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Ten Gentle Opportunities: Go Get It!

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In case you hadn’t gotten the word yet, this morning Amazon cleared my upload of Ten Gentle Opportunities, and it’s now in the catalog, ready to buy for $2.99, or as part of your Kindle Unlimited subscription. No DRM. Cover by the utterly amazing Blake Henriksen. It’s in a genre that barely exists anymore: Humorous SF and fantasy, with a pinch of satire for those with ears to listen. I tried to shop it to tradpub imprints for a couple of years after I finished it in 2012. An editor at a major press told me that Douglas Adams did SF humor so well that nobody else can ever hope to compete.

Huh? That’s like saying that Heinlein did hard SF so well that nobody else should bother to try. Well, dammit, I’m competing. More than one of my beta readers said the book kept them up all night, and one called it “pee-your-pants funny.” Me, I consider that a win.

The book has an interesting history. I’ve been fooling with it for almost fifty years.

Here’s the story. Back in 1967, when I was 15, I got an idea: What if there were a sort of partial or incomplete magician who could change magical spells, but not create them? What sort of mischief could he get into? I called him The Spellbender, and started writing a story about him. I shared it with the writer girl down the street, and we talked about collaborating on it. Nothing came of that, because she and I had utterly incompatible understandings of magic. She saw it as a sort of moody, ethereal, hard-to-control spiritual discipline. I saw it as alternative physics. (We had other issues as well; when I finally meet God I’m going to ask him if He could please flash the human firmware and get rid of puberty.)

Not much happened on the story. I had a short catalog of gimmicks and little else. The Spellbender had a sidekick who was an incompetent djinn named Shrovo. Not only could he not remember how many wishes he gave people, he simply couldn’t count, and so had had his djinn license revoked for reckless and excessive wishgranting. Sure, it sounds dumb. I was 15.

I eventually got bored with it and tossed it back in the trunk, where it stayed until 1978. That year I read it over, dumped Shrovo, and told another tale about the Spellbender, which I presented at the Windy City Writers’ Workshop, in front of luminaries like George R. R. Martin and Gene Wolfe. Nobody liked it. Back in the trunk it went.

Come 1983, I had become a close friend of Nancy Kress, and we surprised one another by collaborating on a novelette that was published in Omni and drew a surprising amount of favorable buzz. If we could pull off “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman,” well, what else could we do? Nan suggested a contemporary fantasy, and I was quick to sketch out still another take on the spellbender concept, adding in the sort of universe-jumping gimmick that Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt had used to such good effect in the Harold Shea stories. A spellbender who had gotten on the wrong side of a magician jumps universes to finds a place to hide, and lands in a small-town advertising agency in our near future. Nan was working for precisely such an agency at the time, and told the story of a staff meeting at which someone was talking emphatically about tangential opportunities, which Nan heard as “ten gentle opportunities.” I knew a great title when I saw one, and grabbed it.

I also drew on a novelette I wrote in 1981, which centered on a war in a robotic copier factory, and an AI named Simple Simon.

We tried. We really did. But as it turned out, Nan could move in a hard SF world a great deal more nimbly than I was able to move in a fantasy world. Shades of Lee Anne down the street. (Puberty, at least, was no longer an issue.) After a few thousand words she ceded me what we had and we decided to set it aside. Back in the trunk it went, this time for almost 25 years.

The Cunning Blood came out in hardcover in 2005, and garnered enough rave reviews (including one from Glenn Reynolds and another from Tom Easton at Analog) to make me feel like I should start something else. As was my habit, I went digging around in my trunk for concepts. Three aborted novels came to hand: My cyberpunk experiment, The Lotus Machine; a gimmicky hard SF concept called Alas, Yorick; and Ten Gentle Opportunities. The Lotus Machine went back in the trunk almost immediately; by now I understand that, as cyber as I might be, punk remains forever beyond my powers. I spent a fair amount of time reading and meditating on the 14,000 words I had of Alas, Yorick, but ultimately went with Ten Gentle Opportunities. Why? I like humor and I’m intrigued by the challenges of writing it. I had an ensemble of interesting characters, and the very rich vein of “fish out of water” humor to mine. And–gakkh–it was fun! Can’t have that now; we’re serious SF writers…

Basically, I went with fun. And it was.

I wrote three or four chapters in 2006, then got distracted by another concept that I’ve mentioned here, Old Catholics. TGO didn’t exactly go back in the trunk, but I didn’t touch it again until February 2011. That’s when I took it to this new writer’s group I’d joined. I submitted the first thousand words or so for critique and asked them if the concept was worth pursuing. The answer was yes, and it was unanimous.

