Under the Influence: Eric Flint




     I've described elsewhere on the site how I managed to end up getting published through the clever strategem of insulting the editing skills and moral choices of Eric Flint in his editing of the James Schmitz reissues. Here, I want to talk about the influence Eric has had on me outside of that specific sequence of events.


     People who read some of my older postings (in the 90s and before) would likely see, at some point, my mentioning that I wouldn't detail some particular idea because I intended to use it in my writing, and other statements to similar effect; overall, in short, being concerned that people "out there" might steal my ideas. This is far from an uncommon attitude. In fact, most if not virtually all new authors or would-be authors have this attitude that "Ideas!" are precious things and that the other people out there want nothing more than to steal them.


     This attitude makes sense in technical fields, where "ideas" are specific patentable innovations that, once understood, will allow your potential competitors to do something you intended to do and make money from. It doesn't, however, have much to do with the game of writing fiction, and this is one of the things Eric pointed out to me, at length, in several conversations.


"Ryk, no real author wants to steal ideas. We've got way too many of our own." He went on to point out that even if you did steal someone's idea, the result would almost certainly be drastically different, and showed me some of the most conclusive proof: in the Golden Age, there were several times when an editor would give the same core idea or inspiration to three or so different authors and ask them to write a story built around that idea or inspiration. Without fail, the stories produced varied so drastically that it was virtually impossible to realize that they'd all started from the same point.


It finally sank in that an idea for a story doesn't lose its value just because someone else has it. How many times has Romeo and Juliet been rewritten? How many variants are there of The Count of Monte-Cristo, if you look not just at the literal copies but the things the idea inspired?


Once I thought about it, it was obvious; after all, looking at it from the other side, how much of what I was trying to write was, actually, new and not just a modification of something old? I'm hard-put to find anything truly new in anything I do; I can always find a source for it somewhere. The basic rule of thumb in science fiction and fantasy is that any brilliant idea you think is brand new was almost certainly already done, and done at least twenty years before you believe it could have been done… and sometimes centuries before you believe it could have been done.


In many ways, accepting that set of truths was very freeing; I didn't need to worry about telling someone some idea, unless what I was trying to avoid wasn't theft of my idea but simply spoilers – I didn't want to reveal plot twists that might be better enjoyed when the story was actually written. It was also ironic, in a way; had I learned not to be jealous of my ideas some years before, I might have posted a bunch of notes and such I'd developed for my universe… and those notes would not have been forever lost, as they are now, after a couple of basement floods.


Another common attitude – this one, alas, not limited to new writers or even just writers – was the idea of people pirating your work after it was published. I was originally of the opinion that such pirates were a threat to any form of profitable publishing, and they deserved as much punishment as could be brought to bear.


Eric, however, was the brains behind the Baen Free Library. He bet that putting up some of Baen's books for free could boost sales – even though the book was, in fact, available for free.


He won that bet many times over; the most obvious example being David Weber's On Basilisk Station, the first Honor Harrington book, whose sales (after quite a few years in print) were down to the usual anemic flow of a long backlist. Then it went into the Free Library… and immediately became Baen's best-selling title. For a long time. Well enough to justify a new, cheap hardcover edition.


I was still not entirely convinced – I wondered if it was a novelty thing. After all, at the time there were no Kindles and the idea of reading a book on a screen was a very marginal thing. Eric said, "Ryk, honestly. The biggest enemy of an author isn't that some asshole – and they are assholes, I won't argue that – will steal your book and spread it around the net. It's the fact that nobody knows who the hell you are. I sell pretty damn well, but I'm sure I haven't reached a tenth of the people that would like my books, if they'd ever heard of me. You haven't reached a thousandth of them."


