File under 'G' in the Library of Babel

Between 2004 and 2015 I wrote ten books for Tor, but they weren't the only books I could have written. Like most people, I sometimes submitted outlines and ideas that didn't get accepted. Why they weren't accepted proved instrumental in my growing understanding in the early years of my career of how publishing actually worked.

At the time Angel Stations got picked up, I was already halfway through writing my second novel, Against Gravity. Indeed, I'd started it before I even had a flicker of interest from Tor, as I recorded in this very blog way back when.

Angel Stations was unabashed space opera hard sf. It was pretty much everything that had been rolling around in my head for a decade. It was also, believe it or not, something of a sequel. My first novel, written about 1997, was set in the same universe, but never got published. It did get me an agent, and it did secure the interest of Tor, who had said while they weren't interested in acquiring it they were interested in seeing what else I'd come up with. Angel Stations was what I had come up with.

When I first signed a contract with Tor, I found it slightly weird that they didn't even ask to know what my second as yet unfinished novel was even about. In retrospect, I suspect they'd just gone ahead and assumed it was a sequel to the first. It wasn't. They didn't know that, because they never asked. Where Angel Stations was full-on space opera, Against Gravity was a bit more in the near-future cyberpunk mode. It was about cyborg technologies, nanotechnology, a near-future war and some pretty whacky theories about the end of the universe I'd come across a few years before. But they were still both unabashedly science fiction, and so far as I knew that was all that had mattered
Actually, it's not quite true that Tor never expressed an interest in the subject matter of my future books. I had a brief chat with my new editor at an Eastercon not long after signing that first contract. He suggested, rather jocularly, that everything would be fine as long as I wasn't going to go off and write any books about magic cats.

That really wasn't very likely, I replied. But I was also a little annoyed because I felt at the time like I was being talked down to. I went home and tried really, really hard to think of some way to write a book about magic cats that was, nonetheless, unabashed near- or far-future science fiction. I thought of Schrodinger's Cat, which is as near as hard sf gets to a magic cat, but unfortunately no good ideas involving quantum mechanics would come to mind. Which is a shame, because I was still pissed off. I'd have given anything to hand the editor in question a hard sf manuscript called The Magic Cat.

Angel Stations did as well as any debut novel does, which is...okay. Moderate sales, but that's how it works. People often don't pick up on you until you're three, five, eight books deep into a career. Then if they like what they read, there are lots of others they can go and buy. Against Gravity came out and also did okay, but only okay, possibly not helped by my publisher's deliberate decision to not have a single copy available anywhere on the grounds of the World Science Fiction Convention that took place in my home town almost to the day it was released. Instead, they had two hundred copies available in a Borders Books three miles from the Convention. I found it strange at the time, and appalling now. When six thousand hardcore science fiction fans descend on a town, you don't make sure the last thing they can find is your new author.

It did get a review in Locus. Well, I say a review: the reviewer actually spent an entire page talking about my blog instead, which he liked. Thanks a bunch, asshole. Not as bad as a decade before when an Interzone critic decided he not only didn't want to read a 'zine I'd put together, he didn't want to print the address from which it could be ordered (back in the pre-Internet era). That asshole spent the rest of his column reviewing his own work. But, still. Pretty bad.

My first contract was for two books, so for the third I needed to score a new contract. I put together an outline for a book called Things Unseen which I was very enthusiastic about. It was a conspiracy story set in the 50s, 60s and 80s involving remote sensing, the occult origins of modern art and n-dimensional parallel realities. It was, or I wanted it to be, a total mindfuck.

My agent loved it. Tor rejected it without comment.

Great. I put that to one side and tried to think of something else. I came up with a planetary adventure called Slow Burn. I wrote ten thousand words and an outline and submitted it. While I was waiting, it got up to thirty thousand words.

Tor knocked it back, this time with a comment saying: better, but could you make it more "intergalactic"?


I wrote to my then-agent Dorothy. What do they want? I had tried asking the publisher, but didn't get a reply.

Somewhere in Dorothy's own reply, she mentioned another client of hers who wrote mystery stories set around the world of horse breeding.

Hang on, I emailed back. Are you saying all her books are written only in the context of horse breeding? Yes, she replied. That's what her publishers want her to write.

Only then did it click. Tor wanted something that wasn't Angel Stations, but was. They wanted space ships and interstellar intrigue and action.
What I hadn't realised until then - and remember, by the way, we're still barely into the Google era at this point, still pre-Facebook, so things that can be easily googled now couldn't be so easily found out as they can now - is that publishers want more of the same, and more of the same.

Well, duh, you might say now. But again, at the time, there was no one around to tell me this. What example I did have were authors whom I liked and who wrote in multiple genres - horror, science fiction, mainstream - apparently with impunity. What I didn't realise was that these different books were often for different publishers under all kinds of crazy circumstances, and that the choice to write in different genres or styles was dependent on the relative success of the author. To be precise, the more successful you are, the more you can get away with.

And me, being far less powerful, could therefore get away with far less.

I'll be honest with you, at the time I first started putting together Stealing Light, I felt a little cynical towards it. It wasn't what I'd hoped to be working on. Searching through my files for a notion or an idea, I stumbled across a single scrap from an unfinished story and it became an early scene in that book. I wrote ten thousand words and a rough outline, submitted it to Tor - and they liked it, as I'd darkly suspected they would. I signed a second, one-book contract.

Somewhere in the writing of that book, something changed, and I started to get into it. I found a reason to be writing that story. It's the book where I figured out how to do what I did. Angel Stations and Against Gravity had each been a struggle to write, because I was still learning. Stealing Light was the fruition of what I learned, aided, it must be said, by my discovery of Scrivener.

After a quarter of the way into the manuscript I stopped long enough to completely redraft the outline I'd submitted to Tor. It expanded from a six thousand to a thirty thousand word outline. The book itself also grew, and grew, until it was just shy of 140,000 words.

I felt happy with it. The project I hadn't wanted to do became something I was entirely happy to do. It also went on to be the best-selling by far of all my books. It was the first to come out in hardback. It got compared to Peter Hamilton and Neal Asher, two very popular Tor authors, which I found amusing because at that point I had not yet read a single word by either author. I thought I was writing in the vein of Greg Bear, Iain Banks and Dan Simmons, who were undoubtedly influences, but it appeared not.

Some scenes from Slow Burn made it into Stealing Light, with some of the names changed. Just one or two.

So far, my entries in the Library of Babel equalled half a dozen. Apart from Things Unseen, Slow Burn and my unpublished first novel were a couple of vague outlines for other books set in the Angels universe (put together long before the first contract) and an attempt at writing a kind of fantasy western with Chinese magic called Western Gothic.

From there, I was on a roll. Pretty much nothing got bounced back until fairly recently, when a proposal for a third book in the Extinction Game series got rejected. I don't rule out writing it in some form, most likely another novella, but that remains to be seen.

Next time, I'll talk novellas. 

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