You can find lots of books about how to write anything from essays to novels. You can find lots of books about conducting business as a writer—seriously, lots of legal guides, licensing books, etc. If you dig into the how-to section you’ll even find books on worldbuilding, constructing languages, alien biology. There are many, many resources for the uncertain writer of their first, or second book, or even third book.
For some reason, though, there are few books on how to wrangle the challenges of a decades-long career. This is something that’s been on my mind while finishing the rewrites for Sword of the Alliance, the first full-length Alysha Forrest novel.
Yes, I know. Lots of you are eyeing Either Side of the Strand right now. But Strand was not the first Alysha novel I wrote, Sword was… and I wrote it in 1998.
*counts on fingertips*
So, yeah. Ancient (and justified. *cues 3 AM Eternal by KLF*)
Sword was the third full-length novel I completed as an adult, and it was an ambitious one. Despite being a pantser by inclination, I outlined it with great rigor, and the result was a briskly paced adventure novel in line with my plans to market the Alysha books as military SF. As an avid reader of military SF, I dearly wanted my own series, and Alysha is one of my oldest characters; I have drawings of her, and badly written shorts about her, dating back to my early high school years. But Sword had a lot of flaws, most of which were the result of my ambitions outstripping my experience. I was too young to pull it off, and I didn’t know it then. My first readers at the time eviscerated it, and their scathing commentary stayed with me for decades. I had written a “bad book”, and I moved on. Quickly.
Which was fine, except that Sword was part of the canon of the Peltedverse, and when I started releasing other Alysha stories, references to it cropped up in those stories. Why? Mostly because of mental laziness. I’d written the story and in my head, it helped formed the characters and where they were going next. It was so powerful an incident, in fact, that I never considered ripping it out of the timeline. Sword happened, no matter how badly I’d fumbled its execution, and I went on about my business as if I was writing the story for myself, and not for an audience.
But, you know, I wasn’t just writing for me. And readers started picking up Alysha’s stories, and asking questions. This left me with the unenviable choice of sidestepping those questions, retconning the whole thing, or… shaking Sword out and seeing if I could rehabilitate it.
“What do you do when your older work is part of the canon and it doesn’t fit your mental conception of where things are going” is not an issue I see a lot of ‘how-to’ books addressing, but if I’d found one I would have scooped it up in a heartbeat (George Lucas probably would have first; I am sympathetic to his waffling over Hans's shooting first). But there was no such helpful guide, so I went back into Sword, determined to figure it out on my own. And I discovered that the bones of the book were good. Were, in fact, excellent. Young Jaguar-Writer-Me did a lot of things right—in particular, despite a general uneasiness with getting events from A to Z, she almost completely nailed that adventure plot, thanks to her unusual-for-her-then decision to outline it. What she’d lacked was something she couldn’t have swung, which was the life experience necessary to make a book of unexpectedly serious problems feel genuine. It took four revisions, the last of which added 68 pages, for me to realize Young Jaguar's ambition, and I’m really pleased with the results. It feels like a collaboration between Older-Me and Younger-Me; I think she would have been pleased.
But that brings me back to the Alysha stories as a whole. It seems odd to realize that I’d once intended the Stardancer novels to be the Peltedverse’s flagship series. When I started on Sword and Strand, Reese and Hirianthial were barely a twinkle in my eye, and if you’d told me they would spawn an entire branch of Eldritch-themed Peltedverse novels that would become the calling card of the universe, I would have been baffled. The Peltedverse, I would have told you, was supposed to be a military SF adventure universe, like a cross between Sassinak and Star Trek but with more aliens. But while the Alysha novels were languishing, in large part because the critiques of Sword had driven me to other stories, the Eldritch books showed up and swept away all those plans… and as a consequence, the Stardancer series was left to flounder. It’s hard to reframe your universe as a setting for the next military SF epic when you’ve already set it up as Guardians of the Galaxy with elves.
But this is where the perspective of decades of work in the same universe comes in handy. Because as I’ve returned to Alysha, I’ve found that there is a theme in all her stories, and it’s persisted since the very first Alysha story. Young Me ignored it as an uninteresting worldbuilding aside because she was so focused on producing the next Herris Serrano novel that she didn’t stop to wonder if her efforts might have been better spent elsewhere… and to be fair to Young Me, the introspection and the new experiences that would make those themes come to life for readers were still in her future. Now, I see it, and I have a sense at last for what to do with my oldest canonical character.
Do you wonder what that theme is? Those of you who’ve been with me longest might have seen it, in the final, fateful conversation between Alysha and Matthew Brighthaven in “The Piece That Makes the Difference.” Those of you who are new to Alysha’s stories have probably already identified it, because it’s the heart that beats in stories like Who is Willing. The Stardancer books are about the culture change in Fleet as the Chatcaavan war makes humanity’s push for a more military bearing essential. And having seen it at last for myself, I know what future Alysha novels would be like, if writing them becomes financially viable.
Will they? I think they’ve got a better chance now that I know where we’re going.
So you can expect Sword in less than a month, and it’s a novel I’m proud of, and comfortable with, after two decades of uncertainty. It stands alone well as the first full-length Stardancer novel, but Alysha’s existing fans will find plenty of callbacks to her earlier stories to delight them. I am, in fact, writing one of those stories now: the short that tells how Ensign Forrest went to Phoenix-Nest, an incident referred to several times in the canon. This short will be available only to coffee-cup patrons and newsletter subscribers, so when it’s done, you'll be the first to know.
I find I'm looking forward to fitting Alysha properly into the canon at last.
Here’s the first scene of the Phoenix-Nest short. As you can see, we’re going to have a lot of fun with it. Enjoy!
“Hope you’re not afraid of heights, Ensign, because we’re off to Phoenix-Nest!”
