Dead Authors

This is something that’s been stuck in the craw for a looooong time now. It has to deal with people who, for whatever reason, decide that they’re going to write a dead author’s works. Now few have the gall to re-write a dead author’s work to ‘improve on it’, and I’m quite sure that there is a special place in hell for those people. It’s the real reason that I have a strong dislike and disregard for a particular third-rate author out there, beyond his inability to ever come up with something original on his own.

Next you have the people who wish to write stories in the existing universe of a dead author. These people I’m fine with actually. As long as they stay true to the universe, that’s about all I’d want to see. But regardless of whether or not they do, they’re at least trying to do something original and hopefully they got whatever permissions needed and again, hopefully, they’re trying to pay some respects to an author that they enjoyed.

The last group are those who try to pick up a dead author’s characters and write new stories with them, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Now, before I start, how many albums did Jimi Hendrix release after he died? Dozens if not hundreds. You may ask how that came to be, that a famous musician released more albums after his death and the answer is simple: They took all of his studio recordings, the stuff that he felt was shit and not good enough to release, and they released it. (Yes, I have listened to people who knew Jimi Hendrix and they’re the ones that talked about this – they were not pleased).

I bring this up not to cast dispersions on those who would try to continue a dead author’s works, but to make the point that we authors have a lot of shit lying around that we will NEVER publish. Because we don’t think it’s good enough. We may use it for inspiration at some later date for a new book (I’m actually thinking about that right now) but I think I’m gonna put in my will that my unpublished works are to remain just that – unpublished – after I die.

Now what brought this on was reading that they’re going to release ANOTHER Karres book. ‘Witches of Karres’ is one of my all time favorite books. It has had an impact on my writing, if you’re a fan of mine and you should read it, you may even see some of it. James H. Schmitz was, and is, one of my favorite authors. Yes, his stuff is very dated, but you have to remember the times when it was written and the themes remain very much intact today. The Telzey Amberdon stories are also among my favorites. I’ve read just about everything the man wrote and there are times I’m sorry I didn’t try to meet him (I didn’t live all that far from him for a number of years and met one of his good friends once), but I’m not the type to search out ‘famous’ people. I figure they’re already busy enough without me bothering them.

But I digress.

When I heard that this group of authors had written a sequel to ‘Witches of Karres’, I was excited. The three authors were all people with experience and established names. So when I got the chance I picked it up.

I couldn’t get past the first chapter. It sucked. Now, I don’t know if it was a matter of ‘too many cooks’ or what, but honestly, these people just didn’t know Schmitz, they didn’t know his bones. They didn’t ‘get’ him.

First of all, Schmitz was a short story writer. He wasn’t a writer of novels. He only wrote six novels in his entire career and if I recall correctly two of those were collections. His main forte was writing short stories. He wasn’t really a novelist, and while most don’t understand it, there is a significant difference in the two forms of writing.

A brief aside here: I started out as a novelist. My first real writing was a novel which thanks to bit rot is lost to all time (which is fine, it sucked) my second attempt was ‘Children of Steel’. I wrote another novel (Danger Money) and as I couldn’t find an outlet for that work (pre-web days) I stopped writing. I then discovered an outlet, but I could only submit short stories. My first attempts weren’t very good, but with the help of Gerald Perkins and more than a few things that I read, I figured it out. Then I wrote nothing but short stories for years. Dialene is actually three different short stories stuck together to make a novella.

So switching back to writing novels was not an easy task, but I did (obviously) figure it out and got back into it. So I have a lot of experience with writing each and I understand the very basic differences between the two styles. Schmitz wrote his novels as a collection of short stories. My book ‘Shadow’ (written as Jan Stryvant) was a collection of short stories. They weren’t even written in the order that they appear in the book, (also I never intended to publish them, but that’s another story). When it was suggested to me that I publish them, I reworked them into the correct chronological order, then tied them together so that they flowed.

When I look at Agent of Vega or Witches of Karres or The Universe Against her, it’s obvious that Schmitz was still writing them as short stories and then stitching them together. It’s like the difference between an album that’s just a bunch of songs and a theme album. Yes, it’s one story, but the ‘breaks’ are still there.

So when I picked up the sequel and the first thing I see is the story is picking up exactly where Schmitz left off in Witches, I knew they didn’t get him.

First off, Schmitz had more than enough time to write a sequel to the book, yet he never did. Oh, he may have considered it, may have even made some notes about it, but the fact is: he didn’t do it. So any notes or unfinished work he may have left lying around, was left lying around for a reason: He didn’t think it would work.

Second off, if you’re going to write a sequel, you need the damn break! You cannot pick up an hour or a day later. You cannot pick up with the humorous denouement of the story and run with it! It’s the damn denouement, it wasn’t meant to be picked up on! If you’re going to carry forward with anything about the ‘baby’ vatch in the next book, the only way to really do it would be as a series of ‘remembered’ lessons, or snide comments made by Goth. That is very much a tell don’t show, like when Captain Pausert discusses how he got rid of all that junk cargo.

I can’t comment more on the book, because I didn’t want my childhood memories destroyed. I don’t know why they picked the authors that they did to write the sequel(s). I don’t know if an editor said ‘I think these will do well at it’ or if they asked for volunteers. Whichever it was, they failed miserably on the hook, and the hook is the most important part of the story. If you can’t get that right, well, there’s no way you got the rest of it right.

James H. Schmitz was one of the three authors whose writings had the biggest impact on my style. Robert H. Heinlein and Roger Zelazny were the other two. Yes, I would love to see another Karres book about Pausert, Goth, and The Leewit. I daresay I know how to write one. But I won’t, not even for myself (and trust me, it was something I thought about many times years ago when I was starting out) because James H. Schmitz has died, and I don’t want to be the one digging up his grave. Let him and his characters rest in peace.

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