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Sad news from Oakland: Jack Vance died on Sunday at 96.
I discovered Vance fairly late — his books were too baroque for my tastes as a young teen, but I was ready for him in my 30s, and was amazed at what I’d missed. There was The Dying Earth, and Lyonesse, and Araminta Station, and before I knew it I was hooked, scouring eBay and used book stores for Vance titles. (I eventually bought a good chunk of the Vance Integral Edition, one of the great efforts by any fanbase.)
Oddly, I’d just rediscovered Carlo Rotella’s Vance appreciation over at the New York Times. Among other things, Rotella perfectly describes a key component of Vance’s style as “feral, angling politesse”. He also notes that while Vance made his living as a genre artist (that’s the title of Rotella’s piece) working in science fiction, fantasy and mystery, he transcended those genres. Vance was a writer’s writer, an artist whose breezy way with characters and plots masked a master’s command.
Vance had a gift for world-building, for constructing intriguing societies from odd starting points and making them work. He was a master of archly barbed, mock-lawyerly dialogue — but also of spare, enviably economical descriptions. (For example, he invented about a bazillion superb, evocative names for deadly creatures.) And while plotting wasn’t his strongest suit — his trilogies had a way of blazing through jaw-dropping beginnings, then wandering to mild (but still entertaining) conclusions — he came up with any number of intriguing engines for stories, inventing plots that were intriguingly original and had their own clockwork logic. And he was funny — variously deadpan and dry to the point of astringent — in genres that are often bereft of so much as a smile.
Vance is very, very hard to sum up — I look back on that last paragraph and cringe at how thoroughly it misses the mark. But I’ll give it one last try: His work could be simultaneously light and picaresque and shot through with darkness and terror. His writing had a fierce moral clarity, but he consciously refused to balance it with any assurance that justice was at work. Reading Vance, you never knew when a merry romp might turn deadly, a character might meet a pitiless end, or some bit player would offer a flash of insight that would change the way you think about something forever.
He’ll be missed — but we should all be so lucky to live to 96, lead an adventurous, marvelous, oft-self-invented life, and have our books live on to be appreciated and admired by so many readers and fans.
My style is too different from Vance’s for me to claim him as a writerly influence. But I enjoyed him immensely as a reader, and have paid homage to him as a craftsman: the Super Star Destroyer Whelm and the taking of Kuat in Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare were both tips of the cap to him, and there’s a chapter in the second Jupiter Pirates book that’s consciously and lovingly Vancean.
If you’re a Vance fan, like me, go back and read him again. If you’re new to him, I envy you — there is so much great stuff ahead of you. Here’s a short list for starters: The Dying Earth books, Trullion: Alastor 2262, The Demon Princes series, Araminta Station, the Lyonesse trilogy. Or any of the strange and wonderful stories of the 50s and 60s. Dive in until you’ve read it all, and marveled at it all, and then start again.
Over the weekend I finished editing my first draft of the second Jupiter Pirates book, tentatively titled The Treasure of the Iris. It’s now in the hands of my wife, a careful reader and ace editor, and will then go to my kid, who’s both of those things plus a one-boy focus group.
I learned something new in struggling with some scenes in JP2, and getting through that struggle let me put a name to the issue. (I’m sure other writers have their own names for the problem, but since this was new to me I’ll stick with my own terminology.)
I did a pretty detailed outline for JP2, as I now do for everything. The pivotal scenes in the book came pretty quickly once I got to them — which was no surprise, since I’d had them in my head since before the outline existed, and had been sub- or semi-consciously working through them for months and months.
Where I got bogged down was in some of the smaller scenes — the quieter moments leading us from Point A to Point B (or from T to U). Several times, the writing slowed to a crawl and I alternated staring at the monitor with even less-productive fits of self-loathing. Sometimes I advanced by writing a couple of hundred or just a couple of dozen words a day until I escaped. Other times I’d tear the whole scene down and start over. Neither approached worked particularly well.
Until, finally, I realized what was wrong: Those scenes were missing an engine.
I knew why the scenes were there: They had to advance the plot, or introduce a character or concept. But that’s not the same as the engine.
The engine, as I came to think of it, was why the scene mattered — why it belonged there beyond reasons of simple exposition. The reader had to leave the scene not just further along in the plot but also more invested in the story. He or she had to think differently about one or more characters, or have a new perspective on one of the book’s themes, or be in possession of something that was both real and resisted easy definition.
Once I figured this out, I stopped scrapping and clawing for forward progress or resorting to sullen teardowns. When I got bogged down in a scene, I stopped and asked myself what the engine was.
Most of the time there was an answer, which was good news: It meant my instincts had been right when I included that particular bit of action in the outline. But my execution needed some work — I’d been buffing a hood with nothing underneath it, and it was no surprise that the car wouldn’t move.
A couple of weeks ago I sent the revised version of Jupiter Pirates Book 1 back to my editor at HarperCollins. The revision addressed the comments and requests he’d made — all of which, I’m happy to say, were very wise. But I also had my own goal in mind for that revision: setting up the rest of the story.
