The Big Idea: Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge

Here’s a Big Idea piece full of the magic of living in the electronic age: authors Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge saw an opportunity with the advent of DIY eBook publishing to resurrect their Exordium space opera series (of which Ruler of  Naught is the second book) — but more than that, they saw an opportunity to revisit the work and make it current, in more ways than one. Now, the details about making an old story ready for a new age.


Ruler of Naught is Book Two of our space opera Exordium, which began life as a mini-series screenplay over twenty years ago, morphed into a mass-market paperback, and is returning again as an e-book series.

E-books are not only giving new writers an alternative to traditional book publishing, but letting oldsters like us resurrect yellowing paperbacks from used-book crypts. That’s a fun process (mostly), but from Exordium’s beginning we’ve struggled with the skiamorphs (shadow shapes—like wood grain on plastic) that are left not only when you move between media, but when your twenty-year-old vision of a technology’s cultural impact collides with present-day reality.

This is appropriate, because our Big Idea is all about skiamorphs: a future world replete with echoes of a distant, earthly past that let us take all the things we loved in books, art, film, and TV and use them to create the kind of science fiction movie we would want to watch.

Had just watched. We were a couple of twenty-somethings in 1977 when Star Wars came out. Younger readers probably can’t imagine the impact of that film on a generation accustomed to SF movies that were either glorified monster fights or preachy future-shock stories filled with plastic furniture and tight jumpsuits that would take an hour to get out of if you had to pee.

On our way out of the 2:30 a.m. showing, we looked at each other and said, “We can do that, but  . . . tech that makes sense!”

“More than one active woman!”

“Ruritania in space!”

“More than one active woman!”

Together: “Pie fights! Fart jokes!”

Thus was born Exordium. At the time Sherwood worked as a flunky in Hollywood, so the first version was a six hour miniseries. On the strength of it we got a good Hollywood agent, and there was a bid war shaping up between NBC and the then-new HBO when . . . boom! The mega-strike of 1980. When that was over, the studios were so depleted that min-series projects were put on hold—for the most part a euphemism for “killed.”

So we decided to turn it into books—and that meant breaking the chains of “can’t do that on TV,” developing the sketchy cultures, and completely rethinking the necessarily limited space battles, which had been confined to bridge scenes with rudimentary 1980s style FX. Dave dived into military history to figure out more about how the ships and tech he’d come up with would fight. Sherwood delved into cultural history to develop the manners, politesse, and political maneuvering we wanted.

Dave also got into high-tech PR and started thinking harder about how the technologies of the future would change humanity. Our world acquired an interstellar ship-switched data network. Our characters acquired “boswells.” Today we call them smartphones, which don’t yet have neural induction for subvocalized privacy. Boswells were (and are) great plot devices, with an intricate etiquette of usage.

But we totally missed social media. That wasn’t a problem, of course, when we sold the series to Tor in 1990, where, despite an awesome editor and great covers, it mostly vanished into the black hole of the mass market crash. But now we’re bringing them back as e-books. Twenty years into the future we didn’t see, which features a publishing industry that didn’t see it either.

The usual way to convert a genre novel from the days of yore into an e-book is to scan it, do a fast triage for OCR weirdness (there will be lots), whop together a new cover using Photoshop and images culled from various sources, stick it up on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc., and then publicize the hell out of it on Facebook or Twitter or, umm, Scalzi’s Big Idea.

The DIY route is getting cheaper and faster all the time, and plenty of authors are following it, some quite successfully. But even so, what do you do with science fiction that purports to take place in the future, but contains elements that look, well, quaint? You either grit your teeth and reissue the book as a period piece, or you rewrite it. And if you choose the latter, what’s inside the can may be more Elder God than annelid.

In Exordium, we had to wrestle again with the original screenplay, much of which still shadowed the story, especially in the first book. The language that would pass Programs & Practices in 1980 required made-up cusswords; the default for soldiers and action characters was male; by the nineties Dave had developed the idea of the boswells but in Exordium, everyone seemed to be running to computer stations for communication.

We kept the cuss words. Many readers don’t like neologisms, especially for profanity, but the Exordium idiolect had become too much a part of the world. Everything else needed a serious revamp, including the complex battle scenes, which had to be purged of the last traces of non-relativistic widescreen physics. (It helped that some very competent military gamers had developed an Exordium tactical board game based on the paperbacks.)

Rewriting wasn’t all work. One of the joys of revisiting a world in this way is discovering the zings, connections, and hidden history you missed the first time around. Rewriting becomes like looking into a Mandelbrot kaleidoscope.

There was one other skiamorph we faced, DIY itself, which is a pre-Internet, pre-open-source shadow of traditional publishing’s vertical integration. Authors don’t have to do it all themselves, and all sorts of different publishing models are emerging.

We went with Book View Café, which began in 2009 when a bunch of pro authors with substantial backlists got together to resurrect them. They started by offering free reads. Now BVC is an invitational cooperative of established authors that provides all publishing services in-house with volunteer labor. For instance, the first Exordium was proofread by Judith Tarr and formatted by Vonda McIntyre, to mention but two steps in the process.

