Getcha luvverly ideas here!

20161025_113130You know you’ve made it as an author when you’re asked the time-honoured question, “where do you get your ideas from?” There are various time-honoured responses, but Neil Gaiman in the link nails it.

In our recent house move I unearthed a very old notebook from the time when ideas just kept popping into my head. Some even made it through in recognisable form to publication. Most got no further than the notebook. The last of them is dated 3-5-93, and as I started writing His Majesty’s Starship in Christmas 1993, that means everything here predates my career as a novelist.

I will probably never do anything more with them and it would be cruel to consign them to my bedside drawer for another 23+ years, so, boys and girls and other, please feel free to pinch with my blessing.

Professional killer of immortals (e.g. people à la Icehenge, who are bored of living forever).

Children born/bred in hyperspace as result of experiment to develop concepts for hyperspace travel – can’t cope with (or pose a threat to) men who come to rescue them. BRING IN MEMES & MIMETICS – hostile ideas and items picked up by children.

Accounts/investment manager for bloke who has deposited money and gone on a long space trip – plans to return & collect pooled-up interest. [I can’t claim credit for this, but this is similar to the origin of the AI Jane in Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse – a super-intelligent program develop to deal with the complexities of investments and index-linked pensions in a universe with time distorting relativistic travel.]

Christian minister in e.g. yuppy tower block – wins (e.g. against ambience of the buildings) through love. MAKE IT A STARSHIP? [“Giantkiller”, Interzone 89 (November 1994), available in Jeapes Japes.]

AI sets up own publishing co. Describe getting ISBNs, first bestseller etc. Survives takeover bid and ends up “X & Son” (X being its name.) [My first Interzone sale! “Memoirs of a Publisher”, Interzone 43 (January 1991), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Boy at boarding school comes from the future … 3 or 4 years in the future is all. Some kind of time swap? No one believes him until at the end when his 13 year old self reappears. [I was on a roll. My one and only sale to Fantasy & Science Fiction (September 1997): “Pages Out of Order”, available in Jeapes Japes.]

‘Rights broker’ for different classes of being (e.g. human with genetic upgrades) – rights (to live, to work etc.) are treated as commodities.

Christian sets out to evangelise parallel worlds – maybe causes the Fall in one?

Village (à la Prisoner?) where people go to disappear – get absorbed into the timestream that suits them. Detective story? Fantasy?

Elite band of actors who can act anything (à la Songbirds of OS Card). Hero is ‘foreign to his own body’ (Oliver Sacks, Michael Flynn) and a great actor. Poss. setting – post-holocaust Europe (biological holocaust, not nuclear. Nanotech?).

Prayer book is in fact spell book in disguise. Belongs to young Salvation Army bloke? Ends up as poetry book? Baddy must also be disguised. [Hmm. Not dissimilar to an idea that ended up in The Comeback of the King.]

Child’s collection of cuddly toys have lives of their own. Eventually we learn it is the child’s subconscious psychokinetic powers moving them (poss. when he dies and they collapse?) Maybe they gang up on him to stop him growing up. Maybe an older brother went through the same thing. [“Getting rid of Teddy”, Interzone 76 (October 1993), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Spaceship with different groups of people on it, poss. fleeing something. (At least one group is Cosmochristers?) Detect something near them (à la Liberator at start of Blake’s 7). What is it? Each group has its expectations – all; are satisfied simultaneously à la Schrodinger when the ship is finally revealed visually. Say, ship has been hijacked by nutters who expect, say, God to come and rescue them and think the UFO is his vehicle. Crew think it’s a battleship come to rescue them. Poss. a third alternative? At the last moment, the head religious nutter vanishes.

Treatment for mental cases – brains are wiped and a copy of their minds inserted, minus the madness therefore they remember being mad.

Time travelling reporters sent back to cover historical incidents (or history in general) – have to ‘live’ back to the present. Poss. one meets his family as children? (Or his wife’s family.) [“Correspondents”, Aboriginal SF, Summer 1998, available in Jeapes Japes.]

Society where bonfire burners are members of an elite – poss. parallel with oppressive religion. Hero fights them.

Journalist investigates someone who was a key influence in the lives of 3-4 different, important people. X knew them at school, at university etc. but is totally unremarkable him/herself. He/she is a gear in the mechanism of society. Perhaps bring in butterfly effect etc. in social terms.

Correspondent gets himself imprisoned on a life sentence – the Home Time will have to get him out, or people will see him not ageing (at least, that’s his plan). [Definitely incorporated into Time’s Chariot.]

Time travel agency brings people to pre-AIDS times in order to get laid safely. Have to work out why they don’t pass on infection.

Man looks after ‘teenage’ (problem?) AIs which can’t be erased – one gets a crush on him. [“Crush”, Interzone 68 (February 1993), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Youngster yearns to be a feelie-star (or whatever) – can’t break into it. His hero got into feelies when they started. Youngster works out that he is the star, time-travelled. MAYBE youngster grows up and matures. Sends tachyon signal (à la Timescape) back containing info to clone him from.

