In the past few years, whenever I make new friends in America, and they realize that I’m English, they will often say: ‘Hey, I love Downton Abbey.’. Of course, we all realize the world of Downton Abbey faded away long before I was born, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you had seen me last Saturday morning as I drove in my open top roadster through rolling green countryside, under perfect blue skies, on my way to… a country mansion: Sedgebrook Hall.
The country mansions of the upper classes that used to be dotted throughout England still exist, except they’re now mostly training centers and hotels. Last weekend, Sedgebrook Hall was home to one wedding party, perfectly manicured grounds filled with rabbits, and nearly two hundred sci fi nerds.
This was Lavecon 2015.
I’ve been to literary-themed science fiction conventions before, but this was different. Lavecon was focused on gaming. Now I love gaming, so I was very much at home. We had John Richardson of StarfleetComms and his deck crew with a stunning setup of the Artemis bridge game. Before one of my panels I had a quick hand of Star Munchkin where I had my comeuppance from a hard-bargaining young gentleman. The main theme throughout, though, was the computer game Elite: Dangerous. I used to play the original game avidly back in the mid-1980s. I have to admit the game’s moved on a little, but the ardor of the fans is undiminished.
I was there as part of a (not very) secret plan of Laveradio station commander, Allen Stroud, to introduce sci fi gaming fans to a broader view of science fiction literature. Joining me in talks, panels and readers was my new Human Legion co-author, Ian Whates. Also there was friend, BSFA chairman, and former Bard of Northampton, Dona Scott. Minding the sales table was writer, brewer, and husband to at least one of us, Neil Bond.
We waffled and gave readings for about three hours in total.
For humanlegion.com readers who couldn’t make it, I’ve written up three snippets of Human Legion related trivia that slipped out of my lips during the day.
Haven’t we met before?
Before we published our first novels, Ian Whates and I both started out by selling science fiction short stories to magazines, working up from the for-the-love publications to semi-pro zines up (in Ian’s case) to the pro market. I had forgotten that years before we met, Ian and I had both sold stories to the same issue of a magazine. I can’t remember what the publication was called, but it was a stapled affair with a cover printed on colored card and produced in Scotland. I do remember being proud enough at the time that I took a photo of the pay check.
What happens when I get carried away
I talked about the genesis of Marine Cadet, and mentioned how it was influenced by a book called Forging Zero by Sara King, though maybe the reverse of what you might think if you are familiar with Sara’s book. As I was gearing up to write Marine Cadet, I was reading self-published bestsellers in Military SF and Space Opera. It wasn’t that I was short of ideas for my novels, far from it (I never suffer from a lack of ideas, but sometimes from having too many); it was more that I was looking for clues to what made one book mega popular with readers and another an also-run.
When I started reading Forging Zero, I was about six chapters into writing the scenes of Marine Cadet, though with about 50,000 words of notes covering the entire series. At first I groaned because at a very superficial level the books seemed similar in that they both have the idea of children taken from Earth to fight in alien wars. Never mind that it’s been a decade since a magazine called Aoifie’s Kiss (issue #14) first published a short story in my White Knight universe describing what happened to other descendants of those children. No one would care about that and I would be accused of plagiarism.
In fact, I have had a few comments like that but not enough to cause me grief.
As I progressed through Forging Zero, my heart sank for another reason. Now, I have a lot of respect for Sara King because she has had great success with her Zero series and other books. She’s found her audience and wowed them. Personally I thought Forging Zero was a fine book but it had faults. In particular, there was a long, drawn-out middle section where the hero would get into that chapter’s scrape, mess up, and end up reporting to his (alien) officer to have strips torn off him. Then the next chapter would be the same setup but with a different incident. And so on. Every time the chapter would end up in the officer’s reprimand.
For me the parts of the novel that were good were diluted by a repetitive middle that made me give up and read another book before coming back and finishing off Zero. I’m glad I did, by the way, because it’s a good book. I can see why Sara King has a following, but she had already had her break. I was worried I would never get mine because I was on course to make the same mistake!
Arun McEwan gets into this chapter’s scrape. He reports to Nhlappo, Gupta, or Colonel Little Scar to get strips torn off him. Repeat until the reader gives up from boredom.
Yeah, right. That wasn’t going to work. So I quickly redesigned by scrapping some planned chapters and replacing with an entirely new section to shake things up a bit. That’s where Arun gets thrown into the Aux and meets Tawfiq. I loved writing that section.
And it grew! Whenever I’m writing a scene I always think of what’s coming ahead in the book. I look for opportunities to subtly show characters developing a relationship, demonstrating competence or otherwise, setting up world building concepts that become important later. That kind of thing. Well I was doing that in the Aux scenes too.
I was having a wild time with the Aux and the Hardit rebellion that it was introducing. Cut a long story short (the irony…) Marine Cadet ended up a lot longer than I intended because, in adding the Aux section and adapting the rest to marry up, I added at least a quarter of the final word count in order to avoid what I felt was the weakness of another author’s hit book that was too long.