Think of it as a kind of “Occupy Publishing” and you’re not too far off. Its consensus model of governance works because all its members agree on the fundamental principle that has come to be known as Yog’s Law: “Money always flows to the author.”

Knowing that we didn’t have to bear the whole burden of e-publishing Exordium, we were able to throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the rewrite of a retro space opera that Yog himself said reads “as if Doc Smith had come of age during the Summer of Love.” A playboy prince with unexpected depths, a gang of space pirates and their beautiful but deadly captain, ancient weapons from a war lost by the long-vanished masters of the galaxy, coruscating beams of lambent light, intricate space battles where light speed delay is both trap and tool, twisted aristocratic politics more deadly than a battlefield, a bizarre race of sophonts that venerates the Three Stooges, a male chastity device mistaken for the key to ultimate power…

And yes, a high tech pie fight.

(You can get started on Exordium with Book One, The Phoenix in Flight, for $0.99 for the next month—using flexible pricing for e-book promotion is another advantage of the medium…but that’s another essay.)


Ruler of Naught: Book View Cafe|Amazon

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Sherwood Smith’s LiveJournal. Visit Dave Trowbridge’s Twitter.

50 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge”

  1. One of my favorite series, ever-and I love how the first book has been honed, sharpened, and expanded in e-Book form. No “Greedo shot first” type revisionism, but just a much clearer introduction to everyone and everything. Am very curious about Ruler of Naught, because while I love all five books, I rarely re-read this one for some reason.

  2. Kevink: book two had (I think) the biggest wodge of leftover screenplay artifacts, which relied heavily on visuals for character. By the third, we’d pretty much moved past the screenplay.

    So as a result, we did a lot of hefty cutting yet still managed to add quite a lot of wordcount, all character and culture stuff, and whooping up the battles to a significant degree. Will be curious to see how it reads to those who know the old series.

  3. Yeah, you had me at “Sherwood Smith.”

    Then you had me + a billion with the actual contents of the post.

    This is getting bought.

  4. “You had me at ‘Sherwood Smith.'”

    Likewise! Space battles and pirate queens are just icing. ;)

  5. Jon: No more “out of print, unavailable” for Exordium!

    Kevink: We knew when we started that Phoenix would have to be seriously rewritten–at least the infamous “first 100 pages.” But once we got started, we realized there was so much more we could do. It’s been hard not to just keep rewriting; we have to keep in mind what Paul Valery said of poetry, which is equally true of a novel: “A poem is not so much finished as abandoned.”

    Thomas: Skiamorph Barnes would be an awesome name–I think we’ll have to try to make him or her a Rifter in one of the next three books! And “capable hands” is an understatement, considering the people who make up Book View Cafe.

  6. Oh, excellent. The Exordium series is one of my favorites, and I’m thrilled to see it coming back into availability–and curious as to how the changes will work.

  7. I read the Exordium series many years ago and lost my copies in one of my many moves. I’m really looking forward to rereading an updated, newly-edited version on my Kindle. Should be fun!

  8. I remember discovering “Phoenix in Flight” in a tiny, basement SFF bookshop right about when it came out. That meant I was lucky enough to be pre-ordering the other four as they were published and I ended up with a complete set that still lives in the library downstairs.

    All the same, I’m delighted to see these new versions coming out as ebooks. I’m almost completely an ebook reader these days and it’s great to have a chance to re-collect old favourite series. I’m going to wait until all the books are out again before reading so that I can go through the series at whatever pace works for me at the time. I already have the new edition of “Phoenix in Flight” waiting for me on my Kindle.

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to do this. I’m sure you’re making a lot of old readers happy (such as myself) and hopefully you’ll find lots of new ones too. I know a few people to whom I’m going to recommend the series once I know they can get it all.

    And maybe, when I reread it myself, I’ll pick up on some of those more obsure points that I’ve never quite grasped. :)

  9. Thank you so much for the heads up on “The Price of the Stars”. That’s another great favourite I didn’t think I’d ever get as an ebook. Oh, I’ve got some great (and happily nostalgic) ereading ahead of me.

  10. Yay!!!!! Exordium is being re-released and even rewritten!!! I loved that series. Found it just a few years ago and had to track down all the volumes in used copies. (Some of those books were tough to find too, I’ll have you know.) I’m so glad there’s a way now I can pay the authors because I so enjoyed reading it.

    And I just want to add that I’ve read much of Sherwood Smith’s other works and they are all very entertaining. I’m going to have to track down more Dave Trowbridge too.

  11. Unfortunately, Sarah, there isn’t any other Dave Trowbridge, except one short story, Suraki, set in the Exordium universe, that was published in A Starfarer’s Dozen years ago. I’ll be trying to make up for lost time.

  12. Dave! Don’t you know that if your readers demand, you must produce? How dare you not have a large volume of work for my entertainment?!?