Alysha Forrest, caught in the act of rising to face Lieutenant Vera, almost stopped at the Harat-Shar’s cheerful words.
“I… beg your pardon, sir?”
Vera advanced into the ensign’s compartment and grinned, propping her hands on her hips. “Yes, that’s what I said too when they told me I was leading the security detail.” She pointed at Alysha’s bunk. “Sit.” When Alysha did, the woman began pacing—prowling, really. Alysha had been on the Diamondwing for almost two months and she was still mystified by Vera. Homeworld-bred Harat-Shar, with their reputations as libertines and voluptuaries, did not seem a good fit for the military, even one as lax as the Pelted’s; one expected most of the Harat-Shar in Fleet would be colony-worlders, or bred on multicultural worlds like Selnor.
And yet to date, Alysha had not met almost any Harat-Shar in Fleet who hadn’t come from their homeworld. Vera, a leopard-patterned pardine, was no exception. That she fit into Fleet with minimal friction never ceased to baffle Alysha, because like a stereotypical Harat-Shar she flirted, joked, and brazened her way through almost every exchange she had with anyone, superior officer, peer, or subordinate. But despite what she said—or how!—she worked incredibly hard, had a sixth sense for even the slightest evidence of a slipshod job, and had a mind as sharp as a razor. She led her crop of ensigns by shocking them into compliance with all her unexpected dichotomies, and while Alysha was entirely sure this leadership style wouldn’t work for her, she studied it anyway, and took notes. Mostly out of bemusement.
“So, I’ve got our marching orders, or rather, the ship’s got its,” Vera was saying, as she paced the small corridor between bunks. “We’re ferrying an ambassadorial team to Phoenix-Nest for a reprise of the ceremony that saw the Phoenix inducted into the Alliance. They do it once every twenty-five years, so thank your lucky stars tonight that you get to come along! Because Fleet supplies the honor guard, and that means racking up some hours in the limelight where everyone can see your face and be impressed by you.” She grinned, all teeth. “It’ll be great for your record. Mine too, of course. And an easy job, because no one expects us to do anything except stand there and make everyone else look important because we’re there.”
“I… see,” Alysha said.
“It’ll be a twenty-five man detail,” Vera continued, tail flicking as she walked. “Which is why I want you as a second.” She paused, tapping her chin. “And now you will ask me why I picked you out of all my crop of ensigns! And I will tell you it’s because you’re a nicely steadying presence, Ensign, and you don’t fluster easily. Also, you’re decorative.”
Alysha, who’d been wondering if she should explain that she hadn’t been planning to question her lieutenant about her choices, closed her mouth abruptly.
Vera grinned. “Yes, yes, I know. It’s not fair, but people who clean up well get more opportunities than people who can never seem to show up in a neat uniform. You have the ‘Fleet poster girl’ look. It’ll make for excellent viseo stills.” She struck a pose. “I, of course, always look good. In stills or moving pictures.”
Which, Alysha reflected, was manifestly true. Vera was a sleek and dangerous-looking woman, from her golden eyes to the tip of her tail, and there was never a hair out of place on her immaculately groomed body or a strand astray in her short bob, the edges of which were so perfectly cut they looked machined. She was fit like someone who used the gym for at least an hour a day because she did. Alysha knew, because she was usually there at the same time.
“Anyway,” Vera said, “before I officially second you to this detail, I want to make sure you’re good with it.” She tilted her golden head. “You don’t precisely seem shy, but I get the feeling you’re avoiding attention.”
Saying that she wasn’t wouldn’t change Vera’s opinion, because by her standards anyone who wasn’t throwing themselves into the middle of the fray was a shy wallflower in need of encouragement. So Alysha said only, “I’d be glad to help, sir.”
Vera beamed. “Excellent. Good. You need to spend a little less time pushing other people forward and a little more time selling yourself, if you know what I mean.” Any time Alysha would have had to react to the unfortunate wording was lost after the next few words: “I think it’s admirable, you know, and I see you’ve taken your duty to develop and protect your peers and your specialists seriously, but you can’t be so busy with other people that you fail to put yourself in front of the superiors who would promote you.”
Alysha looked up, ears sagging.
Vera bent, resting her hands on her knees, tail a long curled arc behind her. Gently, she said, “You can do more of that when you’re captain. Or higher. But to make captain quickly, you have to be noticed. Do you get what I’m saying here, alet?”
“Yes,” Alysha answered, still surprised.
“Good.” Vera reached over and chucked her under the chin with a chuckle. “I like you, Forrest. Consider this my career-nurturing moment. On your behalf. I already look after my own career.”
“Excellent. I’ll go take care of that now. Expect a mission brief in an hour. Ever been to Phoenix-Nest?” At Alysha’s headshake, the Harat-Shar grinned. “Me neither. Do your research and I’ll circle back to you when I’ve got the details down.”
“This is going to be great, alet. You’ll see.”
And then, as usual, Vera was gone, taking her enormous presence with her and leaving Alysha bemused. Nor was she the only one because Nai’esh, the only other ensign off-duty, slowly levered his head out of the head, his long ears comically splayed.
“I know,” Alysha said.
“Oh good,” he said. “Then I don’t have to comment. But seriously—”
“I know,” Alysha said again, laughing this time.
He grinned and his head slowly disappeared behind the coaming. A jokester, Nai’esh, but the Aera didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was just very good at physical comedy, and resisting obvious opportunities was beyond his otherwise serviceable willpower. From in the head, he added, “I don’t envy you, though. You know how tall the Phoenix build their cities? Brrrr. No thank you.”
“Not jealous then?” she asked, only teasing a little, because she wanted to know.
“Not in the slightest. In fact, don’t even show me the stills, the backgrounds will give me nightmares. Brrr.”
That was when Alysha started to worry.