Some Reflections on a Bad Book I Wrote

I’ve been rereading the Vlad novels in preparation for writing the next one, and, eventually, finishing the series if I live that long.  I’ve been going through them looking for guns I left on mantelpieces, so I can pick them up and have them go off together in ways that will make people go, “Wow!  He had all of that planned from the start?”  Well, and to remind myself of stuff I actually did know from the start.  Anyway, in the course of this, I just finished a reread of Yendi and had some thoughts about it that might be useful to other writers.

Yes, I still think it is a bad book (although with some moments that, in retrospect, I’m quite proud of), and this post is not intended as a platform to argue that.  Let me have it as a given and make my point.

My second novel was To Reign In Hell, and it was quite an experience.  For one thing, I decided my biggest weakness was characterization, so I wanted to write a book that simply wouldn’t work unless I nailed the characters.    It was hard, for that reason and others.  It was an ambitious project for me.  At one point, about a third of the way through, I spoke to Will Shetterly, and told him, “I should wait ten years before writing this one.  I don’t have the chops to pull it off yet.”  He said, “You’re right, you don’t.  You should write it anyway.  In ten years you’ll write something else, and what you learn doing this one will stay with you.”  It turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.

After finishing it, I was exhausted, beat, done, wiped out.  It felt like I’d been doing hard labor.  I was emotionally drained and, for a while, wondered if I’d ever write again (it turns out, this is fairly normal for me after finishing something; I need a few months to recover.  But I didn’t know that at the time).  Once I did start getting the itch to write again, I was still sort of bruised from how hard it had been.  Now, my first novel, Jhereg, I had thought of as a standalone.   I put in hints of backstory and foreshadowing and stuff, but not with the intention of returning to the world, only because, well, I love it when books do that.  But after finishing TRiH, it hit me that what I needed was something fun, something I could just kick back and enjoy writing without a lot of sweat or effort, to remind myself how much fun writing can be, and I realized that I already had the world and characters set up, I could just go back there and tell another story.  To make it easier, I could use the backstory I’d already hinted at, plus throw in a bit of “foreshadowing” for Jhereg (like, Vlad remarking that no one would ever steal from the Jhereg Council, stuff like that).    Because I felt a need to challenge myself at least a little, I decided to work on a different aspect of characterization than I had in TRiH, to wit, on finding the telling detail for each character that would make that one memorable.

Between these two goals—making characters identifiable, and kicking back and having fun—emerge the two problems with Yendi.  First, it’s got too many characters; some of those folk are just in there so I could practice with them, and I would probably have removed them if there’d been a well handy.  Second, it’s sloppy.  It’s just kind of slapdash, thrown out there, with a few accidental contradictions, and not much substance.  There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with “a good tale well told,” but if that’s all there is to a story, well, it should be really well told, and that one was only fairly decent.  That is why I’ve always regretted that book, and badly wished I could do it over (which, in a way, I did: Orca is in some sense the book Yendi should have been).

I should say, I’ve always regretted that book until now.  Here we get to the point of this post, to what might be useful for new writers to think about.

Yes, because I was sloppy with that book, it has haunted me.  I cringe when I think about it, and what it ought to have been, and still remind myself not to get lazy.  BUT.   I was right.  It comes back to me that the book did exactly what I wanted it to: it reminded me how much fun writing can be, how to take joy in the process, and evil, cackling delight in imagining what I was going to do to the poor reader.  And this has stayed with me.  Of course, there are the horrible, wracking moments of where do I go? and  how do I make this work? and  how do I turn these concepts into a story? and what happens next?  Of course those still happen.  But underneath, since writing Yendi, I haven’t forgotten that at the bottom, I do this because I love it.

If you can keep that feeling at the price of one book that is weaker than you wish it were, well, I call that a fair trade.


