Masterful Men of Military Science Fiction

Chris Kennedy, Timothy Zahn, Michael Z. Williamson, David Weber, Charles E. Gannon, and Marc Alan Edelheit discussed writing military science fiction (MSF) on Sunday at 4PM. Kennedy, the moderator, started the program by asking the panelists when they started writing science fiction and what was their first break. Zahn said he watched a bad TV show, felt he could do better, and wrote a story. It wasn’t very good, but he kept writing. This year is the 40th anniversary of his first short story publication. Williamson started writing at age eight. He published his first book after his complaints about rejection letters on the Baen forums drew Jim Baen’s attention. Baen worked with him on his book and eventually offered him a contract. Weber started writing his in fifth grade and supported himself as a writer of nonfiction from age seventeen. When Gannon was twelve, the encouraging feedback from Jacqueline Lichtenberg after she gave a program at his local library led him to keep writing. He eventually sold to Jerry Pournelle via Pournelle’s editor. Edelheit hated reading as a child. He had a learning disability and was slow to read and write until he got into comics. On vacation, he went to a bookstore with his mom, who bought him the novel Planet X. He devoured it and fell in love with reading. He wrote his first book, Stiger’s Tigers, in three months and polished it for a year.

Assuring the panelists it was okay to say they did something well, Kennedy asked them why they felt they were considered masters of MSF and placed on this panel. Gannon, who had to leave for the tech rehearsal of the Dragon Awards ceremony said, “Because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” It was a great exit line. Edelheit said he felt he still had room to grow and learn, and he pushes himself with each book. Zahn said he’s been told he describes his battles in ways that readers can visualize clearly. Williamson preferred to describe himself as accomplished, not a master, with more to learn. He takes pride in the letters he receives from military personnel and veterans who connect to his stories. Weber observed that anyone who isn’t still mastering the craft needs to learn a new one. He feels he’s good at blowing up starships and describing complex action in ways the readers can follow. Despite not having served in the military, he works hard to convey the warrior ethos, the reasons they do what they do and their acceptance of responsibility.

The panelists also discussed things they would do differently. Edelheit was satisfied with his path but said he got a lot of bad advice when he first started. He didn’t know enough to hire a copyeditor for his first book, and criticism in reviews taught him he should’ve done so. Zahn admitted he would have been taller, drawing laughter from the audience, but was happy with his career path. Williamson said he would’ve waited to write Freehold, which he now realizes could be better. Weber believed he would’ve started submitting a decade earlier. When people think they can maybe succeed as fiction writers, he observed, they sometimes hesitate to submit because a rejection will indicate they can’t.

As far as current projects are concerned, the panel had a wide range of ongoing work. Zahn is writing the fourth book of the Manticore Ascendant series. Williamson is writing a sequel to A Long Time Until Now and is in the final stages of an anthology in his Freehold universe. Weber and Kennedy are collaborating on Into the Light, a sequel to Weber’s Out of the Dark. Weber is also collaborating with Jacob Holo on The Valkyrie Protocol. He’s also working on a novel about Alfred Harrington’s service as a Marine. Edelheit has two more books coming out this year and is collaborating with Quincy Allen on Tiger’s Wrath.

A writer in the audience asked whether she would do better to submit her first novel before the others in the series are written or to submit them all as a group. Weber said that depended on the scope of the series. If it’s a trilogy or otherwise finite, writing them all before submitting might make sense. If it’s more open-ended, waiting until they’re all done won’t work. Williamson noted that there are many fantasy trilogies and that sales tend to fall off with each volume. In his view, the first book should be a complete story, capable of standing alone, so if it doesn’t sell well, there’s room to try something else. Kennedy advised that it’s best to have all three done and release them close together if she intends to self-publish them. Edelheit noted that getting a traditional publishing contract or succeeding as an indie publisher is difficult. He agreed with Kennedy about doing the entire trilogy if she’s going the indie route, adding that she also needs a marketing plan to engage readers and, for submitting to traditional publishers, a good query letter.

The last questioner asked the authors how they create such varied characters. Weber said it’s essential to see each one as a distinct entity, with different skills and inclinations, and that a writer must learn how to be different people. On that note, the panel concluded.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.