After the Draft: Episode VI, Erik Scott de Bie

Alright everybody! As promised, I’ve been lining up some author friends to share their first novel stories while we wait to see how my little manuscript fares out in the big scary world. First up is a good friend of mine that I bonded with through violent arguments on social media, Erik Scott de Bie. Erik has done great work in the fantasy field, especially within the Dungeon and Dragons Forgotten Realms setting. Here’s what he had to say about getting his first novel published. And please, when you’re finished, follow the links and help support a fellow traveler and artist.

Erik Scott de Bie:

Persistence is the foremost ability of a writer. Not talent, not connections, not marketing know-how, not charisma–persistence. Practice, push, repeat. Never give up.

I’ve got no real magic for getting your book published. Unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, it’s a crappy, frustrating, demeaning experience that will make you hate yourself, your writing, and the publishing world. You’ve just got to push through it, because you know your quality and you know what you want.

If you want a guide to writing and publishing that novel you’ve been kicking around, here’s a post on my blog that might be helpful: http://erikscottdebie.com/welcome/eriks-guide-to-writing-a-book/

What I’ll say about getting my first book published is that I did not expect so much revision. The first draft of GHOSTWALKER (Wizards of the Coast, December 2005) that I submitted . . . Well, it’s my own fault for writing way over the suggested word count. The contract was for 70k – 90k, but I sent in a 115k manuscript. This prompted a very polite email from my editor saying: “The highest we can go is 100k. Make it so.” And just like that, I had to cut FIFTEEN THOUSAND words from my book. And do it within about two weeks.

And I did it. There’s an entire chapter I cut out, significant amounts of description, repetitive passages, and the like. But I did it, because that’s what a writer has to do. Be persistent.

I suppose the real lesson here is “always write within the margins.” If they say they only want 90k words as an upper limit, give ‘em that. Digital publishing mitigates the problem, because word count doesn’t matter as much when you’re printing it on 1s and 0s rather than paper, but doing it right the first time is the mark of a professional. And part of that is a question of experience: the more novels you write, the more you’ll get a sense of what you can accomplish in a certain word count. The more editing you have to do after submittal, the more likely you’re going to mess up, so it’s best to do it right the first time.

But if you’re like me and you have a persistent length problem (i.e. you write way too long all the time), you’re going to have to learn to cut and cut well. Self-editing before submittal is important—cutting the fat from your story and getting down to what you absolutely think you need to say. If there’s cutting after that, it can feel like pruning off muscle and sharpening the bones of your book. But here’s the thing: making your book sharper makes it better most of the time.

The real trick is being able to cut without damaging the story—odds are you put stuff in for a reason, and you don’t want to lose its effect if it’s helpful to the story. Like a really good plastic surgeon, you have to be able to make small incisions, peel away the skin without damaging it, do your work, and make the scars not show. After all, you want your book to live a normal life after the surgery, and not have people stop and stare at its freaky appearance.

Back to Ghostwalker, the first thing that went were lightly relevant passages that the editor recommended I nix. (Editors can be amazingly helpful with this.) These were passages that didn’t further the plot any but only developed characters in ways I could accomplish more efficiently during more relevant scenes. Then we got to I borrowed chunks of text from scenes to blend elsewhere, then chopped out the donor scene. An entire chapter (wherein my hero faces down some lycanthropes in the forest) turned into a three sentence reference early in the book (about some adventurers cleaning out a band of lycanthropes a couple seasons back), and I cut the chapter. Then there were descriptive passages I could write more efficiently—things that didn’t need as many words as I gave them. Then—only then—did I start cutting meaningful stuff from the book, and by that point I just have to lose a couple hundred words.

The result was a sharper, tighter, stronger, rich, and dense book than what I had submitted, and so my debut was pretty awesome.

The takeaway here is to write the right book, at the right length, with the right density, packed with meaning, the first time. Barring that, however, always look for ways to write efficiently—make every scene develop both the plot and your characters, keep your scope tight, and never be afraid to cut things that aren’t working for you. And that will make your first novel way, way more likely to see the light of day.

 

Erik Scott de Bie is a 30-something speculative fiction author, best known for his work in the Forgotten Realms setting (including his SHADOWBANE series). He’s publishing three books in the next year: the space opera PRIORITY: HYPERION (set in the Traveller universe), the fantasy SCOURGE OF THE REALM (for Broken Eye Books), and SHADOW OF THE WINTER KING, the first of his epic apocalyptic fantasy WORLD OF RUIN series. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including WHEN THE HERO COMES HOME, HUMAN FOR A DAY, and many others. He moonlights as a Game Designer, and has contributed work to Dungeons and Dragons, Iron Kingdoms (the Warmachine RPG), and the forthcoming Red Aegis. He lives in Seattle, where he is married with cats and a dog.

