Writing To The Future by Craig Hansen

As I write this, I have no idea where you are in your project as you read this. I have no idea where I’ll be in mine. Because I’m speaking to a future that hasn’t been written yet. A tomorrow that has yet to arrive. In a sense, that’s what writing is really all about. And it reminds me of a story. And that’s good, because as writers, stories are what we live for; or they should be.

Flash back to my college days.

I dropped by the office of my college writing professor who also happens to be my master’s thesis adviser. I was in a Master of Arts program that allowed a creative thesis, meaning a novel, just like the better MFA programs. My professor was a working novelist who, in addition to his university duties, was attempting to tread water in the Publish Or Perish Ocean. In other words, he was working on his novel as I came in.

He looked up, said, “Hi,” and asked me to read a few of his pages. This was not uncommon since I’d earned my undergraduate degree studying under him at the same institution, so we’d known each other several years, since he had first arrived.

As I perused his pages, I noticed he was making reference to the current year in the story; it was a date three years into the future.

“Is this science fiction?” I asked, “maybe speculative?”

“No,” he told me. “It’s just, with the lead times and delays in publishing, if you want a novel to appear fresh when it hits store shelves, you have to set it at least a couple years into the future from the time in which you’re writing it. More if you’re a slow writer.”

“Isn’t that a bit risky?” I asked. “After all, an election could go a different way, or a major event could happen.”

“If something major happens, you’ll have a chance to do revisions,” he told me, “but mostly you play it safe. Assume that for the most part, two or three years from now won’t be dramatically different from the way things are today.”

This exchange taught me a lot about the publishing and novel-writing business of the late 1980s and early 1990s. New York publishing houses ruled most of publishing, with the exception of small regional presses, and things like the Internet and Amazon.com were, by and large, still things that were part of the future. Events that had yet to be written.

While participants in A Round Of Words In 80 Days (ROW80) come from many different backgrounds and points of view, pursuing many different goals and for many different reasons, one thing is likely true of most of us: we’ve all at least considered publishing our work independently on Kindle or a similar eReader as a viable option, once our writing and revision goals are all attained.

It’s an option my old professor never had back then. He operated in a different writing environment, where novels had to be written in ways that allowed for the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the New York publishing world. That included having to write two years or more into the future, and remaining intentionally vague about current events, even in so-called contemporary fiction.

It was a practice in place for a reason. Because even if you had an agent, even if you had a book contract, it could take years from the date of completion of a manuscript until it finally appeared on store shelves.

Here are a few of the steps just to give you an idea: Your novel would be read first my your agent, or at least one of their assistants. If it passes that hurdle, then it gets passed on to the publishing house, where anywhere from one to three levels of editors must read and evaluate the manuscript, making notes on possible changes or concerns. (Not all of them would be targeted to the author; some would be part-and-parcel of publishing house business, such as running certain aspects of the book – the use of celebrity names, or name-brand products, for example – past the company’s legal department, to make sure all libel, trademark and copyright infringement concerns were satisfied.

There would likely be at least one round of requested changes from the publishing house, and more than one round was not uncommon. Eventually, a senior editor would present the novel at a meeting with the publisher, who’d get the final say on whether the book would be scheduled or not.

Even with a green-light at this stage, there would be meetings with the art department, covers commissioned, the marketing team would be called in for their input, and then the book would have to be evaluated for it’s market potential – which would determine how big a promotional effort would be planned for the book.

Then there’s final galleys, final changes, final typesetting and corrections, scheduling printing and distribution, and shipping the book to stores.

If it sounds labyrinthine, it is.

I know most of these steps from my time as an editor at a Minnesota-based small press and my interactions with New York houses. The upshot is, even a book from a top-selling author like Stephen King takes time to go from the author’s “final draft” to the books final “to press” state and it’s journey to book stores and library shelves across the country. Even with everything running smoothly, it’s hard to “rush” a novel to press and still promote it properly. So a writer, very appropriately so, has to be just a little bit – excuse the word – psychic, to write contemporary fiction. Even after a writer mails off a manuscript virtually guaranteed to be accepted, the waiting period until it hits store shelves is usually at least a year out, and likely longer.

In blunt point of fact, that makes it almost impossible to really, honestly, truly ever be “timely” with a novel. If print journalism suffers from being hours old and “played out” on cable news by the time a morning paper arrives, just imagine how difficult it is to appear timely if one writes novels that are supposedly “ripped from today’s headlines,” because ultimately, they were probably ripped from the headlines of two-year-old newspapers, or earlier.

