Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Where I’m at

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 happened there?

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 gone.

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 catch.

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.

Keep watching.


  1. Speaking as a reader, what throws me out of historical fiction is when the writer makes a big deal out of something that would be the norm to a person of those times - the smell, poo in the streets, that sort of thing. An awful lot of historicals, especially YA historicals, feature 21st century characters who just happen to be dressed in houppelands or stays or whatsodamnever.

  2. "OMG," Elizabeth complained, "how I dislike having my inconveniently long dress trail in the dung that inevitably lines our streets in this day and age. If only a way could be found of putting it straight into underground pipes that will take it away for safe processing so that no more children have to tie tragically young of cholera."

    "LOL," Mr Darcy agreed.

    I know what you mean. As an example of a story that conveys its historical setting quite naturally, I thought the Keira Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice mostly succeeded - with the exception of Ms Knightley herself, who backed up every verbal thrust at Mr Darcy by thrusting her face aggressively into his and dropping her jaw open, exactly as a well brought up young Regency gel would not.

    (We just had to accept that the union of Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn would produce Ms Knightley in the first place: don't see it myself.)


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.