How 10 Little Astronauts went from a MA with distinction to a book

Big Up Words are going to publish a series of blogs where writers talk about their publishing journeys. Damon L. Wake’s book 10 Little Astronauts is going to be published by Unbound.

I think there’s a moment in any academic project when you question everything you’ve done so far. For me, that moment came when I was sitting in a café with someone on the same Creative Writing MA as me at the University of Winchester. She picked up my work, read a bit, and said “Huh. So you’re handing in Agatha Christie fanfiction in space?” That was the moment I realised that I was taking a massive, massive gamble with my entire course. It was the moment I considered binning the whole thing and starting again, and it was the moment I decided to press on regardless. Partly that was because I was confident that the setting did work with the story, partly because I didn’t have time to come up with anything else.

 

Fortunately, in the end, it all went pretty well. As strange as it felt to submit a mash-up between And Then There Were None and Alien as a serious academic project, the novella was awarded a Distinction and, shortly afterwards, accepted for publication. But more on that later.

The thing about space is that it works extraordinarily well as a setting for a mystery thriller. In space, no one can hear you scream. In zero gravity, no one can hear your footsteps either. The truly colossal distances involved in travelling between stars—far enough that an S.O.S sent at the speed of light will still take years to be heard—guarantee that nobody is coming to help. The hostility of the environment itself means that the characters must work together to survive, even as paranoia threatens to drive them apart and a large part of the inspiration behind Ten Little Astronauts.

 

I’d thoroughly enjoyed ‘And Then There Were None’ but found it took a long time to get started. There’s a lot of scene-setting—several whole chapters—dedicated to explaining how the various characters came together and why they can’t escape after it becomes apparent that one of them is a serial killer. The tension only reaches its peak after a whole series of murders has whittled the cast down to just three or four.

By shifting the setting of my novella to interstellar space, I managed to move the discovery of the first murder to the very first page. Having been woken from suspended animation, chosen from a crew of thousands to respond to, a fire on board the ship, none of the ten astronauts knows any of the others. However, having discovered the body of an eleventh person at the scene of the incident—an incident that has also disabled the ship’s computer—they know that one of their numbers is an imposter who intends to kill them all. With no life support, and the masses of frozen crewmembers causing the air temperature to plummet, the ten astronauts have to split up to repair the damage despite knowing that anyone, in any group, could be the murderer.

 

Having sunk an enormous amount of time and effort into Ten Little Astronauts for my course, and since it had been well-received academically, I decided to submit it to Scott Pack—an editor at Unbound—as part of a one-to-one meeting at the Winchester Writers’ Festival this summer. He passed on my manuscript, and within a couple of weeks, I got an email back saying that they had decided to launch the book!

Unbound are a crowdfunding publisher—pre-orders from readers are what fund the initial run of first editions, with trade paperbacks distributed to bookshops by Penguin Random House after that—and they set me up with a video for the book. They let me pick the location, and since I’d done a good chunk of my research for it on board HMS Alliance at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, I got in touch with the museum staff to see if they’d be happy for us to film on board. Visiting the submarine while writing had helped me pin down the atmosphere of the spacecraft in the book, so I was thrilled when they agreed to let us shoot the video itself inside.

Damon L Wakes

HMS Alliance background to Damon’s Unbound video.

 

Since the crowdfunding campaign started, I’ve been doing everything I can to get the word out about the book. I’m hardly a big-name author, so the biggest challenge by far is letting people know it exists. Unbound recommended offering attractive rewards for supporters of the book, and because I’ve been making and selling chainmail jewellery for a few years now, I’ve been offering one reward option that includes a necklace. The necklace is made of anodised aluminium—the same material as the International Space Station—which I think helps keep it relevant to the sci-fi story even though the technique is a thousand years old! I take the necklaces themselves to craft fairs, which makes for a natural conversation-starter when it comes to the book.

Damon's speci

 

If you’d like to read some of Ten Little Astronauts now, you can find a sample over on Unbound’s website. And if it sounds like a book you’d enjoy, please consider putting in a pledge: as well as getting a copy for yourself, your name will appear in the back of every edition to show that you were one of the great people who helped make it happen.

1 killer
10 suspects,
10,000,000,000,000 miles from help
Support Ten Little Astronauts on Unbound today!