My first SF sale!

One of the minor frustrations of my life, up to now, is that though I can sell as much nonfiction as I care to write, fiction sales had eluded me. What made this particularly irksome is that I don’t have only the usual ego reasons for wanting to succeed. I love the science fiction genre and owe it much; I want to pay that forward by contributing back to it.

It therefore gives me great satisfaction to announce that I have made my first SF sale, a short (3.5kword) piece of military SF titled Sucker Punch set on a U.S. aircraft carrier during the Taiwan Straits Action of 2037. Some details follow.

The backstory begins with Castalia House, an e-book publisher based in Finland, noticing my recent spate of reviews and offering to send me some of their current releases – notably John C. Wright’s Awake In The Night Land, which I haven’t reviewed yet only because I feel I need to have read Willam Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land first and, brother, that is quite a slog.

During this conversation, the head guy at Castalia House (the infamous Vox Day, wearing another hat) informed me of an upcoming project: an anthology called Ride The Red Horse intended to reprise the format of Jerry Pournelle’s old There Will Be War compendia. That is, a mix of military SF and military futurology, written by a mix of SF authors and serving military personnel, with few technical experts added for flavor.

“Want to write a fiction piece for us?” said Mr. Castalia House. “I can’t write fiction for shit, or at least all my attempts to sell it have failed,” I replied.

“Well, what about non-fiction?” I couldn’t think of a premise; then, suddenly, I could. Which is how I wound up researching and writing a fact piece called Battlefield Lasers and the Death of Airpower. I turned in a partial first draft about four hours later, and swiftly learned that (a) the actual editor on the anthology is Tom Kratman, and (b) he loved the draft and absolutely wanted it in when it got finished.

A couple days later I got a full draft done and shipped it. (A&D regular Ken Burnside, who knows weapons physics inside and out, was significant help.) Delighted that-was-brilliant! email from Castalia House followed.

“Are you suuuure you don’t want to do a fiction piece?” Mr. Castalia House said, or words to that effect. He tossed a couple of premises at me which I didn’t particularly like; then it occurred to me that I might dramatically fictionalize one aspect of the futurology in Battlefield Lasers…

A long Sunday later I had Sucker Punch ready. Writing it was an odd experience. I knew the story concept was working as I pounded it out, but what it clearly wanted to be was a Tom-Clancy-style technothriller in miniature, which is not something I had ever imagined myself writing. But I went with it and shipped it.

Hours after I did so Mr. Castalia House got back to me and said “What caused you to imagine that you can’t write fiction? This story is better than mine!” He then went off on a tear about the incompetence of the gatekeepers who had turned down my previous efforts. Which, I suppose, is possible; or maybe they really sucked but I’ve learned some things since.

Anyway, that’s how I sold my first SF. I don’t have a publication date more specific than “this Fall” yet. I’ll announce it here. And I’ll try not to make this a one-off. I do have some advantages; I’m already a very skilled writer, just not so much at the “fiction” part.

My real dream, someday, is to write a major novel of hard SF at the level of (say) Greg Egan’s Disapora or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. That’s a long way off from here. Baby steps…

56 thoughts on “My first SF sale!

  1. Why would you think that you can’t write fiction?

    You are an excellent and interesting writer.
    Many of your posts are essentially worldbuilding to make a point.
    You are able to tell stories as evidenced by numerous posts on this blog as well as at Sword Camp.

    You did not think you were any good at languages either, what else do you not think you are any good at?

  2. Congrats. Do you intend to publish Battlefield Lasers and the Death of Airpower here as well? Or a summary? I think it would spark an interesting debate. I too would think that if you can neither evade nor mislead a weapon aimed at you, and you can’t really carry heavy shields or armor either, then you don’t belong in an environment where there is no cover to take. However, I also find this pretty much self-evident and closed, so I wonder what interesting things you can say about it.

  3. @esr: If your earlier attempts were many years ago, there is a fairly good chance that you’ve had time to build more life experience. The best writers are often the people with the richest life experiences.

  4. Most of the gatekeepers are indeed incompetent. And even the competent ones…even the very best of the very best, only have so many slots in their publication schedule to fill. And they always have particular ideas about what will best fill any given slot. “Yeah, I like this, but I don’t have anywhere in my schedule to put it” is a real thing.

