My first author copies of "The Trade of Queens" arrived this morning; that's one of them, sitting on top of the pile of its predecessors on the step-stool. (Parenthetically, this means that copies should be showing up in warehouses and book stores over the next week, and in the mailboxes of folks who placed advance orders very soon thereafter.) The stack you're looking at is the culmination of eight years' work; I began work on these books in 2002, if I remember correctly. It's about 70-100 pages longer in total than "War and Peace". And I'd like to talk about them for a bit.
Back in early 2005, I wrote a somewhat cynical essay on an earlier incarnation of this blog, titled "Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series". Web rot and a change of publishing platform have made that essay somewhat hard to find, so I'm going to reproduce it in edited form right here (below the cut), with updates and further insights gathered on the road.
Mon, 21 Feb 2005:
I've just returned the page proofs of the paperback edition of 'The Family Trade', due out in May in the US, and my thoughts turn to the history of the book: why and how it got written, and how things have turned out. For some reason this doesn't seem to be a topic novelists discuss much in public, so I thought I'd jot down some notes here.
The story begins in late 2001. I'd had a breakthrough year; in addition to being nominated for one of the major awards in the SF field for the first time, I'd acquired a literary agent who successfully sold my first two SF novels to Ace. I was working like a dog, trying to write at least one and a half novels a year on top of a workload of freelance computer journalism — in early 2000, when the bottom dropped out of the dot-com boom, events had caught me between stools and I ended up writing two magazine columns and numerous features every month to make ends meet. Writing books looked like a less stressful way out (at least you get to measure your cash flow in months rather than weeks), and I'd sold two, so why not try to sell some more?
Note for the uninitiated: a literary agent is the jobbing novelist's white knight. Your agent takes a cut (typically 15%) of your earnings. But if you don't earn, you don't get paid, and neither do they, so their job is to figure out how to get you as much money as possible. As a recent survey shows, agented novels get significantly higher advances, on average, than unagented; like an accountant, a good agent should earn you a lot more money than they cost. So when talking business (as opposed to art), your agent is the first person you turn to — they'll shoot down unsalable ideas before you waste six months pursuing them, and provide helpful advice on how to make your good ideas sell better. (But note the qualification about talking business, as opposed to art.)
When I raised the idea of writing some more books with my agent, her first comment was, "you realize that 'Singularity Sky' probably won't be in print for two to three years? And 'Iron Sunrise' won't be out for a year after that? Ace have a backlog, and they've also got an option on your next SF novel." (An option clause means you've got to send the next SF novel to your existing publisher, who have to reject it or sit on it for an inordinate length of time before you're free can send it elsewhere.) "On the other hand, if you really want to write for a living, can you do something that isn't specifically SF, so we can sell without breach of contract? Like, say, a big fat fantasy series?"
This made me stop and think hard. The thing is, I've read a lot of extruded fantasy product in my time, and I don't much like it. Fantasy and Science Fiction are co-marketed in most bookstores, but this conceals the fact that they're actually radically different genres in outlook. Loosely speaking, if Science Fiction is often a literature of disruption (in which change is, if not good, at least embraced), Fantasy is frequently a literature of consolation: a warm feather-bed of social conservativism disguised as nostalgic escapism, a longing for feudal certainties. While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Fantasy, the marketing mechanism applied to it tends to promote those aspects of it that I really don't like: the hordes of marching sub-Tolkien clones. (I'm with China Mieville on this.) And besides, Robert Jordan is still alive and selling.
Rule 1: Don't steal from living authors, their ecological niche in the publishing jungle is already occupied. (Alternatively: nobody needs another Robert Jordan.)
If I was going to write extruded fantasy product, I'd have to write it from the point of view of the young lad growing up with poor but honest folks somewhere in middle earth who discovers that he's destined to grow up to be the Dark Lord, overthrow the established order, and start a revolution. Because? I'm a native of a nation that has a hereditary aristocracy and a monarchy, and it's a lot less romantic in real life than in fiction. As long as they're constitutionally reigned in and kept busy opening supermarkets and holding garden parties a monarchy isn't too toxic, but if you go back a century or two what you get is basically a hereditary dictatorship (complete with secret police) dressed up in fancy clothing. If you want a modern cognate, you need look no further than Kim Jong-Il.
I said as much to my agent and she sighed (inasmuch as one can sigh in email) and said "don't do that, the readers will hate you." Readers who hate authors do not buy their books. I saw her point, and shelved the idea. Score one for commercial pressure over art. (Note from 2010: These days I'd probably push a bit harder, and see if there was a way to square the circle — I'm more inclined to take commercial risks. But nothing concentrates the mind like a magazine going bust oweing you for three months' work, which was also happening at the same time back then ...)