When I wrote the first Jupiter Pirates manuscript, I of course had some idea of where the story would go in later books, and I developed a one-paragraph summary of Book 2 as part of the pitch to interested publishers. But I didn’t think too much about the story beyond that — if anything, I discouraged myself from going too far down that road for fear of winding up disappointed if Jupiter Pirates came to nothing.
I wrote the first Jupiter Pirates manuscript on spec, as I knew publishers probably wouldn’t take a chance on a relatively untested author without one. That didn’t bother me, because my work on Star Wars and Transformers: Classified had taught me how to develop a workable story treatment and turn that into a young-adult novel relatively quickly and efficiently. I used the gaps in my winter schedule to plan and write Book 1, knowing that if it didn’t sell I’d be discouraged, but not out an exorbitant amount of time and effort that I could have devoted to paying gigs.
When Harper acquired Jupiter Pirates, I was able to move the rest of the story off the back burner where my subconscious had been stirring it and poking at it. And I quickly developed a plan of attack that I think has proved successful.
While waiting for notes back from my editor, I dug into Book 2, expanding the one-paragraph overview into a detailed story treatment that included not just the twists and turns of the plot, but also bits of dialogue and notes on the characters’ motivations. When finished, that treatment weighed in at more than 12,000 words. I haven’t started on the manuscript for Book 2, but I bet those 12,000 words will represent about 20% of its ultimate word count.
I know some writers see story treatments as drudgework, or think they sap the wrting process of its vitality and interest. I can’t disagree strongly enough: Planning in this way has revolutionized my writing, making the process much more efficient and improving the results.
Here are this convert’s four arguments for a detailed outline/story treatment:
1. Writing a novel without one is like driving to a place you’ve never visited without a map — you will get lost, sometimes hopelessly and/or irretrievably so. The treatment is your map, not a prison — as you drive, you’re free to take side trips, eliminate stops, try alternate routes and so forth.
2. Finding and fixing plot snarls, uncertain motivations and places where characters have too little to do is much simpler in an outline — you’ll save yourself lots of pain and toil by seeing the problems there, instead of when you’re two chapters into a narrative box canyon and have spent five stressful days looking for an alternative to retreating and scrapping those chapters.
3. Don’t regard the treatment as mere preparatory work, because it’s not: When you’re writing one, you’re writing the novel, with the treatment your down payment on the rest. Some writers think of treatments as scaffolding for what they’re going to build, but I think you’re building a foundation.
4. Plans change — you may have to put a story aside for months or even years. I have old story treatments tucked away, and when I read them I can feel the story come back to life inside my head in a way that wouldn’t happen from looking at scrawled points in a notebook. That will prove valuable somewhere down the line.
I completed the treatment for Jupiter Pirates Book 2 before I turned my attention to my editor’s notes on Book 1. This was deliberate on my part: It meant I’d be returning to Book 1 knowing in great detail what would happen in Book 2, and that allowed me to revise Book 1 to set up Book 2 better.
In writing the treatment for Book 2, I thought up characters and institutions I hadn’t had in mind when I wrote Book 1. I also realized I wanted historical events referenced in Book 1 to unfold differently than I’d first imagined them. And I thought of a good reveal for later in the series. Lining all this stuff up better didn’t take an enormous amount of work: Book 2 characters got included in a list of folks in a crowd, or institutions/events were briefly referenced in dialogue. Sometimes the effort was even less than that — it was rewriting something in a way that kept a narrative door open instead of shutting it. (And, in turn, having revised Book 1 I can now return to the Book 2 treatment with fresh eyes.)
I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so I kept a specific scene in mind during this process. In the original Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that Obi-Wan’s former Jedi pupil Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Luke’s father — only to have Vader reveal in The Empire Strikes Back that in fact he is Luke’s father.
That revelation is the pivot point of the entire Star Wars saga — the lightning bolt that turns a nifty Flash Gordon homage into something much more. It’s one of the great moments in movie history, but it requires some awkward backtracking: In Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan answers Luke’s understandable questions by explaining that when Anakin Skywalker fell to the dark side, he became Darth Vader, and this new persona destroyed the good man he’d been.
“So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view,” Obi-Wan concludes.
Luke isn’t particularly convinced, and truth be told neither are we. That moment doesn’t sink Return of the Jedi, let alone the whole saga — the conflict between father and son is so elemental and iconic that we acknowledge the bumpy patch and get on with it, eager to find out what will happen.
But we feel the bump nonetheless — and a little more narrative ambiguity in the original Star Wars might have prevented it, allowing us to conclude Vader had killed Luke’s father, be shocked by the revelation in Empire and understand in Jedi how we’d made an incorrect assumption.
I’ll be an enormously happy writer if anyone thinks the revelations in Jupiter Pirates are one-tenth as good as Vader’s iconic reveal. And I know I’ll think of developments for my larger story that I’ll wish I’d set up better. But my hope is that more rigorous planning now will mean smaller bumps encountered later — and fewer certain points of view.
Thrilled to announce I’ve found a home for The Jupiter Pirates, my middle grade series (and labor of love) about a family of space pirates. Very happy and excited to have a great partner in HarperCollins. Huge thanks to my agent Rob McQuilkin, my awesome editor-to-be Andrew Harwell, and of course to Emily and Joshua for believing in me. Gotta lie down now. Whew!