Boom. Done.

Once again I find myself on the verge of a state of nearing done.  The first four drafts of the big fantasy novel were somewhat there, near there, almost there, and just about there but they were never there.  That’s why they became previous drafts.  Draft number five is the final page-one rewrite.  From here on out, it’s all about tweaking and punching and polishing.  That is to say that this draft has all the major elements, plot and character and narrative, in place.  All that remains is getting the language right and plugging any holes that crop up.

So what now?  Well, we’ve talked about this before. Now I put it in a metaphorical drawer and ignore it for some months.  Then, when it is new to me again, I’ll take it out and make a more objective decision on whether this is really the final draft.

In the meantime, I can bask in the glow of finishing.  The prospect of writing a draft of a novel is so stupidly harrowing (especially the way I do it) that the mere fact of finishing, apart from any questions of quality, becomes a matter for celebration. 

Since I don’t know how the novel is going to end when I start, I have no idea if I’m going to make to the end.  I have a ton of unfinished novels sitting in my metaphorical drawers (wait, not in my pants, in file folders.  You know what I mean) that will probably never reach completion, forever destined to claim they enjoy cuddling just as much.

But some of them have second and even third lives.  Right now I’m going to work on the sequel to The Vengeance Season and I’m more than happy to do that because it’s shaping up to be an excellent follow up, but when I inevitably have to put that draft into a drawer, I know the next story I’m going to tell.

From previous posts, I’ve made it clear that one of my favorite writers is John Scalzi.  This is because he writes the kind of unfettered science fiction that reminds me of the golden age.  Back in the day (I really hate that I’m old enough to say that with conviction) SF fell into two categories: Asimov and Heinlein.  It was easy to tell the difference.  Asimovians spent pages and pages explaining the exact science behind their warp drives.  A Heinleinian’s warp drive was a black box that powered adventure stories more concerned with giant bugs and anatomically correct cyborgs than how you got to a bug infested planet or who built the girl named Friday. 

Scalzi is of the Heinlein school.  Not that he’s a fascist or weirdly perverted, I don’t know him well enough to make that call, more that he uses interplanetary travel as a way to tell a story rather than a reason to lay out a nerdgasm’s worth of theoretical physics while describing how a spaceship travels the unthinkable distances between planets. 

So, the thing is, one of those orphans moldering in a drawer is that kind of science fiction story.  Very little science, lots of fiction, no fantasy.  I put this story aside because I didn’t feel like there was a readership out there waiting for such tales.  Then I stumbled onto Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi and it changed my mind.

The interesting aspect of this journey is that it came through audible books.  As my eyesight and attention span fail, I find myself reading less and listening more.  I’m lucky.  My grandfather was forced into a life of endlessly flipping cassettes of Louis L’amour westerns. I get to go to and download a professional, high quality production of practically any book I can imagine.  The interesting aspect of this is that it adds a new element of choice to book buying.  What if you don’t like the narrator?  This turns out to be a big deal for me because two of the most popular science fiction narrators happen to be the ones I can’t stand to listen to.  So I’m always on the hunt for good readers.

When Ready Player One came out, I leapt on it – I mean, let’s face it, this is the book I was born and raised to read – blindly jumping in without pausing to make sure I could stand to listen to the narrator.  Lucky me, that narrator turned out to be Wil Wheaton.  He was so good at reading this book that I did a search to find other books he had recorded.  That led me to John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation.  And that led me to every other thing Scalzi has written except for his most famous work, the Old Man’s War series, because the guy who reads that one is one of the readers I can’t stand to listen to.

But, audible books aside, the real point here is that reading Scalzi reminded me how much I loved science fiction during the second golden age.  And that reminded me that I don’t need a degree in theoretical physics* to tell a story about interstellar travel and human colonization of other planets.  And that led me back to a story I had once concocted about the technical difficulties of taming a wild planet.  And that is the story I will work on next.  I can’t wait.

* One of my favorite bits from the show Community is that Greendale offers a course in Theoretical Phys-Ed. 



Happy Endings

About five years ago, I had a run of incredibly ambivalent luck when, over the course of a single summer I read the novels The Time Traveler’s Wife, Never Let Me Go, Children of Men, and Oryx & Crake.  This was a profoundly disturbing experience for me as I am a shallow person who doesn’t just tend toward happy endings but rather seeks them out with the unerring, indefatigable single-mindedness of a Sidewinder missile hot on the exhaust of an enemy jet.

