So, you’ve heard of The Martian? Saw the movie? Read the book, maybe? Maybe you heard the story of how Andy Weir had a blog and released chapters of the book monthly on his website, got some followers, got a book deal, got a knock on the door from Hollywood, got famous, got a new problem – what do I do next?
Let me tell you how I avoided the same fate.
After travelling to Resolute Bay in Nunavut off and on for thirty-five years, usually uneventfully, in 2008, on the long flight from Iqaluit I met a geologist going to the Mars Society site on Devon Island. Once north of sixty, people change and that stand-offish person sitting next to you coming up from Ottawa turns into ‘a fellow Arctic adventurer with a story to tell’. It could even be you. It was not by chance that we met; the plane was full of NASA and Mars Society people. We fell into conversation about what we were doing. She was going to do research on the local area in order to write a paper on the difficulties of geologists working on Mars. Boring! I however, was making trip number 33 to Resolute Bay to work on a government radio site. Yes, that one. The one used to secretly communicate with aliens. Or airplanes. They’ve never told me.
I had never written a thing. That is if you don’t count the hundreds of trip reports and technical reports I have written, some of which were closer to pure fiction than they perhaps should have been, but from following the current buzz re Mars in the media, and being a longtime fan of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (does anybody remember laughter? I mean, Bradbury?) I was aware of the NASA and the almost-it seemed-competing-for-attention Mars Society sites and what they were up to. I had a plot that at that point consisted of sending 150 senior (read old) scientists to Mars on a one way trip. Lest you think I was the first to propose this radical idea, in sci-fi, there are no new ideas, only new books. She thought the idea was cool and encouraged me to write. Problem solved, eh?
On day one in Resolute Bay I came down from my room to the South Camp Inn dining area to find the place full of Mars people, plates of steaming food and noisy enthusiasm. One of the Mars people was going around the room followed by a cameraman asking questions about what you were doing there, your expectations for the trip, about Mars – you know the usual stuff you need to make a documentary about people who want to go to Mars. I watched from the side as a few people were questioned. I was sort of surprised (since I was a stranger to all), that they came to me. I played my trump card – “What are the prospects for a one-way mission to Mars by NASA?” And what I felt was the natural follow-up to that question – “Would you go?”
To my surprise the room fell silent and as I recall, they dropped me like the proverbial hot meteor and moved on. Later though several of them sought me out privately and conveyed that while it was not PC at NASA, some of those in the room were ready, willing and able to leave Earth, never to return, tomorrow. Also conveyed was the opinion that there would be no shortage of volunteers in NASA willing to do it, regardless of the odds of survival. And these were young people. In their forties!
So I wrote the book, writing mostly on the road in the Arctic, finishing it in 2010, I think. Honestly, looking at it back here in the south, I can’t remember writing some of it. And no, thank you, Resolute Bay is a ‘dry’ community! My son William, a so-far-unsuccessful-writer himself, assisted me in getting an ISBN (Google it!), finding a printer of self-published books (Lulu - Google it!) and advised me to set up a website, start a blog, release chapters as they were written and thus promote the book through this means. Oh yeah, and to start writing submission letters. Hundreds of submission letters. I sent out two - one to Baen Books - “No thank you, not what we are currently looking for…” and Penguin – “NACK” (that’s tech talk for ‘nothing heard’ which is radio talk for ‘Huh? Whattup? I was in the can.’) I had issues with this part, primarily because I am the shy retiring type who fears rejection, being popular and most of all, knocks on the door. Besides, I thought, the world will soon find out about this masterpiece and beat a pathway. I needn’t worry about a knock on the door; James Cameron (of nearby Stamford Collegiate fame) will drop by while visiting family in Chippewa, beg me to let him do the movie and ask me to be ‘Technical Advisor’. Of course I had mixed feelings about this because I was so busy with my job that I’d have to refuse.
