When I first started this blog, I promised myself I would never share my crap writing with my readers. Because. This is the whole point of having beta-readers and an editorial process. I know that my first drafts suck, that my early work can’t cut it. I don’t want that available to the general public. That’s what I have editors for, to stop that crap. The underlying fear has always been that if people see me without my makeup on, they’ll stop believing in my ability to tell a good story.
My friend Mary Robinette Kowal went so far as to have her work publicly workshopped on a podcast. I listened in horror. How could she risk reader confidence like that?
But in a development that surprises absolutely no one but me, Mary has more fans than ever. This is because readers are, by and large, smart, decent, understanding people. They know that first drafts usually suck. They understand that it takes a few passes to get it right (or, in my case, ALL THE PASSES). Most importantly, they appreciate the insight into the writing process that a public critique provides.
Most of us pros have “Trunk Novels,” the books we had to write in order to hone our craft. The trunk novel is part of the wax-on/wax-off process that will one day make you the literary karate kid. I had to write three trunk novels before I could write CONTROL POINT.
Here’s the prologue of one of them. Cloud Sower was written just after I’d read (and been blown away by) China Mieville’s THE SCAR. I was high off Mieville’s amazing prose, and you can see it in the overblown, breathless description here. I wrote this prologue in an attempt to transport and haunt. Later, I realized that my strength lay in a breakneck pace and a tight narrative. The formula one, instead of the feather bed. I experimented with odd tenses and point-of-view, before I really understood how to do so effectively. I won’t even get into the numerous punctuation and grammatical errors.
The point is this: Each one of my trunk novels took me multiple years to write. Maybe you’re the rare talent that can sit down one day and just tap out saleable material on your first go round. But I doubt it.
Stephen King famously wrote: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Michael Stackpole wrote: “If a writer cannot move 350 copies of a $4 novel, he’s really not trying hard enough. Of course, since the IRS won’t let me expense my time, 10 copies into the item and I’m profitable. That’s also true for collections of short stories that we all have sitting in file cabinets, or that trunk novel that no one in New York thought they could make a profit off. Because the barrier to entry and distribution for entrepreneurial publishing is negligible, we can be profitable quickly.”
He’s wrong, of course. It’s one thing to drag a trunk novel out in public and look it over as a learning experience. It’s another thing to sign your name to it and ask people to give you money for it. Do that, and you really are risking reader faith. Once you’ve sold people something that sucks, the likelihood that they’ll ever give you money again is slim.
Get those trunk novels out of your restless fingers, then put them in the trunk where they belong. And don’t forget to learn from them.
CLOUD SOWER: Prologue
There is fire beneath the ocean.
It flows deep in the earth, under the pressure of millions of gallons of eddying water. It burns below the abyss, far from the jutting teeth of the Rim, past the floating towers of the sea-hermits, beyond the shelves of dark and angry coral that make up the Ship-Breakers.
It is past all of this, out into the center of the ocean, which the Uhlan call the Tartak, the mill that grinds ships to powder. This is an exaggeration at best, for the ocean grinds nothing there, but is still and placid, a mirror of grey, blue or green, depending on the tenor of the sky. It is an empty, limitless expanse, no sawmill, but just as deadly, for there is no hope for fresh water, and the fish dive deep, leaving what unlucky mariners who stray this way nothing but the endless, flat horizon for company, until thirst, hunger or the lonely expanse claims them.
Sailors do not come here by choice. There are no ports to trade at, no land to reconnoiter, no ocean going prize to chase. This part of the world is not bound by natural law. The winds die here, the sun will not stand for the sextant, the astrolabe finds no familiar stars. There are none who have sailed the Tartak, who can share its secrets with us. There are crazy old men, shipwreck survivors who haunt the taverns at Sosnowka. They speak of the Tartak in hushed tones, each having a story more fantastic than the last of how they came there and back again, delivered by a hand from the sky, cut from the belly of a great ocean-wyrm, magicked through the bottom of the world. But they are mad, and they are drunk, and we do not believe them.