    And yeah, even if you were already a good writer then, chances are you’re a better one now. Which doesn’t necessarily say anything relevant or interesting about why you got published now and not then, but it’s nevertheless probably true.

    Anyway, congrats! :)

  5. >However, I also find this pretty much self-evident and closed, so I wonder what interesting things you can say about it.

    Oh, there’s lots. For example: you don’t neeed to kill a drone if you can blind its sensors – and that turns out to require much lower power levels.

  6. “For example: you don’t neeed to kill a drone if you can blind its sensors”

    That’s just a different definition of “kill”. I believe the term for that is “mission kill”.

  7. >That’s just a different definition of “kill”. I believe the term for that is “mission kill”.

    Don’t get hung up on terminology. The important difference is that roaching a CCD or hearting unexpended fuel until it cooks off is much easier than burning a hole in the airframe. Like, orders of magnitude easier.

  8. Congratulations! ^^

    >My real dream, someday, is to write a major novel of hard SF…

    If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to Shadows and Stars, which is mentioned in your website? If you complete it, I’d love to read it (or any other of your books, for that matter; but they seem unavailable in my far-off corner of the world).

    >…at the level of (say) Greg Egan’s Disapora or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

    Adding those to my wishlist (but to be read only when I’m ready for hard SF).

  9. >If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to Shadows and Stars, which is mentioned in your website?

    Stalled. But might get completed someday; there isn’t all that much left to do if I can solve a particular plot problem.

  10. This is just the obligatory post about how Cryptonomicon is far superior to Anathem. I’ve made it short so that people can skip it, but you may assume that all other previous discussions of this matter are included by reference.

  11. Being able to follow along as all this developed has been very reminiscent of my experience at Baen’s Bar 15 years ago – the presence of some of the same participants helped that perception along, no doubt.

    Congratulations Eric; well done you.

  12. >Damn, more competition.

    Heh. If I manage to produce anything as good as A Darkling Sea I will be extremely pleased. You write exactly the kind of old-school Campbellian SF with rivets in that I most esteem.

    Until then, you have more to fear from me as a critic than as a competitor. But only if you write crappy books, which is a contingency I do not actually expect. I’ve seen enough first novels and followups to notice patterns, and you I’m not worried about; if you do a second I expect it will be good solid craftsmanship.

  13. Congrats!

    So when you do you get your laminated membership card to the Evil League of Evil?

  14. Congratulations!

    One thought on the previous stuff and your comment about this one not being what you imagined you would write: I’ve read several writers comments about their method, and a number of fiction writers (Eddings comes immediately to mind) specifically stated that they do NOT read within the genre where they write for fear of “poisoning” themselves.

    I’ve often wondered if that doesn’t count not just for cross-contamination of ideas (e.g. stealing ideas from other’s work), but also may cause some internal problems due to comparison. In other words, perhaps you instinctively try to reproduce something akin to the stuff you like to read, and it’s like trying to wear two left shoes?

    I have noticed that acknowledged masters tend to be more concentrated in the early writings of a genre (or in it’s reinvention, e.g. Poe vs. King), rather than those who follow after, so I’m thinking originality and feeling your way through something novel may lead to a more enjoyable work.

    Just a thought, worth every penny you paid for it ;^). Enjoy the afterglow!

  15. >I look forward to nominating you for a short fiction Hugo.

    I doubt it. I think I did a competent job, but not Hugo-worthy.

    After another couple hundred thousand words of practice – we’ll see. I think I have the knowledge base. prose-crafting ability, and native creativity to be that good at writing SF; I did crack the NYT bestseller list once, after all. What’s missing or underdeveloped is a very specific set of skills near the fiction part.

  16. Egan-meets-Stephenson, I would read that.

    Next time you write a story, send it to me & I’ll see if I can give you some feedback?

  17. Congratulations! I could have sworn that “ride the red horse” was a euphemism for menstruation, but a quick google informs me that it has been some time since I read Revelations.

  18. > The backstory begins with Castalia House, an e-book publisher based in Finland

    O_o

    I’m a Finn, I grew up on Asimov and Heinlein, I still read some SF and I was utterly unaware of Castalia. I read the “literary envy” post here and the blog responses by some of the SF authors, and if I would have had to guess where their publisher was based, I’d have said Mars long before Kouvola, Finland (pop. 50 000, a declining industrial and railroad town somewhat known for being ugly and boring even by Finnish standards – the high-speed trains from Helsinki to St. Petersburg do stop there, it has to be said).

