I feel pretty lame to promise to keep readers informed about my current work and then to produce no updates for two weeks. The fact of the matter is that I came down with a case of viral meningitis. Boy, does that knock you on your butt! I NEVER want to get that again. I'll spare you the gory details except to describe it as like having the worst pounding migraine headaches in your life while you also have the flu, and to spend so much time on your back you herniate a lumbar disk and for days and nights are unable to find any comfortable position standing, sitting, or lying. The whole business lasts 14 days. Besides the pain, the worst part for me was that I wasn’t able to write or do anything for two weeks and may not have the creative stamina for another couple of days. On most days the most I could accomplish was to check my email; on some days I couldn't even do that.
I’m not telling you this to earn your sympathy (well, maybe a little) but to encourage everyone to cultivate the habit of disinfecting shopping cart handles before you use them and to never touch the “T” on your face (eyes, nose, mouth) without first washing your hands. Seriously, people!
I want to thank my friends here who found out what was going on and checked up on me daily and who, along with my daughter and son-in-law, helped ferry me to my appointments and keep me supplied with food, water, and stuff.
I titled this entry “What I’ve Been Working On: Part One.” In it I will reveal, much more than I have on any public forum, what I’ve written since 2008 when I delivered the final draft of Mind Over Ship to Tor. This will explain why you haven’t seen anything new from me since that book. In Part Two I will reveal to you as much as I dare about what I am currently working on, my brand new, hopefully outrageous, poignant, and darkly humorous novel.
OK, first off, unfortunately, I have to disappoint some of you. Some of you think that I’m working on the third installment in my Counting Heads series. I’m not. Except for a few notes on the next book, I am taking a hiatus from that whole universe. I think you have got to agree with me that for all its good points, that universe is unrelentingly bleak. And if it was bleak for the reader, just imagine what it was like for me to dwell in it for so long. As you may know, much of the writing process takes place not while the author is actually writing but while doing other things. The ideas don't conform to a schedule. They act spookily, at least in my case, like an obsession. I started developing the universe and characters in 1993, with five short stories, starting with “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy.” I didn’t start Counting Heads, the novel, till the winter of 1999, when “The Wedding Album” came out. So by the time I wrapped up Mind Over Ship in 2008, I had occupied that world of slugs and nasties and aff conspiracies for 15 years. I decided I needed a reality break, especially since I had other stories I wanted to tell. Will I ever go back to Book 3? I honestly can’t say.
The Holy Family
In 2008, I started a novel titled The Holy Family. From its title you can glean that its major theme was religion. As an atheist (proud and loud), religion has always fascinated me. As some of you may know, I was raised a Catholic in a big family (7 sibs) mostly in the Midwest. At the age of 14, I entered the minor seminary for the priesthood (a cloistered high school). What I learned there was probably the opposite of what they thought they were teaching me. That is, I discovered that religion is a wholly human invention, with no divine involvement whatsoever. This revelation matured over the years and on my 19th birthday I renounced my religion. Still, I wasn’t an atheist. I set off on a 30-year journey of spiritual exploration, from Eastern mysteries to New Age and create-your-own-reality silliness. It took that long before I could say that I am free of all the fleas of faith, except for a few harmless superstitions. (Such as, I read the entire help wanted section in the Sunday paper. When people ask me why I explain that it's a good way to take a pulse on a community. The real reason is because if I do, I'll never have to apply for a job again. Fortunately, it’s not a large section in the Fairbanks paper.)
Yet, after all my exploration, I understood nothing. I had no difficulty refutiating religion (to use my ex-gov’s neologism), but what about faith? And why do nearly 90% of my fellow Americans cling to religion? Could everyone (but you, my dear readers) be stupid? And not just Americans, but all cultures in all of history? At one point I concluded that people weren’t stupid, per se, but psychologically immature. After all, if I could fight my way out of the papist brier patch, why couldn’t they fight their own culture's fairy tales? I know how elitist this must sound, and by 2008 it was no longer adequate an explanation for me. So I began to research and read all the “militant atheist” books by Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, et al, but I felt they were barking up the wrong tree. They were largely engaged in polemics, not analysis. It seemed to me they were trying to browbeat a world of right-handed people into becoming left-handed, and none of their strictly biological arguments moved me much. (But as a member of their choir, I enjoyed reading them anyway.) I read other theories; the ecstasy of nuns at prayer or theta waves during meditation seemed unrelated to faith. The God Gene theory has long been refutiated (I seem to like that word.) Even the book’s author hesitated to claim there was an actual gene, and it was his publisher who gave the book that title over his objection.
Then, while I was reading a popular science journal article at Barnes & Noble about a recent discovery in neurobiology, everything started falling into place. I suddenly understood why faith is so prevalent in the human animal. What a kick in the head! The explanation was similar to something Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion, but it took it farther than he did and, from my readings, no one has quite come up with it. I could easily be wrong, but it may be an original idea. Or at least an uncommon one. (Though my big idea might be false, it passes the test for a good science fiction story--plausibility.) And it did not denigrate faith or people of faith, or non-believers, for that matter.