FTL has been invented recently. Someone works out that in C20 a Rama-type ship passed through the system undetected. It broadcast signals (e.g. the chaos number from Ian Stewart’s book) that have only recently been recognised as important. They were dismissed as static or whatever beforehand. Now we have FTL, we can go after this thing!!

Time travel – son takes his crippled Dad, who was a great sailor, on a C19 sailing ship as a treat.

Time travel – mother whose son has been taken away by social services for child abuse (real or imagined) is visited by the grown-up son.

First contact between invisible, mass-sensing aliens and humans, who can’t see them.

Scam – for some reason, guy pretends to be an AI.

Old-fashioned, clunking AI is found which can only communicate by icons, not sound.

Courtroom drama – a time traveller hops to and fro in time to create the required precedents to win a case in the present.

In SF, Earthmen make contact with less-developed aliens but still seem to deal with a worldwide society. In reality they would be dealing with one government amongst many. How about an alternate world where aliens deal with one country on Earth – a couple of centuries ago? E.g. America, 1776? Germany, 1914? [It turned out to be Cromwell’s England in 1645, in The New World Order.]

Man crashed on a far-off planet has to work out how to program ship’s computer to get back into space.

Man followed everywhere by ghost of 2-year-old toddler son (or not a ghost – he doesn’t have a son! Left over from temporal realignment …)

Aspects of a real person’s life are recorded in VR for other to experience. The real person (e.g. the Queen) doesn’t like it.

A time-travelling Red Cross, careful not to disrupt history but bringing relief to the wounded of historical battles.

Phoenicia’s Worlds

Many years ago I had an idea for a series. Posit: a network of human-settled worlds, linked by wormholes, throughout the galaxy. For two worlds to be joined, a wormhole terminus has to be towed there at slower-than-light speeds in a starship, its crew (naturally) in suspended animation for a voyage that takes decades. Each terminus can only link to one other, at the starship’s last port of call. This has been happening for centuries, and human civilisation is now an interwoven web of many worlds and cultures. The frontier of the Expansion is all the worlds that so far have been settled through a wormhole, but have yet to send a starship on to the next world.

Then one day the network goes phut

Rather, from the point of view of our heroes on a world at the end of one of the lines, their link to the last but one world goes phut. Maybe the whole network shut down, maybe it didn’t – they have no way of knowing (not for years and years, anyway) when they are forced again to rely on lightspeed communication. All they know is that their world is heavily dependent on supplies that come through the wormhole for terraforming, and will become uninhabitable within decades, so the only answer is to get into their ship for the slower-than-light journey back to the last world that will help them re-establish the link.

That would be Book 1.

Book 2, of course, they go on to the next world down the line, and the one after that, and … you get the picture. And other starships will be doing the same thing so sooner or later their paths will cross.


Then I sat down to write the puppy … And decided I really didn’t have time or energy for a series. But I could at least write one book. Meanwhile, I was busy getting married and ghostwriting and all that kind of thing, which on top of not feeling terribly inspired for an actual plot anyway led to a severe case of blockage. I persevered and hammered out a rough approximation of an epic space opera. But I was never really happy with it. I submitted it to my usual publisher, but withdrew it again.

Meanwhile it bubbled away at the back of my mind, and trusted friends were allowed a peek at the work. They all agreed it didn’t work, but their suggestions and my own bubbling led to resolutions. The galactic background that we never actually get to see was too complicated. The fact that it involved two worlds with no connection at all to Earth made it all too remote. And I was still handicapped by the thought that it might be a series so, Trek-like, I was pushing the reset button at the end to damn well make the characters do what I wanted rather than what the story said they should.

All this led eventually to a much simpler, streamlined and better novel. Just two worlds, Earth and its first extra-solar colony. Just one starship. Still a big phut. But being able to link this all back to Earth, even the Earth of a thousand years hence, meant much more emotional resonance and a far more satisfying read for the reader. And the characters do what the story wants them to, so it isn’t the contrived, series-friendly ending I was after.

Then I heard that Solaris was looking for Young Adult titles. I have never really thought of any of my science fiction as Young Adult, but the fact is that it how it has been published, so I sent it in. And then withdrew it, because I had something else to send them and the something else was the direction I wanted to go in.

And then, out of the blue a month ago, I got an email to say that the synopsis I had sent in was still somehow in circulation, and they really liked it, and would I be interested in placing it with Solaris as an adult novel?

A grown-up novel by a grown-up publisher, for the first time in my novel writing life. I thought about it for, oh, milliseconds.

And that, boys and girls, is how you will come to be able to read Phoenicia’s Worlds at some point, most likely in the summer, next year. Updates will be posted.

And yes, I am already thinking of a sequel.


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.