I took it to Walter Jon Williams’ Taos Toolbox workshop that summer, and got my momentum back. After that it was my main writing project until I finished it in November 2012. I asked my nonfiction agent to shop it, and some shopping got done, but there were no nibbles. So several months ago I took it back and decided to publish it myself.

Oh–and then we kicked into high gear with our move to Phoenix. Writing of all sorts went on the back burner.

Which brings us to the current day. There’s a lot to be done yet here in the new house, but the end is at least in sight. We’re far enough along that I can afford to take a couple of days a week to Just Write. Which brings me (again) to the question of what I do now.

Truth is, I don’t know. But I’ll think of something.


  1. great unknown says:

    dead-tree version?

    1. Coming as soon as I can manage it, either on Lulu or on CreateSpace. I’ll announce it here when it’s posted and ready. Cut me a little slack; I just moved and the house here is still an unholy mess!

  2. RH in CT says:

    I haven’t been tuned in to what’s happening in a very long time, but the last humor fantasy with an SF-like angle I read was Rick Cook‘s Wiz series. I think his basic concept – a spell compiler – would have been right up your alley.

    1. I need to read that. I heard about it years ago and forgot to chase it down. Thanks for the noodge.

      1. Erbo says:

        The Wiz books are an old favorite of mine. The premise is that, in a typical sword-and-sorcery world where there’s a big good-vs.-evil battle going on, one powerful wizard decides to summon something from beyond the world to give the good guys an advantage. The summoning costs him his life…and what he gets is a programmer from Cupertino. This programmer, however, sees magic in a whole new light, treating basic spells as “machine instructions” with which to build a magic compiler; its source language is described as “a bastard version of Forth crossed with LISP and some features from C and Modula-2 thrown in for grins.” (That’s from the second book, where they summon in a whole dev team to continue development of the compiler system. They recruit the team from a SCA event.)

        The real-life story of the series has a rather sad ending. Rick Cook wrote five books in the series, and was working on a sixth when he needed emergency heart surgery. Afterwards, he found he couldn’t write fiction anymore, and the sixth book remains unfinished. But it was a hell of a ride while he had it going.

        1. RH in CT says:

          I hadn’t heard that about Cook. I think I remember him hanging out on BIX way back in the misty past.

          I wonder if Jim Baen were still around whether he would have picked up on Jeff’s book as he did Cook’s.

          1. TRX says:

            That’s where I knew him from, too. I don’t think I ever chatted with him outside the open forums. I spent a lot of time dialed into BIX before they changed their price structure.

            Rick has had a couple of different web pages up. Both said “heart surgery”, but from the way he was writing it looked a lot like a stroke of some sort.

            Gharry and I emailed back and forth about classic Mopars – he had a ’67(?) Barracuda. mike_banks and I burned up a lot of long distance, and I was pretty successful at keeping $FAMOUS_AUTHOR and his legion of followers riled up…

            Wait! BIX and CIS cost money, so I logged in with QModem capturing everything to disk, then split the files and squoze them with LHArc and put them on new state-of-the-art 1.44Mb floppy disks, then found they were losing their little magnetic minds just sitting there on the shelf, so I managed to recover most of them (putting the diskettes in the freezer actually did help a bit), and the archive has moved across OSs and storage media ever since… now where did I put those files…[blows away cobwebs on a musty old subdirectory] 56 floppy images, about 75Mb compressed, of session captures from 1988 to 1993, most of that captured at 1200 baud, since the noisy phone lines gave faster modems indigestion. Looks like about 3:1 compression, that’s 225Mb across the wire, just of the stuff I captured. I have some CIS and usenet archives around somewhere, too.


            >>time lost<<

            [returns from a blast from the past]

            waynerash, rcook, sbrust, jim_baen, lwood, jerryp, gkewney, hkenner, and a bunch of people who I haven't seen around in a long time…

            The scary thing is, the latest capture file is 23 years old, and I actually remember many of those threads.

            [digs through 8+3 labeled compressed files] Either I didn't capture the sf conferences or they were among the unrecoverable diskettes. Bummer. They weren't usenet-style strange, but they gave Byte Magazine's editors indigestion.

        2. TRX says:

          Rick Cook’s weird incoherent web page is down and a sparse blog is up with a post from last year. But it looks like he’s still working; he did tech-industry magazine articles back in the day, and there’s a bunch of stuff out there from places like “Healthcare IT News” with that name, presumably him.