Some Thoughts on Finishing Vallista

This one has been an experience.  I think I will have learned things, once I’m done processing.  As part of the processing, here are some thoughts:

The book started in a very typical way for me:, “Oh, I know what would be cool!”  One thing that wasn’t typical is the degree of pre-writing feedback on it; I kicked around ideas with Skyler White and Jen Melchert.  This was unexpectedly useful.  For a leave-me-alone-till-it’s-done type, it is interesting to consider how many really cool ideas came out of those conversations.  Not sure if I’ll do that again, but I at least won’t reject the idea out of hand.

The writing itself was somewhat slow, but not terribly.  I did my usual thing: it will write itself as fast as it wants to, and my only choice is how miserable to make myself in the meantime.

And then, somewhere around the halfway point, something entirely new and unexpected happened: I got nailed with an idea of what I wanted to write next.  Not just nailed, but the over-the-top, “Got to write this need to write this arrrrgh” feeling I know and love.  But this has never happened before while I was in the middle of a different book.

In retrospect, I might have been better off just dropping Vallista until the other one was done, but I didn’t.  I finished it anyway, and as a result it was a mess.  The first draft of that book is probably worse than any other I’ve completed, including Brokedown Palace, and Athyra.

While waiting to meet with my critique group (Emma Bull, Pamela Dean, Will Shetterly, Adam Stemple), I went and wrote the other one (working title Magister Valley) which was every bit as joyful an experience as I’d thought it would be.

Then I met with the group (I’d already previously met with Skyler, who was the first to point out the problems in the first draft), and set in to fix the thing.

The revisions were predictably slow and painful and Not Fun.  The thing is, the critique group and Skyler did just what they were supposed to: highlighted the problems in a clear enough way that I knew what I had to do in general, and pointed to solutions–in general.  And that was where the challenge came in.  Because it is one thing to get a comment like, “I’m not clear on the motivations for this character,” or, “you have a lot of this kind of thing that you don’t need and it just slows everything down.”  Those are not only useful, but easy to attack.  However, when broader, more structural problems come to light, I know I need to fix them, but translating that problem to the exact words that need to be deleted and added is not easy for me.  In the end, one of the biggest problems, maybe the biggest, translated to: It isn’t cool enough.  Yikes.  So, yeah, I made it cooler.

One of things really good critics will do is that they will often point out unrelated problems that you eventually discover will solve each other.  I don’t want to go into too much detail because of spoilers, but for example, “I was disappointed that you didn’t go into this kind of scene,” and, “this part of the book felt slow,” lend themselves to, “Okay, I can put that kind of scene in this part of the book.”  I did a lot of that sort of thing.  Whole new scenes were added with the idea drumming in my head: It needs to be cooler.

The interesting thing is how happy I am with it right now.  Before, it wasn’t a bad book, it was a meh book.  I hate that worse.  I have to caution you that it’s pretty clear that what I think of a book has pretty much no relationship to what others will think of it, or even, necessarily, what I will think of it in five years.  But the difference between how I felt about it before and how I feel about it now is huge.

It will be interesting to see if this experience changes how I approach things in the next book.  One of the coolest parts of this business is that one never stops learning.

Roger and Me

I’ve created a new category called “squee” just for this post.

I received an email from my friend Moshe Feder concerning the work of a friend of his named Ted Krulik.  Ted is, apparently, as big a Zelazny fan as I am but more ambitious, and interviewed Roger many times over the years.  He is hoping to publish this collection of interviews, and, needless to say, I really really hope this happens.  More Roger = better world.

One section of the interviews concerned, ahem, me.  It took place at Necronomicon, Tampa, Florida, 1985, and this is the section Moshe was kind enough to send me, and which Mr. Krulik was kind enough to give me permission to post here.   With my thanks to them both, I now reproduce it without further comment.


                                      “Helping a Young Writer in Hell”

Steven Brust was just starting out, and his publisher sent me his novel Jhereg just to read and see if I cared to give them a publication quote to promote the book.  Along with Jhereg, they included his second book, Yendi.  I read them both and liked them.

