A scientist writes science fiction – thoughts on self-publishing my first novel

Early this month, I completed and self-published my first science fiction novel through Amazon’s Kindle Direct publishing service (and, a few days later, as a paperback through Createspace). The ideas for the book were conceived over a long week in August, while vacationing with my parents at a rental house in St. Michaels, Maryland. Wandering through the low-lying eastern shore towns started me thinking about the kinds of stories we would tell hundreds of years from now. Thus, the central conceit of Fleet — that it was not a tale of environmental devastation but of people living their lives in a post-sea-level-rise world — surfaced.

Writing Fleet was a marathon. All told, from the first day that I started outlining characters and deciding what the central story of Fleet — uncovering a human disaster caused by desperation and betrayal, then buried at sea — to the day I hit publish on the Amazon server, Fleet took a little over 3 and a half months, during which time I was also moving across the country, finishing several scientific manuscripts, and looking for a job.

Having now had a few weeks to decompress, I think it’s a good time to reflect on the book, what I tried to accomplish, and where it goes from here.

In a lot of ways, I have an advantage over most self-published authors. Southern Fried Science already has an audience that’s interested in both climate change issues and geeky ocean science. I also didn’t go into the process thinking that there was a massive market for maritime science fiction. I chose to write Fleet because I had a story to tell and enough free time to tell it right, but I never held any illusions that it would sell beyond a small circle. Fleet has sold a few hundred copies in its various forms.

The Serials

Writing a novel as a monthly serial proved to be more challenging than anticipated. There were a few moments near the end when I’d be wrapping up part 4 and think “I really should have foreshadowed that better in part 2”. There was also the need to make each section, if not self-contained, at least narratively satisfying, with a proper climax and a bit of payoff. So the story ends up more like a roller coaster slowly building to the big dip, rather than a continuous climb.

Conversely, without the monthly deadlines and the prodding of a few fans (thanks Alex and Alix!), I doubt that I would have finished Fleet at all. The overwhelmingly positive reviews on each installment were critical in motivating me to keep going (let’s face it, moving to a new city and hunting for a marine science job in this funding climate is an incredibly demoralizing process). Releasing serials also gave me an opportunity to highlight the book as it emerged and to take time to step sideways and talk about the science behind the Fleet.

Most of Fleet was written by the time Wide Open came out, but there was still a lot of editing left to do. After each installment, I always found that there was a little bit of story left to tell that didn’t quite fit in the next section, which is why I started releasing the “momentary distraction” side stories.

So there were trade offs. Overall, I’m glad I released Fleet in installments but I probably wouldn’t do it again.

The Science

I tried to keep the heavy-handed environmental message to a minimum, within the book itself, though it’s impossible to completely ignore something critical to the world-building of Fleet. By setting it far in the future (I considered not providing dates, but rather having Snapper sight Gamma Cephei during the celestial navigation scene but nixed that since 1000 years is a bit too far flung into the future for the Fleet to survive) it allowed me to gloss over the details, since by now they’ve been relegated to oral histories. The consequences of sea level rise are most pronounced where certain regions are named — the Hatteras Front is Cape Hatteras, the Piedmont Expanse is North Carolina up almost to Richmond, the Reach, for those who don’t geek out over oceanography, is the Gulf Stream.

The hard science appeared through a series of blog posts related to (and shamelessly promoting) Fleet. There, I laid out some of the rationale behind my decisions, particularly regarding the seemingly hard-line the book takes against technocratic solutions — The Promise of Technology as a Panacea for Human Impacts.

More visibly, #DrownYourTown, which has now reached over 10 million people from more than 130 countries and provinces (wait, was that a ping from Pyongyang?!) emerged from a series of models I made to help visualize the world of Fleet. Unfortunately, I had to decouple #DrownYourTown from Fleet in order to make it an effective outreach tool (my goal was to get people thinking about sea level rise, not sell my book). #DrownYourTown has migrated to its own website, where you can submit your own images and browse other cities.

The Process

Fleet tops out at a few thousand words longer than my PhD thesis, officially making it the longest thing I’ve ever written (unless you count Southern Fried Science, where my total count is somewhere north of 1,500,000 words). I set my personal goal at 2000 words per day on writing days and 1 chapter edited on editing days (one to two days a week were set aside for filling out job applications and grant proposals, working on other science projects, and doing actual freelance work). I probably hit that mark about 75% of the time. I found the process to be very cathartic, almost, dare I say, relaxing. Coming from a science background, where every sentence has to be sourced and crafted for accuracy and economy, it was a delight to be able to fill the page first, then go back to fix and clean any prose.

Writing science is like playing chess — every move is precise and calculated, adhering to a strict set of rules. Writing fiction is like painting — you are only limited by your skill and imagination. Writing science fiction is a little bit of both.

The Future

Yes, work has already begun on the next piece set in the world of Fleet. Prepared will focus on the last days of the plague outbreak and how a small community of seasteaders make the decision to leave land for good. It is already more on the “hard sci fi” end of the spectrum, with significantly more world-building and history (of course, it’s also set in the midst of the flight to sea so you’ll find out a lot more about what happened to the last remaining cities). I am not yet sure if will be a long novella or a full length novel.

If you couldn’t tell by the title, a central theme of Prepared will be my love/hate relationship with the prepper community.

I’ll keep writing as long as I have the time. There’s about a half dozen stories that emerged while I was building the backstory for Fleet so there’s still plenty of material left to mine.

As for Snapper, Croaker, Salmon, the Collector, Shad, and the rest of the Bermuda Fleet, their future is much less certain.

Which is, of course, the point.

Where can you find Fleet?

One comment

  1. John McKay · December 16, 2013

    As insane as my life has been lately, I have not yet read Fleet. I’m holding off for a time when I can relax, enjoy, and contemplate it instead of just shoving words into my brain to shove other thoughts out. It’s a little reward I’m saving for myself.

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