I recently read three works that are first efforts, or first published works, by three different authors. All science fiction, because that’s me *grin*. The stories are:
- Agent to the Stars (John Scalzi): a humorous story about aliens making first contact through a Hollywood agent. You know, as you do. Scalzi describes this as his “practice novel,” which he never expected to publish.
- Golden Fleece (Robert J. Sawyer): a murder mystery aboard a spaceship aimed to explore a distant new world, told from the point of view of the ship’s artificial intelligence. This book won the Canadian Aurora Award for the best Science Fiction novel of 1991.
- “A Restoration of Faith” (published in Side Jobs by Jim Butcher): the first story about Harry Dresden, a wizard in present-day Chicago who uses his abilities to fight supernatural evil. He wrote this story as part of a class in creative writing, but it wasn’t published until years later when pulling together several short stories about Dresden in Side Jobs, and Butcher agrees that it wasn’t really ready for publication.
First, let me acknowledge something right off the bat. These aren’t really first efforts. I know that at least two these authors had already been writing for a while, or at least learning about writing, in various ways. Scalzi had a previous career in journalism before turning to fiction. Butcher wrote a never-published high fantasy novel before blending his fantasy with noir. I admit to knowing nothing about Sawyer’s career before Golden Fleece, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a history of learning before launching this award-winning effort. It’s like the old saying: it takes years of hard work to become an overnight sensation. Slogging away in the trenches of my academic writing and my “trunk novel” that’s never going to see the light of day is just part of the cost of doing business. Have I reached the level of the kind of early work I’m writing about here? Only time and a bunch of readers will tell.
Second, I have to acknowledge something else: These works are flawed. There’s good reason why Scalzi and Butcher didn’t expect their stories to be published, and even Sawyer’s award-winning novel has its weak moments. Let me say right off the bat that I enjoyed reading all these works. I am not bad-mouthing them of putting them down to say that they had problems. I can only aspire to reach the level of such problems! But it helps me to be aware of them, so that I can learn from them. Here’s a short summary of what I might have pointed out, if I were the editors of these books.
- Agent to the Stars. There’s one real rookie mistake here, which is to have character names that are too similar. Two really major characters are named Miranda and Amanda. Another pair of names is Curt and Carl. Readers deserve better ways of telling people apart. My other complaint about the story is that the plot is held together by the most gossamer of threads. Even granting the essential silliness, of aliens who hire Hollywood agents to give them a more marketable image when they introduce themselves to the world, there are too many places where my disbelief fell with a thud. Howling coincidences. Aliens with improbable abilities that are still just humans in funny suits. And then, at the end, (sorry, spoiler here): I’m expected to believe that the Oscar winner for Best Motion Picture was never announced?! Sorry. Not going to happen.
- Golden Fleece. This story has another basic mistake, one all science fiction authors struggle with: back story. It’s not handled as gracefully as it could be. There’s a spot where a character tells the all-knowing AI running the ship something that is well known to both of them, literally using the deadly phrase, “As you well know,…” I also had trouble swallowing how many issues were buried in one character’s past. This character was a survivor of child sexual abuse, discovered only as an adult that he had been adopted, and that he was the product of incest. I don’t see any relevance of any of this to the present-day story. It didn’t feel to me that it enriched the character at all; it just felt like it cluttered the story. Chekhov’s gun, failing to fire.
- “A Restoration of Faith.” Here is another name issue, but it’s not confusing names, it’s a name that’s really just a label. The story is about Harry reclaiming his faith in himself and his calling as a wizard, and he rescues a little girl named Faith. Get it? Then there’s the fact that her name is revealed with a flourish, to the reader and to the character, near the end of the story, thumping on the message yet again. Harry was hired to find this little girl, and we’re supposed to believe he didn’t know her name? Or her age (he describes her as being about 8 or 9)? Her speech is also much to precocious for her age. When she sees Harry’s big duster she says it’s like something from the set of El Dorado. He’s tall and craggy, so she asks if he’s supposed to be Ichabod Crane of the Marlboro Man. At the end, after her harrowing experience nearly being eaten by a troll, a cop asks her if she’s okay and she says she’s “a little hungry, and I could use something to clean up these scrapes. But other than that, I’m quite well.” She is apparently 8 going on 45.
The third acknowledgement is that these authors know how to tell a story. That’s what makes these works worth reading now, with all their flaws, and has launched them into successful careers. Readers can get past all the flaws listed above if they care about these people and what’s happening to them.
- Scalzi’s journeyman agent is smart, caring, and resourceful. He talks tough to people who are rude and heartless, but he is kind to a neighbor’s old dog. You have to like him. By extension, you like the people around him who are working to make things better for people, even clueless people, even inhuman people. This makes you care about how he’s going to solve his problems and be victorious in the end.
- Sawyer’s central character is harder to fall in love with, being an artificially intelligent computer network, but he is still driven to do what he does in service of the greater good. This story is more about the mystery. It’s not a whodunit, but a whydunit; we know from the first pages that the computer committed the murders, but the full reason is not revealed until the last pages. Here we are caring about the whole human race.
- Butcher’s wizard is wisecracking and flustered, but intent on living up to his own standards of right and wrong. Even when the darling child is at her most obnoxious, he cares about her well-being, to the point of risking his life for her. Again, you have to like him and want him to succeed. It’s a bit of a cheat to hinge the story on an endangered child–who can root against her?–but he mitigates that with her hostile attitude. Butcher successfully shifts the emphasis of the story from the child’s immediate survival to her long-term welfare.
So that’s what I learned from these three early stories.
- Keep working, keep writing. It’s a curve you have to climb, not a cliff.
- Everyone makes mistakes. As we get more experience we make fewer of them. (And it’s always SO much easier to see them in someone else’s work than in your own.)
- Story is king. If you have characters people can care about dealing with problems people can worry about, readers will forgive any number of mistakes.
Thanks to these three authors, and to all the other countless authors whose works have furnished my mind and my writer’s heart. We learn from each other; I’m learning from you.