Once upon a time there was a young man with the twin ambitions, not incompatible, of making it big in publishing and becoming a successful writer. How did he do?
Well, the publishing happened, for a good few years. It didn’t
take him long to discover that the bits he enjoyed most were editorial work and
hands-on production. The bits that are actually more necessary, from a business
model point of view – acquisitions, marketing, royalties, accounts in general,
strategy – tended to leave him cold. His ambition to grease his way up any of
those particular poles was therefore limited from the start, which led to a career of middling editorial sort of work – books, journals, more books, more
journals, more books and oh, a magazine –culminating in the creation and
liquidation of his own company. After that he rather felt he had had his fun in
publishing and looked around for something with a compatible skillset
requirement. Thus he found himself working in communications for a large
computer network, which via a stroke-of-the-pen-change to marketing lasted for
seven years – the longest this once aspiring publisher had held down any job.
Redundancy struck – for the first time in a nearly quarter of a century career,
which face it, isn’t bad – and cast him out into the world as an aspiring freelance
technical writer, with the understanding that his former employers would be providing
about a quarter of his work. No one told that to the marketing drone who
replaced him and he was chronically underused, so more by chance than anything
else he found himself employed fulltime once more as technical author for a firm
that manufactures scientific instruments. His job title is now Communications
Executive and to his huge surprise he has ended up in charge of advertisements,
amongst other stuff, despite never having bought anything based on an advertisement in his life.
No, it isn’t where he saw himself 25 years ago. But it pays
the bills and it leaves time for the other.
Stop sniggering, I do of course mean the writing. What
Well, it all went swimmingly at first. The writing was very
specifically science fiction – okay, and fantasy if pushed, but sf most of all. That was 90% of his reading so it was going to be his writing too. Stories were sprayed at Interzone and other outlets - but mostly Interzone - until a few stuck. An agent was acquired,
novels were written and even sold. Four in total. And then?
Well, that company that I, I mean he … I … he … oh, okay, I (you’d
guessed, hadn’t you?) founded. It published science fiction. What else was this
life-long sf fan going to publish? And it broke the subject. I’ve never been
able to work out why. Maybe I looked too closely at what goes on behind the
scenes – I saw the wooden supports that hold up the sets and suddenly could no longer
suspend the disbelief. I can still read it but the drive to write it had just
There again it’s possible I had just told all the stories
that were bubbling inside me. I wrote a few more pieces, using up the last of the
ideas bubbling away in the background, and they continue to bubble on
slushpiles on either side of the Atlantic. If a publisher shows interest then I have no doubt my own interest will rekindle. But life is too short for writing on spec, and unless they do get taken up then there won’t be any more like them written for the foreseeable.
And I was introduced to Other Stuff. For a while I became
Sebastian Rook, writing the first three of the Vampire Plagues series – Mayan vampires
in Victorian London, for readers aged <=12. That was fun, and I could use my
genre experience (though I say it myself) to deliver that little extra to the
plots. The plot for book 1 came ready made; I made some suggestions that were
retrofitted into the series background; I was consulted heavily on the plot for
book 2; and for book 3 we all sat down in a room together and hacked the plot
out from scratch.
That led – same editor, different publisher – into ghostwriting for a Real Life TV Celebrity, not genre at all. At least, not my
usual genre. But genre of a sort, and nicely paying too. Rather like a series
of H-bomb tests causing something ancient and terrible beneath the Pacific to
stir, this caught the attention of my agent, who had not had a lot to do
with my career in the intervening years but whose attention I badly needed to
At his suggestion we are now working on a series of historical
adventures, and fingers are crossed as to its success. I have come to the conclusion
that every historical writer should be an sf writer first. No one knows they
are living in the past. As a rule, everyone lives in the most present and up to
date world they have ever known, even if it has standards and mores that are utterly
alien to cultures that actually come later. For them this is normality and it
must be presented as such, with all the important differences signalled to the
reader via some means other than an “As you know, Bob” speech every couple of
pages. A 32-gun frigate may seem quaint to us but it’s as exciting as a
starship to a young man from the late eighteenth century.
And so that is where I am. By a series of utterly logical steps
I am a publisher and science fiction writer who is not currently working in
publishing or writing science fiction, and has a lurking suspicion that this is
How It Is Meant to Be. At least for now. And really quite happy about it.