Daniel Price: Five Things I Learned Writing The Flight Of The Silvers
The sky comes down in a crushing sheet of whiteness. Two sisters and four strangers are saved from apocalypse by mysterious beings. They suddenly find themselves elsewhere, a parallel Earth where restaurants move through the air like flying saucers and household appliances bend the fabric of time.
Confronted by enemies they never knew they had and afflicted with temporal abilities they never wanted, the six survivors band together on a desperate journey across an alien America. Their goal: to find the one man who can help them before time runs out.
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You can be forgiven if the above synopsis makes you leery. My novel is firmly entrenched in the genres of alt-Earth fiction and superpower sci-fi, two fields that are overwhelmingly littered with cow piles. It won’t ease your mind to know that The Flight of the Silvers is my first stab at science fiction. It’s the first book of a series. Oh, and it’s six hundred pages long.
Yeah, that’s right. Run away, cowards.
If you haven’t fled yet, it’s for one reason: because you know that stories like this, when done right, are really goddamn good. They take all the things you love about X-Men, Star Trek, Doctor Who and Watchmen, and wrap them up in a literary tortilla. When they’re done really well, they shed new light on human nature and the crazy world we’ve built for ourselves.
I can’t promise you’ll go cuckoo-gaga for my story. After all, one man’s diamond is another man’s turd. All I can say is that The Flight of the Silvers was a four-year labor of love. I cherished every moment writing it. And I learned a whole bunch of things along the way. Here are five…
1. Worldbuilding is easy. Worldsplaining is hard.
If I wasn’t the kind of freak who keeps all his notes in his head, I would have a Tolkien-sized attic filled with trunks and trunks of scribblings about this parallel Earth I created, a world where history took a dramatic turn after a cataclysmic event in 1912. I’m crazy obsessed with my Altamerica. Like Robert Hays in Airplane!, I can ramble on in ways that provoke violent and increasingly hilarious suicides.
Unfortunately, that passion got the better of me while I was writing. The early drafts of Silvers were front-loaded with info dumps, enough to bring the story to a screeching halt. Thanks to the feedback of some very honest alpha readers (another must), I made sweeping cuts to the opening chapters and introduced the world at a much more measured pace. Not only did it give the plot and characters room to breathe, it created a cryptic sense of tension that was missing before. Now readers learn about this strange new world just as the main characters do.
In short, being a worldbuilder is like being the parent of a new child. Your baby has to be handled gently. And there are limits to what other people want to know about the bugger.
2. Too much sci can ruin your fi.
Xenu bless the hard science fiction writers. I love them but I am not one of them. From the beginning, I knew I wanted Silvers to be accessible to sci-curious genre newbs, the ones who don’t know their ass from their Rainbow’s End. On the other hand, my story takes place on a very heady Earth, one where man and machine can manipulate the flow of time. Medical revivers reverse wounded bodies back to full health. Restaurants offer special acceleration booths where a diner can enjoy a one-hour lunch in six minutes. Speedsuits allow people to slow down the clock and move through the world in a streaking blur. I didn’t want to pull these timebending shenanigans without any explanation.
Once again, I did way too much info dumping in early drafts, clogging the story with unnecessary details. For most of my test readers, the burning question wasn’t “how does this stuff work?” It was “how does it affect people?”
That question not only freed me up to advance the plot, it got me thinking about my world in wonderful new ways. Would a person healed by medical revivers lose their recent memory? (Yes.) Would that technology be abused by some? (Yes!) Would the kinetic momentum of speedsuits make the wearer more brittle, to the point where a simple love tap could break bones? Oh hell, yes.
3. Flawed protagonists are great, but they do come with headaches
Perfect heroes suck. I want to take all the Mary Sues and Gary Stus of fiction and send them off to Westeros, where George R.R. Martin can Red-Wedding their asses. They’re boring to read and even more boring to write. Seriously. Fuck them.
Though Silvers is an ensemble story, the two main characters are Hannah and Amanda Given, a pair of twentysomething sisters in San Diego. One’s a volatile actress with a history of bad life decisions. The other’s a high-strung nurse with an insufferable excess of virtue. They’re not always brave or wise in the face of danger, and Lord knows they’re not always nice to each other. But in a book with flying cars and force fields, it’s more important than ever to have characters act in realistic human ways.
The problem, I learned, is that not all readers react well to flawed protagonists. Go to almost any Amazon or Goodreads page and you’ll find at least one reviewer who knocks off stars because the main character is too weak or whiny or foolish in the beginning. Of course they are, you chucklefuck. That’s the whole point. No one likes the Tattooine-era Luke Skywalker who whines about power converters. But everyone loves the badass Luke who offers Jabba one last chance while walking the plank over the Sarlacc. Like Luke, Hannah and Amanda will grow over the course of their story. By the time they become harmonious asskickers, you’ll feel their progression.
Still, some readers will gripe. I know I shouldn’t let it bother me. What can I say? I’m a flawed character.
4. Editors. Fucking. Matter.
By the time my manuscript was acquired by Penguin, it had been through forty hard months of plotting, proofing, primping and polishing, not to mention a whole lot of focus-grouping. I thought it was as finished and ready as a book could be. It was not.
Silvers passed through the rigid hands of two Penguin editors, one for content and one for copy. Though I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the content editor, she helped me fix critical problems of structure and pacing, things I wouldn’t have noticed in a million readthroughs. The copy editor, meanwhile, opened my eyes to gaffes I’d been making my whole damn life. I repeatedly confused “further” with “farther,” and wildly overused the verb “crack.” Perhaps my crack habit stems from my farther issues. I’m no psychologist. I just know that if I had self-published Silvers during my premature congratulation phase, I would have served a half-cooked fish to my readers, which would have served no one.
This isn’t an argument against self-publishing. I’m just saying that I ever give in to my inner Hugh Howey (as we all will someday), I’ll go deep out of pocket to hire a professional content and copy editor. Anyone who doesn’t is screwing their audience, themselves, and their fellow self-publishers.
5. Smart people doubt themselves. Dumb people paralyze.
Chuck has ably covered the topic of perseverance on this blog, and Kameron Hurley recently wrote a guest post on the subject that should be required reading for every writer out there. Not only can I attest to the virtues of sticking to your dream, I can personally illustrate the perils of giving up on it.
My first novel, Slick, came out in 2004 to great reviews and shitty sales. It was a meticulously-researched novel set in the world of public relations, a serious comedy. When it tanked, I fell into a pit of lily-livered skittishness that kept me from developing any new idea, much less one about superpowered people on an alternate Earth.
I dawdled helplessly for years, the worst indecision of my life. It took a five-month bout with cancer to light a fire under my ass and get me writing again.
The good news: I’m all healthy these days. The better news: my manuscript of Silvers, which I wasn’t sure would sell anywhere, netted me a two-book deal and enough money to support my food, clothing and shelter habit for many, many moons. I have no reason to complain about anything, except all those stupid years I squandered in self-paralysis.
Don’t be as dumb as I was. Just shut up and write.
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Daniel Price is a novelist living in Los Angeles. He’s currently scrambling to finish the sequel to The Flight of the Silvers before his advance runs out.