Friday, 5 October 2012

It was twenty years ago today

Well, not quite. But we are now in the autumn of 2012 and in the autumn of 1992 - rather astonishingly, twenty years ago - I started writing Revelation Space. Not some remote ancestor of that book, either, but the thing itself. I had made a number of false starts on a book with similar themes and (in some cases) exactly similar characters and situations, but all of these had come to naught. By 1992, though, I had achieved enough domestic stability that I was finally able to carve out the necessary number of hours a week to make tangible and continuing progress on a novel. I had moved to the Netherlands at the tail-end of 1991, quite an upheaval in itself (I arrived with everything I could cram into a rucksack and not much more) but even when I had begun to settle down to living outside the UK, there remained many demands on my time. I had a serious new job - my first job, in fact, of any kind. I had to take the bus to and from work, which ate into my time even more. I had quickly enrolled in Dutch classes, two a week, which necessitated homework and yet more travel. Keen to meet people, I had also signed up for the local mountaineering/rock climbing society and also the local horse riding club, eating into yet more spare time. I also needed to learn to drive - I had begun taking lessons in the UK in the eighties, but had only got as far as failing my test once before putting all that aside in order to complete my PhD studies. However, now that I was an adult with a proper job, I really could not avoid that one any longer. Learning to drive in the Netherlands, with a unique set of road rules, in one of the most cycle-conscious countries in the world, was certainly a learning experience. But things gradually feel into place, some order and stability entered my life, and by the latter months of 1992 I had developed a pattern of work which was to serve me well over the next year and a half. After dinner, I would clear away my meal and set up a small folding table in my tiny living room. I would put some music on, roll a sheet of paper into my manual typewriter, and set to work. This was total liberation, as far as I was concerned. When I had been a student, living in dormitories with thin walls, I never felt happy about using the typewriter when other people might be trying to sleep or concentrate. So I confined my efforts mostly to saturday and sunday afternoons, and as a consequence didn't get very much done.

Now, though, I could write as often and for as long as I liked. But in fact I quickly fell into a fairly predictable routine - maybe 3 or 4 typed sheets a night, say an hour or two's work. I have never been anything than a hamfisted, two-finger typist but I eventually reached the point where I could type as quickly as I could generate prose, and could sometimes get through an entire sheet without making an error. Two or three were more the norm, but that was what Tipp-Ex was for.

I learned that if I was going to finish a draft of a novel, I had to keep pushing forward. So, no cheeky going back and fiddling with what I had already written. I just kept adding sheets to the pile, and over the weeks and months it grew, and grew. I punched the sheets and inserted them into a ring binder. Eventually it began to turn into quite an impressive stack of paper. That's something you'll never get with an electronic document - that sense of a growing body of work, something with tangible mass and heft - unless you print it out, of course. Not that I'd willingly return to using a typewriter, but still...

I continued work on Revelation Space throughout 1993, with the odd setback, but always moving forward. I learned that it was important to maintain momentum on a big writing project. A lengthy holiday was all very well, but it could be hard to return to the writing mindset afterwards. Instead, I carried my typewriter with me. I took it on a rowing boat, to a small island in the Phillipines. I worked by day, since there was no electricity at night. However, as romantic as that sounds, none of the stuff I wrote on holiday made it into the final draft.

Deadlines are good, for me at least. They focus the mind. In the absence of a contract, I chose to impose my own delivery date. Early in 1994, my work was going to take me back to Australia, for a short telescope project. My wife-to-be was coming with me. It seemed the ideal opportunity to get the book finished, so she could read it on the trip. I worked right up until the day before we flew, hammering down the pages in a blind passion, but I did finish it, and from that point on Revelation Space existed.

But the road from finished typewritten draft - a first draft, in the rawest possible sense - to publication - was an exceedingly lengthy one. I began entering the text into a Mackintosh SE personal computer, my first real experience with word processing. I could not resist the urge to tinker and polish, as I went. The redraft stalled, and stalled again. I complicated things by creating separate documents for each chapter of the book - nowadays I work on a single seamless document, and only insert chapter breaks relatively late in the day. A new job, between 1994 and 1996, nearly scuppered my writing for two years due to a daily commute lasting nearly four hours. I got a lot of reading done in that interval, but far less writing than I would have liked.

