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The Cunning Blood Is 20 Years Old

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Hard to believe: I finished the first draft of The Cunning Blood twenty years ago today, on March 27, 1999. I created a progress spreadsheet and used it to store a word count for every day that I added to the manuscript.The spreadsheet does not cover the whole novel. I created it when I was about 50,000 words in. There is a date on every entry, which allows me to gauge how often I wrote, and how much I wrote on any given day. My maximum word count was 5,162. My minimum was 33. The median was about 1,800. The total finished word count for the first draft was 135,680, which grew to about 143,000 after some edit passes and a couple of added scenes for continuity’s sake. I don’t remember when I started writing it, but I’m pretty sure (based on some emails I shared with friends about the project) that it was sometime in October 1997.

That book was hard work.

What boggles me today is how much of it was concocted without my conscious knowledge. Through most of the story I was not just flying by the seat of my pants; I was flying without any pants at all. I frequently had no idea what a chapter would contain until I started writing it. It got worse than that: I did not know that Geyl Shreve would detonate a long line of LPG gas tank railroad cars with a pocket missile until three paragraphs before she did it. There was a little planning here and there, but not much. As best I can figure, the novel self-assembled somehow in my subconscious, and came out pretty clean with almost no outlining or planning ahead of the current position of the cursor. I had to exert some force-of-will toward the end, when I was way past my target length of 100,000 words and part of me still wanted to toss in new story arcs and new characters. (That’s a problem I have to this day.)

I learned a lot about how to write a novel, that’s fersure.

I mention all this history here because a lot of people think that because the novel was first published in hardcover in the fall of 2005, that I wrote it in 2004. Uh-uh. I sent it to several publishers between 1999 and 2005 without much luck. Betsy Mitchell of Aspect (an imprint of Time Warner now belonging to Hachette Group) was polite and encouraging, but ultimately turned it down. Tor responded to a query and requested the manuscript–and then ghosted me. Really: After I sent the manuscript to them in March 2001, I never heard from them again. Ever. I sent email queries, which were never answered. I finally sent a written letter withdrawing the manuscript from consideration in July 2002. I didn’t get a response. They did not return the manuscript. Just silence. Dead silence. My long, gradual entry into the SF indie camp began that summer, and I’ve never looked back. These days, Manhattan needs writers way more than writers need Manhattan.

I eventually sold the novel to a small press in the Chicago suburbs, and they did a pretty good job with it, especially in terms of getting reviews. I got a rave in Analog, and a strong endorsement from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, along with other very good press. However, I’m not entirely sure that the hardcover ever saw the inside of a bookstore. (The Colorado Springs public library did buy two copies, which astounded me.)

Some of the problems selling the novel may have been due to what little politics I put in it, which had a libertarian slant with a huge footnote: I’m willing to admit that there is no such thing as utopia, and did not portray either Earth nor its prison planet Hell as fiat utopias. Nor were they dystopias. All societies have problems of one sort or another. As the Sangruse Device put it in the story: There are different kinds of freedom, and different kinds of imprisonment. I’m not sure I could state the novel’s theme more concisely than that.

It doesn’t matter. I was exploring ideas. I was not preaching any sermons. I had a big potful of ideas and was having fun with them. I had set out to write the ultimate action/adventure hard SF story. Judging by reader reactions since 2005 and (especially) since the ebook’s release in 2015, I think I succeeded.

Publishing a trade paperback edition through CreateSpace at the end of 2018 finally brought the project to a close. It’s sold well: up in the thousands, all editions taken together, and probably made me more money as an indie title than it would have under a big Manhattan imprint.

The big question, of course, is what to do next. I’m 77,000 words into Dreamhealer, and starting to pull all the plot threads together. I hope to finish it before the end of May. After that, well, it’s either something about the drumlins or The Molten Flesh. People have been pestering me for a sequel to The Cunning Blood since it first hit print in 2005. (My alpha readers have been pestering me even longer.) I have a couple of characters and a concept, plus a growing pot of ideas. I don’t have a plot. I tried to outline it. My subconscious basically said, No deal. (Right brains can be funny that way.) I may not know how any of the story goes until three paragraphs before I write it. That strategy has worked before. It’s worked (with greater or lesser success) all through Dreamhealer, though I’ve had to take a whip to my right brain here and there to keep it on task. Do I trust my subconscious enough to try it again?

Do I have a choice? Heh. We’ll damned well see.

6 Comments

  1. Michael John says:

    I called the publisher and ordered a copy when I first saw it mentioned in your blog. Was a fun read. I honestly don’t recall if I ever received an invoice …

  2. Jim Tubman says:

    This post reminded me that I had bought the book on Kindle, but hadn’t read it yet. So I read half of it last night and hope to finish it tonight.

    I was astonished (but not offended) to learn that my fellow Canucks were the political Bad Guys in the book. Maybe I will find out how that happened before I finish it. Perhaps it was all due to an administrative error.

    1. Well, certainly don’t be offended. The book ran very long, so part of the backstory didn’t make it into the final draft: After Bad 50, much of the world was in ruins, with Canada the most nearly intact industrial nation; basically, the last man standing. Reaction against the decades of violence was severe, and the Canadian powers decided that This Will Never Happen Again. The US was in a shambles, so it became a province, and (come 2374) a restless one. The Canadian war on violence was ill-conceived, but it came out of the horror that a historically peaceful people experienced when they looked out at the world in 2080.

      Calling them the Bad Guys isn’t the whole story. I played around with making cowboys the Bad Guys as well. I was being contrarian, which basically means I was being myself. In the sequels I’ll make sure that the Canadian position is fully understood, even if the US makes a noisy fuss and becomes independent again.

      I’m playing here with an insight I had 25 years ago and quote in the book: Those who deny violence in themselves preserve it in others. Dealing with violence cannot be done by claiming that it’s a problem of a nasty few who can be shipped off to Hell/Australia. Unless we admit the violence in ourselves (which I feel is inborn) we’ll make no progress in controlling it.

      1. Jim Tubman says:

        Again, no offence taken; Canadians are usually grateful that anyone notices their nation at all. Not having the country get blown up was a bonus. (There are some western Canadians who wouldn’t mind seeing Ottawa get blown up, though.)

        I finished the book the other night, and really enjoyed it. But I had to go back and re-read the first two or three chapters to make sense of the ending (it did make sense then).

        I think that you are very insightful about the nature of violence.

      2. Amy Bowersox says:

        I also got the impression that the Canadians became more risk-averse over time. Hence the reason why they virtually halted interstellar spaceflight, except for the zigships dropping new prisoners off at Hell. Having Yellowknife and some other ships “disappear” on them (when they got “appropriated” by the IAR) probably didn’t help that attitude much.

  3. Jim Dodd says:

    I enjoyed this article. I appreciate your honesty in saying how hard it was to write the book. Too often we hear how “the story just flowed out of me.” What a lie.

    I’m not sure whether you like getting story element ideas from outside but I thought you’d be interested in this thought. I was reading an interesting article in The Verge:
    https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/21/15845378/neuroscience-memory-remembering-forgetting-artificial-intelligence

    where they say our forgetting things is actually an advantage to help our brain stay efficient. And they say that artificial intelligence researchers find the same thing. They need to sometimes go through and weed out some “memories” to keep their systems able to gather new information. I thought it might be an interesting story if the people who program the future AI devices either forget this and let their systems overload or perhaps they go too far and remove the wrong things or remove something that seems innocuous but turns out to be an important detail.

    Good luck with Dreamhealer.

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