I literally plowed into my story, which I set in a mixed-faith family in the generic Midwestern landscape of my youth. But, as some of you who know me can guess, I wasn’t satisfied with writing a mere book. The Kindle had recently been released, and I envisioned my new novel to be wholly digital. Also I knew that my agent, Ralph, had a Kindle of his own. He had started loading his clients’ manuscripts on it to eliminate the burdensome reams of paper he used to carry on his daily commute between Manhattan and Long Island. So in 2009, I bought a Kindle. My book would have illustrations and internal and external links. It would have an attached website where fans could pin their own fan versions to the text at appropriate places (controlled by me so as not to distract from my story) and download monthly updates to the novel. The genre wasn’t exactly science fiction but fictionalized science. I wrote most of the “scientific” articles that under gird the story, but I also linked to actual articles in popular magazines like New Scientist and Nature. It was great.
My plan was to write and polish part 1 (of 4 parts) and send it in Kindle format to Ralph. This took me an entire year. I sent it off and nervously waited for his reply. When it came, I was devastated. He wrote, “I do not understand what this is you sent me.” And I hadn’t even revealed the most outrageous part. That is, the internal illustrations would gradually take over from the text, and the entire 4th part would transform into a comic novel. This was not a gimmick; the story required it.
Ralph’s disapproval was not enough to sink the project. What did sink it in the end was a niggling realization in the back of my mind that I had stepped over the line from fiction to didacticism. I wasn’t spinning a yarn; I was giving a lecture and pounding my fist on the lectern. I had my big idea; but I didn’t yet have my story. So sad. I put it in a drawer and dreamt about what might have been.
And, no, I’m not going to reveal my big idea. Read the upcoming “What I’m Working On: Part 2.”
What Choice Did We Have?
Somewhere around this time, a respected editor asked if I had a short story for an anthology of his. I had only one in the pipeline, and I agreed to push it along. It was of novelette length and eventually took the title “What Choice Did We Have?” It was a fantasy, my first. It was also set in my generic Midwestern city. I sent him my finished piece, and he rejected it.
Some years ago at a con, someone told me there was a rumor going around that if a story of mine was rejected even once, I abandoned it. I’m sorry to say that the rumor is mostly true. I realize that that’s no way to try to earn a living writing fiction, and that’s why I still live in a crummy cabin and drive a 20-yr-old pickup. At least I have the freedom to write what I want, which I believe is at least as important as money. Anyway, although he had suggestions on how to improve it, I withdrew it from consideration. He wrote back encouraging me to revise it and that he’d like to see it again. I thought, what the hell, why not? I revised it, completely changing the ending to make it more clear what I was after. In the end, he rejected it a second time but assured me that another editor was bound to snap it up.
I do believe it’s good enough that another editor would take it, and if not, I could self-pub it, as I’m doing with my older stories. But I deep-sixed it anyway. There’s a thread running through it that now makes me uncomfortable. The thread is so essential to the plot that there’s no way I can think of to extract it. And so the story sits, completely finished and polished and sparkly and new, occupying a few hundred KB of hard drive, and it will never see the light of day. So sad. But I am master of my own career, even if it's a leaky dinghy.
You might get a kick out of this next one. In late 2009, I was attending an educator’s conference event for authors and having drinks with authors from around the state. I opined, “You know what would make a million dollars? A counter-autobiography of Sarah Palin.” Her own fictional autobiography, Going Rogue, was about to come out. People around the table chuckled and went on to other topics. But the next day, one of them quietly approached me and asked when could we begin. We began at once, laying out our collaboration agreement at the banquet table.
Here what was going through my head. I’d never particularly wanted to collaborate with another writer, with a few exceptions. One being, to work on a project I wouldn’t consider doing myself or was a newbie at (like a screenplay). And this one fit the bill. We were both competent writers, and while I enjoyed the polishing process, she could draft at least twice as fast as me. Writing is usually such a lonely process, I thought it might be fun to work as a team, albeit living in two different towns.
Also, and this may sound petty and vain to some of you, though I’ve been publishing quality fiction from Fairbanks for 18 years, up here I’m not actually considered to be an “Alaskan” author. I’m not asking to be made state writer laureate or anything, but geesh, it would be nice to be recognized as an Alaskan writer whose topic just happens not to be Alaska, or her land, people, history, beauty, or wildlife but rather an Alaskan writer whose subject is the attack of brain-melting nano-goo. I might be overreacting but it’s a personal pet peeve of mine. This book would fix all that in one swoop, even though we planned on releasing it under pseudonyms.
We set ourselves a two-month deadline to come up with a killer idea. The counter-autobiography fell by the wayside early on. Going Rogue hadn’t come out yet, and it was possible that we’d be unable to come up with anything wackier than her own words. Whatever it was to be, it would be political satire, using our knowledge of the state and current affairs. We worked hard, bouncing encrypted emails back and forth every day. We followed the anti-Palin blogs, read and annotated Going Rogue (what a chore), tried formats like in Stuff White People Like. (Entry: Wasilla, the whiz stop on the way to Denali Park) Despite our best efforts, at the end of two months, we didn’t come up with an idea we had confidence in. Meanwhile, other projects were beckoning my partner, and so we dissolved the collaboration and parted on friendly terms.