Idea number two: I've been interested in alternate history as a sub-field of SF for a while. There are a couple of ways of writing alternate history; you can do it straight (as an historical novel set in a history that never happened) or if you bend the rules enough to allow for a visitor from our own world to get a tourist visa to the universe next door, you can use it as a tool to poke at our conceptions of how our own world operates.
First I took a stab at designing a straight alt-hist novel. (Elevator pitch: "I'm going to cross the streams of The IPCRESS File and Heart of Darkness in a universe where the first world war ended in 1919 with allied tanks sitting in the wreckage of Berlin, and the decaying British empire went on to invent fascism in the 1940s. It's 1962, and two OSS agents are injected into British-dominated Europe to trace the underground railroad that is funneling abducted/brainwashed American scientists east. Our two spooks, "Wild" Bill Burroughs and his swivel-eyed Californian sidekick Philip K., follow the trail — by way of a sleazy S&M nightclub in Hamburg presided over by ageing queen Adolf and his boyfriend Rudi Hess — to Ceylon, where in the guts of a hollowed-out mountain they confront the jackbooted, monocle-wearing Air Commodore Arthur Clarke and his program to build an atom-bomb powered space dreadnought.) My agent shot it down as "too weird". With 20/20 hindsight, I think she may have had a point.
Next I went to look at mode #2 of alternate history: visiting the world next door.
One fly in the ointment is that AH fiction is often marketed as SF. (See "contract option" above.) But I happened to recall a precedent for doing it in fantasy — noted SF/fantasy author Roger Zelazny's masterwork, the Chronicles of Amber, all ten books of it, featured a family of rather paranormal protagonists who could walk between worlds. The Amber books sold like bandits, but since Zelazny's untimely death in 1995 the ecological niche has been empty. And "magic" makes for an end-run around an option on an SF novel ...
Rule 2: Steal from the best. (There's no point stealing from the worst.)
Why not, I thought, take the basic premise (a family of folks who can walk between worlds) and strip off all the superstructures Zelazny added to the mix? Reboot it in the context of a coherent alternate history set-up and see where it goes. Maybe even (being mischievous) add the "child of poor but honest folks who grows up to be the [thematic] dark lord" sub-plot to anchor it more firmly in the marketing soil of the contemporary extruded fantasy series while laying the groundwork for a later refutation of the key thesis of consolatory return? I could get to have my cake (a long fantasy series) and eat it (the intellectual challenge of doing something new).
Rule 3: If you steal an entire outfit from one writer's wardrobe, people will mock you for being imitative. So steal from at least two, and mix thoroughly.
The mere theme of a bunch of relatives who can walk between time lines does not a novel make. You've given them the means, but not the motive or method. Luckily it's not virgin territory; other writers have been here before, and it's always worth looking at the prior art. In the SF field one author in particular stands out — H. Beam Piper. Dead since 1964, his books are nevertheless still in print: a sure sign that he had something to set him apart from the majority of writers (who go out of print for good within two years of their demise). Among his most enduring works are a handful of stories and a short novel ('Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen') about the Paratime Police — an agency established by an imperialist time line that ruthlessly exploits the resources of its neighbours. While I really didn't like his key ideological assumptions, his technique was another matter. So, in accordance with Rule 3, I decided to use Piper as my other source.
Now, here's an important point: I was planning a series. Conventional publishing wisdom is that you can only publish one book a year in a given genre — if you publish more, you risk cannibalizing your own sales (unless you have an avid fan base). So if I was going to get to grips with this project, I was going to be in it for the long haul. How long is long? Well, I didn't particularly want to limit it to a trilogy — what I'd decided to look from the attic of ideas was a background and a basic premise, not a story, and I had some big ideas to explore. It would take at least four big, fat books to get to grips with it.
The first book: thesis. We're introduced to the world-walking folks, get to see why they engage in this activity (which, on the face of it, is personally risky). It's probably the oldest reason of all — economics. They do it to get rich.
This series is going to be sold as fantasy, so a mediaevalist or at least very non-contemporary setting is pretty much mandatory. This has Implications. If the family of world-walkers come from a society that's backward and primitive by our standards, that puts a whole new spin on the premise. Usually, in this sub-genre, visitors from other time lines have Advanced Super Science mojo, which invites unwelcome plot non-sequiteurs. In contrast, making them primitive is (as far as I know) a first.
