by Cherie Priest
The other day, I was asked how working with the Wild Cards team has affected the way I write my other books and stories. You see, I’m not generally known to be a “collaborating” sort of author; with the exception of my work in Wild Cards and a stint at EA as part of a video game team, I’m usually a one-woman show when it comes to fiction. So in order to answer the question, I have to go back to my own Wild Cards origin story.
Sometimes it makes people laugh.
So here you go.
About ten years ago I got a package in the mail. It was a traditional padded yellow envelope, and I knew from experience that it was likely to contain a book. By then, I’d already been in the publishing industry for six or seven years, and I was accustomed to getting random books in the mail, usually accompanied by a letter from an editor, requesting a blurb. I assumed this was one of those.
I was incorrect.
The envelope contained a hardback copy of Inside Straight, which was the most recent offering from Tor Books in the Wild Cards series at the time. I’d read a couple of the early books and had planned to read more—but a cross-country move had derailed those plans, so I still had them on deck, but not in brain. (If that makes sense.) Inside the front cover, I found a letter from an editor, as expected. I hadn’t expected it to be from George.
In this letter, he invited me to pitch characters for Wild Cards— a call to audition, of sorts. Was I up for the task? You betcha. However, as I shortly noticed…there was no return address through which to respond. No email, no phone, no street. Only a postal mark that suggested which state the package had come from.
I thought to myself, “Self, this is my first test.”
I did know a few people in common with George, and before long I’d reached out via the internet, and shortly thereafter, he accepted my proposed characters into canon. Boom. I was a member of the club!
Okay, it wasn’t quite that easy, but that’s the short version.
It would be awhile yet before I wrote my first Wild Cards story. It wasn’t supposed to be my first Wild Cards story. But here’s the thing: I am stubborn and sometimes a little stupid.
Here’s how it happened.
Some time after I first got on board the Wild Cards train, GRRM threw out an invitation to work on a more or less stand-alone Wild Cards book, set at the Jokertown police precinct in New York City. We were warned that the interstitial story—the frame that threads throughout the book and would hold the narrative together—should probably be handled by one of the established veterans of the series. I was part of a new “generation” that’d been recently brought on board, and there were several newbies like myself in the room at the time.
But, okay. See.
When he released the broad pitch and asked us to come up with stories to suit it…I got hung up on the interstitial. I had this great idea. Or I thought I had this great idea, you know how it goes. So I mocked up a quick pitch, maybe a page long, and emailed it to our illustrious leader. The response was a swift and brutal “no.” I asked why. He gave me a list of reasons that my brilliant proposal would never work for this project.
I sulked for a day or two, then took another run at my pitch. The next version was maybe twice as long, two or three pages, let’s say. The response to this one was similarly brutal, but I managed to take encouragement from it anyway. If I recall correctly, the exact reply was something like, “This is less bad.”
Excellent! Progress! Okay, so (I went on to ask) what would make this not bad?
Bless him forever, George actually told me. So I took his suggestions to heart, and I tried again. And again. I think we were six or seven drafts deep, and the dossier (by that point) had reached maybe 10-12 pages, when he finally told me to stop. Just stop already. We were going to run with it.
The moral here, of course, is “Wear ‘em down until they give up and let you have your way!” I mean, well, only kind of. Persistence is critical in the writing industry, but in real life, the moral is less punchy and fun: If your story is fucked up, and you’re lucky enough to have someone tell you why it’s fucked up, for the love of all that’s holy listen to them and take another stab at it. Or two. Or three. Or six.
Nobody gets it 100% right the first time, I don’t care who you are. We can all stand to improve, some of us more than others. (Points finger at self.)
Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to heed or respect the view of every critic—far from it. But if you’re fortunate enough to get solid feedback from someone whose opinion you respect, for the love of all that’s holy, take advantage of it. I’ve learned more about writing by participating in Wild Cards than I did in four years of college and the subsequent 3-year masters I picked up in the subject. There’s nothing quite like real-world experience to hone your craft, and nothing quite like learning from more established professionals to help you level up your prose game. I feel tremendously lucky to be included in the Wild Cards roster, and I’m a much better writer for it.