Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 5: Taking the Challenge

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Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 5: Taking the Challenge

When I got my first writing contract from Bantam Books, I had two problems. One was my health. I was still fighting off my chronic fatigue syndrome. The second problem was that I had never written a complete novel. Sure, I’d written a dozen short stories and I’d started four novels, but I’d never figured out how to get through that tricky middle and ending.

In 1986, I spent four months suffering from fevers that spiked to 105 degrees very often. During that time, I was only able to get out of bed for maybe three or four hours per day, most of the time, and that time was spent watching my daughter while my wife was at work.

My throat was sore all of the time, inflamed and burning, so I eventually got a tonsillectomy, which helped somewhat. I found that vitamin therapy was the only thing to help the chronic fatigue, and that didn’t produce any rapid results. For the next three years, I felt like a V8 engine that was running on two cylinders, and the truth is that you never fully recover.

I often wondered if the CFS would kill me, but I wasn’t that lucky. I tried a number of things to boost my productivity. I found that drinking colas helped keep me alert, but soon the extra sugar, combined with the lack of exercise, caused me to add unwanted pounds.

I was trying to get through college quickly, but the CFS didn’t allow it.

My studies went well despite the illness. I kept writing and learning my craft. I volunteered to be the managing editor for a couple of the on-campus magazines, and in my literature classes, I was having a blast. Early in the Fall of 1986, I stopped to visit a couple of my professors in the hallway, and Eloise Bell introduced me to another professor, Sally Taylor, saying I was “that literary genius." Sally smiled in a teasing way and said, “Oh, a literary genius, huh? We’ll have to put that to the test.” Within a couple of weeks, it seemed that all of my professors were addressing me as “the literary genius,” and I spent a lot of time fielding questions that stumped the rest of the class.

So my writing, literature, and editing classes were going fine, but my energy levels were so low that I was dragging along, barely able to maintain a minimal class load. Meanwhile, my wife became pregnant with our second daughter, and a rare opportunity came up. The head of the Editing Department at the college had an opening for a student editor who would work with faculty members, trying to raise their writing to publishable levels. It was the highest-paying job in the English Department for an undergrad, and so I applied for that, and soon landed the job.

Soon I began spending half of my time editing as an intern, working on various books, articles, and proposals by a host of professors. I began editing everything from medical and mathematics textbooks to history texts, religious books, and novels, and occasionally writing articles on English usage for publication in a regional paper.

I was getting a rich education, but not getting much done on the novel that I had contracted, and after a year of this my health began to decline further. The CFS came back with a vengeance. I knew that I would have to take a break from college, and if I did that I would lose my job. So I thought a lot about how to move ahead on that novel.

My unsure feeling about how to structure a novel didn’t quite go away either. I read widely in books on writing, trying to get some tips on structure, and found . . . nothing that I considered to be helpful. The best advice came from Algis Budrys, a literary critic for the Chicago Sun Times. His little seven-point plot chart became the basis for the expanded method of outlining that I use today. But I have to be honest: At the time, I felt that I was really winging it, just trying to write the scenes in a way that felt right to me.

Ultimately, I’m convinced that as writers, that’s all that we ever do. We create outlines to give us some structure, guide us as to where we go. But ultimately as we are writing the scenes, we will come up with new ideas and new directions for our novel, and often have to go back and reconsider our outline, re-draft it. I have found that most novelists tend to do this.

Yet at the time, I really worried that I was floundering.

So I had Algis Budrys’s method of outlining, and I had my own “Stress Induction/Reduction Theory of Storytelling,” and I had a list of things that I wanted to accomplish in my novel, and little more.

In preparation for writing my novel, I researched it vigorously, studying methods of space travel, worldbuilding, philosophy, and reading books of Spanish and Japanese poetry and literature. I read over a hundred books to write one.

One of the first things that I did before beginning my novel was to write my “secret review.” This was a review of the novel that I never would show anyone. It was a brief, one-page review that talked about the novel in the way that I hoped critics and readers would. By writing it, I began setting goals for what I wanted to accomplish with the book.

I used that review as something of a map, to guide me in my writing.

So, what were my goals? There were a lot of them. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever get another chance to write a novel, so I had a bucket list.

