It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Is that the book you really meant to write?

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So that’s A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War and the second book of my space opera trilogy, handed over to the publisher. Now I’ve got to make a start on the third book. And I’d say I’ve got carte blanche, literally, except I haven’t really, because there’s a plot laid out in the first two books and there’s all that foreshadowing I’ve done and the hints and clues I’ve dropped… But I’ve still got plenty of room to manoeuvre, and after writing the Apollo Quartet I’m going to take every damn inch available. Not just because I can but because I want to.

When I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to capture what it actually felt like to be wearing an Apollo era spacesuit on the Moon. It would be an act of imagination, of course – I’m not an astronaut, I’ve never been to the Moon, I’ve never worn a A7LB. But I’d read plenty of astronaut autobiographies and books about spacesuits and NASA technical documentation from the Apollo flights. And it struck me a Cormac McCarthy-like prose style would be good for evoking the desolation of the lunar surface. So I wrote my novella about a group of astronauts in an Apollo programme which had continued into the 1980s, and who were now stranded at a Moon base after the Earth had destroyed itself during a nuclear war.

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I made certain artistic decisions that were, well, not the way you were “supposed” to do things. A long glossary. Astronauts that spoke like real astronauts, with no concessions made to the reader. No quote marks around the dialogue. I had no idea what sort of reception Adrift on the Sea of Rains would receive, but I was dead set on it being exactly the way I wanted it to be…

The rest, as they say, is history.

However, I’d foolishly decided to make my novella the first of a quartet. The Apollo Quartet. It had a nice ring to it. I went through a number of story ideas before eventually settling on what became the second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – and then ditching the original structure after a comment in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – none of which is especially relevant, as the point of this post is… writing sequels.

There are several different types of sequel. The most obvious is the one which continues the story begun in the preceding volume. Some of these can stand-alone, but many read like one humongous book split into several smaller volumes. Other types of sequel may be set in the same universe, and feature exactly the same cast, but follow a different plot – and those various plots may themselves contribute to a greater story arc (or simply fill in more details about the series’ world or protagonist). Some sequels share only a setting, but may reference the events of earlier books in the series.

Of course, a sequel doesn’t have to follow the story or protagonist or setting, the link might be more tenuous. Theme, for example. It might even be extra-textual. As it is in the Apollo Quartet. Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains has no real closure, the story would not be continued in the next novella, it would never be continued. The only link would be that provided by the quartet’s title: the Apollo programme. That’s about as extra-textual as you can get: imagined variations on a real-world space programme.

As for the second book’s story… The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing exactly the opposite of what was expected. People had said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary rather than science fiction, so I’d write The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal more to a reader of science fiction (but I gave it a literary title because why not). The narrative would be a puzzle, one that no character in the story could solve, and I wasn’t going to explain it either. All the clues would be there, but the reader would have to put it all together themselves. That would likely piss some people off, but that was the plan. Especially since I wasn’t even going to put the main plot front and centre but hide it behind the two narratives. The idea was to write exactly what admirers of the first book weren’t expecting or, from their comments, didn’t especially want.

So I did.

Some liked it more than the first book, some didn’t.

But then I had to do something completely different for the third book.

If Adrift on the Sea of Rains was more literary than sf, and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was more sf than literary, then book three would be… neither. The Apollo Quartet was based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme, but I’d make this third novella pure alternate history. The Mercury 13 provided the perfect opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to write about the bathyscaphe Trieste, and while I had the perfect story for it – the recovery of a spy satellite film canister – there was no obvious link, or indeed any link, to the Apollo programme. However, since part of the philosophy behind the Apollo Quartet was making the reader do the work, it occurred to me I didn’t need to explicitly document the link. A few hints, and let the reader figure it out. I’d done that in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, it’s just that in this novella one narrative was not a consequence of the other, because the consequences took place outside the story.

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This became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (the most Lowry-esque title of the entire quartet).

Right from the moment I’d decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first book of the Apollo Quartet I knew what the final book would be about: the wife of a real-life Apollo astronaut who wrote science fiction. Because I wanted to juxtapose the invented space travel of her imaginary worlds with the real space travel of his. I also liked the idea of ending a trio of alternate Apollo histories with the real Apollo programme. In other words, this fourth novella wouldn’t even be science fiction.

Except, I went and spoiled things. First, I decided to make it a novel, rather than a novella. I’d originally planned to have two narratives – one would be the protagonist’s real life, the other would be one of her stories. But that felt too much like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. When I started writing the novel, I decided to namecheck only women science fiction writers, but it occurred to me I could make more of a point by setting my story in a world in which science fiction was a women’s genre. And from that point, I was just throwing stuff in to make reading the novel as rich an experience as possible – not just the names of real-world women sf authors, but also references to well-known sf stories. I put the protagonist’s story in the centre of the novel and used the first half to show the inspiration for it and the second half to reflect its plot. Not to mention hints back to the earlier books of the quartet…

This was All That Outer Space Allows.

