April Newsletter: The Good Blank Screen

So there I was, stumbling out of my attic studio in the Balkan Tower of Matriarchy. My head was spinning, my bladder was full. My mouth was tasted like dark chocolate because I always reward myself after writing. Even when I’ve spent my only two writing hours for the day screwing up.

I’d gone in with a great plan. I’d had a very productive Zoom call with my editor the previous night and I knew exactly what I had to do. Open a new document. Start with a blank page. Write the main character’s spiritual transformation. Put that into the old document send it right off, because you know it’s your story, Dan, that’s holding up the schedule of this anthology. You have two hours to fix this scene, so get to it!

So I did my pre-writing rituals. I meditated. I put on my playlist. I opened a new, blank document. Then I made a terrible mistake. I opened the old document. I read the first line of that last scene in my story. I liked it.

The more I read, the more I liked. The symbolism! The syntax! Was this a good place to add new material? Oh. No. Look how gross those new words look next to the old, polished ones. Maybe if I just move this whole section from here to there? And this other one, from there to here? Now, where was that excellent sentence I wanted to keep? Did I cut-and-paste or copy-and-paste? Wait, how many versions of the same sentence do I have? Did I lose the last version of that sentence? What are these characters talking about anyway?

I did not spend two hours fixing my last scene. I spent two hours ruining it. In the end, all I could do was revert to the previous day’s version of the document, turn off my computer, and stand, head spinning. I reached around my shoulders and gave myself a hug. I literally patted myself on the back. “You did a good job. Good job,” I told myself.

What I wanted to do was to give myself a slap. You’re wasting your time, your family’s time, your students’ time, and the time of everyone working on that anthology while you dick around in your story. Fortunately, I knew that if I drank that kind of poison, I’d lose more than just a day of work. So instead I gave myself chocolate and a pat on the back. Good for you Dan, you’ve successfully discovered how not to write that scene.

The next day, I had one more reason to follow the plan I’d set for myself: start with a blank page. And because of the sting of yesterday, I actually did it. I made a new document and filled it up with text. I started by telling myself the story, which became a mini-outline, which unfolded into two or three chunks of coherent narrative. I cracked open the old scene, cleared out some stuff, replaced it with the new stuff, and there I was. Done! My story had a new and much improved ending.

Bad things happen. We screw up. We beat our heads against the door because turning the handle is hard. But that’s actually less important than what happens after. That’s when we examine our bruises. We make the pain mean something.


The above story was about “Levski’s Boots,” which, yes, will be in the Tales from Alternate Earths 3 anthology. There isn’t a page for it yet, but you can see TFAE 1 and 2 here.

In other news, I’m making some good plans for the virtual launch party of Interchange with Trilby Black and Neil Sharpson. It’ll be some time at the end of July. I’ll be back with more details.

The sequel to “First Knife” is under active discussion. I think we almost have a solid outline. We’re still working on the title, though. “Second Spoon”? What do you think?

Petrolea is still serializing. Go check it out if you like novellas about robot dragons.

The Sultan’s Enchanter looks like it won’t get published traditionally, so it’s going into the trunk. Next up: The Centuries Unlimited! Yes, it’s finally getting shopped. Good luck, you emotional, grubby little ragamuffin.

And I’m solidly into Wealthgiver‘s 3rd revision. The lessons I learned from “Levski” (including the Power of the Blank Screen) are serving me very well. I should finally have something for you to read by July.

And here’s some stuff I liked:

…or in this case didn’t like much.

The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker – I was very disappointed with the ending.

The whole book has structural problems, but there were great moments: terror and exultation, the not-that-but-THIS twists I enjoy so much in Bakker’s plotting. And then he drops it. The story seemed to be leading up to something much more interesting than what actually happened. It’s slapdash. I don’t think I’ll read the next books in the series. To anyone who hasn’t read Bakker’s work, though, I still highly recommend The Prince of Nothing.

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold – I re-read this after several years and enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s a more personal book than say Mirror Dance. There is a war, but it happens mostly off-screen as we follow very closely after Cordelia as she makes Barrayar her home. It fills a much-needed gap 🙂

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco – I enjoyed it well enough while reading it, but there wasn’t much story there. It’s a lot like Baudolino, just with anti-Semitism instead of Prester John.

Bloodline by Will Wight – I devoured this one over three or four days. And I’m sure at some point I’ll re-read it. So, it’s good. I wish it had dug deeper, though into Lindon’s family and his relationship with Yerin.

Outlaws and Aliens, Monster Island Tales by James L. Cambias – I enjoy Cambias, so I bought these short stories. My favorite was “The Alien Abduction,” in which a misguided band of humans kidnaps and attempts to “free” a visiting alien.

Yeah, it might seem like I didn’t like much of what I read in April, but that’s only because two of the things I was reading were big enormous monsters that I couldn’t finish in a month. I loved them. You’ll hear more next month 😉

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