  19. @esr:
    > > I look forward to nominating you for a short fiction Hugo.
    >I doubt it. I think I did a competent job, but not Hugo-worthy.

    3.5kwords puts it in the Short Story category, which at least this year was full of absolute drek. I would be willing to wager a very large sum of money that I would like your story better than all four 2014 Hugo Short Story nominees. I’m not the only one who feels this way; others feel even more strongly about it than I do – I at least put 1 nominee (“Ink Readers”) above No Award, mainly because I have a strong aversion to No Award, and “Ink Readers” was at least ‘legitimately eligible’ IMO. A few people I’ve talked w/ have higher standards, and put No Award as #1 preference.

    I’ve decided to specifically keep a look out for actually worthy candidates for next year’s Short Story category. I might well be nominating your story as well.

  20. > Laminated membership card to the Evil Leauge of Evil

    While ESR avoids membership of the ELoE, this event could be a major milestone in the relations between the ELoE and the Eric Conspiracy. if a fully-forged alliance forms, how long will civilisation last against them? (I for one welcome our new moustachioed, Unix-mangling, SF-writing, not-very-PC overlords.)

  21. Mikko – Castalia House is a relatively recent creation. Besides VD, one of the regular commenters at his blog, whose handle is “Markku”, is deeply involved in Castalia House.

  22. To quote ESR in a recent post (maybe it wasn’t supposed to be taken literarily):

    “All this might sound like I’m inclined to sign up with the Evil League of Evil. The temptation is certainly present; it’s where the more outspoken libertarians in SF tend to have landed. Much more to the point, my sense of humor is such that I find it nearly impossible to resist the idea of posting something public requesting orders from the International Lord of Hate as to which minority group we are to crush beneath our racist, fascist, cismale, heteronormative jackboots this week. The screams of outrage from Rabbits dimwitted enough to take this sort of thing seriously would entertain me for months.

    Alas, I cannot join the Evil League of Evil, for I believe they have made the same mistake as the Rabbits; they have mistaken accident for essence. … ”

    This is far better than a public post requesting orders. I look forward to reading it. As well as the screaming of the rabbits.

  23. Don’t know if this impacts either of your compositions involving laser-based weaponry, but making smoke is an effective and cheap countermeasure to HE lasers (both pulse and sustained). And it’s not just targeting interference, but it also significantly degrades focus and attenuates intensity. Even minor (below visible) concentrations of aerosol particles are known to be detrimental. Counter-strategies for theater conflicts include starting forest fires at upwind locations. Reality can be a bitch.

  24. Congratulations!

    And cool to know about the anthology series. I have all the volumes of ‘There Will Be War’ before it petered out. Started reading them at a formative age. A new series in that vein, edited by Kratman… goodness. Though if they include ANY Barley Cross stories, they will deserve to be nut-punched. :)

  25. Once a new battlefield weapon demonstrates any effectiveness whatsoever, countermeasures and counter-countermeasures rapidly follow. Lasers have one of the same risks as tracers; they work both ways. No accounting for arc is required, so finding the source is simple. Something like a HARM missile with a different sensor would be able to take out a fixed laser nicely while aluminum chaff protects the aircraft from any trailing source. Then the ground units switch to using mirrors to mask the true origin of the beam…

  26. esr, you do realize that the rabbitd would claim that you’re being bought off by the Anti-Christ (Vox Day is a significant person behind Castalia House). But as Mickey Spillane always stated, money in the bank is worth more than literary award.

  27. Hypothetically speaking, if one wanted to purchase Castalia House e-books in some DRM-free format, where would he go? Ideally, some vendor other than Amazon.

  28. >the rabbitd would claim that you’re being bought off by [Vox Day]

    No, because I’m quite willing to observe in public that there are things about which Vox Day is fucking nuts. Exhibit A is not just the fact that he constructs elaborate tirades against evolution by natural selection. but the fact that he writes these cheek by jowl with posts accurately pointing at evidence for recent and rapid human evolution.

