- Have the misfortune to read Robert Heinlein’s Number of the Beast. Memo to self in future lives: don’t. Experience inspires me to read E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman series. Even bigger mistake. BUT: am left with the idea of a Royal Space Force. A seed is planted …
- Start selling stories. Seem to be reasonably good at it. Think I’ll write a novel.
Slightly later in the early 1990s
- Not quite that easy. Novel about what? Put the idea on hold while various ideas, plots for other stories, themes I would like to explore come together.
- Read the Hornblower series in its entirety for the first time. Struck by an aspect of Hornblower that eluded me as a child: his self-loathing. He is a hero and can never believe it. Every mission he is convinced will be his last. That’s my hero! Blissful ignorance of works of David Feintuch and David Weber, or that the phrase “Hornblower in Space” is destined for cliché.
- Identify other themes I want to explore:
- the United Kingdom in space (see above);
- an alien race with a psychology unlike ours in one particular way, that becomes key to the plot;
- making the switch from reasonably realistic future technology (à la 2001) to whiz-bang future technology (à la Star Trek et al.), all in the course of one book.
- I have my novel!
- Have basic plot in my mind. The UK in space. The aliens. Their invitation, and motivation for same. Most of the title suggests itself at once, with one difficulty: His or Her Majesty’s Starship? Eventually decide on His, and hope this will be the hardest part.
- It isn’t.
- Mental image of aliens is ridiculous: men in rubber suits. Dwarves in rubber suits. Deformed dwarves in rubber suits. Decide to make them quadrupeds.
- Sit down to write opening chapter: washed-up, or burnt out, or both, spaceship captain Michael Gilmore arrives on Mars at invitation of Mad King Richard, ruler of the UK — a pressurised crater — and is offered command of UK delegation starship Raptor. (Trekkies, note subtle pun or play of words on “Bird of Prey”.)
- Novel takes shape. UK moves from Mars to an O’Neill-type spacestation. Comment from colleague: “O’Neills are passé”. UK-1 becomes a spaceship.
- Opening chapter: depressed Gilmore arrives at UK-1 at end of his last voyage before early retirement, summoned by king, offered command etc.
- Raptor renamed Ark Royal. More fitting and increases the word count.
Autumn 1994-Summer 1995
- Contact agent: expresses interest.
- It’s finished! 113,000 words of prose insecticidal in its purpleness. Send it off to agent.
- Wait …
- He takes me on! With apologies for keeping me waiting so long. Enjoy dropping the words “my agent” into conversations with friends, family and strangers.
- Scholastic express an interest in the book. Scholastic? A bloody children’s publisher?? Mortal outrage, but what the heck, I’ll meet them.
- Sufficiently impressed. They’re looking for something meatier than their usual teen fare for a new imprint. David Fickling, publishing director, thinks the book is bogged down with too much detail. Go into meeting forewarned of this point of view and determined to refute it. Leave meeting agreeing with him.
- Here’s the kicker: if he suspects for a moment that I’m just agreeing with him to get the book published, rather than rewriting with my heart in it, he’s not interested. Not that I would just agree with him to get it published … but it concentrates the mind.
- Begin the first of quite a few rewrites: new opening chapter, throwing us straight into the action and highlighting hero’s tactical ability. Space battle, kill a few people. All good stuff. Also a bit of intrigue added in later chapters.
- The *&~!!£$ git doesn’t like the rewrites! Huge despondency, but begin to see the problem. I added more plot, but left the excess verbiage in as well. Hugely helped by David’s recommendation to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander. O’Brian’s characters just slide into the action: Aubrey has been through some considerable scrapes prior to the novel’s opening and we only hear about these second-hand.
- Also cut anything that doesn’t directly relate to the action, including (though it breaks my heart) chapter 8, where the alien Arm Wild interviews the crew. Novel now down to 92,000 words.
- Meeting at Scholastic … They lay on sandwiches for lunch, which I take as a good sign. Thrash things out with David and his assistant, Ben Sharpe. Comment by David: “don’t I remember a chapter where Arm Wild interviews the crew? I quite miss that …”
- Restrain homicidal impulse. Eyes opened to the principle that anything that develops the characters is acceptable, even if it doesn’t contribute to the action. Interview reinstated.
- Decide on final look and feel of novel. If I can do a satisfactory rewrite, they’ll publish it … D. Fickling once again uses his amazing powers to convince authors he’s right.