The book sat around as a work in progress until early in 1997. Then, fortuitously, I had a period of unemployment between science contracts. It was only a few weeks, but enough of a window for me to pull out the RS files and make a concerted effort to produce a consistent draft. Not long after, I was able to submit three sample chapters and a synopsis. But the rest of the book was finished. In the summer of 1997 I wrote another novel - Chasm City.

And there things sat with RS, for another two years, until things began to move again early in 1999, with an offer of publication. Originally, the book was going to come out in 2001. Later, it was moved ahead to 2000. I spent the rest of that year redrafting RS, while alternating with work on the redraft of Chasm City, which had already been scheduled as my second novel.

I mention all this because people are, to my immense gratitude, still picking up Revelation Space for the first time. And, of course, it's not a new book by any means - 12 years is a long time by any measure. But I've been living with it a lot longer than that...


  1. I love revelation space! It's my favorite novel; by anyone. So, thank you for that!

    I've also picked up any other book you wrote; with exception of "Blue Remembered Earth", since I'm still reading "Terminal World".

    I hope you return to the RS universe soon; because it is so exciting!

  2. Very cool to read this. As it happens I just finished giving RS another read after several years, you create a really exciting and interesting world with this book. Not just in the events in the novel but the implications of the larger RS Universe I think are really cool.

  3. I picked up Revelation Space in Liverpool when I was there on a work assignment in 2001. I read a lot of books back when my job included lots of travel. I found RS in the new paperbacks section and it was a hefty tome with a wonderful cover. I picked it up and haven't stopped reading your stuff since.

    My biggest regret for getting on Twitter is all of your UK fans who follow you and get your books early. They often comment about the content more than I'd like. Yes, I could order from I still like going to the store and being among books.

    Thanks for sharing your writing with us.

  4. Also found this in my travels on the Internet and made me think this image is from somewhere in the RS universe...

  5. It's a great read. What I love most about Revelation Space and Chasm City is how the alien races are UTTERLY alien. Thanks for the historical context!

  6. I always wondered how you managed to publish two very good books a year apart! I'd presumed that CC was written after, or during the publication phase of RS. But you've since basically published a book every year or so, were the ideas for your next couple of books RA and AG, on paper as well during this period, or fresh after pubs. of RS and CC?

  7. Revelation Space blew my mind. I love how I feel like your concepts stretch my mind into dimensions I'd never discovered alone. It's fascinating to hear about how long it took to write it and get published, and how life got in the way at times. Makes me feel a bit better about the fits and starts I experience with my own novel. Thanks for sharing :-)

  8. Hell yes! This is great. Thank you for sharing your process & experience! I have a few projects that are taking years longer than they were supposed to. Awesome encouragement! Such wonderful books you've written.

  9. That is beautiful, Al. Thank you for sharing the background.

    And I really want to read the stuff cut written in the Philippines, now...

  10. We're reading RS in our book group at the local library!

  11. Got the Rev Space book for my birthday (6th Oct), after reading it in the library in the early 2000s, becoming hoked on your work, and buying most the rest of the things you've written since. Never realised it had taken so long to gestate, thanks for persevering ;p

  12. I only just came across RS last year while on a random trip to the bookstore, though I'm really glad I did. I've really enjoyed seeing Scorpio develop as a character. The whole series has been great!

  13. I downloaded it on Saturday on my iPad (kindle) and I'm plowing through it. It's is Tuesday and I'm more than half way through. If I spend anymore time reading it, my wife will hit me over the head with it. Little does she know, I have five more books.

    Great writing. I look forward to reading your other works.

    You have a new fan for life.

  14. Thanks, delighted that you're enjoying RS. Listen to your wife, though - I'd hate to lose a reader.

  15. I have (even before I read this blog post) just started re-reading Revelation Space again. I picked up my copy in my local Tesco in about 2004. I remember at the time thinking I must have dipped into a series of books about halfway through, because there seemed to be so much back story and depth that was hinted at. I loved the book and was amazed when I discovered it was you're first novel, and delighted when I discovered there were several more in the series waiting to be bought and read. I quickly caught up with all that you'd published and have a first edition of everything from The Prefect onwards.
    I'm thoroughly enjoying re-aquainting myself with RS and it's fascinating universe, It's as good as I remember it being first time around..