For our protagonist, I can use the "child of poor-but-honest folks coopted into the aristocracy" cliche, only, like, inverted, so that being coopted into the aristocracy is bad. They find it stifling and unpleasant — a big clash of cultures. They rebel. (Hey, I'm back to the disruptive protagonist theme again!) But a poor-but-honest character from a society dominated by aristocratic time-line traders is going to be at a marked handicap. How about making them a long-lost by-blow who's grown up in our world, and gets sucked in against their will? And who's pre-wired with a curious urge to look in dark corners? A journalist, say. Who starts digging places they shouldn't, is forced to go on the run, and then has to desperately struggle to build a secure power base for themselves before the assassins close in ...
And that's how 'The Family Trade' gets the first inkling of a plot skeleton. I scoped it at around 200,000 words, or 600 pages.
The second book: antithesis. The first book sets loose a whole flock of pigeons. Pigeons shit everywhere, get eaten by hawks, and lay eggs: they have side-effects. Somewhere down the line, the consequences of our protagonist's arrival are going to start making themselves known. They're from a relatively advanced culture and they've been dropped into a relatively backward — but not politically unsophisticated — one; shades of the old time-travel classic Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp. Meanwhile certain other sub-themes (that fell out of the first novel outline) suggested themselves, which I'm not going to go into here. Truth and consequences: I scoped out 'The Clan Corporate' at around 250,000 words, or 750 pages.
There were two more books in the original series pitch I prepared and sent to my agent. I figured I had enough loose ends to tie myself up in enjoyably for five years — but no longer. I'd already been through sequel hell in writing 'Iron Sunrise', and figured out that no series should outlive the author's interest:
Rule 4: When choosing the themes to pilfer, only pick ones that you, personally, find interesting — if you pick something boring you'll only have yourself to blame if it's successful and you end up chained to the desk to write more of it for the next decade.
I sent the pitch to my agent, and she said, "huh, I think I can do something with this. Want to write the first book?"
So I did. The first draft ran to 155,000 words, was written in a twelve-week frenzy, and had an ending that sucked mud through a straw. My test readers told me this, so I re-wrote it and the manuscript bloated to 190,000 words. I'd run out of energy at the end of the first draft. The second worked. It's still the longest book I've ever written.
During the writing of the book a whole bunch of extra ideas occured to me. It acquired a lot more texture and complexity, and the series outline mutated in line with it. This is a good thing. I may have spent the first 90% of this essay writing a frank endorsement for deriving all your ideas from your predecessors, but it's one thing to steal the floor plan and another thing entirely to steal the wallpaper and silverware as well:
Rule 5: However much you're stealing, make sure it doesn't look stolen. Genre publishing is a beauty show, and originality wins prizes (but not too much originality).
All writers are periodically asked "where do you get your ideas?" Our dirty little secret is that ideas are cheap. You've got ideas. Your pet cat has probably got ideas. You can find ideas in the back-catalog of authors who died forty years ago, or you can go sit in a cave for forty days and nights and bring back ideas. Or you can slavishly ape Roger Zelazny's technique. What matters isn't the ideas, but what you do with them. I managed to take a grab-bag of ideas pioneered by other writers, and by inverting a couple of assumptions and hybridizing a handful of unrelated strains I came up with something new that, as far as I know, hasn't been done before.
My agent took the book and sold it to Tor. Where David Hartwell gave it a thorough editorial working over (in the course of which it swelled to just under 200,000 words). Then the dread words came down from on high: "can you split this into two volumes?" This is my sole apology to those readers who are annoyed at the abrupt ending of 'The Family Trade' — it's the first half of the original book, splitting them so that the series would run in 300-page chunks (rather than 600-750 page doorsteps) wasn't my idea (in fact, I protested it), but in the final analysis I can only tell my publisher where to get off if I'm willing to get off (and go find another publisher — after acquiring a reputation for being "difficult to work with"). I understand the reasoning behind the decision, and indeed if I'd been working with the publishers before I wrote the book it would have fitted the form factor they wanted — but that's not how the business works, and these are the breaks. At least the second half of the story will be in the shops in roughly twelve weeks' time.
Back to March 2010:
The original four-book outline now maps out to four story arcs. The first, "The Family Trade", was split into two books ("The Family Trade" and "The Hidden Family"). The second, "The Clan Corporate", would have needed two and a half books if it had been written to the 300-pages-per-volume constraint from the start. However, no plan survives contact with the enemy.
