How it all started

How I started to write, Stefan Vucak

How it all started - FI

Rain is coming down, soft and invisible, blurring outlines. I take a sip of coffee and stare through the smeared window. It’s a perfect day for writing.

I always wanted to write.

As far back as I can remember the printed word held a fascination that allowed me to escape into other worlds, other characters. For an imaginative kid, it was better than candy – almost. One of the first books I ever read was an illustration of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That was quickly followed by Robinson Crusoe. After that, of course, I was hooked. Where I attended primary school, there was a small library at the top of the street, which I made my own. I remember bringing books home to my mother’s vast amusement and my father’s disapproving frown. He never had much time for books or learning, but I cannot hold that against him. He did not have the opportunities I had, but at least he made sure I had them.

I was just getting used to putting down clumsy sentences, dreaming of writing my own books and being famous. But first, I had to grapple with the mysteries of English grammar and the torture of spelling. I cannot express my relief when word processors came along with an automatic spell checker! But English did not faze me at all. Sure, it was tough at first, but devouring simple books, then gravitating to more complex works, I began to get the hang of it. I remember when I was in Mexico on my first overseas trip trying to find my way around and making myself understood in Spanish. I had a book of common phrases, and when I wanted something, I pointed at a phrase in the book to the luckless person I accosted to help me. I got along, but it drove home how difficult life is for people not conversant in English.

At school, I loved my essay writing assignments, even though many of my classmates found it an agonizing chore. I could never figure out what was the big deal. My specialty was using elaborate flowery language. I loved adjectives, sometimes to excess. But nobody could describe a sunset, a moonlit night or the booming of crashing surf like I could. The one thing my writing lacked was people. It took me a while to make the connection. Prose was great, but great writing had to involve people, drama, conflict, emotion and everyday life. When I learned to write dialogue, everything clicked, or so I thought. Man, how I labored to learn what good dialogue was all about! You can have brilliant narrative, but crummy dialogue will sink a book.

Every spare dollar I had, I used to buy books; all kinds, but I loved science fiction. Having read some of what got into print, I figured I could do better, and I had ideas, a whole universe that begged to be unleashed on the world. There was no holding me back. The first book I ever published dealt with the Orieli Technic Union visiting Earth – With Shadow and Thunder. An experimental piece I started with was written on colored A4 pages, single-spaced, full of typos and whiteout marks, and I thought I was in for a Hugo. Thankfully, it will never see the light of day. I still attended college then, and that kept me busy, but the urge to write never left me. I realized long ago that it never will. It is like cancer, always eating at me and I never have peace. At one point, I tried to leave it, swearing I would never write another word, but the images and ideas did not stop, driving me on. It was easier to give in, although the creative process can be like giving birth, extremely painful, especially when the words simply will not come. When everything does flow and my pen cannot keep up with the storm of words in my mind, the rush, the exhilaration of creation, makes it all worthwhile.

I walked around Melbourne, peddling my first book to local publishers and getting the inevitable rejections. After a while, I figured that perhaps my book was not as hot as I thought it was. There was nothing for it but to sit down and rewrite the damned thing. I did and it also got rejected. I wrote several short stories and sent them off to magazines in the States, not really knowing how to properly format my work or make correct submissions. It was depressing, but I learned, and I consider that my period of apprenticeship. Once I started full-time work in the IT industry, that kept me active pursuing a career, but the drive to write still burned, even though it was now directed to producing reports and system design documents. It was during those years that I created Terrllss-rr and the universe of the Serrll Combine.

With Shadow and Thunder started me on the road that turned into eight books of the Shadow Gods Saga, it was not the first book in the series, but it did win the runner-up finalist prize in the 2002 EPPIE awards many years later. Needless to say, that book went through several agonizing rewrites before I was grudgingly satisfied that it contained my best effort at that time. One lesson I learned the hard way, and it is the only way to learn it, was becoming a ruthless editor of my own material. I had been a reviewer and submissions editor, and had first-hand exposure to some pretty awful material by first-time authors who never learned that lesson: write, rewrite, edit and then rewrite again! I know all about cutting out sentences and paragraphs that may appear perfect – hack off my arm first! But being savage and dispassionate with my material has helped hone my skills. If a writer cannot learn to do this, give up now and save yourself a lot of pain later. In the halcyon days of the sixties and seventies, publishers were happy to work with writers to polish their work. Those days are long gone. Current submissions must be perfect or an author will not get a look-in. Even then, be prepared to collect folders of rejections. I was told that to get ahead, I should get an agent. Sounds easy, but very few agents are interested in an unpublished writer living in Australia. E-mails and letters just won’t hack it. What I should really do is park myself in New York or London and go door knocking, provided I could afford to do that. Talk about depressing…

Writing With Shadow and Thunder opened a crack into my Serrll Combine universe; a vague, disjointed set of characters and institutional structures. Before getting down to writing the sequel, I first had to flesh out my universe and introduce order. If I did not get my ‘reality’ right, writing a believable book would be tough going. Using a spreadsheet, I set down the composition of every interstellar block, geography of how they fitted together, the political setup, distribution of seats in the ruling Executive Council. I created a list of all Executive Council Bureaus, their Directors and subordinate Commissioners. With the structure done, I had a tapestry from which history, conflict, political maneuvering and power byplays could be extracted – a ready-made plot factory. All I had to do now was use it, and I did, producing eight books in the Shadow Gods Saga. One sad thing I witnessed from published writers who produced books in a series was their inevitable descent into mediocrity. Their first few books are well written, but subsequent efforts were lamentable, works that would ordinarily never get past a slush pile if submitted first time. I vowed that every book I wrote would be the very best product I could come up with. I owe at least that much to whoever might read them, and my self respect.

After retiring fairly early in my life from professional work, I decided to branch into the contemporary market, giving Terrllss-rr a rest. This resulted in a political thriller, Cry of Eagles. The theme is topical: Iran’s nuclear capability represents a clear threat to Israel, but the US does nothing. Mossad sabotages a refinery complex in Galveston, plant evidence that incriminates Iran and sit back waiting for the enraged United States to strike back in retaliation. But the Mossad team makes a small mistake and America is now poised to vent its wrath on its ally. The work involved a tremendous amount of research, creation and fleshing out of new characters, and tortuous plotting, detail that every writer needs to pay close attention to. I have given up using it as an entry into the traditional publishing market, and that door-to-door option might still be my best bet.

Some time back – many years back now – I finished a follow-up work, All the Evils. Reading it again, I could spend time polishing it, as I am never satisfied. Still, a work must be put down sometime and turn my attention to a new project.

My cup is empty and I need a refill.

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