WHEN TO GIVE UP AND WHEN TO SUCCEED: A WRITER'S PERSPECTIVE
The first time I sold a book, I got an email from a friend saying 'that's it! You've got a book published. You can die now.'
Writing a book – or rather, writing it and then seeing it published – is the kind of thing that turns up on bucket lists of Things To Do Before You Die. A while back there was a survey – I think it was in the Guardian - where they asked people what careers they most aspired to, and 'novelist' came out top of the pile. So speaking as a published author of some ten years standing, I guess I'm doing pretty well.
But it takes a lot of work and dedication to get there. And even having one book out isn't enough. If you actually want to make a career out of it – and there's an unspoken assumption that you do – you need to write another. And then another. And yet another. Preferably at a rate of one a year.
There are two moments I can identify as being integral to my becoming a writer. The first was in, I think, 1988. I liked to play guitar a lot back then, and my hair was a great deal longer than it is now. I had been in a rehearsal room with a bunch of people who wanted to form a group and, as is the way with such things, insurmountable differences had arisen. These differences led to the latest of many arguments, and that in turn led to a moment of epiphany on my part. After many years of being locked in crumbling rehearsal rooms with total strangers, I recognized it was time to give up and do something else. So I put my guitar away and didn't touch it for two years. I borrowed a friend's beat-up Corona typewriter and wrote my first piece of short fiction since I was fourteen. The next day it was in the mail to Interzone.
The story got bounced back, of course. It wasn't very good at all. But the one I wrote and posted after that was fractionally less rotten, and the one after that until, finally, I sold a two thousand word story to a long-gone horror magazine called Skeleton Crew. It appeared in, I think, March 1990. I bought an extra issue of the magazine, cut out the pages and framed them before hanging it on my wall.
In fairness, that story wasn't very good either, but what the hell. I got paid for it.
Over the next five years, I sold a couple more stories, but my appearances in print were, to say the least, sporadic. I finally managed to write my first novel in '97 or thereabouts, and although that book got me my agent, it has never been published. I worked in a bookshop for a while, then as a designer in a printing shop, trying to figure out exactly what to do with my life.
I had my second epiphany in the very early 2000s when I realized the only sane and sensible thing I could possibly do was write a second novel. I further resolved to keep on writing novels until one sold, regardless of how long it took. My reasoning was simple: if I could sell short stories and get actual hard cash in my hands for my efforts, surely I could sell a hundred thousand word novel?
I started work on a second novel immediately, making it a priority in my life. I had assumed I would need to work for years before achieving any kind of success. But it wasn’t very long afterwards that I got a call from my agent, who had been doggedly sending that first, unpublished novel to editors and agents on both sides of the Atlantic for very nearly five years. She told me Pan Macmillan were putting together their own SF/F imprint, to be called Tor. They had seen my first novel, but didn’t feel it was suitable for them. However, if I happened to be working on anything else, they were interested in taking a look.That was when I realized the value of always having something new on the go. It’s never enough to write just one novel and hope that’s the one that sells. More than anything, writers write. So I sent them what I had written so far of Angel Stations, and they responded with cautious interest. They would take a look again, they said, once I had completed the manuscript.
I now had extra motivation to get the thing finished. I was working a part-time job doing graphic design, and making just enough from that to keep me alive while I kept writing. I finished the book and sent it in. A couple of months later I got an email from my agent telling me I had an offer for a two-book deal.
I have the memory retention of a goldfish, but that moment remains in my mind with startling clarity.
I've read reviews saying there are enough ideas in Angel Stations for a whole trilogy, and I know what they mean. Just about every idea I'd had for a decade and more was crammed into a hundred and thirty thousand words. I've sometimes been asked if I'd ever write a sequel to Angel Stations, but the truth is it is itself a sequel, of sorts, to my first, unpublished novel. Also, by virtue of the way it’s written, it's not a book that lends itself easily to further stories. In truth, my experience of writing had given me ideas that would require new settings in order to explore them.
So when it came to my second novel, Against Gravity, I worked on something entirely different, and influenced by the New Wave and Cyberpunk novels I had grown up reading (although the novels of Simon Ings were also a definite influence).
Against Gravity, again, proved to be a kind of clearing-house for every other crazy idea I'd harboured for the best part of ten years (and if you're wondering where the title comes from, it's derived from a quote from Paolo Soleri, the visionary architect. I don't have it handy right now, but I do remember the context. He described all of human history as an attempt to construct objects that work against gravity. I took that further, to include the desire to leave the planet altogether in search of a kind of transcendence). I had recently read parts of a very strange book called The Physics of Immortality, in which the author, Frank Tipler, a physicist, essentially attempts to build a scientific rationale for his Christianity by means of a set of calculations purporting to prove the existence of, well, Heaven.
Since intelligent life by its nature seeks to extend itself indefinitely, he proposed, there might one day come a point when that drive runs up against the hard limits of entropy, and a universe slowly winding down, thousands of trillions of years in the future. Sufficiently advanced life, Tipler argued, up there at the end of time, might create a virtual environment indistinguishable from the Christian Heaven. And that mass of advanced intelligence – if taken as a totality, might it not be indistinguishable from God…?
Essentially, it's a variation on the 'simulation argument' – the idea that we're living in a Matrix-like virtual environment possibly created by our very distant descendants (I never really went into detail about the religion of the Uchidanist settlers in the Shoal Trilogy, but, essentially, this is it. The same idea crops up, in a smaller way, in a more recent novel of mine called Final Days). On top of that, I asked another question of my own. Imagine you could create an artificial intelligence, sometime in the near-future, capable of bootstrapping itself to higher levels of intellect. Then imagine if that machine were to seek out others of its own kind. Might it come to the same conclusions as Tipler and therefore seek out that Godlike intelligence, somewhere up at the end of time…?
To get back to the original point of this article, knowing when to stop is as important as succeeding. I once heard a lecture by a businessman, and he made the point that he was better qualified to speak about business successes, because he'd had a number of failures in the past. Failing, he said, was an essential part of success.
I had come to the realization that playing guitar in manky rehearsal rooms was going to get me precisely nowhere. So I chose another path, one I had always been interested in pursuing. Later, shortly after I wrote that first novel, I started then quit a post-grad course in computing, once I realized I simply wasn't cut out for it. I recognized it was time to quit. And that's a good thing, because if I hadn't, I wouldn't be sitting here writing this for Tor. And you wouldn't be looking at my books on the shelves.
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For more posts on and by Gary Gibson on Torbooks.co.uk click here. Also, his latest novel, Marauder is published in September in hardback, with info on the book here. It’s a standalone adventure set in the far future of Gary Gibson’s Shoal trilogy books, which were reissued in May. The trilogy consists of Stealing Light, Nova War and Empire of Light. Against Gravity and Angel Stations were reissued in June.