Byron Preiss (1953-2005)

Science fiction publisher/editor/writer/packager/entrepreneur Byron Preiss died in a car accident last Saturday, while driving to his synagogue in New York. He was a significant figure in the SF publishing world (and not only SF—he published in many areas). I learned of his death from my agent, who said, “It is shocking beyond belief and the entire publishing community is stunned. Although Byron was controversial in many ways, he was a friend, and he left a wife and two young children.”

I didn’t really know Byron personally—I think I met him only once or twice. But recently he brought out a new edition of my novel From a Changeling Star under his iBooks imprint, and he was planning to do the same with Down the Stream of Stars. Years earlier, I wrote my novel Roger Zelazny’s Alien Speedway: Clypsis under the aegis of Byron Preiss Visual Productions. It was a quick project that turned out to be great fun in much the way the Battlestar Galactica novel was, and a project that brought me new readers and more fan mail than I’d gotten from all my other books combined. I had had hopes that he would one day reissue it through iBooks.

Byron had a wife and two daughters, just as I do. One of them was 16 years old—the same age as my older daughter, as of two days ago. That’s what hit me the hardest.

There’s a fuller tribute to him at


I’ll be at Readercon off and on this weekend. Readercon is one of the best conventions for people who really love written SF and are interested in hearing serious discussion of SF as literature. That doesn’t mean it’s above silliness, mind you. One of the major events is the Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition, which is a combination of total silliness and an appreciation of the finer points of style (bad style). If you’re in or near the Boston area, check it out (click the link above for more info).

I’m on a panel tonight (Friday) on the Hal’s World memorial anthology, a tribute to the late great Hal Clement. I’m autographing Saturday at noon. And moderating a panel Sunday at 1 p.m., called “If This Goes On.”

See you there!

Cosmic Whack-a-Mole

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By any standard, the great thumping whack delivered by the Deep Impact probe on Comet Tempel 1 has to be considered pretty cool. I haven’t seen any video yet, but for full coverage of the mission, along with the “Top 10” still photos of the event, I suggest a side trip to I can’t add anything useful to what they’ve said there, other than to wave people into the auditorium.

The impact does put me in mind, though, of John Bandicut’s (and Charlie’s!) game of cosmic billiards in the first book of my Chaos Chronicles: Neptune Crossing. In that case, they were out to demolish an errant comet that threatened Earth—and using the same nifty alien technology that got them to the comet, convert the energy from the impact into a spatial translation that zipped our friends off to Shipworld, out at the edge of the galaxy. We’re not to that point in our technology yet, alas. But maybe someone like the quarx Charlie will come along and help us out one of these days.

Go see that coverage now.

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia — at Boston’s Publick Theater

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The other night I went with my daughter’s drama workshop group to see the opening performance of Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, at an outdoor theater in Boston called the Publick Theater. It was a wonderful performance of a witty and funny play, with two parallel plots set in the same English country house two hundred years apart, involving Fermat’s Last Theorem, the thermodynamics of steam engines, a literary detective story, a possible murder involving Lord Byron, and naturally, sex. It’s one of those plays that you have to work hard to keep up with—but it’s a pleasure, because it’s so much fun. I hope to see it again during its run, to catch all the details I missed the first time around. Terrific cast.

For any of you who are in the Boston area, I strongly recommend it. Arcadia is playing now, and off and on through the summer. (See the Publick Theater web site.)

Re: Ideas

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I came across this the other day, and thought it apropos:

“My stories run up and bite me on the leg—I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.” —Ray Bradbury

Questions About Writing #7: Will You Write It For Me?

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This one pops up every once in a while—in fact, it happened again not long ago. Someone emailed me saying, I’ve worked out this great idea for a story. Would you like to write it for me?

Well, actually, no. I wouldn’t.

The polite explanation of why I wouldn’t, to which I always refer correspondents, is on my web site at

It used to surprise me when people did this. I’m not surprised anymore, but I still find it very odd that someone who has an idea he or she is proud of or finds compelling would even want to turn it over to a complete stranger—even if the stranger were willing. Of course, most people who propose this think they’ll hand the idea to you, you’ll do all the work, and then split the vast earnings fifty-fifty. Right. (Of course, they probably also guess that writing is a lucrative business. Anyone want to take a second guess?)

