Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ryk Spoor's Road to Publication


*Ladies and gentlemen, aliens and dragons, please extend a warm Mad Genius Club welcome to Ryk Spoor.*


Authors get asked lots of questions.

Undoubtedly some of the most common (besides "when's the next book out" if you're writing a series) are "where do you get your ideas", "Why do you write", and "how did you get published" (sometimes phrased as "how did you become a writer").

I'll answer the last question first, because it's undoubtedly the most interesting of the answers.

Waaaaay back in the misty reaches of time (okay, in 2000), Baen Books was preparing to do a re-issuing of the works of James Schmitz, with Eric Flint doing the editing to bring all the stories together, sort them into priority for republishing, and connect them into coherent wholes.

At the time, I was only vaguely aware of Baen Books (mainly because I generally paid little attention to publishers per se).

I was (and still am) a fixture on the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written (having been present since around 1989).

Baen, of course, had recently begun their experiment of creating their own online community, Baen's Bar, and Eric Flint had his own conference on that community.

It is important to understand at this point that James Schmitz was (and is) one of my favorite of the old-time SF writers, someone who started out writing material that bordered on Doc Smith pastiche but quickly developed his own voice, and a voice that -- for his era -- was almost unique, especially in that most of his stories focused on competent, quick-thinking FEMALE characters who were fully as competent as any of the men around them, and showed few of the failings common to other authors' attempts at such characters.

His most famous novel work is undoubtedly The Witches of Karres, but in some ways I consider the Telzey Amberdon novels to be more representative, and his stories featuring Nile Etland -- especially The Demon Breed -- are some of his best work.Someone -- I do not recall who -- posted an excerpt of discussion from Flint's conference on what was being done on the Schmitz re-issue to rec.arts.sf.written.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately -- this excerpt was taken completely out of context, said context being that it was a discussion on Eric's conference between him and those who knew him and understood his discussion habits and tactics.

Taken thus out of context, it made it sound like Eric Flint: 

1.Intended to completely modernize the text, removing "outdated" references Felt Schmitz didn't understand how to properly tell a story
2.Was going to re-edit and possibly even re-write pieces of the stories to make them "better".

I took strong exception to this; in my view, even if the interpretation of that excerpt was exaggerated, the entire concept of "editing" a dead man's work made no sense at all. If you were going to re-issue it, well, RE-ISSUE! Take an old copy of the book, transfer those words, typeset and print. You don't need an editor for that!

Well, this ignited a flamewar the likes of which was rarely seen even on that newsgroup -- which had certainly seen many.

Several separate message threads were created, with over 2,000 posts, with Eric and I shooting back and forth at each other while others took various sides and added their own volleys of fire.

However, even at the height of this flamewar, neither Eric nor I focused on insulting the other PERSON, just their choices or viewpoints, and when one of us DID make an actual error (which both of us did at least once during the debate), we admitted it to the other person and corrected ourselves.

This was a somewhat rare occurrence and caused both of us to recognize that the other guy might be obviously wrongheaded, but sincerely and honestly so.

The flamewar continued in spurts for so long that the first book in the reissue actually hit the shelves while it continued. It was at that point that Eric said to me, paraphrased, "why the hell are you still arguing about what you THINK I said about what I might do to the book, instead of just picking up the book and READING it?"

To which I replied "Because I'm not sure I want to spend money on something I'm not sure I even WANT!"

To which HE answered: ".... that's a good point."At which point, he quickly asked Jim Baen for permission and then proceeded to send me the original files -- with his edits, and commentary on what he'd done, and why, so I could see what did and didn't change, why it had to be changed (in Eric's view) and so on.

To which my response was: "Well, dammit, now you've gone all REASONABLE on me! Now I'm going to actually have to read it and give an INFORMED opinion!"And after reading the original and final versions and Eric's notes, I posted my opinion, which boiled down to: most of the edits were trivial things -- changing punctuation which was not needed, etc.

A few were substantiative, of which two I felt actively damaged the stories in question, and one was a stroke of genius which I was surprised had been missed out on by both John Campbell and Schmitz himself. "But overall these are 95%+ original Schmitz, excellent stories, and well worth owning. If you don't already own them, go out and buy these. It's well worth it."After that, Eric used me for a while as his "loyal opposition" -- sending me copies of other re-issues underway so that I could be there as a sort of third-party reviewer.

