Charlie Stross: September 2010 Archives

My first two published SF novels, "Singularity Sky" and "Iron Sunrise", have a long and tangled history. And I figure it's probably worth (a) explaining why there won't be a third one in that particular series, and (b) spoilering the plot thread I had kicking around that would have been in the third Eschaton novel if I was going to write it.

Back in 2001, as I noted in the first entry in this series, I was scrambling to make money as a writer (being an unemployed programmer in the middle of the dot-com bust). After my agent shot down my suggestion for an alternate history novel for various good and sound commercial reasons, I generated a new proposal; this time for an alternate history/paratime SF lite series (one that could be marketed initially as a portal fantasy with mediaeval tone, moving sideways into SF of a different kind from my main sales track if conditions permitted).

Caitlin thought it sounded like a great idea, so I sat down and blasted out a first draft of "The Family Trade" in twelve weeks flat. Then went back and re-drafted at length, adding another 40,000 words to bring it up to 195,000 words — or about 600 pages. Being commercially naive I was, you see, thinking in terms of Big Fat Fantasy here. Which is why I was to get a rude awakening in 2002 ...

What I've learned since then is that if you go over about 420 pages, the cost of binding the book blocks goes up sharply — a different process is required, fewer print shops can do it, and they charge more. So Big Fat Books are positively discouraged unless you're extremely successful and able to ship lots of copies. If you're a midlist writer and you turn in a BFF that's good enough to publish, but not to publish profitably in a 600-800 page tome, what will probably happen to you is that your editor will decide to chop the book in half and publish it in two volumes.

This happened to "The Family Trade" (which is why book #1 ends on a cliff hanger and book #2 has a lame title — I had two weeks to make the cut). And it completely derailed my plans for the rest of the series — "The Clan Corporate", as published, is the opening and set-up to the book I really meant to write.

Digging through my files I have rediscovered the series pitch that I wrote in early 2002 to accompany the submission of "The Family Trade" (the uncut BFF mix), explaining to publishers why they might want to buy not just the one book, but a whole series.


I'm removing the (lengthy) plot synopsis for "The Family Trade", because if you're interested in this posting you've probably read the original book.

If you plan to read the "Merchant Princes" series but haven't gotten round to it yet, you may want to skip the rest of this blog entry, continued below the cut (although "The Trade of Queens" diverges widely enough from this series pitch that it might not spoil the novel for you).

However, my current plans for subsequent volumes in the series (if I write them) don't much resemble this eight-year-old proposal. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and the Merchant Princes diverged drastically from this pitch before book #3 comes to a climax. See if you can spot where the requirement to tell the story in 300 page chunks forced me to take a different direction ...

Well, we're up and running on a new server (and if you can see this, you're looking at it). I took the opportunity to do a major release upgrade on the software that this site runs on, and the style sheet for this blog appears to have been clobbered in the process. Normal visuals will be resumed as soon as possible; meanwhile, the basics appear to be working ...

Update: and we're fixed!

It takes an insane amount of time to get your first novel published, when you're just starting out.

I wrote the novel that finally appeared as "Singularity Sky" between 1995 and 1998 (hey, I had a day job); it eventually came out in early 2003, and was lapped part way by my next-but-one novel, "The Atrocity Archive" (which was serialized in an obscure Scottish magazine called "Spectrum SF" from 2001-02).

In 1997, after a decade of failure to launch in the UK, I sat down, took stock of everything I'd learned from my mistakes, and resolved not to do that again. I came up with a master plan and resolved to give it for five years before giving up and throwing in the towel. Rule #1 was, "sell into the American market" (because if you want to write fiction for a living it's a good idea to focus on the biggest market). And Rule #2 was, "write novels, in different sub-genres (because you can't tell in advance which will sell), and make sure each one can be the first book in a series (because you want to be able to follow up whichever sells)". Of course, I didn't expect everything to sell, leaving me juggling about three series' ...

However. Back in 1997/8 I was still learning how to do this thing. And after I finished the third draft of "Festival of Fools" (aka "Singularity Sky") I kept going for another 45,000 words, working on a sequel titled "Iron Sunrise", until sanity (and the business plan) asserted themselves.

Very little of the original material in "Iron Sunrise" made its way into the final published book (which was mostly written in 2001-02). Here's why ...

The new server is up and tests out okay, so we're switching over on Monday morning (UK time — in the wee hours if you're in the USA). You won't be able to post comments on the blog during the move — between midnight GMT on Sunday evening and probably noon GMT (or thereabouts) on Monday. When you see the comment entry box again, you'll know the migration is complete.

Automated translation is one of those ideas that collectively constitute the philosopher's stone of procedural artificial intelligence; we can translate our own formal constructed programming languages mechanistically (the tools to do so are called compilers) so why can't we translate human languages automatically?

Well, we can, after a fashion. But translation turns out to be very hard, even for humans, and the consequences of a mistake can range from hilarious to horrifying ...