And damn it all… he was right again. Maybe J.K. Rowling's got more than 50% of the people who would like to read her books, but I doubt anyone else has. If a few thousand people get a pirated version of my books and that spreads my name around so a few hundred actually BUY it, I'm winning, not losing. Yes, the pirates are still jerks; they're rude, intruding on my business like that. But they're not some monstrous threat to the industry, and in cold, hard realistic terms they are at worst an annoyance, not a threat, and at best they are unwitting advertisers who aren't even getting paid. (If they do charge money, that's when the gloves come off. If you wanna be a jerk for free, fine, but if anyone makes money off my books, that's gonna be me. And my publisher and possibly agent, depending on the book, but the principle's the same).


But Eric Flint also taught me something much more important: how to write better, in a way that nothing else could have taught. He chose to co-write with me, and while I still write things my way, I think I've gotten a hell of a lot better at writing my way because he made me think about what "my way" was, by giving me the chance to see what he did – to watch how he did things.


You see, I've never learned anything about writing by a conventional means – read this book, take this class, and so on. I only learned to write by doing it. I think that's true of a lot of writers, and I think Eric recognized it was certainly true of me. He also felt, I think, a responsibility to make sure I didn't just end up falling back through the cracks; the "mentoring" tradition of Baen had been started by Jim some time back and Eric obviously took it seriously. So after Digital Knight was out, he bounced the idea which became Diamonds Are Forever at me, and after giving me a couple of general pointers, let me write it, with his name attached. He admitted that there wasn't much he added to it after the initial concepts, but as he said "If there were justice in the world, my name wouldn't even be on this thing. On the other hand, with my name ON it we'll sell a hell of a lot more pieces than we would otherwise." I was perfectly cool with that.


It was a very different story with Boundary. As it turned out, Boundary (or the story that became Boundary) was a story Eric had been wanting to write for quite a while, but he'd found he was missing something, somehow, when he tried (which he'd done twice). After reading Digital Knight and seeing what I did with Diamonds, Eric said he knew what he was missing: the easy integration of high-tech ideas that gave the story a feel of solidity in those areas. The sensor-related stuff was ideal for a story like Boundary, and from that was born A.J. Baker. Together, we hammered out the outline – we discussed it, I wrote it up, he then called up and said that there were parts of it that just didn't work (some of them admittedly his) and so we hammered on it again, and after a little longer a real story started to emerge.


Boundary was, by the end, about 60% mine and 40% Eric's. Eric's greatest contribution, in my view, was reworking and perfecting Madeline Fathom and her boss. My original draft made Madeline a much colder, dangerous person, and her boss was positively sinister; this was partly from the fact we had, earlier, a more adversarial setup planned to happen at Phobos. But Eric saw there was a greater potential in making it so there were no enemies, per se, and he was completely right.


Eric was also responsible for giving me reality checks on things like practical politics. Oh, we fudge some things for dramatics here and there, but a series like Boundary needed to be mostly believable, and so even when we did introduce a villain in the series – Mr. Richard Fitzgerald – he was brought in from motives that were less James Bond and more Rupert Murdoch. If there's anything even vaguely believable in the political interactions in the series, that's Eric's doing – even if I've done the actual writing, he's the one who reined in my preference for high melodrama and forced me to cut it back.


It's been a great deal of fun to work with Eric, too; we come from drastically different backgrounds but he's both funny and sharp as a box of razorblades, and when he starts throwing ideas out I have to be ready to catch them with Kevlar gloves. We're just starting now on another series, which I'm a good way through outlining. The latter – outlining – is something else Eric taught me to do, or, rather, pushed on me until he convinced me I could do it. I still don't like it – I prefer to write and find out where the story's going, overall – but now I can do it when I need to, and for a collaboration like these you pretty much DO need to, at least in a general sense.


If any one person can be credited with my having a writing career, that one person is Eric Flint. I'm very, very lucky to have picked the right guy to pick a fight with, back in 2000.


Thanks, Eric!






  1. I really like the insights into how working with Eric has improved your writing, I’m not usually that interested in how the sausages get made but this was fascinating.

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