During one exchange of conversation, he happened to ask where I lived, to which I replied "East Greenbush, NY" and he said, "No kidding. My mother in law's in Schenectady."

So the next time he came up to this area, he dropped by to visit. And while we were talking, my wife brought up the fact that I wrote (something I would not have done in that context). In Eric's words: "So naturally I had to ask if he had anything finished, and this is where Spoor showed how clever he was, by telling me that all he had was some kind of vampire story. Now, normally I consider anything involving vampires about as interesting as watching paint dry, but Spoor knew my contrary nature would make it so that I'd feel obligated to REALLY give his story a fair try."

Eventually Eric got a chance to read the three connected stories I'd given him, and one day I got a phone call.

Since Eric had NEVER called me previously (except to verify directions to my house) I figured this meant he was trying the personal touch to let me down easy. Instead he said, "This is eminently publishable stuff. There's just one thing wrong with it: it's too short."

He gave the stories to Jim Baen, who agreed with him, and I then bashed out another 60,000 words in about 2 months to add to the first three, tweaked those a little bit, and about a year later I held in my hands my first copy of Digital Knight, which was dedicated in part to The Butcher of Baen, Eric Flint.

Also in Eric's words, and mine: I do not recommend anyone else attempt this route to publication.

There are so many ways this could go wrong.To address the other two questions:I get my ideas from many sources; I read literally thousands of books when I was younger, and there's nothing so convenient as taking a piece of A.E. Van Vogt, connecting it to something from Robert E. Howard, and setting it in a universe Heinlein might have worked on.

I'm inspired by anime I watch, by images -- one entire novel I recently wrote was triggered simply because I happened to see an absolutely magnificent rainbow one day, while driving home -- and by music.

The largest single source for me, though, and the most powerful tool I have to help me with working out my ideas, is roleplaying. I run RPG campaigns and throw pieces of my concepts into the grinder of the player characters, let them gnaw on them, bash them around, and see how well they survive!

As to WHY I write... partly because I can't NOT write. I started writing when I was 6. I have stories that want to be told, and I tell them. But I also write because there's stories I want to read, and no one else writes them.

If there is any actual PURPOSE to what I write, then it is to bring forth the Sense of Wonder, that thrill that widened my eyes and inspired me to dream when I was 11 and first read about the Lensmen and their galaxy-spanning conflict with the implacable forces of Boskone and the even more terrible powers lying behind them, the chill down my spine from first reading "One Ring to Rule Them All, One Ring to Find Them...", the triumph and glory that only words and imagination can evoke and that often seems absent from other fiction I have read. This is the REASON for fiction, to me, to exalt, to lift up the reader and make them see something better, grander, more glorious than anything they have seen... and to, at least for a moment, BELIEVE in it.

Ryk was born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ryk moved with his family to Vermilion, South Dakota, then Atlanta, Georgia, and to Latham, NY before ending up in Schenectady, NY. As an effort-induced asthmatic, he was often confined to the house and spent the majority of his time reading and, as time went on, writing (getting those first million words out of the way early!); while science books -- especially those on volcanology -- were a large part of his reading, the Oz novels by L. Frank Baum were his favorites in early life.

In junior high, a teacher gave him a battered, slightly scorched old copy of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Second-Stage Lensmen, which pegged his sense-of-wonder meter permanently and set him on an inevitably geeky quest to become a science fiction writer. In high school he discovered computers and RPGs, and ran the very first play-by-email (PBEM) roleplaying campaign in 1977-1980; it was during this time he first began using the online alias of "Sea Wasp" which he uses to this day.

Since then he acquired degrees in mathematics and science, psychology, and information science, worked everywhere from fast-food joints to an internet-bubble filesharing company to Borders Books, and now works as the R&D Coordinator for International Electronic Machines. Along the way he became a Usenet fixture, a RPG consultant and writer, an anime fan, and eventually achieved his ambition to be an SF writer when Baen Books published his first novel, Digital Knight. Since then, he has also published the short novel Diamonds Are Forever as a part of the anthology Mountain Magic, Boundary (the latter two with Eric Flint), and his latest solo novel, Grand Central Arena, which is a modern space opera intended as a salute and tribute to "Doc" Smith and the other Golden Age writers; a sequel to Boundary, Threshold, is due out at the end of May.

