My Secret Life with David & Charles

This is the story of a sordid entanglement with David & Charles Ltd; the story of one man's struggle with the apathy which dwelt in his inmost soul, and of how he conquered it through stern moral courage and fear of certain penalty clauses in the contract. It is a story which would have shocked millions of TV viewers on Nationwide (only the plans fell through) and thrilled countless readers of the Daily Telegraph Colour Supplement (only those plans fell through as well) – the true history of my War in 2080: The Future of Military Technology, the non-fiction book of which the Times Literary Supplement would have said (only the plans fell through).

1) Getting Commissioned

Some people write a book and then set about selling it. Some, with less energy and more sense, are content to plan the book and try for a contract on the basis of an outline and a sample chapter. And some have greatness thrust upon them, being roused from their habitual stupor by a letter from David & Charles saying 'How'd you like to write us a book?' There was a complex chain of causation behind this letter: a friend at Oxford who'd joined a publishing firm had once had me scribble a science article for the encyclopaedia he was editing (a commission which shook my blind faith in encyclopaedias – good grief, they're written by ordinary dolts for such sordid purposes as making money!); a certain Paul Barnett connected with the same firm had recalled my name after moving to D&C as resident whiz-kid. His creative talent consisted of devising punchy titles like War in 2080 and then locating some writer to handle the trifling details (about 65,000 words of them). This sounds fearfully in-group and elitist, but it's surprising how often you know someone who knows someone who is looking for a writer ...

The next step was dinner with Paul, who came to stay in a poky Reading hotel (there are no good hotels in Reading: aspiring writers should live in London) and explained how he'd been muttering 'Curse you, Langford' each time he bumped his head on the low ceiling, tripped over the chamber pot, or found his breakfast toast half devoured by rats and cockroaches. A good deal of placatory wine and beer later, we settled on a rough outline for the book ('First bit, weapons nowadays; second, weapons of the near future; third, rip off sf ideas'). I was instructed to submit a detailed synopsis in one week and a 5,000-word sample chapter the week after that. I boggled, but followed orders and sprained my frontal lobes with concentrated thought over the next fortnight. The clever solution was to write about something requiring minimal research – satellites, ICBMs, lasers, etc – all of which became a chapter titled 'War in Near Space', whose delicately purplish prose earned me £100 of preliminary advance.

Dribbling at the prospect of further largesse, I craved permission to write the rest of the book.

2) Signature in Blood

The next stage in the relentless process – my sample chapter having shown that I at least knew where to put the semicolons – was for the publisher to issue a contract. Now even an irreproachably reputable firm (as David & Charles were before they signed me on) does not instantly offer a new author the same terms it would to Isaac Asimov; after consulting a few friends who'd already been through it all, this particular new writer was lured into the belief that a better deal could be arranged. The choices were either to storm the D&C bastions single-handed or to hire a mercenary in the form of a literary agent; perversely I chose the first alternative and settled down to haggle over perfectly standard clauses demanding (as Chris Priest puts it) nothing more than that the Author should deliver his wife, suitably garbed in a see-through chiffon gown, for a period of full copyright. (Richard Cowper once claimed to have seen an old-fashioned publisher's contract containing the clause '... in ye euent of tardie Deliuerie ye Scribe shall be flogg'd.' But I think he was lying.) The haggling ended in a suitably compromising position; towards the end of 1977 I signed a revised contract and tried not to think too hard about the delivery deadline (30 June 1978). It seemed much more agreeable to grab my one-third of the full advance (the other two thirds being payable on MS delivery and on publication respectively) and to treat myself to the new typewriter I'd wanted for so long.

3) Research

Recently I met an aspiring writer who wished to be told several thousand things like publishers' and agents' addresses: at once my customary mask of omniscience slipped and I evasively recommended that he shell out a few quid for the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (A&C Black, £2.25), the International SF Yearbook (Pierrot, £2.95) or even a BSFA membership, enabling him to wallow in the cerebral titillation of Focus. He was horrified at the mere thought of this expense; he'd now written two novels and was struggling to sell them, but actually buying the relevant reference books was wholly alien to his nature. This man is probably a cretin. Shrewdly reasoning that even a humble bricklayer is expected to buy his own tools, I've accumulated not only the above works but also a good dictionary. Fowler's Modern English Usage and an encyclopaedia (all essentials), plus several rarely used though frequently recommended items like a thesaurus, a dictionary of quotations and Eye Among the Blind by Robert P. Holdstock. Dabblers in hard science will find it hard to do without the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, useful but expensive. Most of these books came in handy for War in 2080, as did New Scientist and Aviation Week & Space Technology, from which I stole all the newer bits of science. These two magazines balance each other nicely: New Scientist these days is left-wing to the point where a better mousetrap is fearfully denounced as leading inexorably to pollution, multiple genocide and the grinding-down of the Third World, while Aviation Week (a U.S. mag) regards each better mousetrap as a sign that the devilish Russkies have constructed billions of even better intercontinental laser-actuated mousetraps ready to hurtle over the North Pole and destroy the American Way of Life at the drop of a samovar.

