I started writing Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard late in 1989. I’d been writing short stories for a while, but hadn’t sold any. I’d recently completed my doctorate in cognitive psychology and was teaching at a small, liberal arts college in Sarasota, Florida, and to this day, more than twenty-five years later, I really can’t say what made me decide to write a novel. But I did.
And it was horrible.
Not the story, mind you. The ideas in the book still intrigue and captivate me. The nature of immortality. Memory as a form of time travel. The relativistic aspects of intolerance. The power of friendship to transcend even death. Good stuff, all of it, and I’m proud to say it—and more—all survived into the book coming out next week. But that’s after more than two decades of studying and learning and growing and writing, writing, writing. Back when I originally wrote the book, it was bad. Oh Lord, it was bad.
But more than that, it was bad in multiple ways.
One of the problems of being a beginner is that you don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t understand pacing. I thought plot was something optional. I hadn’t yet realized there’s a difference between things occurring because they follow from a character’s motivation and happening because they suit the author’s need. I was blissfully ignorant of over-used tropes while at the same time finding myself drawn to far too many of them. And I seemed determined to embrace literary devices that worked well the first time they were done but really wouldn’t fly any more.
You probably don’t believe me when I tell you how bad the original version of this book was, so I’m going to give you an example of that last sin on the above list. Do you remember reading Dune, Frank Herbert’s brilliant novel from 1965? Arguably one of the classics of the field, do you recall how chapters began with a brief paragraph from the Manual of Muad’Dib written by Princess Irulan? It was a great device, one which allowed for gentle info-dumping, foreshadowing, and mood setting. Back when I started writing Barsk I must have thought this was the best thing since sliced bread—not that anthropomorphic elephants inhabiting arboreal cities in a rainforest necessary have bread, but I digress—because I swiped this idea and made it my own. And if a little was good, more would be better, right? My protagonist, Jorl, is an historian, and I decided he would be a prolific one. The result was that each of the novel’s fifty chapters began with an excerpt from some book, monograph, lecture, or journal article by Jorl. The info-dumping in these bits was far from gentle. Why show when you can tell, tell, and tell some more? Oh, and did I mention that for several of these chapters, the excerpt ran longer than the chapter itself?
It was bad. Okay, really bad. Worse still, I didn’t know it was bad and I spent years tossing that finished manuscript over transoms, hopeful that some editor somewhere would see its brilliance.
Thankfully, no one did, or I might have gone down in history as the author of an anthropomorphic SF novel on a par with Atlanta Nights minus the irony to justify its existence.
Instead, the manuscript went in a drawer and slept for many years. Meanwhile I didn’t sleep. I wrote and I read and I got better (and less stupid) and ever so slowly began to acquire the skills and assemble the tools so that one day I might open up that drawer again and reclaim the promise behind that badly written book.
It’s been said that a writer’s first million words are just practice, and if perchance that author gets paid for some of them, well, that’s just practice getting paid. I’ve put in much more than a million words of practice since the first draft of that novel. I’ve written and sold five other books. I’ve been a Hugo nominee and a Nebula nominee. I’ve run my own modest small press and learned even more about writing by editing other people’s fiction. And I’ve come to an appreciation that a writer’s life is not about arriving at a destination but rather being on an ongoing journey of growth and self-discovery.
A couple years ago I felt I had finally reached a point on my own journey where I could do justice to the book I’d first attempted to write. The result comes out next week. It’s by far the best thing I’ve written thus far. It may turn out to be the best I ever achieve, but I hope not. I’d like to aspire to do even better. But for this moment in time, I’m really happy with what I’ve done. I hope you find you are too.
About the Author
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.