So none of the books of the Apollo Quartet are actual sequels according to the commonly-understood meaning of the term. And I approached each one with the intention of surprising, and possibly annoying, those who had admired the previous book. It seems to have worked. And it worked for me too as a way of finding my way into the stories of the quartet. Sometimes, as a writer, you need that. It’s easy enough when the plot of book 1 follows through into books 2 and 3 and 4, all you’re doing then is delaying the resolution – and, since you don’t want those sequels to be pure padding, complicating the resolution. You’re basically lay the groundwork for closure.

But closure is a commercial fiction thing, like transparent prose and sympathetic protagonists. And that’s particuarly true of genre fiction. Readers expect everything to be neatly resolved by the time they reach the last page. The Good King is back on the throne and the Dark Lord defeated. The alien invasion has been rebuffed and it was all because they needed our water. The drop-out hacker has found the secret at the heart of the evil corporation and revealed it to the world, which is rightly appalled (but nothing actually changes, of course).

Thing is, stories don’t actually need to end neatly. They don’t even need to end. And good books are those where it feels as though the universe continues to exist even after you’ve turned the last page. You can have giant novels split into multiple parts of publication, you can have a series where the same cast in the same setting experience different stories… or you can play around with the concept of “sequel”, much as you can play around with narrative and its various constituents. And doing that’s a lot more fun than putting the same old group of people through yet another lot of jeopardy, all in the name of drama.

But what about the space opera, you ask. That’s one enormous novel split into three, or at least that’s what the blurb implies. True, each book doesn’t really stand alone, and they need to be read in order. But even within the constraints imposed by a single story told over three books, I like to think I’ve bent the sequel template a little out of shape. Because a common complaint levelled at the second books of trilogies is that they do little more than move the cast into position for the big showdown in book three. I wanted to avoid that in A Conflict of Orders. So I changed the story. I stuck to the overall plot: evil duke conspires to take the imperial throne, ingenu from the sticks leads the opposition. But instead of continuing the story from the good guys’ point of view, I decided to give equal narrative space to the bad guys. And then I flipped the conspiracy on its head.

Structurally, A Conflict of Orders rings a few small changes. Since A Prospect of War was about putting a force together to combat the Serpent’s forces, clearly a big battle was in the offing. In epic fantasy, this is usually left until the very end, when the forces of good and evil line up against each other and everybody throws everything they’ve got against each other… And somehow or other the good guys manage to win the day. But there was no way I was going to drag the preparations for the final battle out over book two and half of book three. So I made it the centre-piece of A Conflict of Orders. And I described using short chapters, so I had lots of viewpoints of the action. And then, once the battle was over, I moved the plot into second-gear. The Admiral and her forces have won the day, and now it’s all a matter of cleaning up. Except there’s more going on than originally appeared to be the case… And that’s what book three, A Want of Reason, will resolve.

So, in terms of sequels, the space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, doesn’t follow the typical pattern of a linear plot split over three volumes. In point of fact, there are three nested stories going on, and each volume resolves one of them. It’ll likely do my credibility no good, but this structure was partly inspired by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Now they’re not very good books – Smith’s, that is – and the writing in them is mostly embarrassing. I’d also question their historical importance. But one thing they did really well was escalate jeopardy. No sooner had Kimball Kinnison defeated one villainous conspiracy then it was revealed there was a higher level of villains who had been controlling it. (To be fair, this structure was somewhat spoiled by the series being published in book form in internal chronology order, which revealed the over-arching struggle between the Arisians and the Eddorians right at the start.)

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I’m not about to reveal the plot of A Want of Reason, and not just because it has yet to be written and even I don’t know how it will probably go. I’m thinking I might have a go at introducing Marxism into space opera, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already thrown away the plan I’d had in the back of my mind when I wrote A Conflict of Orders (for the record, it was an historical narrative thread, set 1000 years in the past, which would explain the trilogy’s underlying conspiracy). Having said all that, A Conflict of Orders very much ends, as A Prospect of War did, with the various narrative threads poised to make the jump to the next level. Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral have raised their forces, and they’re about the meet the Serpent’s army and navy in battle… And more than that, I probably shouldn’t say…

You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

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11 thoughts on “Is that the book you really meant to write?

