Writing Sci Fi as a debut author, Gerrard Cowan (@GerrardCowan) – #BFIVoyager

The Machinery is my debut novel, and I am very, very glad that I chose the sci-fi/fantasy arena for my first attempt.

I came up with the idea for the book in the summer of 2008, but it took me about a year and a half to get cracking on it properly; I spent far too much time tapping away at the first chapter, instead of just getting going with the whole narrative. Once I broke through that barrier it took me another two and a half years to get the manuscript into shape. So four years from start to finish, and that was long before the great day that Harper Voyager offered me a deal.

I wrote thousands of words that ended up being deleted. I wiped out plot strands and culled gangs of characters, both major and minor. I wrestled with the big challenge that all debut authors will recognize; the feeling that you’re writing into a void. Not many people will read your book, and those who do will chuck it on the slush pile.

I thought I’d never see the end, until one day I decided ‘enough is enough’.

I don’t mean this to sound like a whinge. Far from it: writing The Machinery was great fun. That’s because of this wonderful genre; there is something about creating your own world, with its own rules and realms and roads and rivers, which is so exciting. You feel a bit like an explorer. A very safe explorer, of course, sat before a computer with a cup of tea.

That’s why the ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme of this year’s festival resonates with me. In The Machinery, an unseen thing (for want of a better word) picks the leaders of a country called the Overland, through a process called Selection. It can Select anyone, regardless of age, profession, social standing etc. When we join the story, the Machinery is breaking, with consequences for all.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a world of tomorrow; society is roughly at the early modern stage. Gunpowder is only just being incorporated into the military, tobacco is a new fad, and the state is getting to grips with the disruptive power of the printing press. But I hope that the existence of this unseen entity called the Machinery suggests that below the surface, there is great power and sophistication hidden away.

Writing in such a setting is liberating in so many ways. The writer is only really limited by his or her imagination, though of course he or she can’t just play willy-nilly with the rules and conventions of the world. I found this so much fun, to the point that I was generally eager to get to my desk and carry on the journey. I don’t think I would have felt this excitement for any other genre.

The sheer possibilities of creating your own ‘Tomorrow’s World’ are what attract so many people to this area, as writers and readers. There is the feeling that, even when you shut down your computer or put down your book, the place you’ve visited is still ticking away, somewhere in the background.

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