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The Groundties Series

Excerpts from Groundties
A bit about the books

The strange publishing history
A Question of Covers
Knights of the Westibule
Current availability
Groundties
UpLink
Harmonies of the 'Net

--------------------------------------

The prequel to Groundties:
'NetWalkers
is finished!
In hopes of resurrecting the Groundties Series (and just because Wesley wouldn't let me sleep until I wrote it) I've written a prequel. It's at my publisher's now.
For info and excerpts, click here.

Current availability of the Groundties Series

Good News!!!! Amazon.com is now listing several used copies of all the books at reasonable prices!!!!

GroundTies:  

UpLink


Harmonies
of the 'Net

 

About the books

Groundties was not only my first book, it was the first real "from scratch" fiction I ever wrote. That it happened at all was directly due to C. J. Cherryh. (See: Write Box: In the Beginning.)

The series is hard SF, with a strong psychological component. Our young hero---
(Gawrsh...I'm not that young.-->TW)
(Hush. You're also not the hero.)
(Not!?!  But--->TW)
(I said, hush.)

Our young hero, Stephen Ridenour...
(Oh...him.--->TW)
...is a bit of a computer whiz just out of the Academy who is put on the trail of certain questionable entries appearing mysteriously on the future equivalent of the internet. In the process of doing his job, he finds himself embroiled in and frequently at the center of more political power games than he ever new existed.
(That's putting it mildly.--->TW)
(Wait for me in the Westibule, will you?)
(Pizza? I'm outta here.--->TW)

Anyway, I wanted to write a nice simple first contact, boy meets girl, bigot loses bigotry, ship blows up kind of story, a modest goal that was proceeding nicely until CJ Cherryh asked The Deadly Question. Then life for young Mr Ridenour got seriously complicated.

The basic elements:

  1. A star-spanning Alliance of humans politically and economically severed from Earth.
  2. A computer network whose NSpace-dwelling database spans the universe, making instant communication (theoretically) possible. But there are ... problems with that highly desirable application.
  3. The requisite bigotry that is the unfortunate fallout of an inherently insecure and competitive species. In this case, the spacers are on the high end of the influencial scale, the Ethnic Reconstructionists on the low.
  4. The Ethnic Reconstructionists, who are sort of like all the current Historical Recreation Societies gone extremist and given planets to play with.
  5. A young graduate who just happens to be the first Recon to ever attend, let alone graduate from, a spacer academy.
  6. A brilliant but disaffected programmer who just happens to be the great-grandson of the woman who is the only surviving member of the team who developed the NSpaceComNet.
  7. A starship admiral with an agenda.
  8. A ruthless politician with an alternative agenda.
  9. A Native American Ethnic Recon group with still another agenda.
  10. A non-human species with yet another agenda.

Throw them all together, shake well, and you get ... problems. Lots of problems.

One of the curious sidenotes to the development of this story, while I was writing it and in fact for a couple of years after it came out, I had no knowledge of the internet. I'd never had a modem, never done email, certainly never surfed the web. I wanted a future universe fundamentally different from C.J. Cherryh's Union/Alliance, and chose instant communication as both the core of that difference and the problem which ignites the books' story. I never imagined as I wrote that story that I would find myself, a few years later, lamenting the lack of a cute little 'NetTech over in the corner searching out useful and reliable information on the internet (not to mention updating my webpage) so that I could spend my time writing. <VBG>

But the ComNet and its problems provide the techy core of the plot, not its true substance. For that, you have to go to the characters.

In the most general sense, the books are about the use and abuse of power on both a macro and micro scale. It examines these issues at the human level of those individuals affected by the power games. While there's a fair amount of action and intrigue, in the end, this is the story of one young man's journey to hell and back as his past and future collide with cataclysmic force.

These are unabashedly intense books---all three take place in about two weeks during which the universe changes forever and uniquely for each person involved. Due in part to the word count restrictions, there's rarely a moment for the characters to sit down and smell the flowers, which forces the reader always to be on his/her toes. They're not easy reads, not "feel good" in the sense that there are no easy resolutions to the very real psychological, philosophical and interpersonal questions raised, but for readers into intense and different, they seem to have filled an empty spot on several personal library shelves.

