The Writing of Star Dragonby Mike Brotherton
The Writing of Star Dragonby Mike Brotherton
The Writing of Star Dragon
by Mike Brotherton
Seattle, July 1994, week five of the Clarion West workshop. Editors Beth Meacham and Tappan King challenged us: "In addition to your story this week, we'd like you to write a novel synopsis."
Clarion West is boot camp for writers. During a fast six weeks everyone writes five to six new short stories, critiques over a hundred, and receives personal attention from a different professional each week. Connections with the instructors and classmates (perhaps one or two future Big Name Authors) are one of the most important intangible assets of attending the workshop.
In my case Clarion West handed me a chance to pitch a book to Beth Meacham, an executive editor at Tor, and get a detailed response. A good impression could make a future novel submission sail right past the slush pile.
Wiped out after a brutal -- but educational -- week with Michael Swanwick, I wondered how I would manage. I wondered what idea to develop. I didn't have a novel in the works, and didn't want to cop out by writing a synopsis of an already published book or movie (which was an acceptable option).
I was in graduate school at the time, working toward my Ph.D. in astronomy, investigating quasars. Strangely enough, I hadn't been leaning on this expertise in my science fiction stories. This is a common block: when you know too much about your subject area, your critical mind can kill the imagination. I knew I should exploit my specialized knowledge, so I figured out a way to trick myself. I decided to set my story in a different sub-field, that of cataclysmic variable stars. These systems consist of a white dwarf star fed by an accretion disk formed from the spillover from the gravitationally distorted secondary star. They're exciting places, sporting a range of explosive phenomena. Explosions are good.
The most important thing was that I didn't know enough about them to kill my imagination.
I put together a synopsis of about 1600 words involving an expedition to one such system, SS Cygni. The Mcguffin was a form of exotic alien life, a "star dragon," capable of living in the blazing plasma of the accretion disk itself. Into this hostile environment I threw some strong characters and a bit of romance. The plot leaned on King Kong, also Moby Dick, and I kept coming up with astronomically large obstacles for my characters to overcome.
During class that week, Beth and Tappan proclaimed I had written a "selling document." They could both see the book cover in their mind's eye and thought that this story had commercial potential. Beth said that she'd like to see this book come across her desk. "I'm serious," she said.
I was thrilled. I was terrified. Here was new pressure in my life, with stakes much higher than those of a single short story, to add to the pressures of graduate school.
I returned to Austin, Texas and my studies. I didn't start writing the novel right away. While Clarion West had sharpened my writing skills, I didn't want to invest the time in a novel until I thought it might pay off. I focused on short stories and started to have some mild success. I made several sales to respectable small press magazines, placed fourth in the Writers of the Future contest one quarter, and then sold a story to a pro anthology. Never mind that that story never appeared; there's no such thing as a safe short-story market.
Confident that my prose quality had risen enough to risk the novel, confident that my idea and plot were saleable, I began The Dragon's Disk (the working title). I started writing, stalled, and failed. A novel is not a short story, I belatedly discovered. The world of a novel is bigger, with more characters and richer ones too, and screams for detailed world building. As the word count climbed higher than anything I'd ever written before, I realized it was all going wrong. The book felt wrong.
I set it aside, defended my Ph.D., and moved to California for a postdoctoral position at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I decided I would begin anew in 1997, and when January hit I began several months of research and world building. I sketched characters. I performed calculations in special relativity. I invented back stories. I read Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, The Weekend Novelist, and several books and articles about cataclysmic variables.
Beginning on June 1, 1997, a Monday, I vowed to write a thousand words a day until the first draft was finished.
Yes, that's a lot. But I had plenty of pent-up energy and ideas about this book and believed I had to push it. Now or never. I went to work that day, came home, and stared at a blank computer screen until 10 P.M. I literally yelled at myself: "Are you going to be a writer, or what?"
I started writing, caught the right feel for the book, and had a thousand words by midnight.
Those first few weeks my previous draft helped immensely as I stole the good parts and maintained the word count. A thousand words became ten thousand became thirty thousand. I spent from two to four hours a day writing. I wasn't writing in chapters -- that seemed too daunting -- I wrote in scenes instead. I could revise into chapters later. Between thirty and forty thousand words I realized I hadn't outlined enough; characters and scenes strayed from my vision. The book started to get that wrong feeling again. This time I slowed down, took stock, then forced the project back on track.
I started having sub-thousand word days, but I kept moving forward. You can't worry about what you did yesterday, only what you can do today. The word count slowed, but did not stall. I discovered that writing fast first draft didn't compromise the quality as much as I'd feared. Some passages were good. By late spring 1998, I "finished" at 76k words.
Now the pain was only beginning.
I'm the kind of writer who prefers invention to polishing. I once had designs on becoming a computer programmer, but I hated debugging. Debugging is the programming version of revision, but easier, and here I was with 76k words of code. (Yes, only a hard SF writer would think of it this way!) I also started running chapters of the second draft through two writing workshops that primarily dealt with short stories. That made it worse. I needed some level of feedback, but not the same sort of comments from the same people every few weeks. Novels, in my opinion, should be workshopped in a single sitting if workshopped at all, not piecemeal over months. It slowed me down tremendously and enabled my procrastination.
When I moved to Tucson, Arizona, for a new postdoc at Kitt Peak National Observatory in 1999, I was still revising the book. It's amazing the things that creep into a story that have to be excised, and the things you should have figured out before writing page one. For instance, I had assumed that the gravity experienced by a spacecraft flying over the accretion disk would be negligible. It's a common theoretical approximation to assume that the disk self gravity is unimportant, and I ran some numbers to confirm this. If I'd thought more deeply, I would have realized sooner that the vertical component of gravity contributed by the white dwarf star was several times that of Earth. I suppose this is a problem inherent to hard SF, but even so-called experts have to think!
At the start of 2001, I finally had a polished draft of Star Dragon, about 92k words long, a saleable length. Now all I had to do was to sell it. How I did that, next month.
A teaser from the dust jacket of Star Dragon appears on amazon.com. More information about me and the novel, including sample chapters, is available at www.sff.net/people/mbrother/.
Copyright 2003, Michael Brotherton