To this day, I have no idea whether adding those scenes made the book better or worse. They certainly made it longer. Reading reviews on Amazon and Goodreads doesn’t answer that question because they seem evenly split between readers who felt Marine Cadet was too long and those who enjoyed the length because it gave the book more ‘meat’. Most reviewers don’t mention length at all.
However, when I was readying Marine Cadet for launch, I had no doubt in my mind. It was too long. I’d blown my chance. You see, I had started sketching Marine Cadet back in the days before the Kindle eReader was launched, when traditional publishers would never take on a new novelist with a book over 100,000 words long, and I still had too much of that obsolete mindset that said if your draft is over 100,000 then you gotta go back and redraft until it comes under that limit. But that would take months and I was out of time and money.
When Marine Cadet was finally published on Dec 26th last year, I was already interviewing for ‘proper’ jobs. My time finishing off Indigo Squad was shared with getting up to date with the latest developments in the world of SQL Server, Business Intelligence, and other codey-geeky things.
Not feeling I could afford to be distracted by a book launch, I uploaded Marine Cadet to Amazon’s publishing platform and didn’t tell a soul. No marketing. No promotion. I didn’t even post something to my Facebook page to let my family know what I was doing.
Six months later and Marine Cadet has sold just south of 30,000 copies, so I guess the only thing to do now is press ahead and complete the rest of the series and be grateful.
Or maybe not. I mean, yes I’m not going back and rewriting Marine Cadet until I’ve finished all six books, but after…? I have talked with an editor about maybe producing an abridged edition. Which would probably be a better bet for an audiobook edition. Who knows?
What happens when I don’t say no
Two of the organizers of Lavecon (Allen Stroud looking slightly sinister dressed all in black, and John Richardson in his bridge technician’s overalls) run a podcast called Dataslate. They talk about news and the background to current goings-on within science fiction, and then each makes a book recommendation. Check it out here. It’s worth a listen. One of the things I like about it is that, unlike far too many other review sites and magazines, it doesn’t focus on just one style of SF literature and disparage everything else as garbage. There’s a mix of deep space and Earth-based, far future and possible tomorrows, high-brow concept and low-brow adventure.
I seem to remember agreeing to appear on their show. Details may be forthcoming…
I had a lot of fun, which is what Lavecon was about for me.
I hesitate to overcomplicate having fun by trying to draw lessons, but my Lavecon experience did slot into a theme for me this year, which is the extent to which I’m learning that some people in science fiction fandom sit in their bubbles and can’t see all the other bubbles of fans enjoying their science fiction and fantasy in a slightly different way.
Dataslate tries to prick those bubbles.
If you’re in a bubble yourself, I recommend sharpening a nearby stick and prodding away.
If you go to SF book conventions, go look for SF and fantasy conventions focused more on gaming (tabletop, computer/console or role-playing) or on comics. I’ve been to two UK gaming-focused conventions in the past year, and was shocked to realize how small the literature-focused conventions, such as Eastercon and Fantasycon are in comparison to the big gaming conventions in my country. And as for the San Diego Comi-Con… I can’t actually imagine so many people in the same place.
If you like your SF gaming, look up some SF literature conventions. You might not know they exist, but there are plenty around. Google is your Professor, as will.i.am told me one day.
And if you are the kind of person who takes the lead from critical reviews of SF books in the likes of BSFA Vector, or Locus, go spend some time checking out Goodreads and the amazon genre charts. There’s a whole new world of science fiction literature that the established publications rarely mention. Don’t believe the moans from the major publishers about declining book sales. SF book sales have enjoyed explosive growth in the past few years. Our genre’s never been so popular. Enjoy the buzz.
And if you get most of your book recommendations from Amazon/ Goodreads, try broadening to other sources of critical review.
There’s been a lot of talk over the years about a mythical science fiction Golden Age. Was it the 30s, the 40s? Was it really so golden as some make out?
As I drove back home from Sedgebrook Hall (sadly with the roof up… this was the real England, after all), the answers popped into my head. Look around at the vibrant scene in SF gaming. Compare the SF content in movie and TV listings with a few decades ago. And consider the explosion in self-published science fiction, going from approximately zero to half of all adult SF book sales in just five years.
Yes, the answer is obvious. The Golden Age of science fiction is right now.
Don’t miss out…
Want to see more?
I’ve just realized that you can see more on Twitch, which is an internet streaming thingy here. Like YouTube, you usually have to watch a brief advert first. At 9 minutes in, there’s a panel discussion involving somebody who seems to be speaking my words, but has much whiter hair than I do. Ian Whates says many words. [Update: it’s also edited on YouTube here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lhgr0fS0oM0 which might appear at the bottom of this post, depending on your browser]
I also read an excerpt from Marine Cadet at about 2 hours in, right after my new co-author, Ian Whates reads a little from his latest novel. One thing’s for sure, if I ever do audiobook editions for the Human Legion, I’m not speaking the words!