          1. Erbo says:

            He can write nonfiction still; he just hasn’t been able to write fiction since the heart surgery, with all the meds he’s on.

    2. For TRX–escaping my WordPress comment nesting limits here–if hkenner was Hugh Kenner (and I think it was) he died in 2003, at age 80. Knew him reasonably well; he was a fan of PC Techniques and I published a few letters from him, as well as a number of book reviews.

      1. Erbo says:

        TRX’s archive might even include me; I was on BIX in that general timeframe (as “erbo”). I dropped it in 1991, due to certain circumstances which I don’t want to get into.

        In fact, I told you this, Jeff: I used some information on serial-port programming in assembly language from a PC Techniques article to build my own comm routines and rudimentary terminal program, which was good enough to let me log onto BIX. And I did most of the work while waiting for a network backup one Sunday afternoon…

      2. TRX says:

        Yep, that was the same Hugh. I think he also had an occasional column in… Computer Language?

  3. Kevin McDonnell says:

    I have such an enthusiasm for this story, that I am going to sound off to you here from my gut, because I think the story was more than just good… it was potent mojo.
    So… for my part… I would recommend you take these characters… take that part of the story where it left off… and consider building a mythology/universe (or I guess multiverse-cosmos!) and see where the story can/ought-to go. I say this because I can actually see that:
    A) You actually have the writers chops for that… this thing already hinted at a credible “reality” that is both compelling and substantive.
    And B) This story CAN and SHOULD go on, because while yes you could leave it ended here,… it actually OUGHT not to be. Because in a larger sens I think it has more to give. Many books entertain, its rarer you are given something. Rarer still you’re not quite sure what that was, but feel certain its a good thing.
    Maybe the story has given something to you in the act of birthing it? The best do, I hope so. Writers rarely get the chance to be visited by a creation that is possibly bigger than they are. The Physics defying implication of the statement implies a bit of rare magic, no?
    Admittedly… you might strain to pull the threads on this without it feeling forced at first. But I suspect this story-saga will find its own feet once you haul it up on them. From purely a writer’s perspective (setting aside the larger “call” of the story’s potential), there IS a way to make the connections formed between all these characters, bonded as they are from direct intervention from the Continuum (something I’d like to sound of on too), that they can believably be called to further adventures (whether they want to or not). This is true such that again, I think it’s really a call for you to see that through.
    Perhaps this story can be a sort of Dark Tower for you, though I say that very gingerly, as making comparisons like that is fraught with misleading assumptions. But yeah… maybe like that.
    The Continuum itself, both as a story angle, and perhaps even as something metaphorically broader, represents a fantastic “opportunity”.
    In itself, its something so intriguing and in fact, potent from the perspective of addressing the current metaphysical crisis” in our Zeitgeist (itself probably the result of an unpredictable confluence of technology, rapidly growing but imperfect physical knowledge, and the near instant ability to move information that has yielded a nearly “collective” consciousness at some level for the first time in human history), that it might have the power to “stir the pot” more than you know. That was truly my sense after reading it. It tickled certain “deep code”, and intrigued the existential question with metaphor. (Stypek would understand no doubt).
    If you consider it, most stories that are pushed to get airtime these days, can be grouped under a common characteristic: That they assiduously AVOID, possibilities that are not, let us say, “bound to the abyss” somehow. Small minded though that is, and narrow, there are many who consider any frame that is NOT that, to be “unenlightened” (irony is one trait humanity has infinite capacity for) and worthy of contempt (and probably racist or sexist or some other sahllow epithet). This is not without consequence in that Zeitgeist. I daresay the Puppies saga is fruit of it, though few parties would want to explore the implications of the idea (especially if you were to imply that the roots are virtually ALL metaphysical).
    I doubt that the architects of this are even aware of the framework they impose, but there is little doubt that the “politics” that seems to conform to it, is an effect of this existential collective crisis, not a cause of it. The ideological lines merely form around the frame. I suspect you know what I mean.
    Practically speaking (well.. “practically” might be the wrong word), you have alluded to a cross between the sort of Deist perspective of a few of the Founders, and the almost inevitable at least semi-sentience buttressing an infinite cosmic reality. Old and new, and laid out in terms that may describe something possible, with the impish implication that anything possible is, well… possible… and in a cosmos of infinite possibilities, anything possible is reachable by a being of will. So much fun to be had there, but also such a grand opportunity to shed light through “metaphor”, on a hell of a lot of smug shadow in that aforementioned Zeitgeist.
    I am, as I give this “advice” such as it is… hoping very VERY hard that this book takes off for you. Damn it, it ought to… but crossing the chasm and hitting the tipping points is a process that is so complex and randomized, that things that actually CAN go long if they got a certain amount of traction… can very well not, because they unfairly dont. But I hope this does, to a level where you are able, and then if you are I hope that I can help here for you to be WILLING… to at least try.
    Yeah… this story was really really good. In some “magic” ways as well as the ways of standard writing metrics. But more importantly, not only do I feel that it is not necessarily done… I feel that its mission is not done. You wrote something that might have a mission. I have read… a hell of a lot of books… and I am reminidng that creating such a thing, is not a small matter.
    Thank you in any case for this… it was a pleasure as well as life affirming. Manna from the continuum… as it were.