So let us see for ourselves.
Dive down through the middle of that flat, greasy surface. Break the plane of unending gray and drop fathom by fathom past the swirling currents, unbroken by hint of fish or plant, until the sun cannot reach us and the darkness swallows all.
Here, in the trenches, where sand and rock roll out in a landscape that looks as if it has been carved into the ground by angry lightning, here we find life once more.
There are fish here like none seen elsewhere in the great Woda, the wide sea that covers most of our world. These creatures are larger than wolves, white, bloated things. Their jaws fat and jutting, lined with teeth so pale they would be translucent, if light should ever penetrate here. Great eyes frame their square heads, and small lamps illumine their way, hanging from stalks that sprout from their skulls, lit by a strange and ghastly light. They dart to and fro, moving leisurely, for there are none to prey on them here. The only cycle is the one we see everywhere else in the world, the bigger fish snapping up their smaller cousins, and so on down the line.
Great tubes rise scores of feet out of the jagged rock face, their surfaces like the coral of the Ship-Breakers, but smoother, and bearing the same sick pallor that seems to cloak all else down here. Mighty wyrms live within, still and silent, save when they dart forth, closing huge mouths about whatever passes by and retreating home to darkness and quiet.
It is cold here. Far colder than we could have imagined, colder even than the north gate, the pole tower beyond which even the frost-loving uhlan fear to pass. There is no ice in the abyss beneath the Tartak, the cold must be felt to be understood.
How can fire live in such a place?
To find it, we must pass along the bottom of the trench, climbing up and over rocky spires that would be the greatest of mountains on land, plunging into crevices that make the mightiest gorge look like a gully, passing over plains that sprout dagger-sharp rock like sharks teeth. Only the strange lights of the pale fish guide us, weird candles in the cold and oppressive dark.
At last we crest a giant ridge, its black heights made jagged by the rushing current, and pass into water made suddenly warm. There are different creatures here, pale jellies that pulse through the water on long tendrils that glow blue, purple, and white. Giant starfish slowly stretch their knobby limbs in the sand. Huge squid pole along on tentacles long enough to crush an imperial galley. Even the lamp-bearing fish do not enter this inky blackness. Perhaps the warmer water is not to their taste.
Touching down to the soft ground we see the source of the warmth, and know that the fire we seek is near. Great vents are broken in the abyss bottom, bubbling forth jets of hot water. They battle against the colder space all along the ridge, battering it backward, succumbing to it, then surging forth again. The struggle is endless. The lamp-bearers hover along the edges of the conflict, a perimeter of eerie light.
The ocean floor is not blasted here. The silt is soft and smooth as fine silk. This small warm space forms a complete circle surrounded by the giant ridge we have just crossed. It is a half-league across at most. A world within a world.
The circle is perfect. It lacks the natural chaos that dominates the rest of the landscape beyond the ridge. This looks like a place crafted by men’s hands. But that is impossible. No hands can work in this crushing depth, this icy chill, this enveloping, endless darkness.
We search further, combing the silty bottom, basking in the warm current of the heated water flowing from the vents. We seek the fire below the ocean.
And then we find something.
Brushing away the fine layers of silt, we see the outlines of something sharp and hard. Something we know is certainly not part of this place. We move more silt, looking further, and trace hard edges. Hearthsilver has been laid into the ocean bed, poured into long and exact shapes, hundreds of feet across. It is only after exposing the entire shape and rising a hundred feet or more up and away that we can make out the contours in their whole beauty.
As if by the hand of some great calligrapher, glyphs have been laid here. The hearthsilver glints in the dull light provided by the lamp-bearers floating on the edges of the ridge. They are characters we’ve not seen before, far older than imperial script. Nor are they the scrawling miniscule of the Uhlan. They are sinuous, curving; haunting as they are unfamiliar.
They glitter, lit from within, glowing of their own accord. The hearthsilver is a scuttle then, a cask for some old and purposed magic. It is writing, of that there can be no doubt.