They might have filled more empty spots if it hadn't been for their:

Strange Publishing History:
or Why can't I find these books?

I've debated one way and another whether or not to include this section. I fear it comes too close to whiny for my taste and pride. On the other hand, what happened to the Groundties books is far from unique and the details seem to have given my readers a lot of insights into the business of publishing. So...since I get a lot of questions on the matter, I decided to include it.

Too much, too soon:
Some concepts are too easy to sell. Groundties was just such a story. A little over a year after I began writing it, I submitted what was admittedly the first draft to Warner Books. I'd met the editor at a convention, told him a bit about it, and he offered to take a look.

Within a couple of months, I had a three book contract.

That's too fast. In retrospect, I should have waited until I had all three books done and could present the entire project to a prospective publisher, so whoever made the decision to buy or not would know exactly what they were getting into. When I sold the project to Warner the real ramifications of The Deadly Question were just beginning to manifest. I don't know what my editor thought he was buying, but I suspect the final project was both longer and more complex than he'd imagined, for all I made no secret right from the start about the fact that it was a first draft and that things would get far more complicated, and that, yes, every scene in there really did have a significant function in the overall story arc.

So, he had fair warning, but I think we were both somewhat naive to have leapt into the contract.

I also should have waited until I was "comfortable" in my writing skin and could proceed with this writing thing at a pace that would put at least one new book a year on the shelves. As it was, my first book was in schedule before it was done with the other two scheduled for rapid six month follow-ups. This meant I not only had to write my newly-acquired writing behind off, I had no backlog of novels to keep my presence on the shelves active.

And I was headfirst into the deep ocean before I learned how to control my dinghy in the swimming pool.

Both my series have been long and complex, that being the kind of story "native" to my rather convolute brain. In order to make the causality and characterization and motivation flow smoothly, these require lots of rewriting. Translated, that means they take a long time to write. One book every couple of years is not conducive to a healthy career and building numbers.

I figured out how to tame those innate story-telling tendencies a bit for short stories, but for novels, I was deep into my second series (The Dance of the Ring books from DAW) before I began to truly comprehend the problem. I was pretty much stuck in the gerbil's exercise wheel until I finished that series. Had I not sold Groundties so fast, establishing myself as (if you will) a "publishable author," I might well have come to this conclusion much earlier and managed a standalone, more accessible novel for my first published novel.

But another truth is, I wouldn't be the author I am today had I not allowed the Groundties muse free rein and finished that series the way it wanted to be. If I'd tried to do too much "thinking" during the genesis of that first novel, I'd never have kept writing. For me, writing had to be from the creative gut first and the editorial head second. Now, knowing the joys in store during the creative process, I can handle controlling the muse a bit more specifically. But I had to learn what "creative writing" felt like, first.

But the fact is, it did sell fast, for whatever reason, and in retrospect, Warner/Questar in 1991 was most definitely not the optimum spot for it.

Publisher Presentation:
Presentation is everything for a first novel. A new author has (obviously) no history, no past reviews or sales figures upon which a store-owner/buyer can make a judgement call for how many books to stock. Initial distribution is all the publisher's doing. The initial distribution figures on Groundties more than speak to how well Warner did its job in this instance. There are reasons, there always are, but those reasons had a disastrous effect on the availability of Groundties in those all-important first weeks of an author's career.

Let me clarify that I was not alone in this situation, and neither is the Warner Books of 1991 unique. Also, the Warner\Aspect of 2001 is not the Warner\Questar of 1991. The problems I experienced with Groundties do not seem to have carried over to the new imprint at all. In retrospect, it seems to me that Questar was trying to do too much, splitting their staff's energies between original SF/F, various media tie-ins by established SF/F authors, and original work by gaming tie-in authors. The effect of this lack of imprint focus was hard enough on their established writers' books. For first novels, even those with really marketable "hooks", it was downright devastating.