    1. You make an excellent point here, and raise an issue that I’ve struggled with for a long, long time. A year or so ago, one of my beta readers asked if I was going to write more Stypek stories. I told her I wasn’t sure. She took that as a gentle way of saying “no,” and at the time it was. She said, “So you create this wonderful magic system and a fascinating goofy universe to go with it, play with it for two whole chapters, and then throw it away?” At the time, well, that seemed to me to be precisely what I was going to do.

      I have a flaw as a writer: For me, telling the tale is usually inextricable from creating the universe. When I start a new tale, something in me wants to create a whole new universe. This isn’t always necessary. As she implied, I had barely scratched the surface of Trynng Brokklyn, which is only one largish string of islands on a whole magical planet. Much more could be done with it; hell, I could spend the rest of my useful life writing Stypek stories, or Tuggurr stories, or stories about the realm of Trynng with a whole new set of characters in each.

      The good news is that I’m 63 and retired last year. We’re in the process of moving to Phoenix, and my #1 goal in retirement is to write more stories. Lots more stories. Larry Correia says that the only important rule to follow to be successful as a writer is BE PROLIFIC. It may not be sufficient, but it’s definitely necessary. The really good news is that Kindle makes it possible for me to post stories for sale as soon as I’m happy with them, and not be at the mercy of knucklehead publishers who may or may not know what they’re doing. If I’m not prolific going forward, it’s nobody’s fault but my own. In 2011 I wrote a 53,000 word short novel in six weeks, so it’s not beyond my power to write a novel a year. Once we get settled in Phoenix (and that may take another six months or so) that becomes my target.

      The Continuum is one way to look at a “conscious” universe in the sense that Teilhard de Chardin was talking about. It’s a conscious universe with a sense of humor but a wandering mind, and the difficult part may simply be getting its attention. (One way to think about Third Eye Magic is as a system to get the Continuum’s attention and get it interested in a goal.)

      I do have another Stypek story in my notefile. It’s a prequel, it includes a very much alive Tuggurr, plus a magical bottle from which someone has released the genie. I may make it a little shorter (TGO is 94,000 words) but I do intend to do it someday.

      That said, I have another universe that badly needs more writing in. So precisely what I do next, as I mentioned in this post, isn’t clear yet. It is most likely to be a new Drumlins novel called The Everything Machine, and if not that, then the sequel to The Cunning Blood called The Molten Flesh.

      On thing is fersure: I have to stop screwing around and get busy. I can’t take fifty years to finish a novel.

  4. Carrington Dixon says:

    I started TGO last night, And I should say it is more like Pratt-de Camp than Douglas Adams. From where I sit, that is to the good. I loved the Hitchhikers radio series, but the books seems a little warmed-over. More, please.

    As an aside, you don’t have to be prolific to be successful (you can very nearly enumerate Rowling’s entire output without taking your shoes off), but it sure helps. Some of the old pulpsters managed a novel a month; a novel a year should give a chance to enjoy life and still feed our habit.

    1. I was actually drawing on Pratt & de Camp, and cited The Incomplete Enchanter as a comp when I pitched the novel to a couple of editors at mainstream presses. Nobody even wanted to see a partial; one editor rolled his eyes because the Harold Shea stories were over sixty years old. Well shit, so am I.

      1. Carrington Dixon says:

        Finished it. I left some good words on Amazon, and I see that several other folks have beat me there. You have many satisfied customers.

        1. Saw that. Many thanks! Indies live or die by reviews. I’m hoping to get a fair number of additional reviews in the coming weeks. The book is doing well on Amazon’s stack ranks, and is selling about ten copies a day. KU page turns are all over the place, but I did over 3,000 yesterday alone. For an indie, I hear that’s pretty damned good.

          Next project: Get Souls in Silicon formatted as an ebook. After that, I need to figure out what the hell to do with Firejammer. More on that challenge–which is an interesting one–in a future Contra.

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