Monday, October 22, 2007

Ghost-Writing the Work of a Favorite Author

As noted elsewhere, I've written several collaborative novels and non-fiction books. I also ghosted a book. The collaborative novels included The Odysseus Solution with Dean Lambe, and two with Mack Reynolds. Among the non-fiction titles were a word processing book and a telecom book written with Jerry Pournelle, Pournelle's PC Communications Bible. and, of cousre, CROSLEY.

My ghost-writing credit was the 1986 book Rogue Bolo, by Keith Laumer. I'll explain how I came to write the book, but first a few words about Laumer and his "Bolo" series. Rogue Bolo was one of a series of novels and story collections about immense, self-aware fighting machines--the descendents of today's tanks--that Laumer created back in the 1960s. (He was also noted for the creation of Jame Retief, interplanetary diplomat who was sort of a future James Bond with a sense of humor).

The typical Bolo story is told through viewpoints, including that of one or more Bolos. Much is put into showing how powerful and invulnerable these machines are. Bolos can ravage continents, and have a masterful knowledge of military strategy, tactics, and history. Scenes from war are few; many tales involve a Bolo awakening (or being awakened) from a completely powered-down state with minimal reserve power. The awakened Bolo is often missing part of its memory, and believes it is still in a battle zone or has been tricked by the enemy into thinking the war is over. It is ready for action, even though it may have been buried under tons of rock and dirt or set up as a monument after being deactivated. The trouble begins as soon as the Bolo awakens and decides it must take action. Sometimes the action is prompted by the memory loss, and sometimes by an outside stimulus that may or may not be an enemy from the past ...

I wrote this sort of by default. Laumer had had a series of incapacitating strokes, and publisher Jim Baen asked me if I knew the Bolo series, and did I think I could write like Laumer. I had of course been reading Laumer since the 1960s, and the Bolo series was one of my favorites. Baen had already scheduled the book, and it was obvious that Laumer would not recover in time to complete the manuscript on schedule.

Baen gave me the 20 or so pages of manuscript Laumer had completed, along with a partial outline, and I took it from there. My name would not appear on the cover, nor anywhere else in connection with the book; Laumer, Baen told me, would have gone berserk. Besides, because Bolos were Laumer trademark, my name on the cover would only have confused readers.

Luckily for me, Keith Laumer was a fairly straightforward writer with a competent workman-like approach to style. And I knew his work as well as I knew Heinlein or Clarke, having read it for years and years. I kept my collection of old Bolo stories close to hand to help me hew to Laumer's style, and whenever I was in doubt about how to write a scene I found something similar in an existing Bolo work to serve as a guide.

Laumer used a few unusual techniques in the Bolo series, but they were easy to analyze. There was a lot of viewpoint shifting, enough that a long tale might have 200 or more chapters, one for each viewpoint. This technique was also used to drop in background that would have required a lot of gratuitious narrative; instead of having a character explain matters, or writing a lengthy backstory, Laumer would drop in a news story excerpt, a few lines from an interview, someone's military report, a scene with a couple of walk-ons, whatever--and that would be a chapter. With the current story narrative (including dialogue) strung among these background chapter-ettes, the story grew step by small step.

The Bolos themselves were the point and carried the story, but at least one other major character (normally human) was part of the tale. Recurring bit-part characters like Georgius Imperator and Lord Margrave filled in background and at times moved the story along. The result might be light-hearted or sentimental, but it was always fun.

When I first read Laumer's work in my teens, I would have laughed at the thought that I might some day be writing under Laumer's name; it's just not the kind of thing one thinks about. I like to think that I wrote it as Laumer would have (he passed away not long after the book came out). Save for a few personalizations--names of people I know for characters, for example--the book stands in the tradition of Keith Laumer.
Copyright � 2007, Michael A. Banks

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