Many authors, when they “get serious” about writing, discover that their attitude will suck all of the fun out of their work, and it shows in their prose.
A novelist who isn’t having fun will tend to write beautifully and powerfully, but may go an entire novel without cracking a joke, without displaying a sense of humor. In short, they seem stressed, and I’ve literally seen this stressed attitude destroy writers, because each time that the write a story, they try harder and harder to be better. Their works become ponderous and “fraught with meaning,” and eventually the over-stressed writer learns to hate his or her job. They don’t just lose their sense of humor, but there isn’t any warmth or joy or charm or life in their works.
Such writers never quite seem to understand the value of Shakespeare’s words, “The play is the thing.” If I were to paraphrase what I think he was saying, I’d simply put it, “Play as you work. Enjoy what you’re doing, and your reader will, too.”
The importance of that came to me after I finished my first little Star Wars novel. I had to come up with a new project. I had a couple of goals. First, I had been labelled as a “science fiction writer,” but I wanted to write fantasy, too. So I was looking for ways to edge closer to fantasy. At the same time, I had a Star Wars novel coming out, and I wanted to capture that audience, too. So I wanted to write something that had some playfulness to it.
I came up with an idea that was originally called The Forward Woman and the Backward Man, a tale about a woman from a futuristic world who falls in love with a bodyguard from a very backward planet. I sent the proposal in to my editor at Bantam, and she loved it. But Bantam’s parent company really wasn’t committed to science fiction at all, and the offer showed that.
So my agent called and asked if I would be willing to pitch the novel to Tor. She asked if I could get a proposal to her in two hours. That wasn’t hard, since I’d already worked one up. But then she called a few minutes later and said that Tor liked it so much, they wanted two more book proposals of different books by early afternoon. So I outlined two more novels out of thin air, and she said that they wanted those, and asked for four more different proposals by the next morning. I outlined those, and Tor wanted them, too, but I decided that I really didn’t want to have a seven-book deal, and so we dialed the contract back to just three books.
Tor’s advances weren’t much higher than those at Bantam, but the offer included a hardcover release, and a hardcover novel sale will bring you four or five times as much as a paperback sale, so I figured that the royalties would be much higher.
As I began the novel that would become The Golden Queen, I decided not to write about any big serious topics. I’d been writing about the biological influences that led to concepts of “good and evil,” about the traumatic effects of child abuse, about the relationship between commitment and love—and I felt mentally exhausted.
So with my next book, I decided to “write about nothing.” Instead, I just wanted a book that would transport the reader to strange new worlds and let them have fun along the way.
But I soon learned that I had a problem. I’m not that shallow. Deeper themes kept creeping into the novels. Oh well, I decided. The important thing to me was to learn to relax as I wrote, and I made it through The Golden Queen and had fun. But I was worried about how it would be received.
I mean, I decided to write a book set on a planet where people had been biologically engineered to speak with an Irish accent. One of my main characters was a talking bear who wanted to be a Catholic priest. It featured an interstellar war with bug-eyed monsters. It didn’t sound at all like high literature, and I figure that the critics would probably knife me.
You see, it sometimes seems to me that critics get all wrapped up in “high seriousness,” too. They’re out looking for novels that are important and fraught with meaning. But my literary theories suggest that you may be missing the mark when you look at a book that way.
In my article on “Why People Read,” I talk about how I recognized early on that people read primarily to perform an emotional exercise. A story transports them vicariously through a harrowing experience in order to get the emotional payoff, which actually is quite healing.
So the best stories are the ones that serve the readers best. Now, some literary critics wouldn’t agree with that. For example, the father of Modern American Realism, William Dean Howells, was a socialist, and he approached the literary field with his own agenda. He wanted to convince writers to write socialist fiction, and so he tried to get writers to limit their settings (getting rid of wondrous settings and putting things into contemporary America), limit their conflicts (so that we dealt primarily with economic conflicts), and he wanted to limit characters (so that we got rid of fascinating characters and dealt with the everyman). Howells was a great writer, and without his precepts we never would have had the likes of Steinbeck, but he created an artistic movement that only rewarded writers with a socialist agenda.
What it didn’t reward in most cases was the readers. His stories didn’t entertain. Oscar Wilde criticized his boring “teacup tragedies,” where every story centered upon the tragedy of the broken heirloom teacup. Such stories didn’t serve the reader, in my opinion, but instead, served the “critic’s” agenda.
And as I studied modern critics, I found that most of them didn’t seem interested in the reader at all. Some critics were struggling to forward a moral or political agenda or perhaps a cause, but many were far more interested in simply arguing so that they could appear as intellectuals to the rest of the literary community. Some of them are elitists, interested only in validating their own elite status at the expense of their audience.
So I was working on a different paradigm. If I were to give my literary movement a name, I’d call it the “Utilitarian school.” My goal quite simply was to serve the reader. Any literary theory or standard that conflicts with that end should be thrown out, and any idea, no matter how seemingly inconsequential it is, that helps me reach my goal, I will embrace.
Now, my theories in the early 1990s don’t exactly mesh with what I’m doing now or will write next. I’ve learned a few things.
But I sent the manuscript into my editor on a Friday, and on the following Monday I got a call from Tom Doherty, the president at Tor, who told me that he loved the book. He said, “I’ll pay you triple for the next two books in the series.”
I told him, “This is a standalone. There isn’t a series.”
He said again, “I’ll pay triple for the next two books in the series.”
And I said, “Oh, yeah, that series.”
As I’d suspected, the book did pretty well. It hit high on a general bestseller list and sold very well, and over the years I’ve been pleased time and time again at how well it has done.
For example, a couple of weeks ago I got a fan letter from someone who said, “I thought I’d discovered all of the truly great science fiction writers years ago—Bradbury, Clarke, Asimov. Then I read The Golden Queen.”
A few years ago, the series was picked up by Audible as part of a collection of the best military SF of all time.
As some of you know by now, with each book I used to set a goal of what I wanted my readers to get from it. In my first novels, I was trying to evoke “power” and “profundity.” In this book, I was hoping to evoke the keyword “pleasure.”
Perhaps the most heart-warming comments to me came from some very fine writers. Nebula Award Winner Richard A. Lupoff said, “There’s a pleasure, a richness, or a surprise on every page—sometimes all three. There’s immense scope to The Golden Queen, and a wonderful sense of presence. Any reader can simply plunge into this novel and be off to alien worlds and wonderful adventures.” I think that he understood what I was trying for.
A couple of months before Roger Zelazny passed away, I spoke with him about one of his novels that I liked. So I was surprised when I got the following cover quote for this novel, “
Tips for the day:
· Learn to have fun with your writing
· Embrace any technique that works to accomplish your ends.
· The reader’s needs outweigh your ego.
· Consider what you enjoy most in stories, and strive to create those effects for your readers.
You can get The Golden Queen as an ebook or paperback.
You can also get the second book.
And the third book.
This fall, I'll be teaching some workshops in Australia.
And I'll be teaching some workshops at GenCon in August:
SEM1699183 Writer's Craft: Million Dollar Audiences
WKS1699184 Writer's Workshop: Building Better Worlds
SEM1699118 Writer's Craft: Gripping Characters
WKS1699187 Writer's Workshop: Casting Your Novel
SEM1699190 Writer's Craft: The Story Engine
WKS1699191 Writer's Workshop: Developing Exciting Conflicts