Some novels just don't happen when you expect them to. That was the case in mid to late 2013. I was supposed to be working on The Lambda Functionary, a third book in a thematic trilogy that started with Halting State and Rule 34, but it was turning out to be tough—much tougher than I expected. Partly I'd loaded too many ideas into it, but I was also becoming uneasily aware of the impending Scottish political singularity. The world of Halting State diverges from our own because I dreamed it up in 2005-06 as a plausible projection for the world of 2017, and we're much closer to 2017 now than we were back then: the flaws are visible. Given that the SPS will extend through 2017 (thanks to the coming referendum on continuing UK membership of the EU) it became impossible to write a third book in that universe. So I shelved it (although a bunch of those ideas will turn up, sooner rather than later, in a different near future novel).
So in August 2012 I was getting a bit panicky over the book I was failing to write. I was at the world science fiction convention, and had a date to do dinner with my editor, Ginjer Buchanan, lately of Ace. (She retired in March 2014.) So once we'd eaten, I raised the topic of The Lambda Functionary. "It's being difficult," I said: "I really need an extra year to write it."
Ever told a project manager that you're running a bit late and please can I have an extra year? Yeah, it went down about the way you might imagine: except that Ginjer had been editing me for over a decade and has my number. "You're thinking of something else," she suggested.
"Well yeah. The annoying thing is, there's this Laundry Files idea that's been bugging me. It's a bit different to the earlier novels in the series, but ..."
"How is it different?"
"Well for one thing, it begins like this: Don't be silly, Bob, said Mo, everyone knows vampires don't exist!"
And she looked at me silently for about half a minute, then nodded and said, "tell your agent to write me a deal memo."
So, yes, I can honestly say I sold The Rhesus Chart on a one-sentence proposal—an elevator pitch, in fact. (Although it really helped that it was for the fifth book in a series, and I was pitching it at an editor who'd successfully published books one through four.)
The meeting I pitched it at was in September. There were some minor contractual complications—the P&L on a Laundry novel back then was lower than for a high-profile SF novel—so I took a survivable haircut on the advance. Flip side: I sat down to work on September 15th, 2012, and wrote "THE END" on December 1st, 2012. This was a big surprise to me (the previous Laundry Files novel, The Apocalypse Codex, took me nine months to wrestle into submission), but it just came out so smoothly. Yes, it went through two subsequent redrafts: that's normal. But what's not so normal is for the first draft to come out in ten weeks flat, with no hiccups.
In part, what made it easy was the pivot I'd decided to make in the series.
The first Laundry Files stories recycled a bunch of personal experiences: my love for British cold war spy thrillers, and my experience in the IT business. But the cold war ended in 1991 (although I hear they're trying to restart it) and I last worked in IT as anything other than a peanut-gallery pundit around 2000. If you don't use a skill set you lose it, and my programming chops and workplace experience were over a decade out of date and ageing. Also, I'd run out of British spy thriller writers I really wanted to pastiche. (John LeCarre and Graham Greene are way above my pay grade, I am not touching William Le Queux with a barge pole (even if I go full retro), John Buchan bores me, and the Laundry series is fundamentally incompatible with non-British writers (although I do have a weird fondness for the work of Richard Condon which I've gotta do something about one day)).
So some time in 2012 I took the decision to switch to hitting on fantasy subgenres and tropes rather than spy thriller writers, on organizational dysfunction and politics as much as IT, to broaden my scope and use viewpoint characters other than Bob, and to work the series round slightly closer to the urban fantasy 'mainstream" in search of a broader audience.
(Note that this doesn't mean I'm abandoning Bob, bureaucracy, and devops-related lunacy. It just means I'm targeting a bunch of new material and hopefully making the books more accessible to readers with less of a technical background as well.)
Stuff that went into The Rhesus Chart: well, I did a whole bunch of background reading about the culture of banking for Neptune's Brood and some of it had to show up eventually. Added to which, back in the mists of dot-com one point zero I had far too many encounters with soi-disant "banking IT" people in the course of my day job. My opinion of them wasn't high. Over the subsequent decade, though, I ran into folks from the other end of the banking IT sector—the people who make the back end software on which investment banks run. Banks are huge IT users, and it seemed reasonable to assume that events of interest to the Laundry would be happening inside some of their more secretive software development teams.
