Sue Bolich In Memoriam

S. A. Bolich and Other Worlds
Holly Ingraham

Susan Bolich (soft CH, as in niche) was born on Peonie Prairie, a horse farm outside Spokane, Washington. She grew up with Saddlebred horses, horse packing through the Cascades, and riding in Western drill teams with her family. This casual expertise with wilderness, horses, and the rural life shines through in so much of her work. Later, she studied and competed in jumping and in formal dressage.

She put herself through college with Army ROTC, and was a fine enough shot to go to the annual Camp Perry competitions. She took her BA in 19th century history, especially military history. Her specialty, on becoming an officer, was military intelligence, in the midst of the Cold War. Her ability to interview defectors in Russian took her to Europe, where she never missed a chance to travel around. She married her immediate supervisor, Tom, and for twelve years they “were joined at the hip,” as she said.

Naturally, the Army assigned them to different parts of the world. To keep the marriage together, Sue resigned her commission.

It was as a military wife that she found time to write. She had written a short story that her high school English teacher got her to submit to science fiction magazines, to no avail. She had written an entire novel, Winter of the Ways. But now the world of Arielan and its Prince Alarion possessed her, and, to the background beat of Beethoven, she wrote the first third of the Fate’s Arrow epic in a few weeks. The next year, the rest of the story arrived, and she got it down in a few months. She was simply a natural at blitz-drafting.

This became something she poked at, but still had to learn how to rewrite and edit. She and Tom were transferred to Texas, where she had a calligraphy shop (an industry shot down by the rise of the personal computer). They finally escaped a climate they hated, but Sue‘s mother died, only 18 months after a diagnoses of breast cancer. The stress seemed to bring out the unsuspected cracks in her marriage, and it failed not long after. Divorced, she came home to Spokane and the support of her family. She had other projects in the wake of Fate’s Arrow, like When Han Walked Alone, that made it all the way to the final cut at Baen, only to come back unsold after all.

Sue and I met online in 1996, at a listserve mailing list sub and crit workshop called Novels-L. Still a pretty good place to take your mystery, thriller, domestic drama, or adventure story. Sue was subbing The Mask of God at the slow pace allowed. I wrote her a fan letter over the courtyard scene when Alya gets his birthday horse, and said she needed to write a book on how to write about horses for all the writers who don’t know but have to have horses in their stories anyway. We got pretty thick, because she enjoyed the WWII period of the historical fiction I was subbing, and we both loved Andre Norton. Sue collected everything by Norton, even the early histfi, and was very proud to finally get hold of Ride Proud, Rebel and Rebel Spurs to complete her collection.

One thing we agreed on: the critters at Novels-L weren’t helpful for those seriously into fantasy and scifi. Oh, there were other writers, but they seemed to have arrived with no more background than movies and a few YA stories. Carlton Hommel, with his urban fantasy, agreed. There were too many demands for all the answers, right now, explain it all, rather than letting the revelations unfold. There was no knowledge of the established conventions, so that common devices, from blasters to ansibles, led to demands for what we knew would be infodumps to editors in the field. Other mss were full of re-inventing the wheel and, yes, super-infodumps to show they had their science down (just get on with the story, like Mr. Kipling taught us). Simply, they didn’t know how to read specfi (in the terms of Gunn) or what the modern adult market was like.

Sue and I put together a proposal for the lists master to start a new list, F&SF-L, complete with rules. However, the administrators felt that the list would take away enough people from Novels-L that it might die from lack of participation, while our new one would probably never really take off. Forty people, they declared, was the minimum for a list to survive.

Grumble, grumble.

Sue went to work for a software company in Spokane, Insights. She wound up at lunch with the head of the company, talking about how some of us would like our own online workshop. No problem, said the boss. She would not only give us the server space, but have one of the techs work up a limited access site for us.

So was born Other Worlds Writers’ Workshop, as a sign-in forum with the submissions held on line for people to access as they liked.

Only one thing did Insights want in return.

We had to provide something to encourage writing in young people, teenagers. She didn’t think an online venue was a good place for younger children.

One thing that griped Sue and I about both Novels-L and Critters is that they were all ages. Anything with adult language or events or themes had to be offered privately on the side, which never seemed to work well with getting crits back, since people didn’t get crit credits for doing it. We had wanted our F&SF-L, now OWWW, to be assumed adult reading matter.

