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.

Terry Pratchett

Let me add my tuppence worth – and it really is tuppence, old pence at that – to the Pratchettiana doing the rounds. Because I can.

My first short story sale was to the collection Digital Dreams, edited by David V. Barrett. My story ‘Digital cats come out tonight’ appeared alongside work by authors who included Neil Gaiman, Garry Kilworth, Storm Constantine, Diana Wynne Jones … and Terry Pratchett. This was only 1990, but even so, I knew I trod on hallowed ground.

As did the publishers, who – with Terry’s permission – added a panel to the front cover announcing ‘original stories from Terry Pratchett and the best of British science fiction’. I still have an advance publicity copy of that cover, sent out by the publishers, so can attest that all the words appeared in the same font and same size, and it was down one side of the cover, while Dave’s name as editor received far more prominence.

Cover of Digital Dreams, edited by David V. BarrettThe version that appeared in print, without any consultation with either Dave or Terry, was subtly different. Can you spot it?

I only caught the edges of the storm, but it wasn’t pretty: accusations flew over bigging up Terry’s name at the expense of everyone else to boost the sales (which, let’s be honest, it probably did). It was just some bright unsupervised spark in NEL’s publicity department, but it left a bad taste.

(A review in the British Science Fiction Association’s critical magazine Vector by A Well Known Author & Journalist panned it, devoting all but a few lines to the issue of the cover and finishing with a demand that Dave be expelled from the BSFA, and if no mechanism existed for doing so then one should be created. Of the stories themselves, surely the most salient part of any anthology, he said very little, which was irritating to all of us but not least to those of us hoping to break into the wonderful world of writing by this opportunity. Years later, the WKA&J approached me via a mutual friend to ask for advice on getting his son’s own novel for young people published, clearly with no recollection at all that I had any reason to recoil at his name. I pointed him at my publisher David Fickling without comment and wished the young man well. I can heap burning coals with the best of them.)

Ten years later, when I was accidentally a publisher myself, my launch title was a reprint of David Langford’s The Leaky Establishment, a wonderful send-up of his time working in the nuclear industry. (Curiously, all my big breaks in publishing have come from people called David: chronologically, Barrett, Pringle, Fickling, Langford.) When I asked this Dave if I could publish it, he dropped a mention that a big fan of the book and fellow veteran of the nuclear industry, one Terry Pratchett, had kindly offered to write an introduction if it would help get the book back in print. Was I interested?

Well, what do you think?

It’s no coincidence that Leaky was my best-selling title. And because I’m not stupid, I too wanted Terry’s name on the front cover – but I took care to ask his permission first, and to stress that I wouldn’t mistreat it as NEL had done with Digital Dreams. He replied: “Thanks. That hurt.”

Thereafter we were in the same room a few times but the only time I can say I properly met him was when I moderated a panel in Glasgow, 2005, on young adult fantasy – what is suitable to go in, what isn’t, etc. The precise title of the panel was “It’s OK, it’s Lurve: Sex in Children’s and YA Books”, which is the only explanation I can think of for how talk somehow turned to the then-current urban myth of rainbow parties. Artist Oisín McGann, also on the panel, protested that the concept was fundamentally flawed because any artist will tell you that if you just mix colours willy nilly – so to speak – you just get a bland sort of ochre.

“Well obviously,” said Mr P, “you use masking tape.”

And thus end my recollections of Terry Pratchett.