So what’s all this have to do with a ROW80 pep talk?

Merely to remind you of the boundless opportunities living in the age of Kindle and other forms of eBook publishing has blessed us with. While those of us who opt for independent self-publishing carry a heavy burden in terms of promoting our books, and there are still necessary delays to make sure a work of fiction is well-edited, tightly written and as mistake-free as humanly possible, one thing I’m not seeing celebrated quite as much is the shorter time-tables this indie route affords us.

No longer to we have to write “two years ahead,” like an unambitious science fiction scribe who doesn’t want to go out on a limb and predict personal jet packs by 2012. No, depending on our writing speed, we can shorten up those timetables considerably.

The Comedy Central animated cartoon SOUTH PARK made headlines when it was in its early seasons by being able to “react and create quickly” in response to current events, such as the Somali pirates, the Tiger Woods sex scandals and the federal seizure of Elian Gonzales. (Remember that?) They were able to create episodes often within a couple weeks of the actual events they were satirizing because they didn’t ship their animation overseas, but accomplished it electronically, in-house.

I’m not suggesting many of us are interested in writing a novel about the BP oil spill or the massacre of Christians in Egypt or anything like that. But some of us might be. And that’s an exciting part of the age in which we write. Without those two-years-or-more lead-times to worry about, we can write a more reactive brand of fiction, if we so choose. If we are skilled and fast writers with beta-readers and proof-readers in place who also work fast, we now have the ability to write reactive fiction. Stories that could, conceivably, be out to readers within a couple weeks of the actual events inspiring them, rather than years later.

Recently, Stephen King published a collection of novellas called FULL DARK, NO STARS. In it, one of King’s stories – considered the best piece in the collection by some – is called “A Good Marriage.” It is the story of a woman who find out her husband has a secret life, full of unspeakable evils, that she had been blithely unaware of until it was revealed to the world at large. King has admitted this intriguing story was inspired by the capture and trial of Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler, who had a wife and children and was president of his local church – but was also a serial killer for over thirty years.

King’s story, “A Good Marriage,” is the sort of fiction piece I’m talking about. It feels inspired by current events, and that relevancy lends immediacy to the fiction.

But here’s the rub: Rader was captured in February 2005. Almost six years ago. As current as “A Good Marriage” may feel, King’s story is reacting to considerably dated news events. The story was first published in Full Dark, No Stars in fall 2010, so let’s call it five years out of date. Knowing that King  probably wrote it at least a year or two before it reached print, we can guess that he actually wrote the story in perhaps 2008, maybe as early as 2007.

Not accounting for how long the news event may have taken to inspire King, is it being too cheeky to say that, had “A Good Marriage” reached print in 2007, only two years after Rader’s capture, it would have had the appearance of being even more timely? I think that’s fair to suggest.

So, how do we take advantage of this?

Well, in a new publishing reality where, once the final edit and proofing is done, all we have to do to get our fiction to readers is convert a Word file to HTML (filtered), run it through MobiPocket or Calibre, and upload it to DTP, we can cut years off our time-to-print. While it may be difficult to become as timely the creators of SOUTH PARK if we’re dedicated to writing high-quality prose fiction, the truth is that if we find an event that inspires us to write a story, we can write our “ripped from the headlines” story and get it into the hands of readers before the public has completely forgotten the events that inspired us in the first place.

While it’s not everyone’s style of fiction – and even I myself don’t often write in this manner – it is a tool we have in our arsenal today, that wasn’t there for my college writing professor back in 1991. While, in a sense, we are always writing to “the future” to an extent, we can be more current, more timely, than any previous generation of writers.

If that doesn’t get you inspired, well… I’m sure someone else’s pep talk will be closer to your cup of latte.

In the meantime, try this: here’s a headline I pulled off The Drudge Report that’s sure to inspire someone to a creative work of short fiction: As of January 5, 2011, this is an actual headline I found at 1:10 AM CST: “Vulture tagged by Israeli scientists flies into Saudi Arabia – arrested for being a spy!”

I know what the creators of South Park could do with that. The question is, what can you do with it?

First one to upload a short story to DTP inspired by that headline wins… well, a lot of respect from me. And sales, I’m sure. Especially if it’s any good.


Craig Hansen