Flurries of emails shot back and forth. We finally agreed that we could offer a “how to write” workshop for teens, with all the things we wish someone had told us back in high school about the business of writing, not just “be creative.” We also agree we could run a more-closely supervised workshop for graduates from The Keys, which would be about how to workshop and how to crit others helpfully, as well as how to write. We would be raising new members for OWWW, eventually

As I was working from home at the time, I volunteered as having the more flexible schedule. I drafted The Seven Keys, and we volleyed it back and forth, editing, filling out, making up examples. Sue had the fortune to have an old-fashioned grammar-stickler English teacher, while I was a product of LA City Schools, though accessing the latest in grammar reference. I typed up short stories when I could find them bad enough, while Sue could OCR some of them.

The problem with a new workshop is that, if everyone has to crit before they can sub, where do you get the first things to crit? Sue and I gave ourselves leave to throw a few old things in the slush bin just to get the ball rolling. Carl Hommel joined us. We were up for several months, but hadn’t yet acquired a first class for The Keys.

Then came the bad news. Insights had run into financial trouble. Not only was Sue losing a job, but we were losing our site. Carl to the rescue: he pointed out that there were these new email list services, nowhere as humbug as the old list-serves. So we moved ourselves over to iLists (IIRC). This was later subsumed by eGroups, which in turn was acquired by Yahoo!Groups.

And so in 1998 OWWW came to Yahoo. Finally stabilized, with a steady influx of people off Yahoo’s search engine, we decided to offer The Seven Keys for adult writers who, like so many of our new members, might know how to write okay, but didn’t know how to crit. After teaching it for several rounds, I tightened and compressed it to The Six Keys. Revision has remained constant, both to stay up on the field, and to improve it off the feedback from the people who take it. Basically, it has always been tweaked, if not massively rewritten, once or twice a year.

At this point, one could say that OWWW was on its way to an independent existence. For various reasons, we generally wound up with Sue the Axe doing the monthly participation, and removing lurkers, while Holly the Broom kept the chaos in Files under control, and ran the secondary lists.

When some people complained about frivolous chatter cluttering up the lists — just the crits, ma’m, just the crits — we started OWWWnoise to discuss hockey, poutine, celebrate finally finished an edit or a chapter, and run blitz challenges, like Last Week, starting in 2001. When someone complained that blitz challenges didn’t work for them, we set up Thunder Drafting, where people were supposed to commit to their choice of so many words per day or week for months, come plumbers or alien invasion, to get a draft done. We tried OWWWRomance, for those with F/F/P romances to get critted, and OWWWRoughs for those who just wanted a little super-positive feedback on completely rough drafts, just to help them pull through to the finish.

In 2001, Sue received her own diagnosis of breast cancer. After her mother’s death, this was definitely terrifying. She did well on surgery and chemo, but it was a wake-up call. She examined her stock portfolio, left the job she loved teaching web design at a tech college, and sat down full time to make publishing more than a few short stories happen. She kept up her riding, training a new horse, Beau, to replace the Thoroughbred ex-racehorse, Gallow, that had to be put down. She continued going out with the Back Country Horsemen, to repair trails in the Cascades, and she spent good time with her family.

She was no sooner getting better, than her father came down ill, and died.

Carl Hommel left us when we started to bug him about becoming a “professional critter”: all crits and no subs. As is often the case with pro critters, he was becoming less helpful, even damaging, while concentrating on making himself look clever. This is fine for movie critics, but not a workshop.

Sue invented the Short Story In A Week. Getting a list of words from anyone who cared to volunteer them, she would randomize out a list of five (later, two lists of five). Members had seven days to figure out a short story, 2000-20,000 words, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, that used all five words. Quality was optional! This had the additional benefit that twice a year, in March and September, we had an influx of new short stories, needing crits badly, for everyone to work over.

One of the hardest working on these was Sue herself. She made it a challenge to herself to do a story for each list. As she said, this gave her eight to sixteen short stories in a year, of which some had to be saleable. As the lists were randomized, she had no head start. We found the lists were great to kick writing out of ruts, because they demanded thinking so far away from one’s usual concerns, moods, or even genres to make those words work.

At 2008, for our tenth anniversary at Yahoo, we rewrote and updated the rules for OWWW. The old one had been based on the problems we had seen at Novels-L. Admittedly, we tended to over-write them simply to stave off barracks lawyers trying to find loop holes to game the system. We had years with sixty members, and times when we were down to a dozen. A dozen people who participate is still a good list. Novels-L had it wrong.

