How I gave birth to an alien in my spare time: When recession hit his roofing business, Michael Martin decided to write. One year later his science fantasy book is in the shops

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Indy Lifestyle Online
LET me offer some hope to the hordes of unknown writers waiting to be published. It is still possible to pick a publisher from the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook, post off a typescript and see it appear in book form on bookshop shelves in little more than a year. This has happened to my first published book, A Year Near Proxima Centauri.

Here is a brief history of how it has progressed from the first idea.

I run a small business specialising in the sympathetic re-roofing of old buildings. In pre-recession times, when historic building grants and hurricanes could be depended on, the last thing I felt like doing after long hours of battling with the elements, sub-contractors and customers, was to write, but I thought about it a great deal. While I slaved and saved I thought, if I ever have the time, I want to write.

Then came the recession and I found I had quite a lot of time. I knew just what to do with it. The first thing I did was to finish a novel I had been writing and rewriting for 12 years, then I was free to write anything.

In the event, before I started on one of the ideas I had been mulling over for years, I was given an idea while driving past some corn circles in the late summer of 1991.

What if they had been made by picnicking aliens and what if one had left behind some light reading matter? An extraterrestrial Year in Provence, called, say, A Year Near Proxima Centauri,

the diary of a smug alien and his wife, who set up home on an idyllic planet.

I tried writing one chapter. It seemed to work, so I decided to send it off to a publisher. But which one?

I wanted one that published humour or science fantasy but was not so big that my unsolicited typescript would be slung on a vast pile. I found one in an old Writers' & Artists' Yearbook that I thought might be suitable, but what about a name? I decided to use the eye- catching pseudonym of Professor Mallory V Gruntwag. My wife added the vital 'V' to distinguish me from all the other Mallory Gruntwags, and we sent the first chapter off in mid-September 1991.

The publisher replied almost immediately. He liked what I had written and wanted more. This was very encouraging. By chance, at that time I had a three-week gap between roofs. I spent it writing the rest of the book in longhand. My wife, Lucy, typed it out and I sent off the completed typescript of A Year Near Proxima Centauri in mid-October.

The publisher liked it, but as he no longer published science fantasy he offered to act as my agent to find a publisher for it. Professor Gruntwag accepted his offer and he sent the typescript to Transworld in early November. At the end of the month he wrote to tell me that Corgi, part of Transworld, was interested, but that if Professor Gruntwag was a pseudonym I would have to use my real name on any contracts. I confessed.

On 17 December the agent telephoned to tell me that he had negotiated an offer of a pounds 4,000 advance for my book and Corgi wanted to publish it in paperback in November 1992. Was I interested in the offer? I told him I was, once the power of speech had returned.

Patrick Janson-Smith, the publisher, telephoned to welcome me to Corgi. He thought the book could do with some illustrations. However, I wanted the readers to have to use their own imaginations, so Lucy solved the problem. She drew 12 illustrations of everyday alien domestic trivia that, if anything, made further demands on the readers to work out just what the objects might be, as the text offered no clues.

Corgi accepted the illustrations. The editing was done over the telephone in early April and we were sent the proofs to correct shortly after. Then came the difficult part - waiting for the publication day of 12 November. At the end of October the agent wrote to tell me that booksellers had ordered 25,000 copies of the book, which was a good sign.

Then came the publication day. Lucy and I visited some bookshops and there for the first time we saw a pile of our books. Naturally, we rearranged them to best advantage.