  1. I would be considerably easier to read sai book to find out if I didn’t have to wait for -sour taste in my mouth- publishers -/sour taste in my mouth-. Please tell me this publisher is relatively quick in releasing your books and not, er, like ‘they who shall not be named’ who deliberately delay even kindle releases for a year or more? As a pretty fast reader addicted to sci fi and fantasy I find publishers to be damn inconvenient.

    I know your website says an October release but… Publishers…

    Of course I understand editing and setting up print copies etc. but Kindle doesn’t need the latter, thiugh the former is necessary I suppose (I hope I got that the right away around).

    Anyway, bought your book last night (aussie time) and just finished it. I love your world-building and story-telling, character building etc. It is quite a wonderful book, I love the length and everything in it. My only real, er, annoyance is your stubborn use of an outdated form of measurement (yards, miles, etc) and the well-rounded numbers when talking about technical things (i.e 150 000 ‘miles’ for sensors and stuff)- as someone from one of the majority of countries around the world using the far superior metric system it grinds my gears- you perhaps have a particular reason for using it but it is no less annoying lol. As for the rounded numbers, well, even though it’s a (well) made-up universe I find it difficult to believe technical capabilities would always be rounded so well (unless perhaps the stated numbers were rounded estimates). When i’m trying to convert your -sour taste in mouth- yards and miles -/sour taste in mouth- into meters and kilometers it’s real annoying (though somewhat more realistic with much less rounded numbers for your tech specs like sensors or the view distance from a jolly boat so high above the ground).

    Oh well I had my rant, the rest of your book is amazing. I admit it does take a while to wrap ones head around the names and systems you’ve built- on the marxist point you make in this post, I would say you have already begun to build that into your books haha. I saw some reviews before I bought it that said something about an unrealistic social and economic structure to society and sort of giggled to myself because, well, they obviously don’t like to study history or even some would argue contemporary western society (or one could look at the PROC/China to see a system very similar to the one you’ve condtructed as there is very clearly 3 or perhaps 4 classes there with er restrictions on movement beyond the lower middle class.

    Anyway thanks for this new universe to explore.

    • Many spelling/grammar mistakes in the above post- I find iPhones annoying to ‘type’ with- my apologies and I hope it is still mostly legible.

      • Hi. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. To answer your points…

        Tickety Boo Press were quick to release the first book of the trilogy after I delivered the manuscript, so I fully expect them to do the same for the second book.

        I used Imperial measurements deliberately because I wanted it to feel a bit archaic 🙂 I use metric myself, but I thought it would give an added patina of age to the universe if I used miles, yards, feet, etc.

        The rounding-up on distances had never occurred to me, but you make a good point. I was using circa WWI naval combat as a guide, and I suppose they would have given distances to an accuracy of one yard. Scaling it up to the hundreds and thousands of miles common in space combat should have resulted in rounding up. I’ll try and do something about that in the last book.

        Again, thanks for kind words 🙂

        • That was a quick reply- thanks for that. Now that you mention it, using the old system does assist with the archaic or uh, Henry-era feel of the novel. Just in hopes that you will reply again- will your publisher be doing ‘another’ soft launch on kindle or will it all be done at the same time? (Yes… I went way back through your blogs to see what the release of the first book was like since I only just found it on amazon yesterday). Your website says October but eh, I’ll probably end up loading amazon every now and then hoping to see it, amongst other works handed in so far this month by a handful of other authors I follow, on the list somewhere.

          Keep up the good work- ‘finding’ the first book of this awe-inspiring new universe was amazing. I’m one of those people that buys even the self-published and more often than not poorly edited cliché space operas for kindle, and 9/10 times regret it immensely. This was very refreshing, I’m amazed it’s so cheap on kindle- most publishers I know of pump/inflate the kindle price of books to almost the same as their print prices, so finding out your publisher did a soft release AND didn’t appear to inflate the kindle price at all was refreshing as well.

          • The first book was launched early on Kindle because the hardbook launch was timed for a convention. This time I imagine the book will be available on Kindle as soon as it’s ready.

            The price was dropped for a promotion. The second book will probably appear at a slightly higher price.

  2. Hayden, we are working on it as we speak and the second book should be out within a week. Would you be so kind to post a review on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. It would be greatly appreciated

    • That is great news! I’ll do you one better and post a review on amazon.com.au- I usually don’t post reviews until my second or third re-read. Thanks for the replies it’s not too often an author shows enough interest to reply multiple times and even end up having the publisher respond as well!

  3. That would be great, Hayden. It would be very helpful if you copied and pasted your review to Amazon UK. If you do that I will send you an omnibus edition that includes 2 unread space opera novels and a bonus novella? Currently, even though the book has sold well, we have 2 crap reviews on UK! 🙂

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