I was already 60,000 words into "The Clan Corporate", with about eight months to go to my deadline, when the form factor was declared from on high. 60,000 words into a projected 250-300,000 word novel is the intro and set-up. (The original plan was 250,000 words, but sub-plots bloat; adding 20% in the development process isn't unusual.) I was faced with a dilemma: tear it all up and redesign the rest of the series story arc from scratch and write a new 100,000 word novel, or just plough on with what I had, add another 40,000 words, and try to make it work. And while eight months might sound like plenty of time, I was overcommitted: I had another book that I was due to hand in two months later! Realistically, the throw-it-away-and-restart-from-scratch option wasn't an option. Which is why "The Clan Corporate" reads slowly, with little direct action happening until the very end — it's the setup sequence of a much longer book.
I also discovered a new ailment of the serial novel at this point. It's this: you have to spend some time at the beginning tying each new volume into what has gone before, and you need to spend some effort making sure there's at least a nod in the direction of giving the book a climax. All of this is overhead, and the rule of thumb I've learned is that it adds about 33% to the length of the story. By taking a 250-300,000 word book and splitting it into 100,000 word episodes, I ended up having to add an extra 130,000 words — bringing it up to four books.
Midway through book #4 ("The Merchants' War") I got some good news. My agent had just sold two more SF novels to Ace, and had written in a change to the contract: the option held by Ace on my SF novels now explicitly excluded "Merchant Princes" books. This was a huge relief; it meant that I could begin writing in the back-story behind the Clan's world-walking capability. In the first three books it was presented as a black box, implicitly magical; by book six it should be fairly obvious that the series is SF in fantasy drag, and as the series expands the breakdown and decay of fantasy tropes continues.
So, with six books on sale, I've actually only completed the first two of four planned story arcs. The first, "The Family Trade", can be summarized as "Miriam discovers her disturbingly-talented family; kicks back: releases a whole bunch of pigeons." The second, "The Clan Corporate" (in four volumes) can be summarized as "Miriam's pigeons return, doing what pigeons do — they shit everywhere and there's an unholy mess". The third story &mdash that would be books 7-9 inclusive, and I've just about worked out how to make them fit the 100,000 words-per-volume format. But I'm not about to begin writing them for a while; I want a couple of years off!
Firstly, you're probably wondering what the Merchant Princes is about.
Paul Krugman nailed it: it's implicitly about sociology and economics, and more specifically, about the development trap. If you're reading this blog entry on a computer of your own, you're probably a native of the developed world. But what is the developed world? What does it mean to be undeveloped? More importantly, why do some societies develop rapidly, and others fail? Compare and contrast South Korea or Japan with Thailand or Burma; the former two are richer on a per-capita basis than Germany, but only developed in the past sixty years. The latter two ... aren't. Why is that? Again, consider the middle east, and the parlous state of science, industry, and economic productivity in most of the countries there. Some of them are clearly trying to develop; others ... aren't. In the Merchant Princes books, by setting up a bunch of time lines with divergent histories I was able to establish an artificial development scenario, and examine development traps; how it is that the ruling elite of a very poor country can live an imported developed-world lifestyle, but fail to spark economic development in their general population. And there's also a thesis buried in there about the toxic effects of ruling elites, and the suppression of free trade, free speech, and human rights that ruling elites are prone to.
Some of you may be wondering why I wrote a certain political figure into the series. There are a couple of answers to this question. Firstly, a huge problem any writer faces with an ongoing serial novel is that you can't go back and redraft earlier chapters if you realize too late that you've gotten elements of the plot tangled up: they're already in print. As it turns out, I'd implicitly written a very high-ranking US government figure, in cahoots with the Clan, into the books right from the start; it was only in the proess of writing book #4 that I realized I needed to bring this person front-and-centre, lest the plot peter out embarrassingly or otherwise expose me as not having a clue. Secondly: one of the failure modes to which constitutional democracies are prone is the usurpation of power by hard-liners, when confronted by an external threat. It was obvious that the exposure of the Clan would necessitate a drastic response from the US government — so why not explore the boundary condition where the response is dictated by the most outspoken national security hawks? Thirdly and finally: these novels are set in an alternate present. There are clues, from book 4 onwards, that this is not our world. (If you haven't read them yet, keep an eye open for Paris Hilton and "Chemical" Ali.)
Lastly: there are no unambiguous "good guys" in this series. I've had some indignant mail from readers who don't like my treatment of, on the one hand, the Clan, and on the other, of WARBUCKS. The former ... in their own world, they're arrogant aristocrats; in our world, they're narcoterrorists. And as for the latter, at least in these novels there's a reason he's a paranoid arsehole. There is a tragedy wrapped in an enigma here: the tragedy of the ordinary people, living in interesting times. And I think that's probably going to be the overarching theme of the third story line, when I start writing it ...