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[April 2013 -- Stories can begin with a compelling title, or the title is a last step in a writing process that makes the author feel like a baffled spectator.]
THE MEMORY OF SKY
I don’t remember using those four words in that particular order. I can’t recall them in my writing, or in my imagination either. But late last year, looking at deadlines and the hurdles of a busy holiday season, I was doing what I rarely do: Writing a point by point outline of a future work. This character would do that, and that action would result in this terrible thing happening, and oh, it became apparent that a new point of view had to be added. Readers deserved to understand the aliens. Except I didn’t know much about them either, which led to some long thoughts about the magnificent coronas. And that’s when I first jotted down the phrase, “Memory of sky.”
For a very long moment, I did nothing.
“Well,” I finally decided, “that’s got to be it.”
Near the novel’s end, a title finally surfaces.
And now, a little history.
A few years ago, I wrote a novel aimed at an imaginary 12 year-old. I titled the book DIAMOND, and I was basically pleased with the effort. And so was the first editor, who very much wanted to buy it. Unfortunately, editors are subject to publishers and bookkeepers and other professional cowards, and the point was made — a fair point, really — that DIAMOND might be rather slow for the target audience. There wasn’t a lot of plot and not very much in the way of explanation. But what I wrote was exactly what I intended to write: One day in the life of a mysterious boy, a boy unlike any other, traveling through a beautiful world that is similar to ours, and is nothing like ours.
Eventually that editor moved to another coast and a better job, and DIAMOND was shopped to a frisky new market called Amazon. They wanted to get into publishing without the cumbersome middle-folk. I was offered better terms than most of their writers, which is almost nothing. I soon had a contract to sign whenever the urge struck. But the urge was eluding me. Where would these books be sold? Besides on the Internet, I mean. Because Barnes and Noble had made it plain that Amazon titles would be banned. And what kind of editing and publicity would my work receive? Editing was a luxury that I’d have to pay for, I heard. And while publicity was guaranteed, those promises came without numbers or a track record or any other hopeful sign of real effort.
Late in 2011, I was trading e-mails with Sean Wallace at Prime Books, and in the course of other topics, I mentioned my DIAMOND novel. Sean wanted to see it, and he read it and liked it well enough that he wanted two more novels in that world.
That was a contract worth signing.
At first, the plan was to publish one title every six months. The first two novels would have come out this year, 2013, and the last would appear early in 2014. It seemed like a worthy strategy to me. But Barnes and Noble had its own ideas. They preferred a single volume, expansive and with all three books inside the binding. And by prefer, I mean that they probably wouldn’t stock any of the books if we insisted on bringing out individual titles.
B&N. That mangled monopoly is like that beefy guy who used to play linebacker in the NFL. He used to be invincible. But five knee surgeries and uncounted concussions later, he isn’t what he used to be. Yet the man still has mass and quick-twitch muscles, and the giant can still stand and come at you with an attitude that made millionaire quarterbacks piss their pants.
Barnes and Noble wanted a single fat volume, and there was a specific word total that would make them oh-so-happy. In the meantime, I had rewritten the first novel, adding necessary material. And the second novel — THE CORONA’S CHILDREN — was nearly finished: A bigger story with more points of view and plenty of action, and by action, I mean that my work left me shaken, drained.
Between the two books, I had already used up 70 percent of my word allotment.
Now, I suppose it would be fashionable to bitch about publishing and bloodless bookkeepers. But the many delays with the DIAMOND project gave me time and the urge to contemplate a bigger tale, epic and human and sorry and inevitable. Years of idle thought have given me plenty of material and one very clear direction for the Great Ship story. Word totals can seem draconian, but consider this: Every painting has its frame. Each frames defines a rectangle that always looks small against the universe. And it’s up to the artist to fill that very limited, very ordinary rectangle with a mesmerizing complication of paint and light.
My initial plans for a big final novel had to be discarded.
I needed something with sinews and muscle and nothing else.
That’s why I wrote an outline, of sorts. I was cobbling together ideas for a narrower, cleaner story. Only critical POVs were allowed to have voices. I would try to keep the action centered on one location at a time, most of my characters close enough to hold hands. (With an exception or two, as needed.) Narrow stories are usually easier than big wide-open spectacles, and I have a reasonable feel for word totals and timetables. And it didn’t hurt that in the midst of that outlining process, I found that phrase: “Memory of Sky.”
I set to work, and good things kept happening. Potential story problems loomed in the distance, but they were hallucinations, all of them vanishing as I arrived. I had momentum and clear goals, and best yet, I had my title.
Then a week before Christmas, my mother-in-law died.
This was a sudden death. She was ill, but not in this way. I didn’t sleep one night, and then starting the next morning, I had to drive a couple hours every day, visiting the funeral home and the family farm, plus being an only parent while my wife dealt with her tragedy. But despite exhaustion and distractions, I wrote almost every day. I wrote more words than usual, and later, examining that work in the light of a new year, I didn’t have much to complain about. Words came rushing out of me, and when I did sleep, I dreamed the story, and maybe it was exhaustion and distractions that did the trick. Maybe it was Death hanging over my world. But most likely, it’s because I have been doing this work for my entire adult life, and the story was in my bones, and with so much mayhem around me, I was able to relish a piece of fiction as it came to its end.
