You may remember that I collaborated with Geoff Nelder to write How to Win Short Story Competitions, which was published as an ebook (PDF and Kindle) earlier this year. In this guest blog post, Geoff tells us the story behind another of his projects, ARIA (a science fiction trilogy), from initial conception and research right through to publication and marketing. So, over to you, Geoff.
Behind the story
by its author, Geoff Nelder
Conception and birth
Most people ride a bicycle up a hill to get over the top or to experience the adrenaline rush and buzz of reaching the summit, anticipating the easy downhill rush to come. A cyclist who is also a writer might have a more esoteric reason: the change in blood-oxygen to the brain sometimes generates ideas. You can blame the long hill from Llangollen up to Horseshoe Pass (North Wales) for the dreadful, and yet intriguing, concept of infectious amnesia.
At the top of the pass is the Ponderosa Café. I asked for an Earl Grey tea, a toasted teacake and writing paper. By the time my pencil became blunt the amnesia was not only infectious, no one was immune, and it was retrograde.
I’d decided on the infected losing a year’s worth of memory each week backwards from the present. Not quite Alzheimer’s Syndrome, which can be random loss, although short term memory disruption is common. Someone with my brand of infectious amnesia would lose four years of memory per month – devastating for children – consider an eight-year-old girl. She would be struggling with writing after a month, can’t read after five weeks, find intelligible speech break up after six weeks, and forget everything after two months. She’d not know her family, or what foods to eat. She would have to survive on instinct, which brings me to an interesting issue. Can we live on instinct alone? Probably not. You might think other animals do, but they use memory to learn from parents on such matters as food and danger. You will know that life is more complicated than that. Pure retrograde amnesia doesn’t happen in non-fiction life; like so many things it is all approximate. Memory loss is usually patchy, however, many amnesiac patients who are bilingual find themselves talking in their first-learned language even if they’d not used it since childhood.
In many cases, amnesiacs can use information learned during the day but forget it while asleep.
I’ve checked with medical journals, and I talked to a couple of professors of neuroscience: there’s no medical condition in which amnesia can spread from one person to another. There is no such thing as infectious amnesia. Thank goodness! Imagine the ramifications if it existed. People will forget how to do their new job skills, where they live, who they married. Within months, industry, including energy, food and water will grind to a halt. No medicines will be made. How long would diabetics last? All these medical aspects needed research and it took six months before I knew enough to start the writing. I knew I’d reached that stage when I began forgetting more than I was learning.
It’s been done before?
Although it is not necessary for stories to have an original premise, it would be a blast if I could use infectious amnesia (IA) as a Unique Selling Point. To do that I had to find out if IA had been used in a published story, TV or big screen film. I searched a science fiction database, pestered some experienced SF writers and asked SF nerds with eidetic memories. Between them all they came up with an episode of Star Trek in which mass amnesia was used, but it wasn’t infectious. Memento is a SF film based on a short story by Czech writer, Radec John (1986) in which the protagonist has anteretrograde amnesia, but gleans clues, which he has to write down when he awakes. This tactic is used by many amnesiacs and is used in ARIA.
Once the notion of infectious amnesia was settled as a unique concept worthy of a story, how should that story be told? It seemed to me there were only two possibilities:
1) a disease originating on Earth
2) a disease originating from Space
The first could result from a human error, or deliberate evil ploy. Think of gene manipulation, stem cell experiments, or chemical warfare.
The second could result from a type of Carrington Event, where a solar flare creates problems not only for electronic gadgets, but with a potential to mutate organics on Earth, possibly leading to new viruses, changes in DNA, etc.
As a SF fan I wanted something stranger. I like aliens that are very unhuman in the way they think, behave, communicate and reveal themselves. In some ways it doesn’t matter what aliens look like. When you see deep sea creatures, or look closely at ants, slugs and spiders you just can’t make up stranger animals.
It appealed to me to have aliens plant a case containing Alien Retrograde Infectious Amnesia (ARIA) on the International Space Station (ISS) then sneak away without anyone seeing them. In the whole of volume one of ARIA the reader doesn’t meet an alien. Like the characters in the book, you are left wondering why the aliens planted the case. Was it to wipe out Mankind in order to populate Earth themselves, an attempt to help humans that went wrong, or a reason so alien we’ll never understand it?
My choice of plot with the case on the ISS and its opening on Earth has worried me. Have I missed a better plot? Neil Marr at BeWrite Books told me not to worry. After all, ARIA is just one story and I could write many others using infectious amnesia. It helped, but shouldn’t the first outing of the concept be the best one?