Groundties had no such easy "hook." Groundties would have required creative marketing no matter when it was published. What Groundties got wasn't enough to dampen, let alone saturate, its potential market.

The Great Demon: Length:
What I didn't realize was that at the time I sold Groundties, Warner wasn't publishing large books. I mean, they'd published Cyteen, right? I assumed with that decision they were moving into the large book playing field along with many of the other publishing houses. It seemed to me that the fannish and publishing "buzz" alike were supporting bigger books genre-wide, as long as the substance upheld the length.

I never imagined length would be a problem.

Boy, was I wrong. The only input I got from my editor was "Make it shorter---Warner won't publish a first novel that long." The end result was a tightly written book that's just a bit too intense for a lot of readers. The "down time" that could take the pressure off the characters and  give the readers time to absorb that which had just taken place all had to be edited out. The great god Accessibility took a major hit in that one publisher decree.

Perhaps if I'd been more experienced I could have both kept the substance and pared it down, but I don't think so. Even today, looking at it with an eye to rewriting for a new edition, I think I'll need another 5,000 to 10,000 words to appease Accessibility.

Groundties ultimately came in at about 135,000 words. Fairly average now for Warner/Aspect, and not long at all for other SF/F houses at that time, but even that caused problems in a publishing house that was looking increasingly toward the tie-in market that comes in at the 80,000-100,000 range, and generally seeks about a fourth-grade reading level. Light, easy access books. To take Groundties to that size and reading level would have gutted it totally.

Length problems notwithstanding, there was a far more significant drawback to being with Warner in the early 90's.

Puffs:
You know those review quotes and author "puffs" you see in books? Those are the result of publisher solicitation. When a publisher decides to support a book (and frequently with first novels, since the authors lack any sort of marketing base) the publisher sends out pre-pub copies of the books with a cover letter listing what they believe to be the marketing strong points of a novel. They use those quotes not only in the front of the novels that reach the end consumer but also in the marketing literature they send the bookstore owners/buyers, along with the marketing plans (and the money they plan to spend on advertising.) Sometimes, as with Warner Aspect's Baker's Boy by J.V. Jones (a fun novel, BTW) they even send out "gifts" by which to remember the title. (In that case, small loaves of bread, as I recall.)

To digress a moment, one of the things I respect most about Ms Jones and why I feel free to reference her in this context is how honest and openly appreciative she is of the treatment Warner has given her books. Too many authors who receive such marketing perks seem determined to convince the world afterward that they did it "all on their own."

I respectfully submit...They haven't got a clue.

All the above are "flags" to the store owners about what books they must have on their shelves to appease the customers who have seen the ads and reviews.

Groundties not only had no pre-pub solicitations (let alone loaves of bread), after publication, Warner actively refused all requests for review copies. Why? Well, not to point fingers, but right about that time and elsewhere in their multi-imprint corporation, Warner was coming out with a couple of notoriously expensive acquisitions they'd made on spec which, when the final product arrived in house proved...less than expected. One might even call them potential bombs. My understanding is that Warner made the (probably wise) decision not to send out review copies of these two books and trickle down seems to have stopped all review copies, at least for the couple of years in question.

Whether or not that's true, I do know from many reviewers over the years that not only did they not receive copies of the Groundties books, requests for review copies were ignored. Since by the time I discovered that lack of the most basic support my editor was gone from Warner and the Questar line itself had dissolved, I never really got a chance to ask why.

And the point is moot, now.

The point is, where things like reviews and puffs might not ultimately affect an individual reader's inclination to pick up a book and try it, it most definitely affects the decision of the individual store-owner to stock the book in the first place.

Advertising: or...Yes, Virginia, billing does matter...
In what little advertising Groundties saw, it was put in as a footnote to the month's "lead" title, an Indiana Jones spoof by a gaming writer. I never read the book, and I'm sure it's delightful, but one of the realities of book marketing is that a hard SF first novel (especially, I'm sorry to say, an SF novel by a woman) placed beneath such a title is an automatic clue (along with the total lack of reviews and puffs) to the store-buyers that this is shelf-holding cannon fodder and to ignore the title and the author.

And ignore it they did.