The more tediously conventional scientific facts were extracted without too much effort from my old physics texts (the great advantage of a degree in physics is that you have all these old books left over to remind you of what you've forgotten) and countless other books which looked vaguely relevant and were duly bought if cheap enough. Spotting errors was the hardest part – even Asimov's Guide to Science has misleading patches, a revelation which will shatter the faith of many. A certain amount of poking at my pocket calculator to check things like the impact energy of colliding planets ... a swift pillaging of futuristic notions from the 3,000 sf books littering the house ... an endless succession of meditative visits to the pub ... and the research notes were complete.

4) The Almost Godlike Act of Creation

I'm sorry. I can't keep a straight face. Let's try again –

5) Writing The Bloody Thing

To hand I had a sample chapter and various notes scrawled at the beginning of 1978. I also had post-convention shock from Skycon (Easter '78). The D&C deadline still loomed at 30 June, surging down the timeline towards poor helpless me. I started typing in earnest – and in stark fear – on April Fools' Day. The idea was to write 1,000 words each day until the end of May, revising earlier chapters during breaks in drafting later ones, and leaving June for final revision, production of fair copy and seeing my tailor about a tasteful straitjacket.

I was also working full-time for the Civil Service. The inert body slumped over my desk each day became quite a landmark, I'm told.

You'll appreciate, then, that your narrator does not remember too much about the actual, delirious writing process. It was good fun – throwing in weird facts from the Notes and arcane references from the sf collection, salting with a few large numbers (1026 was a special favourite) and sprinkling with jokes, adding crazed bits about sf fans, denunciations of Erich von Däniken, hilarious witticisms about multimegadeath holocausts.... From my experience, here are some cunning hints for authors (not necessarily workable for authors who are not me): Use an electric typewriter or your fingers will drop off. Keep a pen handy for instant corrections – no fiddling with rows of x's on the typewriter. Place all fanzines and non-relevant books in a time-locked vault to reduce distractions. Do the same to clocks and watches lest the approach of (say) closing time sap your will to work. Do not forget to eat.

I dropped one chapter out of the synopsis because it bored me, but even so the book turned out far too long (Hazel counted every word) and had to be furiously cut during the first week of June. It ended up with 72,000 words out of a contracted 65,000, and the paracetamol bottle was empty. After all this, I somehow lost control and delivered the MS several days too early – apparently half the editorial staff at D&C swooned and began to fear for their jobs, since 50% of their time is spent in coaxing work from reluctant authors who are successively ill, busy, on holiday, unavailable, suffering from writer's block and ill again. An agonizing and suspense-filled week later, Paul rang up to break the evil news. He wanted to suggest some changes, he said. I quivered in nameless dread, convinced that chapter after chapter of rewriting lay ahead of me, a prospect fully as enticing as that of counting the full stops in Dhalgren. Five minutes later we had agreed on the three one-word changes required, and for a long time afterwards I lay back weakly murmuring 'Bloody hell.' It still seems somehow impossible.

6) Aftermath

Of course there was more to come. Finding suitable illustrations was enough to empty a second paracetamol bottle, involving as it did endless letters to the Science Museum, who would refer me to the Imperial War Museum, who would either send me the wrong picture or refer me to America, whence my queries generally got no reply at all. (I did better by following up credited pictures in New Scientist and even Analog.) And there was the sublime joy of correcting the long unmanageable galley proofs and waiting for the wide unmanageable page proofs with all the same errors or – better still – new ones.

There were some strange side-effects of War in 2080; for example, the gratuitous quoting of a very silly story of mine called 'Sex Pirates of the Blood Asteroid' led to an inquiry and the subsequent sale of the story to D&C's sf anthology Aries, edited by the mysterious 'John Grant' who nobody knows is really Paul Barnett. Then D&C went stark mad and decided to commission a second book, not long to be denied you (it's about flying saucers; I bet you can hardly wait) and to make War in 2080 their lead title for Spring '79, available in all good bookshops at a mere £5.95, possibly the finest work of non-fiction since [Enough of this. – The Editors]. Fame, power, money; U.S., Australian, book club and paperback sales ... I was becoming more and more bemused and egotistical until put in my place by Paul, who sent a War in 2080 review from the U.S. Publishers Weekly: this said 'A brilliant writer ...' Which, Paul explained, means 'a writer who has a brilliant editor'.

Such a tactful man. I wonder why he's left D&C?