I am mindful but not constrained by Anthony Burgess’s credo that ‘in an art novel… the human beings are more important than the action and in (popular novels) it is the other way around.’ (Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 compiled by Anthony Burgess, pub 1984). In ARIA I’d say the action is secondary to the main characters through whom the action occurs, but I realise it is the concept of infectious amnesia that will be remembered more. In particular, I hope readers will ponder over the deeper issues raised, such as what is so important to Mankind, and individuals, that real effort must be made to preserve them.
Worries over plagiarism
In the 1980s I wrote a novel in which a palaeontologist found amber containing Jurassic-age seeds. He was able to grow the seeds, which with a mutation, grew a kind of bindweed that couldn’t be killed. I sent the novel to a publisher, who after many months wrote me a nice rejection letter. It had passed a couple of editorial stages and their in-house readers were impressed. When Jurassic Park was published in 1990 and I discovered its author was one of their readers I became suspicious. Story ideas cannot be copyrighted, and Jurassic Park used animals. If Michael Crichton (RIP) had read my novel, I should be honoured that he’d taken the germ of my idea and developed it into a more far-reaching story. However, it worried me that if I sent ARIA to publishers and agents the concept would be plagiarised. I even mentioned my concerns to one publisher, who expressed outrage at me!
Besides agents and publishers, ARIA did the rounds at the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) critique groups – you just have to trust people!
I needed technical advice on various plot scenes. A pilot helped by reading through a chapter in which the new Boeing Dreamliner was flown with the crew and passengers suffering ARIA. An Italian speaker, Bec Zugor (a fellow ideas4writers member), helped me with colloquiums spoken by Dr. Antonio Menzies. Friends on an online scrabble site helped with inside information on Winnipeg and Americanisms. I became my own expert geographer on the ‘hidden’ valley of Anafon in North Wales, making many hiking and camping trips there. A historian friend came with me to explore its ‘Roman Road’ and relics. I used the Anafon valley for half the book as an isolated refuge by the uninfected.
I needed to know the material used in the struts of the space station. I didn’t want them to be magnetic. There are many lightweight materials such as titanium but to be sure I emailed a NASA engineer, Leroy Chaio, whose email I’d found by trawling their website pages. He replied that the struts were aluminium and very thin, which was worrying because micrometeorites would go right through them. It was of extra concern because HE WAS ON BOARD at the time! I don’t know of any other novelist who had help with his writing from orbit.
Agents and Publishers
I’d sent ARIA to the three main British agents specializing in science fiction. They all liked the unique premise but one summed up the others by saying he ‘liked the novel but didn’t love it enough’. I found this phrase echoing down through the mainstream publishers too. Sadly, what they really meant was that they won’t take on an unknown author unless they were certain of a runaway success. Luckily, I knew of LL-Publications from writing reviews of their authors. I liked the way LL took on unknown writers who had an unusual project. For example Pit-Stop by Ben Larken, in which a group of patrons in a roadside café realise they are all dead and in limbo, waiting for the reaper to take them away: they plan their escape… Superb mix of philosophy, tension, humour and compelling writing.
LL-Publications sent me a contract then sent the novel to a professional proof-reader in America. She sent me her worked document with MS Word review comments and after a little to-ing and fro-ing we agreed on the final document in March 2012. ARIA: Left Luggage was published on August 1st 2012.
LL-Publications have their own in-house artist but I liked the art of Andy Bigwood, who was breaking into the book cover art business. I met him at a couple of SF conventions, where he’d won awards, and we discussed ARIA. He came up with the idea of the case reflecting in the visor of an astronaut.
Aspiring authors often despair when agents and publishers request that along with their query letter, synopsis and sample chapters, a marketing plan is submitted. Long gone are the days when all that was necessary was to write a damn fine novel. For example ARIA is aimed at adults who enjoy medical dramas, survival adventures, and science fiction (there are a few naughty bits, and some upsetting scenes that might scare children). I maintain a website, a blog, and indulge in social media networking such as Facebook and Twitter. I’m prepared to do readings, signings and attend SF conventions in the UK.
The publishers will match your marketing plan to what they want. For example, do they see a niche in their market for your book, or have they just signed up a series exactly like it?
I’ve done interviews and have others lined up as part of this promo-marketing plan in action, and arranged for a video trailer to be made, which you can view at http://youtu.be/oh0AAXIe8VU
Is it finished?
ARIA: Left Luggage can be read as a stand-alone, but the whole story is a trilogy. Volume two has been written, critiqued and proofread and is to be released in March 2013. Volume three is nearly complete.
Mike Resnick, Robert J. Sawyer, Jon C. Grimwood, Brad Lineweaver and Charles Stross says ARIA is a fascinating idea, and makes us think of what is the most important things we need to remember in our lives.
Purchase ARIA: Left luggage as an e-book or print from the usual online links or direct from the publisher at www.ll-publications.com/leftluggage.html