  29. @Mikko

    I’m a Finn, I grew up on Asimov and Heinlein, I still read some SF and I was utterly unaware of Castalia. I read the “literary envy” post here and the blog responses by some of the SF authors, and if I would have had to guess where their publisher was based, I’d have said Mars long before Kouvola, Finland (pop. 50 000, a declining industrial and railroad town somewhat known for being ugly and boring even by Finnish standards – the high-speed trains from Helsinki to St. Petersburg do stop there, it has to be said).

    (emphasis added)

    I’ve been to Finland twice. I didn’t find the country ugly. Finns do not always choose the same construction materials that US builders might, but I think they do interesting things with them. The workmanship is always good.

    Besides, my father-in-law took care to point out what happens in the Finnish climate when builders try to use Italian marble.

  30. notably John C. Wright’s Awake In The Night Land, which I haven’t reviewed yet only because I feel I need to have read Willam Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land first and, brother, that is quite a slog.

    Euw, that sounds unnecessarily masochistic. I imagine the purpose of Mr Wright’s work, like Greg Bear’s _City at the End of Time_, is along the lines of He Reads It So You Don’t Have To.

  31. > You didn’t really suppose I’d sell to a publisher who DRMed, did you?

    No, but I’d prefer not to purchase digital goods from Amazon if there are any other reasonable alternatives.

  32. >Besides, my father-in-law took care to point out what happens in the Finnish climate when builders try to use Italian marble

    Er…OK, what happens?

  33. “Hours after I did so Mr. Castalia House got back to me and said “What caused you to imagine that you can’t write fiction? This story is better than mine!””

    What can I say? It is. Based on the reaction of several military readers, mine is arguably more mil-horror than mil-sf per se. But yours very much reads a bit like a Red Storm Rising in miniature, which is exactly what the editor is seeking for RIDING THE RED HORSE.

    “I have all the volumes of ‘There Will Be War’ before it petered out. Started reading them at a formative age. A new series in that vein, edited by Kratman… goodness.”

    Our original intention was to revive the old series and release all the old ones as ebooks, as they are not presently available as such. Mr. Pournelle was somewhat interested, but after six months passed and we were not making any progress, we went to Plan B, which was creating our own mil-sf anthology series. We have a number of excellent and expert contributors on both the fiction and non-fiction sides; in addition to Mr. Raymond, it will probably not have escaped some VP readers’ attentions that Castalia will soon be publishing William S. Lind, among others.

    We hope to one day publish Mr. Raymond’s novels as well as his articles and short stories.

    “I’m quite willing to observe in public because there are things about which Vox Day is fucking nuts.”

    I’m not sure that will help you. They still attack Spacebunny, after all, and she is more than willing to do the same. That’s the thing about those limited to the Aristotelian rhetorical level, neither truth nor logic serves as a defense against them. They’re not interested in the former and they’re not capable of the latter.

    “Hypothetically speaking, if one wanted to purchase Castalia House e-books in some DRM-free format, where would he go?”

    All of our books are available DRM-free. Most of them are available DRM-free in EPUB format on our site, with the exception of those participating in the Kindle Select program. However, RIDING THE RED HORSE will not be part of that program.

  34. You’re a Standout Author and SPOILER ALERT you’re on that list for ideological reasons.

  35. @esr

    Er…OK, what happens?

    I haven’t found a link, and it was some years ago, but my father-in-law showed me a building in Helsinki with a marble façade that had problems. I don’t remember the details, but I remember they spent money for fancy materials. I later had a conversation with another Finn who was defensive about the exterior of a rather nice shopping mall. It most definitely was not marble. I was distracted and did not emphasize effectively that I found it charming.

    “It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it.”

  36. Ah. I found it. It was Finlandia Hall. Not only did they have problems with the original marble facing bowing, but the citizens voted to replace it with more marble. The new cladding bowed again, more quickly than the original, in the opposite direction.

    It seems marble isn’t a practical building material outside Mediterranean climates.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=t4BsWYU_fMgC&pg=PA112&lpg=PA112&dq=bowed+marble+facade+helsinki&source=bl&ots=-R5t1qgb5J&sig=fI2utOxtew1vFqQJR7NBQOXPArY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Dl_iU8jdJIXaoATwuILQDA&ved=0CDsQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=bowed%20marble%20facade%20helsinki&f=false

    My father-in-law was born in Finland. He moved his family to Sweden in the ’60s, but he moved back after he retired. He had a summer house in the Finnish Archipelago. He loved the country and the people.