Find him on his website (http://erikscottdebie.com, including his bibliography), Facebook (www.facebook.com/erik.s.debie), or Twitter (www.twitter.com/erikscottdebie)

On Pizza Parties and the ACA

Well, I wasn’t going to do one of these political posts again for a while, but the traffic’s been a little slow around here since the last one. So, give the people what they want, I suppose.

There is a brewing controversy over the implementation and bugs found in the www.healthcare.gov system, accompanied by generous helpings of finger-pointing. And there is no doubt that a serious problem with the site exists and needs to be fixed within a tight schedule. Here’s what’s being overlooked in most of these discussions. The website itself was never supposed to exist.

To explain why, I’m going to use an analogy where a business stands in for the U.S. government. Such analogies have myriad problems from an economic standpoint, but they remain popular among a certain group, so here we go:

You’re the CEO of a huge, complex business spanning… we’ll say fifty different semi-autonomous departments. Each of these departments have their own locations, culture, and managers. One day, you decide it would be a great thing to throw a company-wide pizza party. So you go to the Board of Directors to get approval for the party, who votes in favor of it.

So, the company-wide pizza party is a go. But while you know the best pie joint near your office, the other fifty offices are in totally different cities. You don’t know what the other departments like re: pizza. Are they New York style lovers, Chicago, or that mutant California crap? Who knows! You want everyone in the company to get the best pie for their local tastes, so you send a memo out to all of your fifty managers and tell them that the Board of Directors has approved a pizza party and you want them to organize theirs locally to make sure everyone gets what they like. You even release funds from petty cash to pay their costs.

This is when the problems start. Thirty-four of your managers refuse to take the money or organize their own pizza party at the local level. See, apparently they’ve spent the last four years telling their employees that you’re a big jerk who will never do anything nice for them, and they can’t stand the idea of you getting any sort of credit for something their people might enjoy. But by now everyone in the company is expecting a party regardless.

So with just days to go, you’re stuck trying to organize party plans for these thirty-four insubordinate managers who flatly refused to do the job the Board of Directors ordered them to. You still don’t know what everybody wants in each of your departments, so instead of tailoring each party to local tastes and preferences as you had planned, you’re left with no choice but to go online and do a massive Papa John’s order.

Now it’s the day of the party, and the employees under the sixteen managers who DID THEIR FUCKING JOBS have a great time eating pizza from their favorite local joint. The other thirty-four departments are stuck eating Papa John’s, who’s sauce tastes like watered-down ketchup on a good day, and those are the ones who actually got their pizza in time for the party to start. Now two thirds of your employees are angry that their parties were a bust, and your insubordinate managers are busy blaming you for their failures, some because they’re angling for your job when you retire in a few years.

That is what happened with healthcare.gov. Under the ACA signed into law more than three years ago, it was the responsibility of each individual state to set-up their own healthcare exchange. Thirty-four mostly red states refused to do so, despite the fact the law included provisions to pay for the majority of the work. The federal government then had to step in and very quickly design a website that would integrate not only the nearly three-dozen non-compliant states, but a bunch of federal agencies and many dozens of insurance carriers, because remember, all the healthcare exchanges do is drive consumers to private, non-governmental, for-profit insurance companies.

Apple’s website crashes every time a new iPhone rolls out. Diablo III’s servers crashed like an Italian cruise ship the day the game was released. Is anyone actually surprised a hastily-constructed website that nobody in the federal government actually expected needed to be build in the first place is having some trouble early on?

And now I have a shooting-fish-in-a-lunchbox-with-a-gatling-gun prediction. In a year’s time when the real numbers on the effectiveness of the ACA start coming in, and the sixteen compliant states show greater enrollment rates and better insurance premiums than non-compliant states on average, Fox News, Rush, and every other “conservative” mouthpiece will scream and shout about how the President is somehow maliciously punishing red states for voting against him, completely ignoring the fact that their own governors and state houses have been doing everything they can to sabotage the law’s effectiveness, denying better, more-affordable healthcare to their own citizens, just to prevent their political opponents from getting any credit for improving their lives. Wait for it… wait for it…

 

CORRECTION: It has come to my attention that Utah and Mississippi made the decision late to set-up their own exchanges instead of kicking responsibility back to the feds, bringing the total to eighteen states plus D.C. which have done so. But this still leaves twenty-five states that rely entirely on healthcare.gov, and seven more that are “Partnership” states with a weird hybrid system.