I was left contemplating what I should start next. Two things occurred around this time. Another writer friend, this one in Fairbanks, told me in passing that she had an entire novel on the gov finished and almost ready to go to an agent in NYC who was eagerly waiting to read it. I told her about my and the Anchorage writer’s project. We marveled at the coincidence. Secondly, I learned on the blogs that Palin was in talks with a cable network to produce a series on her life to be called Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Boy, this chapped my bum! Now she was claiming the whole state as hers? What an insult.
Back when I was writing Mind Over Ship, I watched an episode of The Apprentice and wondered how men named Donald felt about Trump appropriating their name for himself. As in “the Donald.” I thought I’d do Donalds everywhere a favor and reclaim their name for them. That’s why I named the space station line of clones, “the donalds,” and drew them as so unappealing. No Donald has yet thanked me for this, but that’s OK. It was a freebie. Now my half-term governor was claiming my entire state. That was intolerable.
While brainstorming about my next project, I found I couldn’t wean myself off the Palin blogs. They were deliciously vile and informative, and I continued to browse them every day, mainly Palingates.blogspot.com, which is a compendium of the Queen’s many sins. (I realize that by now I may have alienated all Christians and Palin supporters reading this blog. Sorry, the migraines made me do it.) A couple of months later, the Fairbanks writer emailed me to say that her agent asked for revisions to her Palin novel. We met at a coffee shop to discuss her novel, and before long we agreed to collaborate on a completely new Palin novel. I shouldn't have done it. I was learning that collaboration between writers, as opposed to artists in completely different fields, like writer and illustrator, is an iffy proposition, much like a marriage. The Anchorage author, with several collaborative novels under her belt, was able to guide us through the rocky patches, and we emerged on the other side unscathed. I knew in the back of my head that the Fairbanks author and I might have less than complementary writing styles, maybe even incompatible ones, but in my eagerness to save Alaska, I ignored any warning bells and jumped right in.
Our strategy was to write a realistic novel, an alternate biography, but with a snarky tone. Our model, except for the tone, was the 2009 bestseller, The American Wife, which is a fictionalized biography of Laura Bush. As in that book, all the names would be changed, and we invented a new Wasilla that was a composite of various Alaskan small towns we knew well. Thus we “owned” it in a literary sense and could write about it as experts. As in my earlier train wreck, THF, we would draft and polish Part 1 (of 4 parts) and start shopping for an agent. Since my agent didn’t like THF, I didn’t think he’d want anything to do with this one either, but we would give him a crack at it.
I was totally engaged in the work. I was having fun, a reason to jump out of bed each morning. And we made decent progress. Unfortunately, our personal differences started to show up and interfere. Still we mushed on. It took us nine whole months, but we produced a good reader draft of part 1. But just as we were passing it around to our first readers for feedback, the collaboration imploded from shear incompatibility. Probably my fault more than hers. I guess I’m not easy to work with, to put it mildly. So we quit, it never went to the agent, and that was that. Palin won again, dang her; Alaska was still in peril.
That pretty much catches us up to November, 2010. Failed literary masterpieces: 3. David: 0. Time elapsed: 3 years. But wait! Is that a phoenix I see rising from the ashes? Is a new day dawning? All I can say is: Watch the skies, my friends. Stay tuned and look for “What I’ve Been Working On: Part 2.’ Coming soon on this blog.
And now for some crass PR. If you are enjoying my new commitment to keeping you in the loop, why don’t you press the Subscribe To link in the sidebar so you don’t miss an episode (even if I do). And if you have friends who appreciate my work, or you think might like to read me, for God’s sake, tell them about this blog. Sorry if that sounded too strident. It’s the migraines.
And now for some really crass PR. You can’t have all read my Playboy story by now, “She Was Good--She Was Funny," but the Kindle store stats say you’re not buying the ebook version (and they know who you are). What’s the matter? Don’t you have an e-reader yet? Are you dwelling in the past? Today's financial section says that Kindle announced that since April 1, they've sold more ebooks than paper, even when the free ebooks are not counted. If you’re waiting for the Nook version, that was delayed by my illness but is coming very soon. Also you can download free Kindle and Nook apps for your phones, tablets, and computers. True, the story isn’t science fiction, but it’s a hoot, and it’s set in Interior Alaska! Not Sarah Palin’s Alaska but in David Marusek’s Alaska. Where else can you find such world class entertainment for only 99 cents? Anna Nicole Smith was on the original cover, for crying out loud. It was translated into Dutch, and Drew Barrymore was on that cover. It’s cosmopolitan, people. The protagonist was a Brit--in Alaska! On the Italian cover was Shannen Doherty with doves perched on her knees! What more can you ask? Don’t do it for me; do it for Alaska.
I think I need a nap.