Vampires: well, who hasn't read enough vampire books or watched enough vampire movies to claim some expertise? Maybe I'm anomalous in having a low taste for urban fantasy, but while I'm writing a novel I can't unwind by reading something similar to what I'm working on—so during my hard-SF phase in the 2000s I read far too much UF as a source of brain candy while writing books like Iron Sunrise or Saturn's Children.
There are huge inconsistencies in the vampire mythology, largely because the idea of blood-sucking corpses (or the more abstract transferrable-curse-of-vampirisim) crops up in many different cultures. Northern European vampires seem to have their origins in primitive misapprehensions about the process of decay of bodies after death, and in the way contagious diseases spread through families living in close unhygeinic conditions (such as tuberculosis). Religious trappings got layered on top early on, because religious beliefs are a way of making sense of the universe, especially its more inexplicable aspects: hence the holy water/crucifix allergy. So it occured to me that given the Laundry Files universe as a setting, it ought to be possible to come up with an "origin story" for vampirism that fits the mythology sufficiently well to explain most of the core elements and that was consistent with the previously established motifs of supernatural brain parasitism. If instead of pure parasitism (the eaters in night, the K-syndrome parasites) we posit a commensal symbiote, or a parasite that uses the host to harvest food, you end up with something like the V-parasites—and indeed, this sort of parasitism is something we see in nature.
One of my beefs with the urban fantasy genre in general is that there's a tendency for less thoughtful authors to absorb the eschatological trappings that have cohered around the monster myths they're adopting without questioning them. (Holy water and vampires would be one example.) I wrote The Apocalypse Codex in large part as a response to this problem—to underline the fact that the Laundry Files universe is not driven by Christian religious eschatology (unless Cthulhu worship really is going mainstream). Another problem I have with many UF series is that they posit a hidden world of magic and monsters coexisting with our own ... without any friction visible around the edges, even as vampires and demons rack up an impressive body count. The Rhesus Chart is part of my fix for this in the Laundry Files (although The Concrete Jungle makes some interesting observations about the true purpose of the Mass Observation programs of the 1930s to 1960s). Vampires are predators and predators are territorial. It's also not a great leap of the imagination to postulate that if vampires exist and were identified as a problem in public, the scale of the response would rival that of the reaction to terrorism: mandatory naked noonday identity parades, police patrols with mirrors and stakes, and so on. So the first rule of vampire school is: vampires don't exist ... and if you see one, kill it and dispose of the evidence because it's carelessness is a direct existential risk to your own survival.
I finished the first draft and fired it at my editors. And my extremely energetic and young new British editor at Orbit pitched in with a suggestion: "can you make this a new entrypoint to the series?" She asked. "Because if so, we can really push the marketing and give it a big boost."
"Sure," I said, and wrote a boringly infodumpy prologue, which she rejected. So instead I got to rewrite the beginning again.
In the first draft, Bob manages to save Andy from his highly inadvisable 10% project before he hits the button. As my editor pointed out, this was a cop-out: "if you have him hit the button, you can then show Bob in action, and the sort of universe he lives in, really on in the book," she pointed out. It's a bit like the action sequence at the start of every James Bond movie, that sinks the hook for the story into your head and then throws special effects at you until you get the idea that yes, James Bond is some kind of Saville-Row wearing action superhero who makes problems go away, usually in a huge explosion. The action sequence at the beginning of The Rhesus Chart is there to show new readers that Bob makes supernatural problems Go Away (with a little bit of help from his mentor). All the better, then, to set him up for being out-maneuvered in committee meetings later on ...
Final note. An interviewer once asked Lois McMaster Bujold how she planned her novels. Her answer was along the lines of, "I work out what the worst possible thing I can do to my protagonist is, then I do it to them." If you're setting out as a writer this is really good advice and you should act on it. If you can't think of a "worst possible thing" to do to your protagonist short of dismemberment or death, then you don't know your protagonist well enough. By The Rhesus Chart Bob has had four books in which he's taken a level in bad-ass. But Bob has weaknesses he is unaware of. He's emotionally immature for his age (late thirties by this point). He's also, like all of us, somewhat self-deluding about other people. When Mhari re-appears, hopefully his 15-years-on reappraisal of her should make it obvious that his evaluation of her circa The Atrocity Archives was not merely highly subjective, but simply wrong: there's foreshadowing here for the revelation (at the end of The Rhesus Chart, and explored in merciless depth in The Annihilation Score) that everything he thinks he knows about his marriage is ... questionable to say the least.