Warner Questar in 1991 was an unfortunate place to be for any serious SF novelist, for a first novel, let alone a series, it was devastating. Warner wasn't taking chances, and Groundties, by its very nature, was not an easy sell. Marketing would have had to get creative, and Warner Marketing was busy elsewhere. The lack of imprint focus so undermined the credibility of the Questar line, it came as no surprise when Warner closed the Questar imprint the following year and started "a whole new SF line" ...Warner Aspect...leaving all of us from those final couple of years with Questar severely damaged goods in the ruthlessly numeric calculations of the bookstore computers.

A question of series...
The above alone would have been enough to undermine any first novel, but Warner marketing didn't stop there.  By the end of the book Groundties is obviously only the first part of the story, a fact in no way indicated on the book, despite the fact UpLink was already in schedule for the following April (Groundties came out in September 1991). I discovered too late that Warner refused to market a book as part of a series Marketing indicated that readers were reluctant to buy first books in a series but rather wait for all the books to be out which means the publisher has to (gasp) support backlist.

Again, this philosophy was by no means unique to Warner, but it was a definite factor in the history of the Groundties books.

Fortunately in this sense, publishers like DAW books, Inc have a better understanding of their SF market, a market that traditionally thrives on connected books. Others, including Warner in its new incarnation, are beginning to appreciate that fact.

But, oh, if only the problems had ended here...

A Question of Covers

Cover woes. Every author has them. In my case, you can apply just about every one you've ever heard to one or the other of my first four covers.

Groundties. First of all, they got my name wrong. Of course, my editor and I never discussed that question. I'd have loved some help deciding on an effective pen name, but...whatever it was, it should at least have matched the interior---not to mention how they listed the subsequent books. Books in Print is (or at least was the last time I checked) totally confused. Looking up one book did not ensure you'd get the information on others.

I did suggest a "theme" for the covers which (wonder of wonders) they actually used. I wanted the computer chip superimposed over every cover, firmly establishing the underlying element of the stories and their hard SF core. Unfortunately, on the first book, book design completely covered the chip with huge type. I've heard from many readers who never even picked up Groundties because they assumed it was fantasy. But they got into the series too late with one of the other two, whose computer chips were highly visible and (thanks to the above backlist support question) were never able to get the first book.

Visually, I can't complain terribly much about Groundties' cover---I really wanted the Miakoda moonrise, and that's what Barclay gave me, but I'd have liked a GLG on the cover. These books are Stephen's story after all, a young man whose rather remarkable appearance causes him way too much trouble. Anevai (the young woman depicted) is an important but definitely secondary character in the books.

More significantly, a female SF writer still has an uphill battle for readers and this cover sent out all the wrong signals to those who even realized it was SF. As several potential readers have pointed out to me, the only female the back cover copy references is Cantrell, the starship admiral. And on the cover, they have an obviously young woman. The combination of elements smacked far much too much of feminist role reversal in a young-people-rule military SF fantasy...neither of which could be farther from the truth. (One of these days I'll write up my philosophy of character and gender for the write box---it's much too lengthy to digress for here.)

The female on the cover was one of those unfortunate "If only we could have talked before it was painted." moments. It was a no-win combination. Had Barclay put Anevai in her Recon clothing to negate the "Starship Admiral" perception, it would only have enhanced the fantasy misconception.

Basically, I'd have preferred Stephen in his irridescent blue jacket...with maybe the shuttle flying down the valley.

But overall, it wasn't a bad cover. UpLink, on the other hand...that cover, for the book, was bad---and Barclay and I did talk about it beforehand. Computer chip theme notwithstanding, UpLink had nothing that linked it visually to Groundties. It was bad enough Warner wouldn't come right out and say it was the sequel to Groundties, the covers looked like vastly different types of books. Beyond that, the melting face cover is just...wrong. Based on that cover I've had many queries as to how I could have included the artist, Barclay Shaw, in my dedications in the last book.

The answer is very simple: that cover isn't Barclay's fault.