After the Draft: Episode V, All Quiet on the Western Front

After some mild distractions, (which garnered exponentially more web traffic, ahem…) I’m happy to report that Any Port in a Storm has nothing to report. Since the last episode, the only notable thing that has happened for my manuscript is a personalized email from the publisher confirming receipt of said manuscript, with a promise to get back to me soon.

“Soon” in publisher/agent language does not line-up with what a normal person might expect it to be. This is in no way a slam on anyone on that side of the industry. What many writers don’t appreciate is the sorts of lead-times a book requires before it’s going to go to print. Even if you somehow manage to send in a completely clean manuscript that requires no revisions, (which, incidentally isn’t going to happen on your first book, or your second, and probably not your third) the process will still take many months to work its way through all of the people within the publishing house who have to give their approval on the project, not to mention actually being fitted into the publication schedule.

Remember, there is a finite amount of time in a given year to squeeze in things like producing cover-art, marketing, and the actual physical publishing of many thousands or tens of thousands of copies of a book, to say nothing of generating reviews, distribution to retail outlets, etc. All of those steps take time, and if publishers rush out too many books all at once, titles run the risk of being lost in the noise. These constraints and business considerations are why houses have a limit on the number of books they can churn out in a given fiscal year. It really is nothing personal.

That’s just how this process goes, and the entire point of this blog-series was to give writers a realistic review of the experience of trying to get a book published. Which is why I’ve popped in to say I have basically nothing to say. However, I can say that I’ve lined up a number of authors to guest-blog about their own experiences getting their first book published from the other side of the door. The first of these guest-posts is due up next month, and the author in question is a simply terrific guy and an ENORMOUS geek. I’m sure you’re all going to love it!

Coca-Cola and Nuclear Bombs

After the smashing success of my last post on the government shutdown, I’m steering back away from the political and returning to talking about writing, anticipating an accompanying and deeply depressing drop in web traffic as a result.

Still, I’ve learned something exciting and really want to shout about it, so here goes. As my first two novels cool their heels in editor limbo, I’m in the active phase of research and outlining of my third book. Research can be tedious and time-consuming, but sometimes your efforts are rewarded with amazing little gems of knowledge. So let me tell you, in my own words, about Project Orion:

For anyone who doesn’t know, Project Orion was a serious attempt to build the first interplanetary, even interstellar spaceship. As best as I can determine, the core concept was first suggested as early as 1946. It used a completely new and untested method of creating thrust called Nuclear Pulse Propulsion. Sounds a little dry, right? Well, let me flesh this out for you.

Basically, what we’re talking about here is a Giant pogo-stick powered by a chain-fed, nuclear bomb-shooting machine gun. The idea is you detonate a series of nukes in rapid succession directly behind the ship, which is protected by a giant ablative metal plate that both blocks much of the radiation and thermal energy from damaging the ship and its nuggaty human passengers, and acts as a pusher plate to transfer the energy of the exploding bombs into forward momentum. This plate is fixed to the ship by a ring of two-stage shock absorbers, working exactly like the shocks on your car to transfer the force more smoothly, again mainly for the benefit of the meatbags strapped to their chairs inside.

Legend has it that the whole concept for Orion came about after Wernher Von Braun, the imminent German rocket scientist we sort of confiscated from the Nazis, and Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, hooked up at a rave and dropped acid, then woke up in the desert outside Vegas three days later surrounded by plans frantically scribbled into bar napkins. The historical accuracy of this legend is dubious at best, but that’s how I chose to believe it happened.

The truly ridiculous thing about this is that not only did the physics work out, but several different projects run by the Air Force, NASA, and even the British all went well past engineering feasibility studies. So serious were we about building one of these things that not only had scientists designed a shaped-charge nuclear bomb using a uranium containment chamber to maximize the propulsion efficiency of each explosion (because a normal nuke isn’t scary or powerful enough) but they actually brought engineers from Coca-Cola into the program as consultants to basically up-size a soda-can vending machine to shit these things out the back of the ship once a second. How badly do you want to be in on that conversation?

Coke Engineer (being held in a basement in Area 51): “So, you want us to build a vending machine that can throw out several thousand, 300lb, 6 inch diameter ‘Soda cans’ once a second?”
Air Force General: “Yes, my airmen are very thirsty.”
CE: “You’re building a nuclear bomb machine gun, aren’t you?”
AFG: “No!”
CE: “AREN’T YOU?”
AFG: “…yes.”

