Years ago, back in the days of Journalspace, Long Live Journalspace, I wrote a short blog review of a novel called Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham. WoC had been recommended to me by another writer, Alastair Reynolds, as something I might enjoy. Turns out Al was right, I did indeed enjoy reading WoC. I enjoyed it even though there were problems here and there with terminology, tech, and some bits and pieces here and there.
The review, in a nutshell, said as much.
Lo and behold, John dropped by to comment. He was already in the middle of working on the second novel in the series, Designated Targets and he was about to get started on the third, Final Impact.
I was still working at Uniguard Security at the time, still plugging along with my own writing efforts, and still taking graphic design courses. John offered me an opportunity to look over one of his drafts and see if I could find any glaring problems.
From that effort on Final Impact, a career of sorts was born. For the most part, I work exclusively for John though I’ve provided bits and pieces of advice to others over the years. You might wonder how it all works and what, exactly, it is that I do.
Well, I do a lot of things.
I started off mainly as a military consultant. I comb through the manuscript and make sure that the weapons are being employed in a realistic fashion. I try to make sure the best weapon is used for a given job, which is not as easy as it sounds. My own weapons experience is limited to what the United States Army issued between 1989 to 1995. However, I do have manuals I can draw upon for most Soviet Era weaponry, a gun store here and there I can call up for advice and more than a few veteran friends who have more recent experience.
Over time the role has evolved to a degree. I also assist in scene/setting research, trying to get those nitty gritty details that John’s novels are known for.
I’ve also tried to find that line between too much of what I refer to as military pornography (not meant in an offensive sense but basically the endless blizzard of technical terms and details) and serving the needs of the story.
From time to time I have served as a historical consultant as well as a military one. One might be surprised to learn that a great deal of material from the Federalist Era was considered during the research efforts of both After American and Angels of Vengeance. A fair bit of political philosophy, more John’s bag than mine, was weighed into the mix as well.
Each project is different and each one is a labor of love in many respects. Our methodology has certain changed over the years.
With Research Project Number – 02, Final Impact, it was emailed manuscripts which were printed out and placed in a three ring binder. I then went line by line through the manuscript. In some respects, I still think printing out a draft copy is the most efficient in terms of getting the best narrative.
Technology has aided us considerably. Skype has proven invaluable as it has matured, giving us an opportunity to hash out very real problems with narratives in real time rather than wasting up to forty-eight hours due to time differences. Working as a team we’re able to divide up the workload pretty efficiently.
How efficiently? Well, the latest effort, Research Project Number – 08, tentatively known as A Protocol for Monsters, went from zero word count to completed first draft in less than a month. There is still more to be done with that draft to be certain and maybe if there is time, I’ll print out a copy of the manuscript for that old school hard copy line edit. That said, completing a novel in a month is doable.
Some, of course, might wonder about a few things.
Why not get someone more knowledgeable?
There are people who know more about the military than I do, easily. I’m painfully aware that my knowledge base grows increasingly obsolete with each passing day. I have my facebook subscriptions to the various branches of the Armed Forces of many nations to inform me of this.
When I don’t have an answer to something or I know someone who would get a better answer, I always defer and recommend additional expertise. An example of this was dealing with the problem of what people would find in North America once the Wave lifted. Did the Wave kill all life or just bipedal life? If you kill all life down to the microbial level then that will make resettlement nearly impossible.
John consulted a few scientists that he knew on the matter. Frequently, John will consult a number of sources besides myself, sometimes throwing it out to his own Twitter feed for those irritating details such as what type of carpet was in what hotel on such and such date.
Why do I do it?
Other people pay money to go to workshops to learn how to put novels together. I can’t move to New York City or Sydney to become part of a major publishing arm’s editorial staff. I’m pretty effectively trapped here in Kansas City for a lot of reasons. I can’t afford those novel writing workshops anyway.
Working with John gives me an opportunity to see how a novel grows into being. By this point I’ve seen five novels and one novella come into existence through this job as a research consultant. In light of the lack of opportunities to publish short stories as a science fiction writer in my own right, I feel like I’m gaining valuable experience in story craft.
There is one other reason why I do it, but I consider it a fringe benefit of sorts.
Each project is added to my CV as something I have researched and edited. In my other field as an adjunct historian, publishing counts. Some might hold it against me that it is non-academic publishing but the research effort is just as legitimate and in the long run, reaches far more people.
Maybe there is yet one more reason why I do it.
I get to see the magic happen before most other folks do. I get the joy of being in on the secret and showing that I can keep one.
It is more than just a job to me and John Birmingham is more than just a client. Over the years he has been there as my friend, or mate as they’d say where he hails from.
Someday we’ll hoist a drink together again on the same continent.
Steven Francis Murphy
Author of The Limb Knitter and Tearing Down Tuesday
Kansas City, Missouri