First Book Friday: Martha Wells

Welcome to First Book Friday. You know the drill…

Today we have Martha Wells (marthawells on LJ), who has the coolest writing routine ever.  From a 2009 interview, “I write full time now, so I pretty much just get up in the morning, surf a little bit, and then start writing.”  All that’s left is to combine the two activities … which would make an awesome author photo!

She’s written both original work and Stargate tie-ins, but today she shares the story of her very first novel.  As a special bonus, Martha has posted that first book online for free at her web site.


I wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. Even back in grade school, while writing and illustrating stories about the Godzilla movies on Saturday afternoon TV and drawing elaborate maps of Monster Island, I wanted to do this thing, before I really understood what this thing was.

I started to write and submit short stories in college.  My parents never knew, but I chose Texas A&M University solely because it was listed in a directory of active SF/F fan groups in Starlog Magazine, and it had a student-run convention.  I took a writing workshop class taught by Steven Gould through the university’s Free U, which offered classes in everything from conversational Japanese to bowling.  Over the next eight years, I went to more workshops, including Turkey City, where Bruce Sterling gave me some of the best advice on what worked and what didn’t work that I’ve ever heard anybody give.  I got even more into fandom, I went to SF cons and helped run them, I wrote fanfiction for fun.  Eventually I was in a writers group with Steven Gould, Laura Mixon, and Rory Harper that met regularly.  I continued to write and submit short stories to magazines, and did not sell one single one.

Somewhere along the way, I’d had my imagination captured and held by Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies and the dirty, gritty, vividly alive image of 17th century Paris.  I read Alexandre Dumas, watched the PBS/BBC series By the Sword Divided.  I started to write a fantasy novel, The Element of Fire [B&N |  Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon], and I based my world on 17th century France, but with magic and with fairy as a real every day threat.  Nobody in my writers group, possibly in the world, thought I’d finish it, but I’d been working up to this book for years.  It wrote it slowly, during breaks at my first full-time job in computer support.  In the evening and on weekends, I edited print-outs and hand wrote new material, because I didn’t have a home computer.

About midway through the process, I got very lucky.  Steve Gould had been contacted by a relatively new agent actively seeking clients, and he gave the agent my number.  I talked to him on the phone, with very little idea of what I was supposed to ask or how things were going to work.  I sent him the first half of the book, and he agreed to represent it when it was finished.  It was kind of a shock.  (If that sounds easy, I made up for it sixteen years later when I left him and went looking for a new agent.  That’s a long, fraught story for another time.)

Finally I finished the book, and my agent submitted it to a publisher who originally showed some interest, but then turned it down.  Then he submitted it to Tor, and incredibly, amazingly, they bought it for $3000, more money than I had made in my life at any one time.  It took two more years of contract wrangling and two revisions before the book was actually published in hardcover in 1993.

Since then I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I’m doing this thing I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s the best thing ever.