Like most writers, I have files full of ideas for stories, things I might get to someday if inspiration strikes, and if I live long enough. Given that writing is very hard work, and very iffy in terms of financial payback, why would I want to take time away from my own stories to write yours?

Unless you’re offering to front the money, of course. And that’s why writers are willing to set aside some time to do things like write movie novelizations or spin-off novels (set in the same universe as a movie or TV show). It’s because there’s a certain amount of guaranteed income, because it’s fun if you enjoyed the original, and because it’s almost certain to sell well and be really good advertising for your own books. It’s not like everyone who reads your Star Wars or Star Trek (or Galactica) novel is going to run right out and buy your other books—but some of them will. And you’ve gained a lot of visibility.

But back to he-who-would-have-his-story-written… my bottom-line response is, don’t you want to write it yourself? It’s your idea, your passion. Don’t just talk about it, get in there and do it! Give it your voice, your personality. That’s what writing is all about. Yes?

Writing Question #6: What’s It Like to Write a Movie Novelization?

Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries was my first movie novelization, and a refreshing experience. First off, it gave me a welcome breather from working on the long-delayed Sunborn, coming as it did just as I finished the first draft of that book. Secondly, I enjoyed the miniseries and loved the acting (Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell were terrific, and so were the others). It was just plain fun to work in that world and sort through the details of the story. (Sidelight to that: my daughter Julia is homeschooling, and we made it an assignment for her to watch the DVD with me, and compare the action onscreen with the written script. Many differences.) Third, it forced me to work at a fast and furious pace, which was good. I didn’t have to make up the story—it was already there. Many of you have probably already seen it. If not, I recommend it, from the SciFi Channel.

But that doesn’t mean it was all easy-sailing, either. I found some unique (to me) challenges in writing this book. Turning a story on screen into a novel is not a simple matter of transcription, even though I was working from the actual show on DVD—and even though I tried hard to be faithful to the story as it appeared, including the dialogue.

When you’re writing the novel, you have to flesh out things that go by quickly onscreen, or get left out altogether, perhaps due to time constraints. This was a 4-hour miniseries—3 hours, without commercials. They had to work very hard to squeeze the story into 3 hours, and a lot wound up on the cutting room floor (either literally, or figuratively—in scenes not shot or perhaps not even written). This meant writing new material to bridge gaps or abrupt transitions, and there were many. Or to fill in background.

What surprised me more was the amount of… how shall I put it?… re-imagining needed to tell on the page a story that’s already been told on the screen. Things happen fast onscreen, and as a viewer, you don’t always have time to think about what you’ve just seen, and whether or not it makes sense. I’m not talking about large plot elements, so much as details and pieces of dialogue and motivation. The show’s writers are trying to compress the action, and sometimes the results—which might be perfectly acceptable to a viewer—are less persuasive when you see them laid out on the page. (This is not a criticism; it’s a fact of life.) Things have to be explained. Motivations for even small actions have to withstand a reader squinting at the page and going, Hmmm.

The challenge, then, is to tell the story without changing it (much), reproduce the dialogue without changing it (much), and tweak it or bolster it in just the right ways to make it work on the page as well as it worked onscreen (or better, if possible). It’s not always easy. But it’s generally pretty interesting.

Oh—and it gave me an excuse to write about flying. I always love writing about flying.

Galactica’s Done! Plus Other Cool News

That’s all she wrote: Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries: the Novel is finished and turned in. Big sighs all around. Initial reaction from my editor is very positive. (He’d read the whole thing less than 24 hours after I sent it to him—a first for either of us.) The book is going into an accelerated production schedule for publication next winter. I’ll post more definite details as they become official. The publication stuff is all tentative right now.

Meanwhile, the other cool news is that my younger daughter, Julia, just won national ranking in the middle-school category of an international SF short-story writing competition. The competition is sponsored by Eurisy, which as far as I can tell is an educational consortium of many European space organizations, including the European Space Agency. Students in 18 nations are submitting SF stories depicting life in space, each to go through a selection process at the national level, with each nation’s top two in middle school and high school going on to the international competition. The U.S. entries were judged through the National Space Society. Julia’s story is one of two selected by the U.S. judges to go on to the international competition. Excited she is, yes. And so are we.

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