And then there was the that summer night I flipped the bird to Matt Damon and Benedict Cumberbatch in their Dodge Viper at the corner of Government Road and Carleton Street. It was during TIFF a couple of years ago. Yes. I’m sure it was them. Either that or it was the two Bens – Ben Stiller and Ben Affleck. I always get them confused. As I started through the four way stop they rolled into the intersection without stopping at about 3 km/hr. I stopped my 04 Jetta in front of them and flipped them off. They followed me south. I pulled over and they came up beside me. It was dark. I rolled down the window and asked if they wanted to drag. They were quite apologetic and clean looking. Chiseled is the word. Not a hair out of place. They apologized again for their rudeness and asked me if there was somewhere we could go for a drink – my call. I didn’t think it smelt right (thugs drive Dodge Vipers, right) so I begged off. I pulled away. They followed me for a hundred yards or so, then pulled a U-turn and were gone. It was when I got home it started to dawn on me that I had blown it. I played it out in my mind - Go to a bar with two guys driving a Viper. “So who are you?” “I’m Matt Damon. Do you have a book we can make into a movie.” “Yes,” I reply, “but I’m afraid.” “Here’s some money’, he says. “OK, I say.”
I called my author son the next day and told him about it. He gave me the best advice a child can ever give a father – “If rich gods wants you to go to a bar with them – go. It always turns out for the best.” He lives in Montreal, so he should know these things. Right?
So about the book. The Race to Mars is over (you have to the read the parts in italics to get an understanding of what has already happened and I now understand that most people skip the italics). It’s 2040 or so. The one hundred and fifty senior scientists of mixed nationality (including our hero, Sam – the sole Canadian) go to Mars. Artificially Intelligent (AI - Google it!) robots were sent first to build the habitations and greenhouses that the seniors move in to. Why didn’t they build the facilities themselves? Cause it’s hard work, that’s why. Most of these people are retired from academia and haven’t lifted anything heavier than a coffee with Baileys in years. Seriously, it is a job for young people. Clearly. Let’s get that straight. It’s a dirty, cold, tourist-unfriendly place. A bad day in Resolute Bay is a hundred times better than a good day on Mars. And unforgiving. If you didn’t bring it, it ain’t gonna be there for you, despite advances in 3D printing. The pictures show it can be stunningly beautiful, but keep in mind that they were taken from way up there, not at your average 5ft seven inch eyeball height, with boots in the dust, through a dusty, scratched visor perspective. Read ‘The Martian’ if you don’t believe me.
But I digress. My book covers about thirty years. Some people die. Some people travel around looking at the sights. Some have sex (senior sex!). Sam gets lucky once (she dies, but not of old age and mercifully, not during the sex). Sam travels the whole planet alone, but is mostly whacked out on drugs and booze and misses it all. Not to spoil it for you but the book has a sort-of happy ending. Sort-of, unless you’re religious.
So how successful have I been in avoiding success? It is 2018. The book has been available on Sony, iBook, Amazon, Kobo and about twenty other ebook dealers since 2010 for $3.99. So far, 476 sales; all proceeds to the dealer. Print copies are available from Lulu for around 18 bucks. Sold about 250 to myself (except for one, maybe). Placed a few in bookstores – never heard the results. Best of all, it is free from Smashwords.
According to Google - Smashwords, Inc is an e-book distribution platform for independent authors and publishers. The books are for sale online at a price set by the author. So I set my book price at ‘free’. Yes. Free.
So far, there have been over 2300 free downloads from Smashwords. Some people really, really like the book. One reader (who actually paid for a copy) said it was ‘up there with the best of the genre’. Someone else, however, thought the large number of typos (since fixed, a problem of illiterate writers who edit their own books and one bound to only get wordse) was ‘sad’. Did you know that some people are amateur reviewers? They read dozens and dozens of books and submit their reviews to the site where they got the book. Who knew? Who cared?
So where am I now? Well, I have been completely successful in staying off the screen. What would I do if the book was ‘discovered’? I don’t know. I really don’t. Book two (The Sequel) is ready. Smashwords says to give your first book away free, then sell the second. (Gotcha!)
Do I have any advice for would-be writers? Yes. Do it. Every book should be written. It is good for the soul. Take my son’s advice. If you don’t get a publishing deal, don’t think it wasn’t worthwhile. I believe (now) that every first book is really about the author. That’s what makes it so much harder to write a sequel. You have to start writing about other people, other places, about things you don’t know and that’s the hard part. Then I suggest you….
Wait a minute. Someone is at the door. I’ll be back. Maybe.