THE MEMORY OF SKY: A NOVEL OF THE GREAT SHIP
According to the latest scheme, a novel built in three pieces will come to the shelves at Barnes and Noble next year, probably in the spring.
Amazon.com will sell it, of course.
Epub markets and the independent bookstores too.
— Thanks so much for your interest,
[April 2012 -- Some thoughts on my course during the shifting winds of the current publishing industry.]
In its details, the universe is one unplanned mess.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t guiding laws and grand principles. Hydrogen stays loyal to its nature, neutrinos cling to theirs. Space has a flavor and quality that seem to hold sway over billions of light years, and all the while time doggedly runs in just one direction.
But suppose the universe started again. Shove every sliver of energy back where it began and watch the drama unfold: Thirteen billion years later, everything will look familiar and nothing will be the same. There will be rocks and there will be galaxies, but none of them will be in exactly the same place. Our faces and histories and social security numbers won’t evolve again—not in a second roll of the die, at least.
Screw grand principles. What defines us is the arbitrary-this and the happenstance-that.
For example, consider my Great Ship universe.
Quite a few years ago, I wrote “The Remoras” as a stand-alone story. Its success inspired another two stories—“Aeon’s Child” and “Marrow”. The latter was nominated for a Hugo, and that novella became a novel with the same title. MARROW made money. It didn’t make anybody rich, but this writer enjoyed a reliable income for several years, and its mild triumph allowed me to build another couple novels for the same publisher. One of those novels, THE WELL OF STARS, was a sequel to MARROW, and it did respectable business. But it didn’t perform quite like its sibling, and a stand-alone novel, SISTER ALICE, was thrown into the world with a stock cover and no backing. My sales figures were dropping, and in the modern world, dropping is very bad news.
I wrote a several-page proposal for a sequel to THE WELL OF STARS. It would have been a very exciting story, I’m sure. But there were troubles involving sales and projections of sales and the presence of new talents in the SF universe that hadn’t worn out their welcome. My former editor sat on the proposal for a long, long while. I heard promises that something was about to happen, while quite a bit of nothing was happening. The proverbial years passed. I was busy writing Great Ship stories for magazines and anthologies. I wrote other stories, including “A Billion Eves,” which won a Hugo in 2007. But the dynamic proposal for a work of stellar wonder and grand, time-spanning adventure was doomed to languish until nobody remembered what it was about.
I know I don’t remember the story, which by the way is not an altogether bad bit of news.
Back when I first began getting paid for my work, wise voices told me that winning a Hugo, any Hugo, added so many tens of thousands of dollars to your advance. Maybe in the 80s, such talk wasn’t crazy talk. I wouldn’t know. But I have never gotten tens of thousands, and publishing has changed in so many ways since then. Today I know a lot of Hugo winners. Quite a few of us are lucky to have a spouse who is gainfully employed. I am very, very fortunate that my wife has a reliable income and that we live in a community with inexpensive housing and quality schools. I’m also blessed to have editors who want my shorter stories and a cadre of fans who appreciate whatever the hell it is that I am doing with my words.
Writers can be prickly sorts. At Denvention 3 in 2008, I found myself getting extra pissed about the turns of my writing life. It had been years since I sold any novel, and I was flinging around for some strategy that would put me back on the racks as a book-builder. A couple editors decided to help with advice: Write a YA novel. Young adults like YA novels, and a lot of their parents liked them too. They cautioned that I had to steer clear of sex, but after that I could do pretty much anything I wanted. And not only was that good sound advice, but it was delivered at a moment when the target—me—was in a receptive mood.
I went home and wrote a YA novel, which is to say, I went home and thought long about what I wanted in the story. I needed a kid that interested me, and I needed him in a situation that intrigued me, and I wanted to put him at the center of action that would set up ripe territory for sequels and future characters. I decided to use the Great Ship universe. I started playing with notions about innocence and ignorance and the shape of everything. As memory serves, all this preparatory work consumed most of a year, and only then did I finally put electric words into a tiny folder on my hard-drive.
Time flowed and the book came along nicely, and I had hopes about it, which is never a bad thing while working on any book. At least I was enjoying the boy and his various miseries. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly a YA novel, what with implications being half-buried in the text—an unfortunate mainstream habit of mine. And the drama didn’t exactly come rushing out of the gate, at least not in the way that certain people might want. But by chance, exactly as I was finishing up the first full draft, a different editor at my former publisher contacted me on an unrelated matter.
We chatted on the phone. He had read my earlier work and said good words. I admitted that I was about done with a new book, and he told me that he wanted to read it. I sent it to him first. He enjoyed it and was very interested, and it seemed that things were going to happen at long last. The editor only needed that right sweet perfect moment to ask his boss for the money and the sales force that would make the investment pay off.
Unfortunately, that moment never arrived.