Sue had cleared five years cancer-free. In the meantime, she finally followed her friends’ urging and started attending the professional conventions. Not the fan cons, the media cons, but those of writers and editors. She quickly wound up on panels, if for no other reason than she was willing to volunteer, and was comfortable with audiences.

More short stories sold. She made contacts with editors of anthologies, either to place stories she already had or write new ones to their anthologies’ themes.

Finally, in 2011, came her contact with Sky Warrior Books, and the agreement to publish Firedancer.

“Yeah, how I wish I had known Firedancer was going to end up a series. Frack, it is difficult to a) write to a contract and b) spin out a stand-alone story to encompass an entire thread you hadn’t given one brain cell’s worth of thought to. My muse is coming through but it would have been nice going in to know where the thing was going. Just don’t do like I did with DL [Devil’s Lieutenant] and go back and write prequels. Now, *that’s* hard to pull together when the story wants to go somewhere that isn’t in the later book, which I don’t want to rewrite to accommodate those changes.”

In 2012, she found the work around the stable left her with considerable pain in the back. Checking with her doctors, she found out the cancer was back, in her spine and ribs. Chemotherapy cleared it out, but left her with weak, riddled bones that couldn’t handle the work load she was used to demanding of her body. This, as much as the chemical fog and fatigue interfering with writing and editing, left her frustrated and down.

“This summer was all pain and no gain on any front. Seaborn crawleth onto the page, rewriting is at a standstill, and subs are nowhere. … Once more summer has slipped into fall and I didn’t go camping even once. And I have barely ridden at all since the docs freaked out in May over the bone scan. Sigh.”

One thing she had learned in life, though, is that some things just have to be got through. She focused on her writing, while her family kept an eye on her.

“And the Christmas tree, which I am hoping to persuade my brother to cut for me when he comes up tomorrow. God bless him, he has been coming up every couple of weeks to split wood and stack it on the porch. I thought I could handle bringing up a few pieces tonight on the tailgate of the truck, only to end up in tears (not all of pain) because it was nearly impossible to carry two at a time through the house to dump on the front porch. The change in lifestyle is devastating, after a lifetime of simply being able to do whatever I want, any physical activity at all. Muck stalls, move rocks, split wood, pull fences. Ride. It will be a least a year before the holes in the bones fill in, and forever weak after that. Sooo… I will be adjusting for awhile, not happily, but necessarily.

“Meantime, I thank God for family, and will fill my house with fresh fir scent. And battle curious kittens batting at the ornaments. And be grateful for all of it.”

In 2013, the nights in Germany with Beethoven finally paid off.

“So, after 20-odd years in the drawer, a couple of rounds of critiques on this list, and a lot of leisurely (real, real leisurely) revision, I accepted my publisher’s demand, er, offer for more of my work and sold them this trilogy. Some of you may remember critting it a few years back. The trilogy will be called “Fate’s Arrow” and I don’t know when the first book will be out. I just sent The Mask of God, book 1, to them today.

“So yeah, CJ Cherryh is right. Nothing sells in a drawer. ”

In 2013, she announced a sale to a different publisher, for a book with a different flavour.

“I sold In Heaven’s Shadow, my Civil War ghost story/fantasy/magical realism/NaNoWriMo project from 2004, to Taliesin Press this week. It was critiqued here a long time ago, got revamped a couple of years ago, and finally went out of the drawer a couple of weeks ago.”

By spring of 2015, her tests and scans “were shockingly bad.” Her doctor gave her 3-6 months if the new chemo didn’t manage to help, which it might not have. This pushed her to self-publish Out of the Vaults, her collection of the Museum of the Arcane short stories that kept cropping up in SSIAW, generally to cheers by people who got to enjoy them.

Through all this, she still gave her time in wonderfully helpful crits to all the writers at OWWW, led the SSIAW, while training others in the workshop to take over. Me, I had backed myself out, for fear of becoming another pro critter, though she pulled me back to teach The Keys.

She got lucky. In August of ’15, she was going out helping to horse-pack and mule-pack ten-foot logs into the mountains to build trails, camping out for days, and basically having fun while she could.

Early in ’16, she was making a point of catching her favorite astronomical object, the Orion Nebula, for what she felt would be the last time, as spring took it out of the night sky.

She once told me her religious feelings could be summed up as, “God is in the heart of a hawk.”

She created, nurtured, and passed on the torch of OWWW. She made it to October 4, 2016. I wonder if she got up early some morning, to catch Orion as it rose into the last darkness of the night as winter began. Whenever I see it in the course of my night work, I think of her.