I felt tired of reading stories where the protagonists were twenty-something white guys. So I wrote a novel featuring an elderly Latino hero. I felt tired of novels that took no risks, that set the world in modern day or near future. So I set mine four hundred years in the future. I was tired of books that were “simple,” that could be understood by ten-year-olds. I wanted a novel that was a bit more complex, that required some thought from a reader. I was tired of novels that said nothing important. So I decided to write a novel that took on the nature of good and evil, that discussed the biological roots of our value systems.

I had lots of goals. At the top of my review, I proposed that the book be philosophically deep, but emotionally powerful. But I didn’t want the depth to completely destroy the pacing. I knew that it was going to have some fight scenes in it, so I decided to try to write what would become some of the best battle scenes ever written.

On the level of style, I had a lot of little requirements. For example, I wanted the story to have moments of stunning imagery that would haunt the reader for years to come. I wanted the readers not to just understand my characters, but to learn to love them, sometimes despite their weaknesses, and by living the story through them, come to understand and love themselves more deeply.

As I made the goal more complex for myself, the challenge of writing the novel just seemed to grow more overwhelming. I tried writing on weekends, but my CFS kept wiping me out. On top of that, my father was in declining health, and wanted me to return home and help him run his meat company and grocery store.

So with only a few credits left before graduation, I pulled out, went home to Oregon, and decided to finish my first novel. We got back to Oregon, and I found that my CFS combined with severe allergies made it very difficult to stay at home for long. My wife helped out with the family business a little, but I ended up going on a writing retreat to the Oregon Coast to finish my novel, and for the first time I got to work on the book, day after day, with no breaks. It only took me five weeks to write most of that novel, and I found that I’m a binge writer. I write best when I have nice big blocks of time to focus on my work.

I edited the book rigorously, making my normal editing passes, checking things like character voice, continuity, structure, and so on. I was very worried about one passage in particular. I mentioned that I had a couple of friends in college that I would sit up with late at night, discussing literature and philosophy. There were many times that we talked until five in the morning. I liked to tease my wife by saying “we were up solving the world’s problems.”

Well, I put one of those conversations into the book—about 120 pages with two people talking philosophy. I quite liked their discussion and felt that it fit, but I knew that my editor would ask me to cut it out, probably take it all out, and I felt like it would be ripping the innards out of the book.

At the same time, I didn’t want it to be compared to Ayn Rand’s “John Galt speech.” My protagonist was searching for some truths, not pontificating. And I wasn’t sure that the philosophical questions that he was asking married well to the action and pacing in the book.

So I cut a good portion of the conversation, sent the completed novel in to my editor and warned her about my concerns, and then asked her to help me identify what parts I might want to cut out.

She called me a few days later and informed me that she had read it, and that Lou Aronica (her boss at Bantam) had read it, and that Lou wanted me to add another ten thousand words to the novel. I responded, “But what would I add? I mean, I’ve tried to cut every single unnecessary syllable, and I can’t think of anything to add.” She laughed and said, “Lou wants you to write an article to go at the back of the book, telling how in the hell you—as a first-time novelist—were ever able to write a book like that?”

So, the novel was accepted with only very, very minor edits, and I added an article explaining a bit about my storytelling theories and how I put them into use.

The novel version of On My Way to Paradise was slated for publication in December of 1989. I think that with that out of the way, it took a lot of pressure off me, and I began to de-stress. I worked for my dad for a few months to help him get back on his feet after a heart attack, but my allergies drove me back to Utah.

There I was offered a job by IBM to help develop “storytelling on computers,” which was a fun idea, but at the time the computers were so slow we could hardly mix text and graphics on them, much less add sound files, so when I was offered a job as a technical writers at Novell Corporation, I opted for that. The pay and benefits were both a bit higher than at IBM, and it felt like a better fit for a young family.

In August of that year, the first reviews of On My Way to Paradise came in. The folks at Publisher’s Weekly gave it a very nice review, calling it an “impressive debut,” a “deep and powerful” novel, and ending with “By keeping his moral vision firmly wedded to a gripping plot, Wolverton creates speculative fiction with both emotional depth and resonance.”