Ideas are cheap.

They're so damn easy to come by that I have difficulty understanding why so many people seem to want to ask me where I get my ideas from. All I do is read widely, and periodically bang a couple of random ideas together until I get a spark. It takes, on average, six to nine months to write a novel; but in brainstorming mode I can come up with half a dozen book-sized ideas in a week.

I have more ideas for books than I have time to write them. Also, some of these ideas are of ... dubious, shall we say ... commercial value.

These are book proposals that caught my attention for long enough that I made notes on the topic, in some cases pitched them at my agent or a passing editor or even a potential co-author. But for one reason or another, the opportune moment never came; or the editor was less than interested, or whatever. So it's about time I cracked the covers on a few of the concepts that didn't make it into my production queue.

First, from late 2001: the book I nearly wrote instead of "The Family Trade".

I have just bitten the bullet and ordered a somewhat beefier server to run this blog. Some time in the next two weeks we'll be moving everything across and testing; I'll warn you all before it goes live. (Comments will be switched off for up to 24 hours before, during, and after the move.)

One reason for the move is that the blog's taking twice as many visits as it was two years ago, when I first rented this Atom-based micro-server. A second reason is that I want to upgrade Movable Type to a newer version that supports properly threaded discussions. (At last!)

Always do, at a minimum, a brief fact-check on everything you write in a work of fiction with a non-fantastical/far future setting. Otherwise you will be sorry.

We who write fiction are in the business of telling entertaining lies for money. If the lies don't entertain, we don't get paid: more to the point, if our audience can see through the lies, they don't entertain. Fiction relies upon the reader's willing suspension of disbelief — if you're immersed in a novel, it helps not to be jerked up short every ten seconds by the realization that the setup is nonsensical.

I just had a collapse of suspension of disbelief — a cognitive toe-stubbing — in the first two pages of a novel, so I thought I'd share it with you while it's still fresh. What makes it annoying is that one minute with wikipedia (no need for a serious research library here!) would have enabled the author to avoid it.

I just handed in the (hopefully) final draft of "Rule 34", incorporating some fixes to address editorial feedback. Hopefully that's the last I'll see of it until the copy edits come back to me for checking ...

Eighteen months of hard work. A narrative in second person/present tense from no less than seven viewpoints with, if I remember correctly, three different crime subplots going on in parallel: my brain nearly melted. But it's off my desk, and now I can really get my teeth into "The Apocalypse Codex".

I am amused to notice that Wikipedia's moderators have a hate on for the term "Rule 34" in its use as an internet meme; indeed, attempts to set up a Wikipedia entry for the term "Rule 34" run into a (locked) obscure American legal code entry and are flagged for speedy deletion. Thus, I appear to have written the first novel that can't be mentioned on Wikipedia. I guess I'll just have to dote on my TVTropes page instead ...

I'm back home. The flights from Melbourne to Edinburgh were mercifully tolerable — at least as such things go (helpful travel tip: on really long flights, pack spare underwear in your carry-on and schedule a 4 hour stop-over, then use the time to have a shower and shave: you'll feel much better for it). However, the hangover is dreadful. It's not just the nine hours of time zone difference you'd expect; crossing the equator (from 40 degrees south to 60 degrees north) adds an extra chunk, so that it feels more like 33 hours of jet lag than 9. If I ever do this again, I'm going to see if I can schedule a 2-3 day stop-over at the halfway point in each direction ...

But I digress.

Yesterday (9/11, as Americans call it), was widely touted as International Religious Tolerance Day, for reasons which should be obvious. To a first approximation, this seems like a good idea; a lot of the most unpleasant news of the past decade has been generated by the actions of the religious and intolerant, from Al Qaida to Pastor Terry Jones. But is more religious tolerance the answer?

I'm heading for Melbourne airport in a double-handful of hours, and won't be home for another 30 hours after that (assuming everything runs to schedule). I'll probably be exanimate until Sunday or Monday due to jet lag. Interestingly, I'm leaving an Australia governed by ... well, the same people they were governed by before I arrived, modulo a thinner majority which is conditional upon the support of some independent MPs, whose support comes at the price of a subsidized national broadband scheme to ensure that all Australians can get equal fast access to YouTube videos of dancing dogs. Is this the first election in a western democracy to have its outcome determined by the need for internet access as a basic right?

So I just won a Hugo award!

(For "Palimpsest", in Best Novella.)

I am gobsmacked. But happy.

I'm at AussieCon 4, the world science fiction convention, this weekend. (Blogging time — what's that?) And next week I'm going to be flying home (around a 38 hour trip, door to door). So feel free to talk among yourselves here ...

Meanwhile, from the artificial ecosystems department, some good news. (But before you go all SPACE COLONIES!!!11!!ELEVENTY!!!, remember: this experiment ran with free air and water, and took the thick end of two hundred years ...)



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in September 2010.

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