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read these four excellent works, I urge you to go do that now because this post is going to be full of inadvertent SPOILERS.

I started that summer with Time Traveler’s Wife having no idea what lay before me.  I had read some glowing book review somewhere, needed something read, and eagerly dove in.  The first two thirds of this book are so much fun and the quirky, out-of-sequence love story is so clever and beguiling that you really have no idea that the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a gamma ray burst that will hollow out your happiness for the next four months. 

Seeking to shake myself from the well of despair that book left me in, I immediately jumped into Children of Men.  At least this one didn’t pretend to be a happy shiny love story before it grew fangs and went for my giblets.  Children starts off in a weary, gray version of Earth where the population has become steadily more infertile over time until the people of Earth are just wiling away the hours until oblivion comes to collect them.  Front to back, this is a tour of the despair of knowing one’s demise is imminent, but instead of being about a single person dying of cancer, it’s about a whole race simply dying out.  If you’ve seen the move, by the way, you haven’t read the book.  They took some serious departures there, as usual.

Once again stunned and disoriented, I turned to Oryx & Crake.  I had never read the book of The Handmaid’s Tale but I’d seen the movie so I should have been at least partially warned.  My problem is that when I decide to read a book or watch a movie, I refuse to read any reviews beforehand.  I want the experience, good or bad, to be all mine.  Oryx & Crake, it turns out, is another book about the human race eking out its last desperate puffs of breath.

At this point, I asked MLA to hide all the sharp things in the house. 

If I remember correctly, it took me two months to read those three books.  While I tore through Time Traveler in a hurry, my pace was slowed appreciably for the others by work & family demands and a general lack of momentum caused by the contents of the books.

Finally, I set to reading Never Let Me Go.  This book was so disquieting that I didn’t even start to read anything else for a month after I finished.  This is rare for me.  I always have to have a book in progress or I go crazy.  Just to give you an idea of what a chipper and upbeat story this is, let me just say that it’s about a group of children growing up in a special boarding school.  What’s special about this school is that the children are clones being set aside so that they can make “donations” later in life when their originals need an organ.  What makes it worse is that all of that happens mostly in the background while in the foreground it’s just a story about kids growing up together and all the drama entailed therein.  I think the fact that the story never really deals head on with their situation makes it all the more horrific.

Let me pause for a moment to save you from a potential bout of suicidal depression by detailing the correct order in which to read these books:

1) Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

2) Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

3) Children of Men, P. D. James

4) Agent to the Stars, John Scalzi

5) Oryx & Crake, Margaret Atwood

6) Android’s Dream, John Scalzi

7) The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

8) Red Shirts, John Scalzi

Notice that I lean pretty heavily on John Scalzi for the interstitial reads.  That’s because, as I’ll discuss in a future post, he is a master plotter who knows how to bring home the happy ending.  There is little that is more satisfying than reading the last page of a Scalzi story.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up (apart from being a warning to others) is that these four authors did something I would never do.  I wasn’t kidding when I said I like happy endings.  I would never in a million years set out to write a book that ends like Oryx & Crake or Time Traveler’s Wife and I would never set a novel in a world as bleak as Children of Men or Never Let me Go.  I would not seek to do it and I would not allow myself to accidentally do it because I do not have that much self confidence.

I mean, honestly, you have to have a ton of faith in your prose style and you storytelling skills to place a story in a gray, uninteresting landscape because you don’t have fantastical adventures as a break from the relentlessly downbeat surroundings.  And as far as the ending is concerned?  No way would I try to pull off the ones from Time Traveler’s Wife or Oryx & Crake because I would have trouble believing I had left the reader feeling fulfilled.  That’s something I’m very touchy about.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not bagging on these books – they were each an excellent experience in their own way – I’m just saying that the emotional impact of reading them was profound and long lasting.  It’s sort of like a meal you had once that you loved but would never order again because it was just too rich.

Maybe someday I will have the courage to move into that gray area but for now I will continue to seek out (and to write) upbeat, if not outright happy, endings for my own peace of mind.