Fiction vs Non-fiction

I met with my student once a week, to talk about things which I thought an editor should know. It took her three or four weeks to bring back the marked-up typescript of Stroad’s Cross, with red comments on only about thirty pages. She told me what she thought the major problem was, and pointed out examples. This was why she hadn’t read any more. 

It was a huge problem, and I saw at once that she was right. I had written it as if it were non-fiction, which I had learned how to do when I was writing computer books and magazine articles. I had stopped doing that some years ago, but that kind of style had stayed with me, though I never thought about using it. I just had. 

Non-fiction has a distinctly different style. It is concerned with conveying information and with facts. It has no place for mood, or character, or plot. I was glad that Stroad’s Cross hadn’t been published in that form, but I wondered why, with such an obvious problem, the rejections had taken two years instead of two or three weeks. 

I re-wrote the book, revising and tightening, which reduced it from 225,000 to 150,000 words. Now it was more like fiction. The revisions had made the text rougher than it had been, so I had to go over it again to smooth it out, more than once, and the last time I concentrated on the storytelling. Reading specifically for story is something I do with all my fiction now. When I had done all that I could, I published it as an Ogden House book. Several of my readers have told me how much they liked it. 

My student had taught me a great lesson. Now I felt that publishing myself was going to work. But I still had a lot to learn about self-editing, and about book design, before I tackled The Black Ring.

Learning More

I needed to learn more about publishing my own books, and I had to work with something larger and more complex, to prove again that I could do it. And I had to publish in paper, since it’s not possible to autograph Kindle copies at a science fiction convention, and you can’t put them on a dealer’s table. I decided to take a look at some short stories which I had written and filed away long ago, many of  which I had not submitted, to see if they might be worth publishing. There were many which were not. 

Among those which I finally chose were two which had appeared in print magazines, in 1983 and 1984, and I got permission to reprint them. Another had been published in an on-line magazine in 2011, and which the editor had included when she had published a print anthology. I included a collaboration with a friend, who had been good at fantasy but terrible at science fiction. And I added a very short story by my daughter, Darcy, who has no interest in publication. She writes better than I do. 

I also registered the book with Bowker, in order to get my own ISBN, in this way creating my Ogden House imprint, so that the book would be printed, bound, and offered for sale by Amazon, without the notice that it was published by them.  A Closet for a Dragon and Other Early Tales came out in 2014 — that seems so long ago now — and it is available on Amazon, both digital and paper. 

Now I had to try something really big. I chose Stroad’s Cross, which had been sitting around for a few years. It had been rejected several times and, after reading it through, I knew that it needed work. But I wasn’t sure what I should do with it. 

About that time I was contacted by a high school junior, who knew about me through her mother, who was a friend of Diane’s. Her class had been told to find people who would mentor them about working in the real world. She told me that she was interested in being an editor, so, since this book was a problem, I let her read it to see what she could do.

A Publication Test

I was afraid to submit Book One of The Black Ring to a traditional publisher. If it were accepted, and the editor later decided that he didn’t want the rest — as had happened to me twice before — I would be stuck, unable to find a market for the remaining Books. The Black Ring was too important to me, and I couldn’t let that happen.

I knew a senior editor at a major publisher, who worked with a lot of science fiction. He overheard me talking about The Black Ring with someone at an SF convention, and asked me about it. I told him. He was interested, so I sent him Book One. If he thought his company would publish it, we could talk about a contract for the other five Books. 

He had it for three years before he told me that nobody in the office knew what to do with it. I was in my sixties now, and I couldn’t wait three years for another rejection. And maybe another. (An agent at one time had submitted Stroad’s Cross to two publishers, who each took two years to return it.) I had to do something myself. 

So, as an experiment, I took a collection of five speeches, which I had given at my Toastmaster’s club some years before, and revised them slightly to be essays. Then I published them digitally as Cat Tales (not a very clever title, I know), just to see if I could do it. And I could. I had demonstrated that I could publish my own work, and not through a vanity press, which I would not have done in any case. 

But Cat Tales is a small book, just forty pages. It is still available on Amazon, as both a Kindle book, and as a printed book published by Ogden House. I sometimes give printed copies away. 

I needed to prove myself again. I had a lot to learn before I could even think about doing The Black Ring.

No Sequels

The writing went smoothly through Books Two and Three, and then, somewhere in Book Four, one of Jeanette’s companions — my characters, being based on what I know about human behavior, have a real existence inside my head, and it was she, not me who did this — said that, if anything happened to Jeanette so that she couldn’t continue, maybe her surviving companions could help her successor. That surprised me, but that’s when I knew that I had not five Books, but six. The story was all there, in the back of my head with my muse, I just had to discover it. 

The original sketch for Book Five had a rather clumsy ending which permitted, or maybe even suggested continuation. I didn’t want anyone to write sequels. (Maybe they wouldn’t want to either.) This was my story, and I wanted it to end, however it did, when I ended it. The woman whom Jeanette would choose as her successor could finish the cycle so that there would be no way for someone to add anything more. 

I structured it the way I had the other Books, this time dividing the twenty chapters into five parts. I wrote it so that Leslie Ann Drover, my new hero, could solve the problem of what is evil, and what does it want, and how do you stop it, and bring the story to an absolute close. Now I had a good clean draft of all six Books.

