#NaNoWriMo 2019: Dust in the Wind

This may not seem like an inspirational story suitable for National Novel Writing Month, at least not at first.

I was a huge science fiction fan as a teenager in the 1980s, and as part of that I was a huge Star Trek fan. Back then, we only had reruns of the original series and the cartoon and an occasional movie every few years to watch, so tie-in novels were a significant part of the fandom, and I had my favorites, like Stephen Goldin’s Trek to Madworld or Yesterday’s Son by A.C. Crispin… and I really dug The Final Reflection, by John M. Ford, which was one of the first books to really deep-dive into Klingon culture. Ford also wrote a hilarious run-in between the Enterprise and the Klingons a few years after The Final Reflection, this one called How Much for Just the Planet?

I don’t remember reading much else by Ford back then. It’s possible I read The Dragon Waiting, a vampire novel set in an alternate 15th-century England, but it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d have been reading in 1983. The Scholars of Night, which came out in 1988, does sound like it would have been right up my alley, but by then I was off to college and I didn’t do a lot of pleasure reading freshman year.

Every few years, over the last three decades, something would come up that would remind me of How Much for Just the Planet?, usually in the context of the rarity of genuinely funny science fiction, and how Ford got it just right. More often than not, I’d smile to myself and move on; occasionally, I would think to look up what else John M. Ford had written, and not find anything readily available, and then shrug and move on.

It turns out that all of Ford’s novels except for the Star Trek books had fallen out of print… and therein, as they say, lies a tale.

If you didn’t see Isaac Butler’s essay in Slate over the weekend, take a few moments to read it today. It’s an excellent account of how an acclaimed writer, loved by his peers, fell into obscurity after his death due to an unfortunate combination of personal family dynamics and an agent who had pretty much given up on the business. Now, this story has a happy ending, because Butler inserted himself into the narrative—recognizing that everyone was on board with the idea of publishing Ford’s novels again, they’d just fallen completely out of touch with each other, he made the connections, and the books are coming back next year, and I’m excited to finally read them… or, I suppose, to get struck by one hell of a case of déjà vu.

Well, I guess that turned out to be moderately inspirational after all, maybe?

Except, of course, that the reason the John M. Ford revival is newsworthy is that it’s a relatively unique occurrence. It’s far more common for books to go out of print and never* come back, due to what publishers see as an insufficient demand. Even a story that struck a chord with thousands of readers when it came out might drop off book shelves completely* a few decades later.

(I put *s on “never” and “completely” because the ebook market has changed this situation somewhat, but the risk is certainly still there.)

This isn’t something I’d encourage anyone to dwell on as they write—but I also wouldn’t encourage anyone to indulge the fantasy that their writing is going to grant them a kind of immortality. Neither line of thinking is particularly helpful to the task at hand.

It would be ridiculous to assert that your success or failure as a published writer is entirely disconnected from your ability to grasp your story and to shape it in a way that connects with others. At the same time, that success or failure is not the only referendum for judging that ability, and it’s certainly not the only referendum for judging the merit of your work. And, of course, you can write the book, you can do everything you can to promote it, but success and failure are largely beyond your control.

What’s within your control, though, is the exercise of that ability as you work to discover what it is that matters enough to you that you want to share it with the world right now. If you apply yourself to that, today can be a good writing day.