  37. @BobW

    The problem with the Finlandia Hall cladding is not marble as such, but too thin slabs of the material. Carrara marble has been used successfully in even tougher climates, but the original marble plates installed on the Finlandia Hall in 1971 were too thin. The problem was actually well understood when the decaying marble was replaced in 1998, and there were marble slabs available that were supported with extra aluminium structures for rigidity. Those were not chosen, probably for cost reasons, and now we’re back to square one, with bowed marble plates that will be in need of replacement again in the near future. Also, I don’t think that the choice of replacement material was subject to popular vote, a vote in the city council at most. The Finlandia Hall is the architectural opus magnum of Alvar Aalto, and there’s a well-respected foundation that looks after his buildings, with a vengeance, one might say. Aalto’s widow Elissa, also an architect, was still alive when the debate about the replacement material took place, and she said that if the city council replaced the marble with e.g. white Finnish granite, “Helsinki would have a Finlandia Hall designed by the city council, not Aalto.”

    Btw., the Töölö Bay area around the building is finally being completed, after literally a century of various plans. Aalto’s building was a part of his 1964 plan for the area, which was to be the new, modern, “Finnish” center of Helsinki, as opposed to the 19th century, pre-independence one built on the orders of a Russian Czar and designed by a German architect appointed by him. The Finlandia Hall is the only thing that was eventually realized of Aalto’s plan, though. A bunch of new buildings have gone up in recent years, including a new concert hall in 2011 right next to Finlandia Hall (because the Finlandia Hall was always an acoustic disaster). The city council just recently decided to pare down a plan for a very fancy park in the middle of it all from an estimated cost of 66 million euros to 6 million. The construction of the cheapo version is supposed to start right now, and it will finally make the front side of the Finlandia Hall presentable. It was a sort of a temporary parking lot for 40+ years.

    Sorry for the off-topic rambling and congratulations to ESR. His is absolutely the finest SF publisher in Kouvola!

  38. Congrats! It’s hard for me to imagine the joy of getting paid cash money for an original work of fiction.

    Interesting that this was a milestone in a relationship that started off small then grew. Probably tempting to see literary success as “Step 1: write the next Great American Novel”, “Step 2: shop it around until someone throws fame and fortune at you”. Your own experience sounds much more realistic.

  39. >Your own experience sounds much more realistic.

    I think it is. But…

    I must note that I started out with two advantages. One is that I’m a highly skilled writer – I didn’t land on the NYT bestseller list in 2001 by accident and that means something even if it was for nonfiction. The other is that I have a large fanbase, which I’m reliably informed publishers consider a more important credential than the ability to write these days.

    With these facts in background, Castalia House doing its best to sweet-talk me into writing for them makes sense. But, alas, makes the relevance of my experience to J. Random Aspiring Author questionable.

  40. “publishers consider a more important credential than the ability to write these days”

    In a new writer, this is probably true. And I will even argue that, in the face of the asymmetric information problems facing fiction consumers, it is a rational choice, no matter how much it might offend us.

    At least it can be said, in defense of Castalia House and those like them, that they picked you because you were famous _for your writing_. From the perspective of a reader and would-be buyer, it remains quite possible that your skill at writing fiction is massively inferior to your skill with non-fiction (I’ve seen it happen), and thus buying your stories would be a waste of money and time…but I think that’s not the way to bet, and they’re counting on a lot of people agreeing that it isn’t.

    If what you’d given them in response to their request had been crap, they probably wouldn’t have taken it. But if it were as well-written as it actually was, but didn’t have your famous name attached, they wouldn’t have been as anxious to publish it.

    We may lament that the world works this way, and wish in the abstract that it were otherwise. But we do well to remember that it is not merely irrational prejudice and a culture of celebrity that makes it so…there is actually sound reasoning behind it.

  41. >it remains quite possible that your skill at writing fiction is massively inferior to your skill with non-fiction

    In fact, I evaluate that this is probably still the case. Fortunately, I’m very good at nonfiction.

    >If what you’d given them in response to their request had been crap, they probably wouldn’t have taken it. But if it were as well-written as it actually was, but didn’t have your famous name attached, they wouldn’t have been as anxious to publish it.

    I think this is so.

    >But we do well to remember that it is not merely irrational prejudice and a culture of celebrity that makes it so…there is actually sound reasoning behind it.

    I understood this. With some ruefulness, but I understood it.

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