I liked that. My key words of “deep and powerful” had been invoked. But I wondered if other critics would react the same. Like many writers, I didn’t get much encouragement from my family. My father often suggested that I should give up on this writing stuff and get a real job. He even went so far as to suggest that since I liked poetry, maybe I could try to get a job penning Get Well cards for Hallmark.

So I sent him my first review, to see what he thought about it.

That review was followed by one from The Library Journal that called the book “deeply profound,” using another phrase from my secret review, and a few days later I got a rave review in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from Orson Scott Card that pretty much floored me. He called it “One of the deepest and most powerful science fiction novels ever written,” in part, and gave me a better review than I had even dared to imagine when setting my goals. (I’ll put the full review at the end.) I felt that the critics were reaching some sort of consensus. So I sent that on to my dad, too, and he was impressed enough so that he admitted that he thought just maybe I would be able to make it in this business. I’d hoped to send him the printed novel when it came out, but he had a major heart attack and passed away just a couple of weeks after I sent him the review.

So On My Way to Paradise came out in December, and bolstered by the reviews, it hit very high on the science fiction bestseller list at Locus, and stayed in the top five for several months.

Like every new writer, I had my detractors, too, and that was all right. After all, even when you’ve got a really good book, there is still room for improvement. Even if you think that your book is perfect, people with different tastes may not like it at all.

I did manage to win a Philip K. Dick Award for one of the best books of the year, but never did get the $500 check that was supposed to come with it.

The book went on to sell quite well, and I think that I earned out my initial advance several times over. My editor then called up one day and said, “So your first novel hit high on the bestseller list and has gotten a lot of attention. What would you like to do next?”

I told her, “I’ve always loved fantasy, and I really want to write a big fantasy series, something along the lines of Lord of the Rings.

She explained to me patiently, “But, you’re a bestselling science fiction author. You’ve gotten further with one book than many writers do in 20 years.” Then she paused, and said, “We don’t ever want to see a fantasy from you.”

I could see her point. I had just written a high-tech futuristic SF novel. I really would throw my audience by coming out immediately with a fantasy. So I resolved to practice for a few novels, learn how to plot more strongly, work slowly, consider what I would want to do with a fantasy series, and keep moving.

So what can you learn from this? Here are a few things:

  • Dont wait to write until you feel well. You may never feel well. Thats one lesson that I wish that I had understood years ago.
  • Be rigorous on your research. Writing the best book that you can usually requires that you try to become better than you are.
  • Before you begin your novel, write a secret review, setting goals for what you want to accomplish. Dont be afraid to dream big.
  • Writing is a tricky career. Money due from publishers, from awards, from film companies or investors may not come in on schedule, so you always have to have a plan B.
  • Recognize that when you write a novel, you are really starting a career, setting a tone for it. So pick your genre and write the kind of book that you want to be penning five or ten years from now.

Here’s that review that Orson Scott Card wrote:

Here is a powerful first novel, at once disturbing and compelling--the chronicle of one man's odyssey of self-discovery within a world at war: ON MY WAY TO PARADISE.

In a world of ever-worsening crisis, Angelo Osic is an anomaly: a man who cares about others. One day he aids a stranger . . . and calls down disaster, for the woman called Tamara is also a woman on the run, the only human with the knowledge that will save Earth from the artificial intelligences plotting to overthrow it.

Fleeing the assassins who seek him as well as Tamara, Angelo seizes the only escape route available: to sign on as a mercenary with the Japanese Motoki Corporation in its genocidal war against the barbarian Yabajin. Jacked into training machines that simulate warfare, Angelo "dies" a hundred times . . . and is resurrected to fight again. In a world of death, he dreams only of life—and the freedom to love once more.

I hesitate to tell you that this is Dave Wolverton's first novel. The book is so mature in its sensibility and so strong in its artistry, so deep in its invention that most of us who write fiction would be proud to have such a novel as the culmination, not the beginning, of our career. Many fine works that have won Hugos and Nebulas pale beside this book.

I believe that this novel will be remembered as the first book by the finest science fiction writer of the 1990s. I suspect that we may someday look back on On My Way to Paradise as the first stirring of one of the great American writers of our time. I know for a fact, however, that people who read science fiction because they want an exhilarating combination of intelligence and adventure will love every page of this book.

—Orson Scott Card, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

*On My Way to Paradise is now available through Wordfire Press and is on sale here:

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