First Novels

This piece first appeared on the infinity plus website.

First novels are curious creatures because they are rarely, of course, first novels.

It’s very rare for a writer to sit down, write a first novel, and a little way down the line have it published. More often than not, a ‘first’ novel is the result of years of laborious apprenticeship, writing numerous novels in order to learn the craft, and abandoning them to the bottom drawer or, more drastically, to the flaming hearth.

There are exceptions, of course. J.K. Rowling’s first effort found a publisher – after numerous rejections – and I seem to recall it did rather well. And the host of this website, Keith Brooke, sold the very first novel he wrote, Keepers of the Peace, damn him.

But for the rest of us, the hill is steeper.

Looking back on my career, the hill seems to have been a mountain of my own making.

You see, I was labouring under a misapprehension from the very start.

In my late teens I read somewhere, in an interview with the SF great Alfred Bester, that all writers must write a million words of rubbish before they finally become published. Now, had I read that the prescribed total should be a hundred thousand words, I might have been published a lot earlier… But that magical million words lodged in my brain and wouldn’t be shifted – affecting me, I’m sure, subconsciously, and ensuring that Meridian Days came out when it did.

Meridian Days, my first published novel, was in fact around my twentieth written novel.

The very first novel I wrote, I recall, was a terrible pastiche of two of my favourite writers at the time, Leslie Thomas and Tom Sharpe. It was horribly written, cliché-ridden, badly plotted, and unfunny… which for a comedy novel was the ultimate crime. But at least I finished it, eighty thousand words written longhand over a period of eighteen months. I even typed up the first two chapters, before realising how bad it was and abandoning the thing.

Then came a slew of very short science fiction novels using the usual tropes: time-travel, alien invasions, future dystopias. These were short because while living in Australia for four years until the age of eighteen I’d come across the Ace Double range of SF novels (they also published westerns, romances and thrillers in the same format); each one was between around 25k and 55k – giving me the false impression that this was the length of SF novels. So I churned out loads of the things, and even submitted one or two of them to paperback houses in the UK, Hamlyn and Sphere, and in the States, Major Books. (That ms was returned with the note on the package that the company was no longer in business). I have a vague recollection of receiving a rejection letter from my now agent John Jarrold, when he was a commissioning editor at some London house.

All the while I was writing short stories in various genres: SF, crime, mainstream, and getting nowhere.

In ’84 I spent a year in India, and that seemed to spark something – that, and the fact that I’d written a million words of rubbish, and a few years after I got back I began writing the short stories which would be published in Interzone, beginning in ’87.

A year later, on the strength of these tales, I was approached by an agent: did I have a novel I would like him to look at? Well, I had twenty of the things under my bed, but none of which I thought up to scratch. I bundled together a collection of short stories instead, and miracle of miracles Pan Books bought them. The volume appeared as The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories in 1990.

Of course, Pan then wanted to see a novel, so over a period of nine months I wrote Meridian Days, a short novel of doomed love, extraterrestrial colonies, matter transmission, and much more, which was published by Pan in 1992.
* * *
Issues #3 and #4 of Peter Young’s excellent fanzine Big Sky, exclusively about the first and second series of the Gollancz SF Masterworks list, are now available for free download as PDFs from http://efanzines.com/bigsky/index.htm. Both fanzines are big: #3 is 240 pages (9Mb) and #4 is 191 pages (6Mb), and are ideally read on a e-reader such as an iPad. Included in issue three is my review of The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. The whole project contains around 250 reviews and commentaries on every title in the series, in order of appearance in the Masterworks series.

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