What I Did On My Summer Vacation

As most of you know, the reason I took time off in July was to finish writing The Ghost Brigades, which is the sequel to Old Man’s War. Did I finish? Ah ha ha ha ha! No. However, I’ve finally made some excellent progress on the book, and have gotten beyond the point in the book (writing-wise), where the preliminaries are done and the plot is rolling and all I have to do is write what happens next. When you get to that point in the writing (or at least, when I get to that point in the writing), everything becomes a whole lot easier. I thought I’d take a few moments to talk to you about the challenges writing The Ghost Brigades has presented to me as a writer. Don’t worry, there are no plot spoilers coming up.

The book has had several challenges so far. Structurally, although this book is a sequel to Old Man’s War, I’m trying to write it like a stand-alone book; I want people to be able to read this one without having read OMW and still get something out of it. At the same time I don’t want to have OMW readers to feel like they’re covering the same expositional ground for the benefit of people who have tuned in late; that whole “As you know, Bob…” issue which plagues sequels. So there’s a fine little problem, and one that frankly cost me a fair amount of time trying to solve.

Now, at one specific point I do have a flat-out omnicient narrator exposition dump, because it’s necessary and also because I think it’s interesting to readers, as it addresses some some questions people had coming out of OMW about how the Colonial Union and the Colonial Defense Forces operate. But most of the time this sort of exposition is coming out in a reasonably natural way through dialogue and action, so I’m happy with that.

Plotwise, The Ghost Brigades is rather wider open than OMW. That book was first person and stayed on the narrative rail of John Perry’s experiences as a soldier. TGB is third person and follows more than one character in the narrative, and is focusing specifically on two characters, who represent different aspects of the Ghost Brigade experience (one of these characters, OMW readers will be happy to know, is Jane Sagan). These narrative threads have to work on their own and also work as a group; at this point I’ve laid down the threads and am now at a point where I’m threading them together.

Writing-wise, this is a more complex task than sticking to a single point of view and one plot thread, but I think it’s necessary for this particular book. First, it forces me not to write Older Man’s War, which would be easier to do (and frankly sometimes I wish I had done, because I’d definitely be done with that book by now), but which I think would make for an inferior product off the bat. It could be that The Ghost Brigades is a swing and a miss, but if so it won’t be because I went for the safe play. Second, the situation of the Special Forces (aka the Ghost Brigades) is more complex than the situation of the average soldier in the Colonial Defense Forces (which John Perry was, basically). To properly tell the Special Forces story needed more than one vantage point.

The most challenging task so far has been spinning out the social world of the Ghost Brigades themselves. It gives nothing away to note that the Colonial Defense Special Forces are child warriors in superhuman adult bodies; as specified in OMW, they’re born with the knowledge and skills of adults but they lack the emotional experience and social ties that the rest of us get by growing up. It’s one thing to have that as an informational aside when you’re writing a different story (as I was in OMW); it’s another thing to have it front and center from a narrative point of view. How does one portray an entire fighting force whose members are simultaneously lethal adults and confused children, and how do those characters manage that tension themselves?

Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s tricky (and it’s even trickier in this case because there’s an additional aspect to the situation which I’m not going to get into because I promised no plot spoilers). There are a couple of places where people are acting like children, and it’s not just an expression. I’m going to be mildly curious to see how readers handle serious bad-asses having a tantrum. Of course, Homer had Achillies sulking like a freakin’ teen, and no one seemed to mind. But he’s Homer, and I’m not, and I don’t have three millenia of cultural history on my side. More’s the pity.

To be clear, none of the challenges above came as a surprise to me: One of the reasons I chose to write about the Ghost Brigades in this book was because it wouldn’t let me get off easy and simply squat out another book in the OMW universe. I’d have to work at it, which is better for me as a writer, and (hopefully) better for the people who read the book. On the other hand, there’s a difference between setting up one’s self for a challenge and actually following through. This is the first novel I’ve written where I’ve taken significant chunks of what I’ve written and either completely reworked them or simply torn them bodily from the text; I’ve written a novel’s worth of words, all right, and sadly a novella’s worth of them will never see the light of day. Well, not sadly, actually, as they were expunged for a reason. But it’s shot my efficiency rating all to hell.

I’d be upset with that (I like my reputation as a fast writer), but the thing is I like the book I’m writing, which suggests that this rather more messy process is working for this particular book. In the end — and properly so — no one will give a crap about the process; what they’re going to care about is whether the book they have in their hand is a good read. I’d rather work on being a good writer than a fast writer. It’s also a reminder that the advice Gene Wolfe gave to Neil Gaiman is correct: Writing a novel doesn’t teach you how to write novels, it teaches you how to write that novel. This novel is teaching me how to write it, and I suspect I’d be a fool not to listen.

Having said all that, the amount of time I have to write this book is rapidly coming to a close; I have other projects and Tor quite properly wants the manuscript so we can start marketing the hell out of it. I have to give them a good novel, but I also just have to give them a novel, period, end of sentence. I’m going to get back to it now.

7 Comments on “What I Did On My Summer Vacation”

  1. john, good for you for taking the high road! i woke up yesterday to npr telling me where the “high road” line from “loch lomond” came from: two soldiers are court martialed and one is executed, the other released. the condemned one is telling the lucky one “you’ll take the high road” i.e. the difficult path over the mountains, “and I’ll take the low road”, i.e. via death. of course, the dead, low-road guy will get to scotland first. this is appropriate because of the ghost and soldiers connection, but also to point out that taking the low road would leave you with a very dead book. albeit one that arrives in scotland on time. did i torture that metaphor enough?

    plus, i’m reading the acronym OMW in your posts as “oh my word!”

  2. I’m glad New Book is going well. I think it’s nice that you’re trying to make the new one substantially different and stand-alone, yet still have it be a sequel. I can imagine that must be a real challenge.

    BTW, “Agent to the Stars” arrived today. I got copy #50. At first, I was going to hassle you for the autograph, suggesting you had allowed Athena to sign the books after all. But then I decided that her version of your name would actually be legible. Then, I thought maybe you’d tied a pen to one Kodi’s paws. Ultimately, I decided you simply signed your first name and made a big swirl where your last name ought to be. But that doesn’t answer the question of what the little squiggle away from the signature is. So what is it?

  3. Ironically, I leave for Scotland in two days. And since I’m flying I’ll be taking the very high road.

  4. Glad to hear you’ve gotten over the hurdle, John — I really enjoyed OMW and I’m eagerly awaiting TGB. No pressure, though, no pressure…

  5. …with the knowledge and skills of adults but they lack the emotional experience and social ties that the rest of us get…

    Oh.My.God. I just realized that they’re all engineers.

  6. Sounds kind of “Enders Gamish” in a way, in that you have immature creatures with Superhuman military skills. In “Ender” you had kids with strategic military thinking capabilities, and a childishly savage mindset (simplifying it tremendously here). In “Ghost Brigades”, it sounds like you have “SuperSoldiers” in adult bodies with perhaps childlike emotional growth. Look forward to reading it.

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