer ago than that), I’m seeing a lot of uncertainty on the part of publishers.

For one, they seem unwilling to take a gamble. Over and over, I hear from writers that they’re being asked what “market” their book is meant to target. Or they’re being asked to write something that will fit into what is perceived as the latest “hot” thing. Or an established writer is told – not asked – to write a book set in a specific series. This goes hand-in-hand with an implied, “and don’t bother to try to sell us anything else.”

Experimentation or stretching the limits does not seem welcome.

Never mind that many of the most notable bestsellers of the last decade or so were rejected by those with a safe mind set. I’m thinking of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” books, which were widely turned down as either containing too much romance to be time travel or containing too much time travel to be romance. I’m thinking of Stephanie Meyers’ “Twilight” books. I’m sure you folks can think of others.

I’m not denying that this is a trend that has been around long enough to spawn a host of legend lore about famous books that were repeatedly rejected. Hunt up a copy of Rotten Rejectionsif you want to read what those “in the know” said about books that have become cultural icons, such as Moby Dick.

Tony Hillerman never grew tired of telling how the first of his best-selling mystery novels featuring Navajo tribal police officer Joe Leaphorn was rejected because it had too much of that “Indian stuff” in it. Now there’s practically a sub-genre of mysteries featuring Native American protagonists.

Hmm… But I’m getting away from my main question. Do you look for books from a specific publisher? Does a publisher with a strong focus (an example would be Baen Books, which does mostly SF, often with a strong military element) register with you?

You see, the reason I’m asking is that I’ve been considering that the only way for publishers to survive is for them to make an impact on their readership. The one drawback of all this self-publishing and electronic publishing is that soon it will be hard for readers to figure out what suits their tastes.

However, my feeling is that as long as publishers play it safe – hunting for the next Harry Potter or “Twilight” or whatever – they’re going to “safe” themselves right out of business. What they need is to make themselves (or even sub-groups within their publishing house) places where readers can go to find that next great read.

They need an identity other than “SF/F” publishing house.

What do you think?

New Story! “Like the Rain”

January 12, 2011

Sitting on my desk in front of me is a nifty new hard-cover anthology entitled Golden Reflections. I have a story in it entitled “Like the Rain.”

Golden Reflections is a collection of novellas riffing off Fred Saberhagen’s wonderful alternate history novel, Mask of the Sun – my particular favorite of Fred’s many novels. It’s set in a universe where – to over-simplify quite a lot – the road to conquests doesn’t go quite as easily for the Spanish as it did in our time line.

Joan Saberhagen’s introduction to the anthology tells pretty much how the anthology came to happen. Joan, her great-nephew, myself, Jim, David Weber and Sharon Rice Weber all went out to dinner one night during Bubonicon weekend in 2008. Fred had died about a year before and the topic of Fred’s works pretty naturally came up.

On thing led to another and next thing I knew, Weber, with his usual Tigger-like enthusiasm, was suggesting an anthology bound together by the Mask – a central element of the original novel. Moreover, since by modern standards Fred’s novel is pretty short, the anthology could include it as well, so readers would not need to hunt around to find the source.

Names for various contributors were batted around. There’s only one place where I’ll quibble with Joan’s official version of events. She writes, “Jane chimed in that she’d like to try her hand at a story in this world.” That’s not how I remember it at all. What I remember is Weber suggesting me and me trying to bow out… Saying that just because I happened to be there and to like the novel didn’t mean that I had to be included.

Well, autobiography is one of the most unreliable of arts…

One of the reasons I was uncertain about being a contributor is that, in the early stages of the plan, Joan kept talking about keeping the stories close to the original South American setting. I know quite a lot about history, but certainly not enough about South American historical events to want to “alternate” them.

When contracts were done and commitments were made, I was no closer to an idea. Finally, I said to Jim, “Any ideas?” Without a pause, Jim said, “What about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680?”

I thought this was a great idea. While not set in South America, the story would continue the theme of an on-going conflict between the Spanish conquistadors and the indigenous peoples of the New World. Another thing I really liked was how naturally a mask would fit into the story. The religious practices of the Southwest involve masked dancers – what are often today conflated under the Hopi word “kachina” or “katsina.”

I asked Joan if I could set the story somewhat north of South America. She said she liked the idea a lot and encouraged me to go ahead with her blessing.