The glyphs have a familiar look to them, as if we’d seen them somewhere before, long ago.
The light within is pulsing, flickering. It casts out into the swirling current, caught up in the rising jets of warm water, broken into all the colors of rainbow.
The flicker is irregular, fading.
Any magic that could survive down here must be strong indeed, but no magic lasts forever.
This spell is failing. Its life is complete.
As we watch, the glyphs grow dark.
The ground shakes.
The lamps along the ridge bob in uncertainty. A huge arrow-like fish swims into our field of vision and freezes, paddling the current silently, listening.
The tremor comes again, this time stronger. The vents belch. This time the water is hot. The starfish recoil, and begin moving with surprising speed up the ridge side. The massive squid kicks wildly upward. The fish darts madly for the ridge side and plunges into the colder water, crazy with fear. The lamp-bearers fall upon it with surprising speed. Paralyzed by the cold, it cannot resist, and is devoured.
Another tremor, then another. Liquid fire bubbles out of the vents, which have begun to crumble, widening. The magma hisses as it touches the water, turning gray and hard, spiky fingers that reach out from the sea floor.
The hearthsilver groans as the ground beneath it crumbles and breaks. The tremor is constant now.
All along the ridge, the lamps have gone out.
Finally, the ridge itself begins to break apart, great boulders crumbling from the top and pounding their way down the slope, driving the panicked starfish before them. The magma boils out of the vents in great red gouts, and the creatures perish between fire and stone.
The ground is rising.
The ridge folds back on itself as massive bubbles and swirling water carry the sand upwards in great clouds. The flat, perfect circle that had once looked so peaceful lifts up and begins to rise out of the trench, a mountain tapering out beneath it. The water is no longer dark, it is lit an angry red by the liquid fire spasming out of the ocean floor. The light cannot travel far through water choked with dirt and fish corpses.
Many of the fish look burned. Some are unblemished, killed as they were by the change in temperature of the water. Others have been crushed by stone. But many have strange palls about them; sicknesses that have blasted their scales and clouded their eyes. Some are covered in particles as red as the magma, their eyes limned with the stuff. They fall upon one another, biting and turning and biting again. Madness.
The mountain continues to rise, ripping the earth open to make way for its birth. The pinnacle is the circle we had once thought an oasis in this harsh, cold ocean desert.
The earth heaves, the water churns, the mountain continues to rise. Up, up, crossing the long fathoms we had dove before. Up, out of the trench, spiraling upward beyond the abyss, until the soft light of the sun reaches us once more, made cloudy by the swirling sand and the strange, red dust. The mountain continues to rise, the dark and broken glyph capping it, until it breaks the flat surface of the featureless Tartak.
Still it continues to rise. We break through the ocean and rise above it, circling around to watch mile after mile of gently sloping stone hurtle forth from the water. When it has climbed higher than any other mountain we’ve ever seen, including the Tigers Teeth that ring the north gate, it shudders to a halt.
The ocean boils around it. The stone is black and smooth, sloping up in a perfect cone. It stinks of the ocean floor, of curdled eggs, of corpses and decay. It shudders once and belches a great gout of molten fire out of the flat disc at its peak, the remains of the hearthsilver glyph vanish in a smoking hiss. The magma makes its way leisurely down the mountainside, tumbling and smoking and drying to black rock as it does. Where it dries and hardens in the cool air, new lava pours over it, stepping and stepping its way until it plunges hissing into the water.
The sea swirls at the contact, steaming and rolling away as if seeking to escape. Finally it settles, and laps gently at the mountain’s edge. The waters calm, the sand sinks back to the depths from which it came.
In just a short time little evidence remains of the upheaval we have just witnessed. The only proof is the dozens of fish corpses that dot the ocean surface like pale buoys, and the clouds of swirling red dust, growing ever larger around the mountain, the currents twirling them gingerly and carrying them out the long leagues towards shore.