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---
not that young.-->TW)
(Hush. You're also not the hero.)
(I said, hush.)
Our young hero, Stephen Ridenour...
...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
(That's putting it mildly.--->TW)
for me in the Westibule, will you?)
(Pizza? I'm outta
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
Deadly Question. Then life for young Mr Ridenour
got seriously complicated.
The basic elements:
- A star-spanning Alliance of humans politically
and economically severed from Earth.
- A computer network whose NSpace-dwelling database
spans the universe, making instant communication
(theoretically) possible. But there are ... problems
with that highly desirable application.
- 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
- The Ethnic Reconstructionists, who are
sort of like all the current Historical Recreation
Societies gone extremist and given planets to play
- A young graduate who just happens to be the
first Recon to ever attend, let alone graduate from,
a spacer academy.
- 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
- A starship admiral with an agenda.
- A ruthless politician with an alternative agenda.
- A Native American Ethnic Recon group with still
- 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.
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
They might have filled more empty spots if it hadn't
been for their:
or Why can't I find these
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
Length problems notwithstanding, there
was a far more significant drawback to being with Warner
in the early 90's.
You know those review quotes and author
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.
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
The above alone would have been enough
to undermine any first novel, but Warner marketing
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Possibly I should have used different
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
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 ...
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
from the Wesser during the writing of