So I started reading. While I knew the basics of the Revolt, I didn’t know the details with enough precision to “alternate” them. However, the more reading I did, the more excited I became. In my afterward to the story I go into some of the details. Suffice to say, the events of the Pueblo Revolt actually make more sense if one assumes high-tech future intervention than if one does not.

Then there was the fascinating and elusive figure of Po’pay, the leader of the Revolt. He is a shadowy figure, never captured by the Spanish. However, the Spanish were methodical record-keepers. From others’ mentions, a figure of substance as well as shadow comes vividly to life.

A final fun element entered into my work. Remember, I’m married to a Southwestern archeologist. I’d known Jim and I had an extensive library of materials related to the history of the Southwest, but until I started this project I don’t think I’d realized just how substantial it is.

Jim works at home a couple days a week. When he does, we share a lovely office. Here’s an account of how my research and writing evolved.

Jane (seated at her desk, speaking half to herself): “I wonder if there’s a book with Tewa names in it. Lots of these people are referred to only by title and that won’t work in a story.”

Thump!  Jane looks up from her computer to see Jim, a slight smile on his face, walking back to his own desk. The book is Elsie Clews Parson’s Social Organization of the Tewa Pueblos. This book not only helps me with the details of the Tewa people’s lives and value systems, but also contains a tidy list of male and female names.

Jane (seated at her desk, now hoping Jim will “overhear”): “These secondary sources are fine as far as they go, but I’m frustrated. I’d like to read the full statements. The authors of these more modern works often have their own agendas.”

Thump! Thump!  Jim stands proudly in front of two fat, slightly dusty volumes.

“I bought these a while back. They should contain the full depositions from the post-Revolt Spanish legal documents. They’re translated into English, of course.”

He grins and wanders over to his own desk. I grab the nearest book and start happily reading the full question and answers. In more than a few cases, the bias I had suspected in some of the contemporary accounts is confirmed. Whatever else you want to say about them, the Spanish were meticulous record-keepers – including faithfully recording material that did not show themselves in the best of lights.

From all of this comes my story “Like the Rain,” an alternate history which I hope, as well as being a good adventure tale, does credit to the actual history of the people involved.

Oh! I almost forgot… Many of the contributors to Golden Reflections (myself, Joan Saberhagen, Daniel Abraham, Robert E. Vardeman, Walter Jon Williams, and John Maddox Roberts) will be doing a signing together at Page One Books here in Albuquerque on March 5 at 2:30 pm. Hope to see some of you there!

My Resolutions

January 5, 2011

I am a firm believer in New Year’s resolutions as long as they are practical

What's Waiting For Me

 and not terribly depressing.

This year my primary resolution is to remember to write 2011 rather than 2010 on my correspondence. I nearly slipped up when writing my pen-pal this weekend, but I caught myself in time. Resolution kept! I also bought two new calenders, just to help me keep on track.

The InuYasha one is quite a challenge to write on, since the backgrounds are dark. Solution! Pull out the silver gel pens!! Silver looks really cool against dark purple.

Apparently, many people’s resolutions have to do with losing weight. I deduce this in the best Sherlock Holmes manner from the fact that the new Border’s Books coupon is for diet books. Moreover, they are only offering thirty-three (rather than the usual forty to fifty) percent off. Obviously, they figure there’s a serious interest in diets out there.

Also, when I logged on to the web, the homepage headlines all had to do with dieting tips.

Frankly, a New Year’s resolution having to do with dieting would fail miserably at my house. Many of our Christmas gifts involved chocolate. I like this and refuse to let a mere resolution get in the way of pleasure. Several of our neighbors presented us with homemade cookies and candy. Again, I refuse to let this generosity go to waste.

And why set up for failure? What a miserable way to start a year!

Shall I admit to being a sentimental fool? Why not? I love “that blessings number” as Bing Crosby irreverently refers to the song “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)” in White Christmas.

At this moment, I’m feeling more than a little stressed about the number of deadlines I have before the middle of 2011. Then I remember all the people who are unemployed. What do you know? I end up feeling pretty grateful.

So the question of the moment is “Resolutions: Blessing or Bane?” Do you make resolutions? Do you keep them?

Meanwhile, I’m off to read the mass market proofs for Five Odd Honors, deadline number one for the New Year. Glancing at the first sheet, I see that my editor seems to have found a whole bunch of really great reviews I hadn’t seen. How very, very nice!