- Still believe this. How does he do it?
- Send in final draft, 100,000 words. Slightly altered ending from the original, but still conveys the gist of what I wanted. And to my amazement, it really is the story I originally wanted to tell. The man’s a marvel.
Slightly later in 1998
- Proof stage! And — bloody hell — it’s one signature too long for its price range. Choice: cut 16 pages, or put it up by a pound. I cut the 16 pages. Humiliating to realise your book has 16 dispensable pages in it, but an invaluable exercise.
- His Majesty’s Starship hits the bookstands.
No, but seriously …
My agent’s precise reason for sending the book to Scholastic was, and I quote, “Gilmore seemed to me a sort of modern day Biggles and the level of sex and violence would not have raised the collective eyebrow of readers of Captain W.E. Johns.” As Gilmore, in the draft he read, was a divorcee from a group marriage with a teenage son, and there is an alien sex scene in chapter 16, I disputed this point of view, but it’s amazing the effect having a publisher actually express interest will have on you.
I stayed with Scholastic for my next novel, Wingèd Chariot, and took my third novel The Xenocide Mission to David at Random House when they took him on as a necessary adjunct to acquiring Philip Pullman. He now has the MS of my fourth. Given my initial feelings about being a children’s author, what changed?
First of all I had been put off Scholastic by horror stories from a fellow author whose novel had been published by Scholastic’s imprint Point SF and systematically neutered to make it suitable for a young audience. (Or rather, one suspects, for the young audience’s parents.) Practically my first card on the table when I met David was that the alien sex scene stayed. “Absolutely,” he said cheerfully. (He says a lot of things cheerfully, including his careful enumerations of your novel’s precise faults.)
And I was struck by all the pluses of dealing with David, as opposed to the horror stories I had heard of other publishers. Incompetent editors who want to be writers themselves and fiddle at every stage; who have no idea of science fiction beyond Star Trek; who bow to the High Priests of Marketing and tell you to put the sex here, the extra 200 pages there, and where’s that dragon when we need it? And all for a product that ultimately will have a life expectancy that makes a mayfly look good, because that’s how the bookselling system works.
I was bowled over by an editor who encouraged me to cut. Not willy-nilly, but surgically. Cut this, yes, but expand that, because you leave off just when the reader’s getting interested … you see? And yes, I did see. David never lifted a finger to fiddle with the science fiction — that was entirely my own. He just concentrated on the story, and I came out the other end of the process a convert to the demands of children’s publishing: proper children’s publishing, not plot lobotomy as is sometimes practised. Just tell the story, then stop. That’s it. No more. Let it be as long as it needs to be. And you end with a story to be proud of: the story you wanted to tell.
I still had to stay on my toes; there were those within the Scholastic empire who clung to the old ways, and David couldn’t control everything. Like, a frowning copy editor changed one character’s “Sod it!” to “Damn it!” We compromised on “Nuts!” (I had a vision of the guy wandering the corridors of New Commonwealth House muttering “Sod it / damn it / nuts / sod it / damn it / nuts …”, perhaps looking to see which of his colleagues swooned at what.) Strangely, the occasional utterance of “Christ!” caused no upset at all; a sad reflection etc. etc.
But with all these pluses, there is a big downside, and that is that your book goes straight into the children’s section of the bookshops. Anyone who comes in on a whim to buy an sf novel is more likely to head home clutching a tired spinoffery hackwork piece than your own magnum opus, and all your friends and relations will search for it in vain in the sf section. (Also, Wingèd Chariot was saddled with a hideous Janet-and-John cover that I believe seriously damaged its credibility when more grown-up readers looked at it.) But there is a plus side to being in the children’s section too — your shelf life is much longer than it would be upstairs. Go into a bookshop looking for this book that you’ve heard of, now out a few months (because that’s how long the reviews take to get into print), and it might actually still be there.
In short, here are the pros and cons of being a children’s writer. The pros: you’re writing for an audience that can appreciate good writing but gets immediately restless with waffle. You learn to get the story telling right. The cons: you have to work twice as hard yourself to get your book noticed by the people you want to notice it — the science fiction community.
Ultimately I’m neither an adults’ nor a children’s writer — I write to please myself. But if, in the real world, that translates as “children’s writer” then I’m quite happy with it.
Copyright © Ben Jeapes 2003. Not to be reproduced without permission, but feel free to link to it.