Ryk E. Spoor now lives in Troy, NY, with his wife Kathleen and four children (Chris, Gabriel, Victoria, and Domenica), and one small poodle.

8 comments:

C Kelsey said...

The Telzi books are hands down some of my absolute favorites out there. Ryk is also yet another Baen author who got published by Baen by picking a fight... although John Ringo did it with Jim himself. :P Now, if you'll excuse me I haven't eaten anything yet today and Grand Central Arena is begging to come with me to the restaurant so I can read it whilst eating.

Stephen Simmons said...

Yet another set of authors to add to my endless list of things-I-need-to-read ... at least I won't get bored. There are distinct drawbacks to growing up in a town of less than a thousand people, in some ways. Many of the classic authors you mention I've actually never even heard of.

No, I agree, your path to publication is unlikely to open itself before my feet. I'll just keep throwing words at the computer - because my head insists that those words have to go somewhere, before it explodes from back-pressure - and keep hoping for the best with more traditional methods.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hi Ryk,

I discovered Schmidt years ago and never forgot him. But the Telzi books didn't find their way into my secondhand bookshop, so I didn't read them.

Your story of how you got published was entertaining. And I have a son, Dominicus, which is an old family name.

matapam said...

I'd forgotten about the flame wars that led to publication.

I think the internet has expanded the "Well, I knew the publisher so I could go straight to the top" route to getting published.

I consider this a good thing, because if you've hung around online on a site visited by publishers long enough for them to recognize your name, you've probably picked up some of the necessary mechanics of story telling and writing.

warpcordova said...

Yeah Ryk, my reaction to seeing Baen putting out Digital Knight was something akin to "Didn't this guy, like, piss in Eric's cheerios or something?"

On the other hand, I thought Digital Knight was clever and well-done, something I don't usually say after reading urban fantasy-esque stories.

Dave Freer said...

(wave) Hi Ryk. Nice to see you here. Curiously, back in the dark ages, that is very much how Eric and I became friends on the bar - a battle royal about ways of writing, as it happens. I was some 5 months or so off from my first book coming out (from Baen) and the upshot of the final salvo from Eric went something like "When you can actually sell a book to a publisher you can tell people how they ought to write" - or words to that effect. I wrote to him privately saying, well, didn't want make a riot on my publisher's site (because I'd being arguing for the sake of arguing, er, which I do, all too often, but some people had been getting excitable) but that my first book was due out.
And Eric had the grace to apologise politely and pleasantly. At which point I could hardly not admit I'd been yanking his chain just because I could. We, in e-mail conversation, discovered that we shared a common taste in literature (the choice of words in this phrase is deliberate) and Eric and I ended up collaborating - a process that takes some argument and some mutual respect.

A flame war is not a bad place to establish what sort of person you're dealing with. Most of the time it's with someone who can't admit they're wrong (and therefore probably best avoided)

I happen to rate Demon Breed as James Schmitz's best :-) or at least my personal favorite, and am frequently irritated that people who know 'Witches' have never heard of it. Okay I admit, I loved the biological/marine side of the setting and worldbuilding of that book. I want the story behind the sledmen!

heteromeles said...

Thanks for this, Ryk!

Gee, it's great to see that so many people have my taste in books. I really do like the Telzey series the best, and I've got the copies to prove it--my dad got me hooked on them back in the 70s. I'm not sure I've got everything Schmitz ever wrote, but it's not for lack of trying.

My one real grumble with Baen are those godawful covers on the reprints. Those Baen covers were there to get old fans to buy new copies, not to attract new fans. It's too bad, because it was a missed marketing opportunity. The old covers from the 70s (US and UK) were pretty darn cool.

C Kelsey said...

Rowena,

Some of the Telzi and Trigger books by Schmidt are available online for free from baen.com/library if you're interested.