First of all,  Barclay didn't get to read UpLink prior to painting the piece, but he very kindly called me and we talked about it. I explained how my ideal cover would be a Native American style Katchina doll in the foreground with computer chip leads for feathers linking it to the computer chip background, with Nayati in the Cocheta caves as the midground. Barclay was very excited about that concept but we had to come up with a couple of others. In the subsequent conversation, I explained how the book was very much about Stephen's psychological ... I might have even used the term meltdown ...and rebuilding.

Possibly I should have used different terminology.

UpLink cover sketch, copyright 1992 Barclay Shaw.
Copyright 1992 Barclay Shaw

This is Barclay's sketch for the Katchina doll concept, taken from his trading cards. It links to a black and white of the full image, showing the leads and computer chip. The B&W is the photocopy he sent me when he had to break the news about the cover. (Please note, it is just a concept sketch, not a fully rendered painting, as they say.) For those of you who've read it, wouldn't this have been infinitely preferable?

On the card, Barclay says (very diplomatically, in my opinion) that the art director decided the Katchina might be taken for a poorly rendered human and opted for the melting face. Even were that the case, it was a problem easily solved by making the Katchina less animated, more doll-like and more computer-esque. I understood a very different story behind the decision, but I'll stand by his official version. For those who approve of the above, however, I would ask that you don't blame Barclay or my editor or the art director for the actual UpLink cover, but rather look higher up in the corporate structure at Warner.

Then there was Harmonies. Sigh...where to begin? I come so close to loving this cover. Barclay based it on my little sketch of Stephen and Wesley, and it represents certain aspects of the book very well. However ... Warner told Barclay they were going to go with gold foil on the chip ... which would have been really nice. Foil is one of those "this book is important" flags for the store-owners/buyers. Barclay designed his entire color palette based on that assumption of foil in the midground. At the last minute, they reneged and went with gold ink...which flattened the entire image. I was disappointed, naturally, but when I saw the actual cover flats, I was downright horrified.

They'd gotten the title wrong. A title set up in the very first book. I didn't know what to do. Since Warner Questar was in the midst of an editorial shakeup at the time, I had no one to call but the assistant of my former editor, who was amazingly helpful and "can-do." Since the books hadn't been bound, they were able to reprint, and oh (says I, cheekily) while you're at it, you might see what happens when you adjust the color balance (can't remember what I suggested, but it brought up the red in the background and helped "pop" the forground figures out a bit more, off-setting (at least slightly) the flattening effect of the gold ink.)

And bless their hearts, they did it. The cover was much more dimensional than the flats I'd gotten...and the title was right. Sigh...

But it was too late anyway. With no support, the series was doomed to an early death.

And that's the short version. It's also the past. The good news is, the distribution on that initial print was so bad there's actually a pretty good chance of bringing the series back in new editions, (with the support of you readers!) with some of the lighter moments I had to throw out in the name of brevity, and some really juicy information I extracted (rather painfully) from the Wesser during the writing of
                                                            'NetWalkers

 

On to the books!

--------------------------------------

Groundties

September, 1991
ISBN: 0-446-36148-8
Cover Art by Barclay Shaw 1991 

In the interest of time (of which I'm rapidly running out) I'm just going to copy the back cover copy as it was written. You can take this to be as indicative of the contents of the books as such copy ever is. I think it is safe to wager that if, in the coming months, you come back to visit, at the very least, an expanded picture of the books will begin to emerge.

Admiral Loren Cantrell is already caught on a power-play tightrope between bigoted Spacers and stubborn planetary Reconstructionists. Now a new crisis arises: something is threatening the Communications Network that links the star colonies. It is a mystery Cantrell must solve.

Her only clue leads to HuteNamid, a Recon world of hostile Native Americans. Here a conspiracy is run by Cantrell's ex-lover, a man believed dead; a new science has been invented by a disgraced practical joker---

(Disgraced!?! I walked out on those idiots. I---\--->TW)
(Hush, Wesley. As I was typing...)

... who once crashed a galactic database---

(Not! I knew exactly what I was doing.--->TW)
(WESLEY!)
...and a psychotic rebel warrior has found the way to touch a god.

