Lamb and the Mist

On Wednesday I got to hold two book texts with my name on them. The first was my master’s thesis. I didn’t think it would be that Earth-shattering to hold it, but, well, it’s nice. Here it is, back from the book binder, with my name and the thesis title on the spine: Subtext of the Steppes: A Critical Analysis of Harold Lamb’s Cossack Saga. Now a copy is sitting on the same shelf as the Lamb books I edited (Wolf of the Steppes, Warriors of the Steppes, Riders of the Steppes, and Swords of the Steppes).

The other book I held was the text of my unpublished novel, Daughter of the Mist, which I printed for another once-over. It was a pleasure to hold the entire thing in my hands. It’s sitting at approximately 93k, which is right where I wanted it, lengthwise, and comes in at 450 manuscript pages. I’ve sent it off to a handful of test readers and my fingers are crossed that problems they find won’t require months of adjusting. They WILL find issues — there are always issues of some kind, which is one of the reasons a writer should use test readers.

I took the entire summer to perform a lengthy revision, then took August for a polishing pass and eliminated some craptacular prose. The next step, after I make whatever corrections my test readers find, is submission to agents and editors.

Here’s the thing I thought might be of interest to vistors. While reading Leigh Brackett stories to my kids this summer I was struck by how much of Brackett’s world-building had percolated unconsciously into my own writing. When my wife first met me, in the early 90s, I was constantly trying to sound like some cross between Roger Zelazny and Fritz Leiber (as my wife will tell you, I mostly sounded like a BAD imitation of Zelazny). Those early efforts were deliberate, conscious, ham-handed attempts to imitate style. This was different. I hadn’t read a lot of these Brackett stories since I was in my mid-teens, and I discovered that place-naming conventions on the mist world sounded — quite unintentionally — very much like Brackett’s Mars. There are a lot of double k’s linked with as and es and followed by “ar.” For instance, she has Jekkara, I have Mekkara. As a matter of fact, my protagonist’s sidekick is Jekka (Jekka, Jekkara). I soaked these things up without realizing — when I was reading these tales  at 15 I wasn’t yet reading for technique, I was just reading for pleasure. While drafting my novel some twenty years later, those naming structures resurfaced without me having an inkling about where they’d come from.  I was dismayed this summer when I realized my conventions hadn’t been wholly original, then decided just to leave things as they were, in quiet homage. Does that happen to anyone else out there? How much does the work of your favorite writers creep in unconsciously?

The discovery shouldn’t really have surprised me — my friend John Hocking has told me that the mist world stuff reads like a modern Brackett/Kuttner/Planet Stories cocktail, though he seems to think I’ve got my own style, these days. Thank goodness.

Just before I printed out this version I discovered I still had one island listed as “Placeholder.” When I’m cranking away on a scene I frequently drop in “placeholder” as a name for a place or person or weird object so that I don’t have to stop the writing flow. I’d somehow left this place unnamed until the very end. I searched my memory and then my bookshelves for inspiration or a word I could twist a little into an interesting place name, and before long I had the new island name, though this time the attribution was deliberate: Kuttnaar. Brackett and Kuttner were friends, after all.


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