Being a Summary of David Feintuch's
Nicholas Ewing Seafort Saga
This Science Fiction Book Club edition gives me a chance to reminisce with readers who, like me, grew up steeped in science fiction and take it seriously. And perhaps, too, those who always yearned to write.
When I was a kid we didn't have much money for books, but there was the old Yonkers public library, in all its Carnegie granite glory. Starting at about age seven I took the trolley -- yes, Yonkers was a bit old- fashioned -- down South Broadway to a piece of heaven on earth.
We were allowed to take home a maximum of six books. I always filled my quota.
Of course, at seven the Dewey Decimal System was far beyond me. But I wandered the shelves of the childrens' section, picking out books at random, including, once, Little Women, which I found a complete mystery; I gave up after a couple of pages.
Notwithstanding these occasional setbacks, I managed to come up with a thick pile to take home each week. A mound of novels stacked under my chin, I waited impatiently for the trolley homeward. By the time we reached our stop I was deep into the first of my selections.
No one really explained how books in a library were organized, but after a while I remembered where I had found a book I liked. More or less by chance I soon figured out that the book immediately adjacent was also likely to be a pretty good read. From there, it was a short step to the breathtaking revelation of authors' names. Now I could actually look for good books.
I know it's fashionable these days to point out all Heinlein's flaws -- and God knows they exist -- but I'll never forget the thrill of coming across one of his juveniles. From then on I devoured everything Heinlein, and plowed through the science fiction section like a scythe, reaping through almost everything on the shelves. Asimov, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Blish, Von Vogt, Clarke... and then as I grew older, my God, the pulps!
One evening along about 1959 my father, in a fit of pique, hurled one of my Galaxy magazines across the room and demanded, "Why are you always reading this crap about rockets going to the moon, and people on other planets? It's never going to happen! Why don't you read something realistic!"
Little did we know.
I stuck with SF for a long while, but after college I drifted away. My favorite authors were dropping out, dying, or writing stuff that wasn't very good anymore. Heinlein was one. Yes, his last books became talky and preachy. But Glory Road, Farnham's Freehold, Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, and of course, Stranger . . . what a legacy.
Where Asimov, among many others, would preface his books with an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Galactica or some such tome, in effect telling the reader, "Here's the setup to my story. I need to give you a whole lot of background information, and this is the fastest way to do it," Heinlein just casually brought you into his world with occasional details of how his society functioned, and what its belief system was based on. It was so . . . well, clean. I knew that's how I'd do it, if I ever had the chance.
I knew I wanted to write.
I didn't dare.
And kept reading. Because I read pretty fast, it became harder and harder to find anything I really liked. Even worse, my favorites were almost all dead. James Thurber, C.S. Forrester, Ayn Rand, Sturgeon, Blish, Barbara Tuchman, Teddy White. Then Heinlein.
Sure, there was good stuff -- great stuff -- being written. But I wasn't coming across anyone who emotionally pulled my chain. In desperation, I tried writing again, and found that while I was a decent raconteur (or so I'm told) there was a world of difference between saying a good story and writing it. I had to learn the craft. My first efforts were abysmal and left unfinished.
One day I was sitting in front of the tube with my brain in idle, when an idea struck me with great force. What if . . . Well now, isn't that science fiction in a nutshell? "What if." Historical novels are about "the time when," and present day novels are about "a fellow who." SF is about what would happen, IF. It's as a good a way as any to define the genre.
Anyway, what if someone were in charge of a group, but he knew himself to be incompetent and unable to lead? What if those he commanded also knew it, and he was aware they knew?
How could I set that up? It had to be important. Therefore a situation where lives were at stake. Command structures would be involved, ergo a military setting. The commander couldn't seek help from home base, else the story would collapse, so the characters had to be isolated as a group for a long period. If the commander were free to resign I'd have no story. Therefore, a hierarchical and rigid society bound by oaths of honor.
The solution was obvious:
Two problems. One, it had already been done. C.S. Forrester. Alexander Kent. And Patrick O'Brian, who is still writing.
Two, I would have to know immense and intimate detail about sailing ships. I could just see some reader scornfully writing to the publisher, "Anyone knows the halyard brace is reefed to the gimbals, not the mizzen swansail," or some such malarkey. And the problem is, he'd be right.
Where could I set a story so I was free to arrange my society as I wished, and not stumble over the technical details?
A time that hasn't happened yet. What kind of society would be so hierarchical and rigid that my protagonist couldn't resign his command? A religious one. Where would they be so isolated the story could play itself out? Between stars. The book formed itself.
Once I fastened on my character, Nick Seafort, and began to understand him, everything else fell into place. The narrative poured out of me.
Then came the magical, never-before-experienced days when I assumed a scene was done, and Nicky or one of his companions nudged me aside. "Excuse us, but we're not quite finished." And I would type like madman while they took the action of the book to some wonderful byway I hadn't dreamed existed. When minor characters, with a stern "ahem," tapped me on the shoulder and made clear that they weren't nearly as minor as I'd envisioned.
I finished the book, began sending it off, sought an agent.
And fell flat on my face. I didn't even get rejection slips, though a SASE was enclosed. Just the ms in a return bag.
Finally, through Delphi, an online computer service, I found other writers. One of them pointed me to a gifted novelist and teacher who reviewed and critiqued my book. She agreed with me that it started too slowly. She also taught me some simple tricks about dialogue, transitions, etc. I will say this: I'm a fast learner. Whatever mistakes I make, once I'm shown the right way, I remember it. A month later, I had a new draft of Midshipman's Hope to send. Out it went.
I waited, and waited, and dropped dead. Literally.
I was playing tennis and keeled over. Two doctors were on the next court. Despite their best efforts, I survived. No, that's not quite right. They breathed for me until the paramedics came and zapped me back to life. It took five shots with the defibrillator to restart my heart, and they were on the verge of giving up. I spent a month in the hospital, had major surgery, and went home to recover.
After eleven months, my novel came back, rejected.
During all this, my life was such hell (on top of everything else I was broke and divorcing) that I had no choice but to keep writing, to hold on to my sanity. Challenger's Hope was born, and Prisoner's Hope came after. Then the climactic novel, Fisherman's Hope. I lived in Hope Nation, and Nicky's troubles were mine. It was blessed refuge.
But because I'd never thought of writing further than the book I was doing, each novel is complete in itself. I've always felt cheated if I work my way to the end of a major novel and find that it isn't over. In fact, unless that is made abundantly clear in the cover copy, I'll allow myself to be fooled once and no more. That's IT for that author.
I call it the "ahhh." It's that "ahhh," you feel at the end of a satisfying novel. The sense of closure. I guarantee you, anything you read from me will have the "ahhh" at the end. It's keeping faith.
Anyway, something I do must be working; Warner just bought my fifth novel, and I'm starting on my sixth next month. Midshipman and Challenger both made the Locus best seller lists.
I couldn't have made it as a writer without the help and encouragement of a number of people I could never possibly pay back. In consequence, I've tried to remember the gratitude and awe I felt when some busy professional stopped to show me the way. The only way to pay them back is to do likewise. So, if you know you are a writer but have never proved it, and you want advice, direction, or critique, drop me a line. Don't expect miracles; my charming editor at Warner Books keeps me hopping to meet their deadlines.
And read on. Ain't life great?
- Dave Feintuch (1944-2006)
© 2003 Michael Thompson