    I’m just kidding. But I will be on the lookout for your name in the future.

  13. I still have the originals and will read the revisions with interest as they become available. I loved all of it except the last book; I hope the update will get rid of some of the peristalsis that just overwhelmed me.

  14. I picked up the series just before the last paperback was released…even wrote Sherwood a fan letter, which I don’t tend to do. I’ve read the whole thing several times in the intervening years, but haven’t lately, and I’m about to pack my library into storage. I’m wondering if I should go through the “old version” again or if I should let that fade into memory before I read the new ebooks…

    Oh, and “like looking into a Mandelbrot kaleidoscope” is a wonderful phrase!

  15. I have the whole series and its my touchstone to how space opera SHOULD be. Ill plunk down the cash so I can read it again on line (still have books too). Please god if you are listening to me make this into a miniseries!

  16. Rita, we expect there will be fewer and fewer changes in the way of rewrites and more in the way of added scenes in the next three books, if that helps your decision any. Oh, and thanks–I was rather taken by the phrase myself!

    Kearny: I like “touchstone,” thanks! It would be funny if it came full circle and became a mini-series again. But the time is past for that, I think.

  17. I am the very model of a modern male Dol’jharian,
    A mixture of the nastiest of Vandal, Hun, and Aryan,
    In daily conversation, when I’m speaking of Gelasar, I
    Use twenty words for ‘pain’ not found in very many thesauri….

  18. I really, really need to stop reading “The Big Idea”. I seem to buy books faster than I can read and my que keeps growing and growing. Oh well, I guess there are worse vices than buying books.

  19. Perfect timing. I just finished one of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon books and need a change of pace. Space opera — yeah! So, bring it on.

  20. Have all the paperbacks and have read them twice. Excited to revisit this world. Enthusiastically recommended.

  21. Tam: in a book, there is more time for personality and motivation. We tended to have faces in bridge seats, especially in the navy scenes . . . there was one character who had been so reduced to mere function that he changed to a she in a later book, and none of us noticed. In filmic media, the actors can convey personality and motive. In a book, it’s gotta be de words, so on this round we gave them lives.

  22. Oh, wow! First, thanks so much, John, for posting this one. When I saw “Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge”, I thought, “Hooray, more Exordium at last!” But this is also great news, and I’m looking forward to reading the updated series. (When The Thrones of Kronos came out, we bought 2 copies because neither my husband nor I was willing to wait for the other to read it first.) And now there’s hope for more in that universe again. Yay!

    And Sherwood Smith at 3:34, thanks for pointing out that The Price of the Stars is available! It’s a favorite of mine, too. (Though not of all time, because that’s Crown Duel.)

  23. Sherwood, Tam: Of course, with the advanced tech of the Panarchy, changing from he to she is probably no big deal.

    Ruth: two copies! . As for more Exordium, we do have most of the first book of the prequel written, so that will be first off the line when the series rewrite is finished.

  24. As an owner of all 5 trade paperbacks, I must ask, when is the complete series expected to be completed, approximately, because you can bet I’m going to want to read the updates!

  25. Well I read the prologue and Exordium has officially leap frogged my entire “to read” pile and is currently being read. Don’t let Mr. Scalzi know that it bumped Zoe’s Tale.

  26. @Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein: I would like to concur on how gripping the new covers are – even as I scratch my head at what to do on GoodReads when the same ebook now officially has two covers and GoodReads only allows one cover picture of the same edition ^^, heh.

    I will replace the rather smaller BVC cover image of the second book with this one, though, I’m sure other readers than me enjoy seeing the book art in bigger format before buying e.

    Yay, Sartorias and Dave on Big Idea ^^

  27. Matt: I hesitate to say this, since we missed our promised release date on #2 rather badly, but we are hoping to release all three of the remaining books next year, perhaps even one a quarter. That said, it’s turning into rather more of a rewrite than we first anticipated. The word count in Ruler of Naught went up almost 40K, and I expect something similar will happen in A Prison Unsought because we want to follow the resistance on Arthelion (focused on the girl Moira), which was only scantly mentioned in the first edition.

    Ozzie: Thanks! I hope it lives up to your expectations.

    Estara: there’s a full-size image available on my blog.

  28. To both authors I must tell you your series was my all time favorite … kept hopping for expansion from the end….please tell me that there will be more adventures !!!! Also I really feel this would make a great movie set. I read the first Star wars in book series before it ever came to the movies…. this would be way beyond that and the computer effects we have now could really benefit your books…hint hint….

  29. This Big Idea is got to be the most frustrating one. It got me completely hooked. I read the first two and they were easily the best sci-fi fantasy genre mash-up I have read. Then I got RR Martined. The rest were promised by this fall, but nothing. I scoffed at people who complained about GRM’s pace of writing. He is an author he has a right to release books at his pace, but now I feel their pain! I just hope the Exordium books will eventually be released.

%d bloggers like this: