His Majesty’s Starship, part 3: a bloody children’s publisher?

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Slowly but surely His Majesty’s Starship approached completion … and approached it … and approached it. For a very long time indeed I was almost there, with just a couple of thousand words to go, and I simply wasn’t writing them. I self-diagnosed the problem, which was that I had a life and I was unwilling to lose it. The solution was to start getting up earlier, writing before going to work. It’s a habit I’ve kept.

Placing it with a publisher was quite atypically easy. Two friends from my writers group already shared an agent, Robert Kirby. Robert had been sufficiently tickled by their descriptions of the group to ask if he could have first refusal if any of the rest of us ever wrote a novel. I sent His Majesty’s Starship to him in August 1995, shortly before the Glasgow World SF Convention, which was my first worldcon. He finally accepted it, and me as a client, in January 1996. I had an agent! For a while I enjoyed dropping the words ‘my agent’ into conversation with friends, family and strangers.

(I recently came across an old letter from Robert thanking me for introducing him to his latest client, one Alastair Reynolds. Purveyor of retirement plans to agents, that’s me. No finder’s fee, sadly.)

And then Scholastic expressed an interest in it.


A bloody children’s publisher?

Robert’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.

Further, I had been put off Scholastic by hearing horror stories from a friend who had had a novel published by their Point SF imprint which was systematically neutered to make it suitable for a young audience. (Or rather, one suspects, for the young audience’s parents.) The approaching middle age, divorced heroine became a teenager. At one point, in the original draft, she comes down first thing in the morning and finds the boyfriend having breakfast, with the implication he had stayed overnight; now he had to walk up the garden path first thing in the morning and ring the bell to be let in.

I don’t know who edited that book but it certainly wasn’t Scholastic’s David Fickling, a boundlessly cheery Roy Hudd lookalike and publishing genius. (All my writing breakthroughs seem to be thanks to someone called David: Fickling, Pringle, Barrett …) Practically my first card on the table when I met David was that the alien sex scene stayed. “Absolutely,” he said cheerfully. I was to learn he said a lot of things cheerfully, including his careful enumerations of your novel’s precise faults.

David was the man who had signed Philip Pullman (Northern Lights had just won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction) and was looking for something meatier than Scholastic’s usual teen fare for a new imprint. Robert forewarned me that David thought the book was bogged down with too much detail. I went into the meeting determined to refute this viewpoint and I left agreeing with him. I also saw how it took far too long for the story to get going, and it finished too soon – about three quarters of the way through the book, with a lot of mopping up after. I needed to rewrite it so that it ended at, you know, the end.

The kicker was: if David suspected for a moment that I was just agreeing with him to get the book published, rather than rewriting with my heart in it, he wouldn’t be interested. Not that I would have just agreed with him to get it published … but it concentrated the mind.

This began the first of quite a few rewrites: new opening chapter, throwing us straight into the action and highlighting Gilmore’s tactical ability. A space battle, a few people killed. All good stuff. I sent off the rewrite.

Early 1997: he didn’t like it. I began to see the problem: I had added more plot but left the excess verbiage in as well. David did me a huge favour for life at this point by recommending that I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander, first of the Aubrey series. 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.

I applied this to the novel and I cut out anything that didn’t directly relate to the action, including (though it broke my heart) chapter 8, in which the Rustie Arm Wild interviews the crew. That chapter was the key one to introducing not only the crew but also the alien mindset to the reader. The novel was now down to 92,000 words, from its first draft of 113,000.

Back to Scholastic, and David courted death with a casual comment along the lines of: “don’t I remember a chapter where Arm Wild interviews the crew? I quite miss that …”

I restrained my homicidal impulse and learnt the lesson: anything that develops the characters is probably acceptable, even if it doesn’t contribute to the action. The interview was reinstated.

In January 1998 I sent in the final draft at 100,000 words, and it was accepted. And despite all the twists and turns over the last two years, it really was the story I originally wanted to tell.

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 seem pensionable, because that’s how the bookselling system works. (Note: further on and many years later, I still have yet to meet any editors who match this stereotype … but I was young then and, like it or not, the stereotype exists.)

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 their offices in 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.

The learning experience continued right up until the end. At proof stage, I was told it was one signature too long for its price range. Books are typically printed in multiples of sixteen pages – eight pages get printed on either side of a large sheet of paper which is then folded and trimmed. That is a signature. My choice was: cut it by sixteen pages, or let Scholastic put it up by a pound. I cut the sixteen pages. It’s humiliating to realise your book has sixteen dispensable pages in it, but it was an invaluable exercise.

His Majesty’s Starship was published in December 1998. My author copies were delivered while I was at work on the last working day before Christmas, so I had to go and collect them from the depot. As I drove away from the depot, with the holidays ahead and my first novel in the boot of my car, the radio announced that Peter Mandelson had resigned from the cabinet. And then it played the third part of Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, a piece of music I really enjoy with a triumphant trumpet fanfare.

I was pretty pleased with myself and with life generally.

Still am.

Life goes on …

It enjoyed modest success and some fairly nice reviews: I still relish the tingle when I saw SFX had awarded it more stars than the other book on the same page, a Star Trek: Voyager novel. It went out of print in 2002. A few years later I did a print-on-demand version because I was still getting a trickle of enquiries. And then I heard my friend Cheryl Morgan was starting a new e-book publishing company …

Andy Bigwood did an awesome cover for it – see above. It’s now available as both software and treeware (i.e. e-book or print).  The original Scholastic edition was also published in America under the utterly baffling title The Ark … presumably as in Ark Royal, and in deference to the United States’ anti-monarchical past, and because if you want an exciting novel about starships, obviously you go for one named after a big wooden boat. But that is out of print too, and the only edition available anywhere for new has the right title. The one God intended. His Majesty’s Starship.

Accept no substitutes.

The Unexpected Sequel

The short version: my novel The Xenocide Mission is re-released in print and on Kindle.

The longer bit: I am aware of the financial realities of publishing; I know that publishers like to know an author has more than one novel inside them, and that very often said novel will be a sequel. I am not averse to sequels or serieses (they are overlapping circles on a publishing Venn diagram). Without moving my head very far from where I sit, I can get the entirety of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series staring back at me, and my life is richer for it.

But I have never set out to write a novel with the intention from the start of following it up. A very helpful early bit of writing advice was that a novel should be about the most exciting thing that has ever happened to the hero. I still stand by it, though I would add “up to that point of their life”. This doesn’t preclude writing a sequel, but it should certainly make you pause a little. Bujold managed it, by and large; Miles’s life gets more and more interesting as it goes on, and when she’s got as far as she can go, she shifts attention to other characters. Other writers’ heroes have followed a distinct bell curve of being interesting, but I couldn’t possibly name Orson Scott Card or any other offenders.

For the 1994 Milford I took chapters of my space opera in progress, His Majesty’s Starship, which was very definitely planned as a standalone novel. I wrote it with an aim; that aim was achieved. Feedback was positive, helpful … and unexpected, in that when I explained the background plot (alien race wants help from the humans) an immediate reaction was: the aliens want us? With our history? Why? Can’t they do better? Milford does that – if you’ve got a blind spot, someone will spot it, never fear.

So, by the end of that crit session I had spontaneously generated a race of warlike aliens who had, for reasons no one including me quite understood, wiped out the native life on the next planet in their own solar system. Sooner or later they would discover faster-than-light travel and emerge into the galaxy as an active menace – so, for my friendly aliens, time was short.

That fixed the plot point, but what was I going to do with these aliens? They didn’t fit into the novel and I couldn’t possibly leave that point open. Fortunately, the same session made the criticism that my hero was a bit bland. He needed more background. He needed a family! An eighteen-year-old son Joel also generated spontaneously from the ether.

And these two things together, son + warlike aliens (with a smattering of inspiration from New Scientist), gave me enough material to write The Xenocide Mission, in which we learn exactly why the aliens did what they did. And yes, they did have their reasons.

I plotted a large chunk of The Xenocide Mission whilst staffing the company stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 1998. This had the advantage of looking a lot like actual work, and people who came up to me with work-based queries actually apologised for interrupting. Well, quite, art was happening. But I graciously answered their queries.

The Xenocide Mission did okay; it made it into Waterstones, which is more than His Majesty’s Starship ever managed. It paid off its advance, so, royalties. Early in the new century I got the chance to feel very futuristic and science fictiony when I was asked if I would like to include it in Random House’s fledgling ebook programme. I gaily signed away the rights, not noticing in those days of electronic infancy that there was no kind of reversion clause …

As of 2017 it was still in print, occasionally sending a trickle of pennies my way in royalties, more usually holding payment over until next time for not crossing the royalty threshold. Eventually I decided enough was enough and asked my agent to see if he could get the rights back. Random House promptly responded that it wasn’t out of print because it was available electronically and always would be … I pointed out that we knew it wasn’t OOP and were asking them to make it so, given that royalties were negligible and surely costing them more to administer than they got back. I also prepared a host of arguments exploiting ambiguities in the original contract and addendum, prepared to try and wear them down until they just gave in … And then, lo and behold, my superior logic work and the rights reverted. Just like that.

So, here we are: The Xenocide Mission, lightly edited (but only lightly; by and large I take the Pontius Pilate approach to standing by what I have written) and available in print and Kindle.

Footnote 1: Two versions meant sending Amazon two copies of the rights reversion letter from Random House, proving that I was allowed to do this. In fact, for the print version it meant sending off several copies: I had to make changes to the typeset content and it seems that at every stage of the printing process, something triggers the Amazon protocol droids to ask again and yet again whether I have the rights.

Footnote 2: When I tried to launch Amazon advertising campaigns for both versions, they were declined as I was using a very generous quote provided by Al Reynolds for the original edition. This was not a verified customer review … I know the limits of my patience and I know how far anyone gets when arguing with the protocol droids, so I de-Reynoldsed the ads and they seem to have gone through. But here it anyway:

“Anyone who missed Ben Jeapes’ first novel, His Majesty’s Starship, missed one of the best first contact books in a long while – a gripping, logical, original and fundamentally optimistic retake on one of SF’s richest themes. Brimming with humour and tension, The Xenocide Mission amply fulfils the promise of its predecessor.” – Alastair Reynolds.

So there.

Aten’t dead

Image from http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1028345-game-of-thronesCor, nearly a year since I last did any kind of blog post. A record, and not a good one.

So here’s an update. I’m still here and I’m still writing. Since the last post we’ve moved house twice. We moved into rented accommodation so that our old building could be rebuilt and made safe for habitation – and therefore, the buyer who had just agreed to buy the place when we discovered the need for the work could finally get a mortgage. It took 18 months from her first expression of interest to the sale going through, but she hung on. Then, with lots of lovely cash in the bank, we bought a new place. Frankly it was all frazzling enough even with the security of renting somewhere in between, and how people manage to sell, buy and move all on the same day without an interim lifeboat is beyond me.

The reason for the lack of bloggery is of course Facebook. Facebook brilliantly supplanted the blogging industry with its microblogging newsfeed, and then made it unsearchable and so randomised that at best what you’ve written will vanish into the ether, never to be seen again; and at worst will never be seen at all because its algorithms don’t find it interesting enough to tell other people about. And I have fallen into the trap, like millions of others, and don’t really have the strength of will to get out of it again.

I still manage my monthly post for More than Writers, though.

After Facebook and my lack of willpower, the biggest culprit is the day job. I’m writing full time, lots of words every day, and just can’t muster the energy to be creative and witty and bloggy at the end of it. I could maybe try harder at being creative and witty and bloggy at the start of it, of course, which is what I’m doing now. I have contracted work and wordcounts to keep me busy until late 2018, which is nice, and I always welcome more. For this month only I’m on a writing deathmarch, as having agreed to write something in two months, deadline end of November, I was then asked if please, please, pretty please, is there any possible way at all you could do it by the end of October? If you knock a month off a six month deadline then that’s irritating, but if you knock it off a two month deadline then you’re reducing the writing time by 50%. I could have said no but frankly I’m interested to see if I can do it. And if it’s any good at the end.

I’ll be at the Sutton Courtenay Day of Books this weekend, opening the proceedings with a talk on ‘A writer’s path’. There’s no such thing as a typical writer’s path, but I’ll describe mine: how my career developed, with especial attention to how the unexpected or sheer strokes of luck can play a part. I’ll make occasional digressions into how the writing business actually works, and hopefully be informative and instructive. If time permits (and it probably will) then I’ll give a reading and take questions at the end.

More on this when the publisher produces some publicity material that I can share, but David Fickling Books is publishing a series of biographies, in the style of Horrible Histories, but better, of famous people like Emmeline Pankhurst and Amelia Earhart and Elon Musk. I’m doing Ada Lovelace, who was an amazing woman and has been a fascinating subject to research. I’ll send the manuscript in next month.

And then there’s stuff of my own, always bubbling at the back of my mind, never with quite enough time to get down and get cracking on.

And for now, back to the day job. See you again, hopefully before October 2018.