When Brust heard I’d commented on Jhereg, he dropped me a line thanking me.  Then he sent me a copy of the manuscript of his latest novel, To Reign in Hell.  He wrote, “Ace purchased this one but, in the meantime, it’s going into a limited edition by a local outfit called Steel Dragon Press.  Ace felt that it was all right to use the quote you had given for Jhereg, but I don’t feel quite right about it.  If you have time to read To Reign in Hell, I’d appreciate your taking a look.  This is an extra copy.  You can throw it away.  If you don’t have the time, I’ll understand.”

So I took a look at the first few pages and got into it.  Instead of giving them a comment, I liked this stuff so much I decided to write something at greater length and help the guy out.  I wrote the introduction that was included in To Reign in Hell completely unsolicited.  I’d never done that before, but I was particularly taken by his writing.

Most writers have only one strong point, but Brust has several.  I like his dialogue and descriptions.  He has a sense of humor that is similar to my own.   It’s true that someone who might appeal to me most is a writer who sounds like me.

In fact, he called me up the other day.  He works with computers, and he said he’s quitting his job.  He’s leaving in a couple of weeks to write full time.  I hope he makes it.

Fantasy Series: Keeping the Big Secret

I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I do when I’m struggling with a book is read nice things people have said about my stuff–it helps me get cocky, and that helps me write. This often leads me to reread Jo Walton’s stuff on because, well, it says nice things. Today I noticed the following thing she said: “I think Brust must be the best person at keeping a secret in the world. There are revelations late in the series that it’s quite clear, on re-reading, that he knew about and was hinting at all the time.”

This gave me to think. At the time, I never considered it as, “I have to find the right moment to reveal this thing.” In fact, I don’t ever remember thinking that. For one thing, it contradicts the “burn story” rule that I have at least tried to keep as a guideline. So, how, in a long series, do you keep the Big Secret until the right moment for the reveal while simultaneously burning as much story as you have wood for? Well, here’s the thing: You don’t. It’s never about keeping anything secret, exactly. It’s simply an extreme case of that other rule, the one about the writer knowing more than the reader.

****** Spoiler for Orca ******








Yes, certainly, I knew all along that Kiera was one of Sethra’s disguises; it was a necessary and not terribly brilliant part of defining Sethra’s character that she would want to keep informed of what the Jhereg were up to, and, if she were to be a thief, obviously she’d be a very good one. But I never said to myself, “I will save this revelation until the right book.” For one thing, when I wrote Jhereg, I had no idea there would be any others.  What I told myself was, “This will probably never emerge, but it will have a huge effect on the relationship between Vlad and Sethra, and thus on Vlad’s entire career and development.” No one was more surprised than me when I suddenly came to a moment when it seemed right, necessary, and cool to let the reader in on that–in fact, the only thing I had to do was go back and plant a couple little things to explain how Vlad figured it out.



****** End Spoiler ******




James D. MacDonald, in his lecture at Viable Paradise, displays a miniature house he built and talks about how he constructed it. There is a room where there is a figure of a guy that you can’t see because it is fully enclosed. But, Jim says, he knows it is there, and that knowledge informs how he constructed the house. This is a perfect metaphor. There are many things I know about the world I’m building, and the relationships among the characters, that never make it into the stories, but that, simply because I’m aware of them, have an effect, greater or lesser, on what happens. So, then, the “reveal the big secret” moment never, to me, feels like, “Now I can finally reveal that,” but rather, “Oh, the story would be really cool if this happened right here, and, hey, look, I just happen to have that all set up; ain’t I clever?”

My point is not, in fact, that I’m especially clever. My point is that the old chestnut that speaks of knowing things about your world that you do not reveal not only gives your world additional depth, but can sometimes pay off in other ways. As long as you aren’t so cryptic about so many things that the reader is left in a fog (or you, as a writer, get so wrapped up in inventing things that you never write the story), there is no downside to knowing things you don’t reveal.