(Now that's the biggest load of whooie. Poor old Nayati's a piker when it comes to crazy. We got professional crazies here!--->TW)
(Sigh... )

Sorry, folks. As I was saying...

The one person who can help Cantrell is STEPHEN RIDENOUR
(Now art thou happy, Smith?)
a neurotic boy
(Neurotic, yes, but he's no kid!--->TW)
genius
(That's debatable. ---TW)
who risks
(...is he there?...)
death and madness
(I wonder where he's hiding?)
for the key to saving the 'Net
(I'm getting suspicious...)
liesinthedeepershadowsofStephen'slostpastandhiddensoul.

(Whew! Made it!)

(**Yawn**---TW)

  

Excerpts from Groundties:

Introductions:
Meet the Spacer Cast
Meet the Recons
Making an Entrance: Part 1: Stephen
Making an Entrance: Part 2: The Wesser

Some scenes of interest:
The first scene:
T
his is truly the first scene I wrote in the book...practically the first scene of original fiction I ever wrote. It appeared in print virtually unchanged from that first day's writing. What's interesting to me is how much subtext there was in it. Once Stephen changed from being a standard Spacer Bigot to a Recon-in-hiding, the reasons for his actions became massively more convolute.
A Character Moment:
This little scene nearly got the axe in the name of the Great God: Length. I fought for it in the name of the Greater God: Show-don't-tell. A) It's a unique revelation of several of Stephen's rather ... unusual ... personality traits, helping prepare the reader for future reactions. B). It's  the only time we see him in his (physical) element, setting up his ability to pull off some of the stunts he pulls later in the series. C) It establishes the relationship between Lexi and Stephen.
One thing I learned writing this series: it always helps to know why you wrote a scene.

--------------------------------------

UpLink

April 1992
ISBN: 0-446-36255-7

Cover Art by Barclay Shaw(c) 1992 

(We'll try again...)

A secret binds the colonists of HuteNamid, a secret for which they will risk everything---even genocide. Admiral Loren Cantrell, insystem to investigate disruptions in the vital interstellar data 'Net, has only one clue: the code phrase Dena Cocheta. And only one source of information: Stephen Ridenour.

The answers Cantrell seeks lie buried in Stephen's own past. Is there a link between the madness that destroyed his homeworld and the growing insanity that grips HuteNamid? Probing Stephen's mind could destroy him and the colonists---perhaps all humankind. But one young man's life and the existence of one colony weigh very little against a threat to the 'Net itself --- and the powers that command Cantrell.

(Huh?--->TW)
(I think we should consider ourselves lucky that he restrained himself so well.)

--------------------------------------

Harmonies of the 'Net

November 1992
ISBN: 0-446-36243-3

Cover Art by Barclay Shaw(c) 1992 

Before you wonder: I'm right, the flat's wrong. The title is, indeed, HARMONIES OF THE 'NET. And it did, barely, get changed in time. Suffice to say, I got enough cover horror stories on my first three books to fill a career.

DISASTER IN THE 'NET: The star-spanning 'Net is crashing --- collapsing under its own unwieldy weight...

(I warned them!---TW)

...its vital database...

(Joe Dweeblethorpe's grocery lists--->TW)

...losing bits and connections at an alarming rate. The politicians and technocrats that depend on it are desperate.

Desperate enough to come looking for the boy they dispatched on a mission larger than they knew, and for the prankster whose exploits are notorious among programmers on the 'Net. Stephen Ridenour has found a refuge from the civilization whose bigotry almost destroyed him. Wesley Smith---genius, seducer, joker, and certifiable loose cannon---

(That about covers it.--->TW)

---has captured the ultimate prey and isn't about to set it loose. And no one realizes what can be done is already a dead issue ...

(Now if that were true, there'd be no story, now would there? Sheesh.--->TW)

Much as one hates to encourage him, he has a point. One wonders, sometimes, why it seems to take the imminent demise of life as we know it to sell books. I'd be curious about others' thoughts on back-cover copy and what makes you pick up a book or put it down. If you have a moment, drop me a line.

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