Structure and Flow

I knew that what would eventually become The Black Ring was going to be big, and would have to be divided into volumes for ease of publication. But because of my experiences with writing a series, I decided to plan out all five Books at once. Each Book had a similar structure, of twenty chapters, which could be divided into parts or sections. For each chapter, there was a brief sketch of what was to be accomplished at the end, not how it started, or what might be happening. If I had only a beginning, or only an idea, I could too easily get lost and would not be able to finish. This had happened to me too many times before. But if I had an objective for each chapter, as when I had planned The Planet Masters, I would always know where I needed to go, no matter how much the chapter might wander along the way.

I wrote a rough draft of the first three parts of Book One, but I wasn’t really up to a project of that size, so I did some other things. Then Diane’s company sent us to England for almost three years. When we got back, I knew that I was now ready for The Black Ring, and I looked at those first chapters again. 

They were very rough, so I rewrote parts one and two, turning them into much better first drafts. But I had lost the roughs of the chapters of part three. I couldn’t remember what had happened in them, but I knew from the sketches how they were supposed to end, so I wrote them from scratch, as if for the first time, just getting to what the original endings had been about. 

Then I went on to part four. The writing was easy. The stories of each chapter just flowed out of the back of my head. I finished Book One and started Book Two. And though it also had twenty chapters, it would be all one part

Other Books to Write

It took me two weeks to write the “V” book, eighty thousand words. I called it Diana Pursued. They changed it to The Pursuit of Diana, which I felt was clumsy phrasing. 

I hated the book, and I hated writing it. The stress of meeting such a short deadline gave me a sharp ache in my left shoulder. For years the ache would come back whenever I got tense and stressed. But I was paid — it was a work for hire — and I got royalties for as long as it was in print. It sold more than ninety thousand copies in paperback (it’s not my fault), which made it an official best-seller. So, when you see “by best-selling author” on any of my traditionally published books, it’s true. Technically. Sigh.

I was asked to write a sequel, which was The Crivit Experiment, then another, Below the Threshold, then the show folded and that was the end of that. I got lots of remaindered copies very cheaply.

Another editor, at another time, asked me to write a sequel to Jewels of the Dragon. I did, and then a third, then I outlined seven more books. My editor cancelled the series after book three, and that was the end of that.

This is relevant to The Black Ring, I’ll get to it later.

A Choice

I had seen only part of “V”, the first mini-series, while waiting for Diane in the airport, and after a few minutes I decided that I didn’t want to watch any more of it. I told my agent that I hadn’t seen it all, but that I would try to find someone who had recorded it and would get back to her. She gave me the whole weekend. A friend who had both mini-series on videotape loaned them to me. 

I made myself watch them over and over, despite severe problems I had with the Visitors coming to steal water from Earth when there was more than they could use in our cometary cloud, about their being shape-shifters, and about their coming from Sirius, which is a large hot blue-white star which has no planets any more, only a white dwarf companion, which would have destroyed any planets that once might have been there. I know that “V” was very popular, but I really, really didn’t like it. 

I called my agent Monday morning, and told her that I didn’t want to do it. She told me that it paid $7,500, which was about three times Diane’s annual stipend as a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill. So I asked my agent, when did she want it? She said, within a month. I told her that I already had two weeks of other obligations. She said, “Take it or leave it, but decide now.” I took it.

The Opposite of a Hero

What might a hero be like, who was the opposite of my over-developed monster, the opposite of someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, on steroids or not. And it came to me in a flash of inspiration. It could be someone like a young Sally Field. I knew at once that this was right. 

She would be small, young, overprotected as a child, briefly married but recently widowed, and now on her own. Every problem presented to her would be a challenge. Everything in her life would be a challenge. 

And those otherworldly places, where powers she didn’t understand would send her, to do she knew not what until she got to it, would present her with strong moral choices, and problems which would not in any way be easy for her to find solutions. I as the author might have difficulties with that as well. 

I sat down and wrote rough drafts of what turned out to be the first three parts of Book One, Zhanai’degau. And stopped there, because I had agreed to write, at the request of my agent, the Pursuit of Dianna (not my title), based on the TV series “V”, which I despised.

Too Easy

My fantasies about my hero Delgado continued on my walks around town, usually to three drugstores, which I visited so that I could check the spin-racks for science fiction that I didn’t own yet. Back in those days I could find some books for twenty five cents. My fantasies also kept me occupied while riding with my parents to visit my father’s family in North Dakota. The drive, back then, took two nights each way. 

But I got bored with my fantasy hero. He was like one of those guys who overdevelop on steroids, but with extra body parts like wings and horns and other things — all very embarrassing as I write this — in an effort to make him even more powerful. But he was boring. He could take his thirty pound sword (most real broadswords weigh less than three pounds), walk into the trouble spot, hack and slash and destroy everything, and walk out. No more problem (like in The Dirty Pair). And there was no challenge.

My heroic fantasy was no fun any more. What could I do to make it interesting again?


My daytime fantasies about the hero continued for years. His name was Delgado, because of my fascination with Spanish names at that time. These were not real stories, so much as events and episodes. As time passed, my hero became bigger, stronger, eventually a grotesque superhero, who wasn’t really super at all, just a teen-age boy’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. Eventually, after I had published other books, I wrote something long enough to be called a novel, and sent it to my agent. She rejected it, which was the right thing to do. 

Nonetheless, I decided to write a sequel, and then another, then revise the first book and try again. The sequels, hand-written on the back of wide-format computer paper — which I had been given since I couldn’t afford regular paper — amounted to about a hundred fifty thousand words each, and were so bad that, when I some years later looked at them again, I literally, not “figuratively,” could not read them. Some time after that, since I needed the shelf space, I threw the sequels out. Garbage is garbage after all, and after a while it begins to stink. The original story was rejected again, and now is lost. Maybe that’s just as well.