Eventually the editor went to work elsewhere. I work with him now, on matters which can’t be discussed today. But my point is: I don’t blame him or doubt his convictions to my efforts. I wrote what I wanted to write, and the industry has its tastes and needs. My tastes are not average, I have been told, and more time passed. But by letting the work sit in a computer file, unobserved, it had a chance to age and grow, and more importantly, I was able to apply thirty years of writing experience to the business of making my novel into the first chapter of one sweeping wondrous and occasionally heroic tale.
Today’s publishing industry is ruled by chaos.
Chaos’ chief agent is Amazon. For a little while, Amazon has been searching for titles to publish, and with my permission, my agent sent the manuscript to them. Soon an offer was made. But there were delays brought on by a lot of issues, and a lot of questions on my part. I mean, I own an e-reader. It’s a Nook. And if I went with Amazon, I wouldn’t be able to read my own novel on the Nook, which seemed like a peculiar circumstance, and that made me slow to sign the contract on my desk.
Enter another random event: I was trading e-mails with Sean Wallace at Prime Books. Again, this was about some other matter. But because a good editor is always on the prowl, Sean asked if I had anything in the way of new novels. I did. I have two. There’s a second book that I wrote recently, but it’s huge and demands patience from the reader and I have no clear plan yet on how to sell it. (Perhaps it will be something offered from me directly, as electrical impulses across the Web.) Anyway, while holding Amazon at arm’s length, I sent the book to Sean, and he wanted it and the next two novels in the series that I was proposing to do, and we came to terms relatively quickly, and he wants all three books finished inside the next year, and I feel guilty for spending these moments on a chatty monologue that doesn’t really help put Diamond where he needs to be.
DIAMOND was the working title for the first novel. Most likely that will change in the next little while.
The setting is the universe of the Great Ship, and that’s all that I’m prepared to say on that subject for now.
As for how many books would finish the story…I don’t know, and I don’t want to waste time thinking about it.
But here stands the point of this piece: Every universe is a shambles, unruly and inept and definitely in need of a good combing. The good story that I was going to write after THE WELL OF STARS has been lost, but my circumstances have given me the time and motivation to reappraise what I want to do. The Great Ship and Marrow and the characters sitting at the heart of this big long venture are part of their own shambling universe, and this is where I will likely finish out my writing career. And because I am a story-telling ape, it is possible to believe that everything that has happened has been a blessing: The weakness of publishing in general and a bad cover on SISTER ALICE were strokes of good fortune that gave me the opportunity to tell an epic adventure that is entirely mine. Or it could also be that a bunch of crap happened in our world, and I’m drawing neat lines where I want lines to be.
That second explanation is less human and more plausible.
Whatever the reasons or whatever the lack of reasons, I wrote 80,000 words about a lonely boy living inside a single room, and he is locked inside that room for what seems like good reasons, and there is a world past the heavy door, but you won’t learn anything about that world until the summer of 2013.
Barring another unforeseen dose of chaos, of course.
-- Robert Reed
SPEECH NUMBER ONE (TO BE GIVEN IN THE UNLIKELY OCCURRENCE THAT EITHER STORY WINS, USING A HUMBLE VOICE AND A SMUG GRIN)
First of all, I am surprised. Very surprised. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t have given myself one chance in ten of winning this amazing honor. My thanks go out to NIPPON 2007 and WorldCon 65, and to those quirky souls who voted for this year’s Hugos. Sheila Williams, the editor of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION, saw the potential of this story, and she has my eternal gratitude. And I must praise that good magazine’s former editor, Gardner Dozois, for his long-time support of my goofy, galloping ideas.
At this moment, I’d like to repeat the truism that science fiction is memorable because of its ideas. And nifty ideas translated into short fiction seem to be far more infectious than those notions that are buried deep inside the convoluted plotlines of novels and series of novels. Without your support—and by support, I mean your money—the short-fiction markets will continue to wither. Our best talents, being creative souls, will eventually find other outlets. But something important will be diminished, if not lost altogether. And I don’t see why that should make any of us happy.
Finally, I’d like to thank my wife, Leslie, for her endless encouragement, and my representative at NIPPON 2007, Scott Edelman, for his gracious help and good humor.
Best wishes, and pleasant nightmares.
-- Robert Reed
[The novelette "Roxie" appeared in the July 2007 issue of Asimov's.]
I walked my dog the other night.
This happens once or twice a month. In the past, she usually acts young and strong, racing up and down our stairs or straining at the leash to chase rabbits. But there always comes that moment when I think to myself, "God, you're in great shape, girl. Considering you're dead." And then I pop awake, my heart kicking and my nerves frayed.
But my last dream involved an older, somewhat heavier dog. Our walk was lazy and happy, and about midway through, I remembered that she was gone. But I didn't wake up. Instead, we took a lap together in the park, and I eventually drifted out of sleep without fuss or regrets.
Roxie died almost exactly a year ago.
This photograph was taken in 2002, on our back patio. By me, I believe.
Think what you will about the heavy steel chain, but she broke free of it at least twice.
-- Robert Reed
Watch for additional messages on this site directly from Bob in the future...
This page last updated: April 6, 2013