The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy – Evolution of a Sci-Fi Romance Novel

posted in: On writing, Science fiction | 4

The very first book I ever wrote was published way back in 2010. Fourteen years ago. I’ve written quite a few books since then, but The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy was my first book baby, the one where I learned many hard lessons about the craft of writing. It wasn’t my first published book. That was To Die a Dry Death, back then called Die a Dry Death. I felt a real sense of nervousness when Conspiracy was published, more than I did with Die a Dry Death. I think that’s because Iron Admiral has been along such a long and difficult road. Whereas Die a Dry Death was written and delivered in eight months, I started Iron Admiral five years before it appeared when I’d just dipped my toe into the murky waters of the swamp of publishing.

Oh, the story changed over the years and that included the title. That, at least, came full circle; it was Iron Admiral when it was first conceived. The basic core of the story remained intact, the main characters were still there but they changed. The book evolved from a crude first attempt to a polished piece. It was a journey of discovery, for me and for my craft.

I read science fiction, fantasy and murder mysteries as well as history books. (I have a history degree) so whatever I decided to write would inevitably be one of those genres. Or maybe a combination of all three. I decided on science fiction as the main genre.

Saahren, Allysha’s cheating husband Sean, a Ptorix, and Allysha

So the Iron Admiral came into being and with it, first thoughts. I was always going to have a sexy Admiral at the centre and a female computer whiz as the other MC. My universe would have a vast alien Empire which was starting to crumble at the edges, while the expanding human Confederacy would populate only one spiral arm. We would have known about each other for a long time but tried to avoid getting in each other’s way until both sides couldn’t help it. The theme of the book was always going to be that truth is very much a matter of perspective, a lesson I’ve learnt from studying history.

The story takes place amid growing tension between the two species. Here, I drew on history to come up with a scenario. The book’s initial premise, of a massacre designed to trigger a war, is loosely based on the true story of how Hitler instigated World War 2. On the night of 31 August 1939, a small group of German operatives dressed in Polish uniforms seized the Gleiwitz radio station and broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish. The Germans’ goal was to make the attack and the broadcast look like the work of anti-German Polish saboteurs. So in my fiction setting a massacre of Ptorix citizens has taken place on a remote planet, the Confederacy Star fleet is blamed and the sector Admiral, Chaka Saahren, is sacked to appease the sabre-rattling Ptorix. Seeking to prove his innocence, he is thrown together with Allysha Marten, a woman who has been brought up to understand the Ptorix language and culture, and falls in love for the first time in his life. But he and the lady come from literally different worlds and those differences in beliefs and understandings are not easily overcome.

All those elements are still there. What has changed are the details and the delivery. The pace is faster and I’ve lost some of my favourite scenes, mainly because the way in which the admiral and his lady met has changed.

Why? Well, when I first started writing this book it never occurred to me to write a romance. I didn’t read them. I can honestly say that I’ve got halfway through two Mills and Boon offerings and then stopped. I think I consciously decided that my SF would have a few vicarious thrills in it because I liked writers like Elizabeth Moon and Anne McCaffrey, who sprinkled in some sanitised hanky-panky. Except my sex scenes would be a bit more than a suggestion. I soon discovered an important truth: if one wishes to write any sort of romance, one had better learn how it is done. After receiving one or two very helpful rejections, I applied myself. I submitted the book as an SF Romance to an agent. She passed but invited me to resubmit, having suggested I bring Saahren and Allysha together earlier in the story.

It meant an enormous rethink but I did what she asked and tested the water with a few readers. It seemed to work so I decided to change the by now two books, each 100,000 words, into one book. I need hardly say it was a daunting task but after much cutting and paring, I managed to reduce the work to 112,000 words. I guess something inside me must have known I’d made a mistake because I couldn’t bring myself to resubmit the MS. While I was dithering a chance came up to participate in an editing class. I decided on the spur of the moment to do the class and discovered almost immediately that I’d made a terrible mistake and carved out the heart of the story. Lesson learned. I reverted to two novels, but cut them to a shorter length. I never did resubmit. I went with a small publisher who loved the story, it did fairly well, but, like many others, the small publisher folded. I decided I’d take my own chances and become an Indie Author.

Is the book (or any of my SF books) hard science fiction? Not really but I’ve tried to make my stage as real as your average space opera. Naturally, a few of my pet beliefs are to be found. The alien Ptorix are not humanoid but they do populate the same kinds of worlds we favour, with the same type of atmosphere and gravity. Frankly, the idea of a technologically advanced alien society originating in a gas giant wanting to mess about with such a different society/environment as ours seems very unlikely to me. If there is to be territorial conflict we both have to want to be there. While my aliens aren’t humanoid, they do have the necessary wherewithal to want to use technology. We all know dolphins are smart, but they’re not likely to want to build a star ship; nor do they have the appendages to do so. My aliens, the Ptorix, have sensitive tentacles that can manipulate tools. They see differently to humans because they process more of the bandwidth of light than us and they have three eyes, not two. Their eyes appear to change colour with mood. Purple denotes rage, while red is sad and slow. Green or yellow shows they are happy.

Like most space operas, my universe has a version of faster than light travel. I don’t mention light speed, though, because I use the many extra dimensions in space to get around. (Oh, you didn’t think there are only three, did you?) I explained my reasoning in planet-hopping might not be so silly. I’ve used the extra dimensions thing to introduce a means by which people can talk in real time over vast distances, a bit like the ansible which was first postulated by Ursula Le Guin and appears in Elizabeth Moon’s books, too. And I have artificial gravity not just so everyone can walk around the space ship but more because without some form of AG the human body would atrophy and there would be problems with toilets and things, making space travel difficult and limited. Once you have artificial gravity, the concept of a form of gravity beam to attract an object seems a small step to take.

What do I think now, Fourteen years down the track? Would I change anything?

I wouldn’t change what’s out there. It is what it is and a lot of people loved it. But if I were to write the book again maybe it wouldn’t be what they call ‘instalove’, something many people criticized. I think love at first sight is real, but maybe I would emphasize that Saahren’s immediate reaction to Allysha’s talents was that she could be invaluable to him in a fight against the Ptorix – and that evolved over a short time into something more. That dual thing – utility and love – was meant to be there but didn’t come across as well as I’d wanted.

But it’s too late now.

The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy is available from most retailers for free. Take a look.

4 Responses

  1. rbtrottie

    I read the 1st Iron Admiral Conspiracy in the anthology Star Crossed and greatly enjoyed it. I believe you made it clear that Saahren initial say Allysha as an intriguing asset that turned into enduring love, as demonstrated by the second novel. Also, “instalove” erases any realistic conflict, where Allysha not only has baggage, she is torn between loyalties. Perhaps my view of “instalove” is different as my parents are from 2 different cultures who knew within a few hours of meeting they were meant for each other, they celebrated their 43rd anniversary before my mother’s death .

    • Greta

      Thanks for that. Perhaps I did a better job than some people thought I did. 🙂

  2. Kim Van Houten

    Interesting on the background of this story. I’ve always really like this story. I reread them not long ago.

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