Several designs were considered, everything from a small prototype massing a few hundred tons, all the way up to an eight million, yes MILLION ton behemoth that could hypothetically act as a habitat for a manned mission all the way to the nearest star. Which you would reach surprisingly fast, because the upper speed limit for one of these babies is around 0.05c, or 5% the speed of light, and that’s if you want to slow back down again when you reach your target. An unmanned probe could cook twice as fast. Nor was all of this mere conjecture. A proof-of-concept vehicle using conventional explosives actually flew. Here’s the footage, from 1958!

And it wasn’t just kooks who got wrapped up in this idea. The famous physicist Freeman Dyson was heavily involved in planning it all out, in fact here’s his son George giving a TED talk back in 2002 on the subject. Carl Sagan had said at one point that an Orion drive probe or starship would be a very handy way to get rid of our nuclear weapons stockpiles, a sentiment I tend to agree with.

So what happened to Project Orion? Well, like all great ideas involving nuclear weapons, there was some resistance. At first, NASA wanted nothing to do with the project, so the USAF took charge of it and, naturally, classified everything so the public never knew we had designed this amazing thing. Funding was also an issue, because the design had to compete with traditional chemical rockets just as both were literally getting off the ground in a serious way. There was also some hippie shit about radioactive fallout and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. But the fact remains that Orion is the only design we have today capable of attaining such high velocities that will not only work, but will work with readily available technologies, indeed technologies that have been available for more than forty years already.

There’s a way, all that’s needed is a will. Now what might give us the will, I wonder… [returns to his new novel outline]

On False-Equivalence and the Government Shutdown.

Hi. My name is Patrick, and I’m a conservative. And as a conservative, I’m furious at the behavior that has led to the shutdown of the U.S. Federal Government. But even more than that, I am positively livid at the weak-kneed media and the larger population that continues to believe that both parties in our system of governance are equally responsible for the current situation.

Let me explain this to you simply. This is a Republican shutdown. It was completely unnecessary. The only members of Congress who forced this issue were entirely Republican. Only the Republicans have spent the last three years boasting to their base about how they were going to shutdown the government.

And further, let’s look at the sequence of events that led to this nonsense. A law the GOP didn’t like (despite being a conservative law with 20+ years of history inside the movement, indeed born from within the movement itself via the Heritage Foundation) was passed with majorities in both chambers of Congress, thus meeting the approval of the Legislative Branch. It was then signed into law by the duly elected President in the Executive branch. It then went on to survive a lawsuit filed by members of the GOP in the Supreme Court, despite the Judicial branch being currently held by a Conservative-leaning majority, including Bush II appointee, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote an opinion in support of the constitutionality of the law in question.

The law has therefore gone through the entire Constitutional framework of checks-and-balances as designed by our founders. Not only that, but the engineers of the law then went on to face the voters once more in the 2012 election cycle. Guess what? Not only was the President reelected, but his party won more seats in the Senate, AND gained more seats in the House, (while actually winning a majority of votes nationwide in the House, but were unable to take the chamber due to extremely skillful gerrymandering on the part of the state-level GOP, but that is another post).

The ACA is the LAW. It has withstood all of the tests it needed to in order to be called a law. Now, if the GOP wants it to be repealed, there is a mechanism available to them written into our Constitution which has served us for over two-hundred years. That mechanism is elections. If they want the ACA repealed, all they must do is go to the American people with a compelling message and get themselves elected to a ruling majority by retaking the Senate and Executive Branch. From there, they can repeal the ACA through the exact same Constitutional process that passed it in the first place.

Here’s the problem. They tried that in 2012, and failed. No matter how the country feels about the ACA (which is an open question for any number of reasons I’m not going to take the time to get into here) they were given the choice to let the GOP take control on the promise of rolling back the law. We, as a country, declined. As President George W. Bush said in 2005, “Elections have consequences” and one of those consequences is the duly elected ruling majority gets to set legislative priorities and domestic policy. The GOP, being the losers of four out of the last five election cycles, and for good reason, have decided that such Constitutional niceties don’t apply to them, and have taken the historically UNPRECEDENTED step of shutting down the government with the demand that the sitting President undo his signature domestic policy achievement as the ransom for agreeing not to destroy the economy.

THAT is why this is the GOP’s shutdown, and THAT is a far, far bigger threat to our democracy and our Constitution than the ACA could ever be. And anyone who doesn’t clearly see that is a fucking idiot.